A joint venture formed by attorneys to represent college students in academic misconduct cases has turned acrimonious amid accusations of extortion and racketeering.
New Jersey attorney Joseph Lento claims in a suit that a Michigan lawyer recruited to work on his student defense cases in exchange for 40% of the fees collected is refusing to turn over the case files unless he gets paid more.
The relationship is so strained that the other attorney, Keith Altman of Farmington Hills, Michigan, demanded that Lento pay him $500,000 immediately, or else he would file a lawsuit and a disciplinary complaint against Lento, and would notify the alliance’s roughly 100 clients that he was ceasing work on the cases due to nonpayment, Lento claims in court papers.
Lento sued Altman, his firm and three members of Altman’s office staff in U.S. District Court on Monday, claiming violations of federal and state RICO laws, along with breach of contract, bad faith and tortious interference with contract.
Lento seeks to enjoin Altman from abandoning or ceasing work on any files, disparaging Lento to current or potential clients, taking on any new student cases outside of the agreement with Lento, or otherwise violating a noncompete clause.
Lento found his Mount Laurel-based firm in January 2020, and that March he formed a verbal agreement with Altman to provide services for students in academic misconduct cases, student code of conduct violations and Title IX violations, according to court papers. The terms called for Lento to receive 60% of attorney fees as attorney of record and progenitor of the cases, and for Altman to get 40% for his time and labor. And that split came after Lento deducted his marketing expenses.
According to the suit, the venture began to fall apart in the summer of 2020, when, after an online ad campaign began to draw higher case volume, Altman failed to respond promptly to some of the clients’ phone calls and emails, forcing Lento to return retainers paid by several clients, according to court documents. Altman and his staff also fell behind on their responsibility to send fee agreements to clients in some of the student defense cases, the suit alleges.
In addition, Altman’s handling of one matter resulted in a client posting a negative review about Lento’s firm online, the suit claims. Later, in 2021, Lento learned that Altman was sending out initial letters to clients on his own letterhead, instead of on Lento’s, according to the complaint.
Lento confronted Altman about the negative review, saying “This is my business’s reputation on the line here,” to which Altman responded, “this is my business, too,” according to court documents. This comment made Lento uncomfortable because he never gave Altman an ownership interest in the practice, Lento says in court papers.
Meanwhile, the roughly 100 case files are caught in the middle, in the possession of Altman but demanded by Lento.
Plaintiffs “have the right to immediate possession of the client files for said student defense matters. Said client files exist and are presently in the possession of defendants Altman and the Altman firm. Despite plaintiffs having made demand for the return of these client files, defendants Altman and the Altman Firm refuse to do so, and thus, have wrongly interfered with plaintiffs’ possessory interest in same, the direct and proximate result of which has caused plaintiff to incur damages of both a pecuniary and reputational nature,” Lento says in court papers.
Lento and Altman declined to comment about the case.