By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
And sometimes smoke leads to fire. The lawsuit has become a crackling conflagration of cross-claims and brutal accusations, touching off related suits. One attorney involved called it "a battle of epic and monumental proportions and venom." A dispute over the leasing of the building that Mintz and the docs had purchased together led to the medical group's being locked out of the office for weeks and eventually evicted from the premises. Court filings allege that Spine and Injury Centers engaged in tax fraud and money laundering, and that Ramos broke into the office of a business associate and removed documents sought in an insurance investigation — all emphatically denied by Ramos and company. There are insinuations that the person who handled billing for the doctors defected to the other side and refused to give back their records (disputed), and claims that a disbarred attorney and convicted felon, who once worked for a company owned by Mintz's wife, went over to the Mile High Medical Group (admitted) and took confidential documents with him (denied).
Caught in the middle of this dust-up between professionals are several dozen former clients of the Mintz Law Firm. At least two have sided with Ramos, Nadler and Walford, professing bafflement that their attorney hasn't paid the bills for what they considered to be appropriate care. Others have questioned the quality of care they received or portrayed the medical providers as avaricious. Some have been dropped as parties in the lawsuit, but the rest are seeking to recover some portion of settlement funds that have been tied up for years, even if it ends up being a pittance of a pittance.
"These are people, for the most part, of modest means, for whom the money would make a difference," says Richard Levine, the attorney representing 27 former Mintz clients in the case. "None of them wanted to be in the epic battle that we have. But they were named as defendants and have to protect their interests."
The $135,000 at issue is now on deposit with the court. Collectively, the warring parties have already spent far more than that amount battling over who gets the money, Levine notes. Even if the case goes to trial this fall and his clients win, the prospect that they'll emerge with more than they started with is remote. "No reasonable person...could afford or would want to engage in this sorry example of scorched-earth litigation," Levine wrote in a motion filed in the case last week.
The case of the feuding personal-injury specialists may be unusual in the depth of its bitterness, but it's hardly unprecedented. The litigation reflects the jarring impact that people are feeling in the hazardous new world of tort reform and soaring health-care costs, a place where lawyers and doctors spin their wheels and forge deals — and underinsured accident victims take the brunt of the collision.
The way Joseph Ramos tells it, he first found out about the deal within the Deal in the spring of 2003. He was at work, waiting impatiently for the office manager to finish whatever she was doing at her computer so that she could help him. Time dragged on, and finally he demanded to know what was taking so long.
"She said, 'Joe, I'm separating out these charges for David Mintz,'" Ramos recalls. "'Giving back that 20 percent — do you know how much work that is?'"
Twenty percent? David Mintz? Ramos had worked with an attorney named David Mintz, but giving back 20 percent was not part of the Deal.
On its surface, the Deal seemed straightforward enough. Ramos, a doctor of emergency medicine, had built a successful business treating people who'd suffered on-the-job-injuries (otherwise known as workers' comp cases); by 2001, he owned three clinics in the Denver area and was looking to expand into the treatment of auto-accident victims. He formed a partnership with Robert Walford, a chiropractor and physical therapist, in order to offer a range of treatment services under one roof. The new company, Spine and Injury Centers, opened its first clinic in 2002 and, through a network of related companies, provided acupuncture, massage and other therapies as well.
To get patients for the new enterprise, Ramos and Walford had to invest heavily in marketing — and in building relationships with attorneys. Like PI lawyers, doctors who specialize in accident cases have had to adapt to the loss of PIP coverage. Walford and Ramos agreed to provide treatment without requiring payment up front in return for a lien against any possible settlement in the case. To make it work, they'd have to rely on personal-injury lawyers to refer their banged-up clients to the "lien doctors" in the first place.
"When the tort system changed," Ramos explains, "people couldn't get care unless a doctor agreed to get payment at the end. That, or trade chickens with them or something. That means your alliances are with attorneys, whether you like it or not. They can be very good to you or very bad to you. They control the checkbook."
Part of the Deal, Ramos says, was that Spine and Injury Centers shelled out thousands of dollars a month for marketing, directly and indirectly, including $10,000 a month to something called the Lawyer Connection. Owned by Julia Mintz, David's wife, the Lawyer Connection ran print and TV ads promoting the Mintz Law Firm; accident victims who called the ad's toll-free number in search of legal advice would be referred to the firm for a consultation. If those callers also needed medical care, they were urged to see one of several providers. Those providers had either paid for their own ads through the Lawyer Connection or were contributing to the operation's overhead, including paying for the phone dispatchers who screened the calls. According to Ramos, Walford and a few other chiropractors around town were subsidizing Mintz's marketing efforts in return for having Mintz clients referred to them for treatment.