High Trauma

From his Lakewood offices along the Sixth Avenue freeway frontage road, attorney David Mintz can see the towering 1-800-4INJURY sign in his parking lot and the blur of commuter traffic beyond. It's a handy juxtaposition. Road warriors who get rear-ended on the freeway can whip out their cell phones, call the toll-free number — and let the Mintz Law Firm handle the lawsuit to come.

Over the past two decades, Mintz has built one of the busiest personal-injury practices in Colorado. His clientele includes many immigrants whose ability to negotiate the American legal system is quite limited; the firm's website promises "legal professionals who speak both English and Spanish to assist you" and happen to be "closely associated with doctors that speak Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Russian." Like most PI lawyers, Mintz works on a contingency basis: He helps clients get treatment for their injuries, files claims against at-fault drivers, and typically takes a third of any settlement for his trouble.

It's a tough, competitive business, and it's only gotten tougher since 2003, when the state legislature scrapped Colorado's no-fault auto insurance system. The move reduced auto insurance rates, but it also eliminated the personal-injury protection (PIP) coverage that allowed motorists to have their medical bills paid by their carrier, regardless of who caused the accident. Without PIP, attorneys like Mintz have become increasingly involved in getting their clients' injuries diagnosed, documented and treated; arranging to have the doctors paid — and trying to make sure there's something left over for the client when the settlement rolls in.

"I would guess that more than half of my clients don't have health insurance," Mintz says. "They can't even get evaluated beyond the emergency room without some kind of agreement as to how the doctor is going to get paid."

Four years ago, as PIP was disappearing, Mintz thought he'd found a suitable workaround to the problem. He referred dozens of his clients to Spine and Injury Centers, a group of medical providers who not only seemed to know how to document treatment for the insurance companies, but were willing to wait for payment. The arrangement between the Mintz Law Firm and Spine and Injury Centers soon led to other business relationships, including intertwining marketing efforts and a joint investment in Mintz's office building.

But before long the deal began to go inexorably, disastrously wrong. Disputes over money erupted into complaints over ethics, a civil suit that's already devoured more than $400,000 in legal costs, and even allegations of criminal activity leveled against some of the medical providers. Mintz, who never had any disciplinary action taken against him in more than a quarter-century of legal work, suddenly found himself besieged with grievance investigations. While denying any wrongdoing, Mintz notes ruefully that he can't even publicly defend himself against assorted allegations because of confidentiality issues.

"I'm hamstrung in responding to some of these attacks by attorney-client privilege," he says. "It makes me very unhappy that I've been put in that position."

The principals of Spine and Injury Centers, chiropractor Robert Walford and physician Joseph Ramos, haven't escaped unscathed, either. Mintz has accused Spine and Injury Centers and related companies of deceiving and overbilling his clients, prescribing unnecessary treatments, and other questionable behavior; the business that Ramos and Walford started, Mintz's attorneys contend, is "a fraudulent sham intended to enrich certain doctors."

Ramos and Walford dissolved their partnership three years ago. Walford left Colorado for a time, while Ramos has gone on to launch another series of injury-treatment clinics, Mile High Medical Group, with orthopedic surgeon Steven Nadler, who also worked at Spine and Injury Centers. Attorneys for Ramos, Walford and Nadler insist their clients did nothing wrong. But the repercussions of the once-cozy relationship between the Mintz Law Firm and Spine and Injury Centers have been far-ranging and quite costly — personally, professionally and financially — for almost everyone involved.

In late 2005, Mintz filed what's known as an interpleader lawsuit in Jefferson County District Court, asking a judge to decide how to distribute approximately $135,000 held in his trust account. The money is the residue of settlements his firm negotiated with insurance companies on behalf of 37 clients. Walford, Ramos, Nadler and their related enterprises claim that the money is owed to them for treatments provided to the clients, but Mintz has refused to release the funds, contending that the billing information provided is inadequate and possibly fraudulent. While Mintz himself has no claim on the money — he's already collected his fees out of the settlement proceeds — he says that he has an obligation to challenge the medical providers' claims, as the funds may rightfully belong to his clients.

The doctors' attorneys have fired back with incendiary assertions of their own. They insist that Mintz is simply retaliating against them because they stopped paying the "kickbacks" that he had supposedly demanded for sending them patients. He's withheld their money for no good reason, the attorneys claim; Mintz got paid, the clients got their share, but the doctors didn't.