Jonathan Bilyk Dec. 6, 2013, 10:47am

A North Carolina businessman has asked a federal court to award him as much as $ 1 million in a legal malpractice action brought against a Chicago law firm he claims was attempting to deceive him into signing a $700,000 settlement deal with another client of the firm.

On Nov. 19, Jeffrey P. Eckert, a North Carolina resident and a principal in the Carol Stream-based business known as Platinum Frozen Foods, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against his former legal counsel, Neal H. Levin, and Freeborn & Peters LLP.

Eckert is being represented in the matter by Chicago lawyer Jefferey O. Katz of The Patterson Law Firm LLC.

The matter stems from a suit first filed in 2004 in the DuPage County Circuit Court against Eckert, Platinum Frozen Foods and others, by Gregory Steiner and Carol Stream-based Agristar Frozen Goods.

That case was dismissed, but was reinstated in 2009.

Levin and Freeborn & Peters were representing Steiner in the matter. According to Eckert's suit, Steiner owed the lawyers about $600,000 in legal fees related to the case.

When the case was reinstated in 2009, Eckert’s complaint alleges that Levin approached Eckert apart from his lawyer to settle the case for $700,000.

In exchange for settling the case, the suit states that Levin pledged to “ put all of his experience, skill and fundraising acumen to work for Eckert” to help him attract investors to a separate business venture, referred to in the complaint as KBR.

Beginning in December 2009, Levin began acting as legal counsel and investment banker to Eckert, despite continuing to also represent Steiner, according to the complaint.

Between 2009 and 2011, the suit contends that Levin did not raise the money promised to help Eckert, as he was neither qualified nor licensed to engage in third-party fundraising.

Rather, in a series of “hundreds of emails,” Levin worked to persuade Eckert to sign the settlement deal with Steiner, while also pursuing a deal with Steiner to ensure that Steiner would use the settlement payment to settle his unpaid legal bills.

In December 2011, Levin, acting for Steiner, filed a motion with the circuit court to obtain a judgment against Eckert for $1 million. That motion and award was granted in July 2012.

In response, Eckert filed a legal malpractice action against Levin and Freeborn & Peters, asking the court for damages at least equal to the $1 million in damages he was ordered to pay Steiner.

Eckert contends that Levin and Freeborn & Peters acted fraudulently and in violation of the state’s legal ethics code by creating a conflict of interest through its simultaneous representation of Eckert and Steiner while seeking to “induce” Eckert into signing the settlement agreement, an arrangement the lawyers said would be “a triple win” for Eckert and would end litigation against him.

He also alleges fraud against Levin and the law firm for representing to him that they could help him create a business plan for the KBR venture and attract investors, when in reality they could not and did not, all in attempt to continue to persuade him to sign the settlement deal with Steiner and ensure they received the payment due them from Steiner.

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