Councilman suspended as lawyer, now owes debt

Mike Perlstein talks about an investigation into Councilmember James Gray.

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans City Council’s online biography of James Gray states he works as a practicing attorney, even though that hasn’t been the case since March 2015 when he was suspended by the Louisiana Supreme Court. 

Gray was suspended for two years for failing to do legal work on behalf of four different clients despite taking their money.

One of those ex-clients has since filed an additional disciplinary complaint against Gray for failing to pay her back or return her family’s documents. Peggy Burns had hired Gray in 2011 to handle the succession of her father’s estate, paying him $4,400.

“He enrolled as my attorney of record and that’s it,” said Burns, a lifelong Metairie resident. “He didn’t do a thing for me. He hasn’t so much as returned my calls. Nothing.”

Burns’s follow-up complaint was accepted in May, according to correspondence from the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board. She filed her complaint after an arbitrator in January ordered Gray to pay $3,000 to fulfill his obligation to Burns.

The amount was less than Burns believes she is owed and didn’t include punitive damages or attorney’s fees. But even with the reduced award, Gray has yet to pay anything.

“He hasn’t paid me a penny,” Burns said. “I’ve been going through this since 2011.  I have nervous stomach all the time. Depression, I'm suffering with. It took away from my life. It took away from me and my children.”

In a telephone interview, Gray admitted that he owes the money and hasn't paid up. He said he intends to pay but “personal matters” have gotten in the way.

“There was a ruling and it did create an obligation,” Gray said. “And it’s an obligation I intend to fulfill. I will abide by it. It’s not something I’m trying to avoid, but I’ve just been tied up with some big mitigating things. Some personal matters.”

After nearly nine months since the arbitrator’s ruling in January, Burns said she is tired of waiting.

In addition to Burns’ second disciplinary complaint, the attorney who volunteered to help her at arbitration has stepped in to help her collect.

“Why not just pay her?” attorney Kevin Christensen said. “Why protract it? Why get all this bad press if you're a politician?”

Christensen said that following all-day arbitration proceedings on Dec. 9, 2015, he heard from Mr. Gray for the first time last month. He said he received an email from Gray asking how much interest he owed on the $3,000.

Christensen said he promptly replied, but got no money – or response – from Gray.

“I would think that anyone who was involved in a disciplinary process that goes to the Supreme Court level would do everything in his power to make it right,” he said.

The interest on the debt is now nearly $700, Christensen said. If Gray doesn't pay up, he said his next step is to go to court and obtain a judgment, which could allow him to file liens against Gray or garnish his wages.

Christensen said he will wait until Nov. 1 for Burns to be paid before taking legal action against Gray. Meanwhile, Gray said he is seeking to recalculate the interest so he can schedule a payment, but he did not offer a date.

(© 2016 WWL)


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