Court rules civil rights attorney acted unethically in handling McClain civil case, still is owed $1.4 million

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Civil rights attorney Mari Newman speaks during a press conference at Aurora’s Martin Luther King Jr. Library decrying police violence. July 28, 2021.

Prominent Denver civil rights attorney Mari Newman must cut the fee she was trying to collect from Elijah McClain’s mother, Sheneen, by more than $2 million, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled, noting a number of ethical missteps Newman made in representing the family of the man who died after being forcibly detained by police and given an overdose of ketamine by paramedics.

The court noted Newman, who represented Sheneen McClain from August 2019 to January 2021, did "extraordinary" work and should receive $1.4 million for those services. Newman continued to represent Elijah’s father, LaWayne Mosely.

But that fee was roughly half of what Newman initially sought.

The Colorado Court of Appeals on Friday concluded that Newman and attorneys at her former firm, Killmer Lane Newman, had conflicts of interest when they insisted on representing both McClain and Mosely.

Elijah’s father owed child support and denied paternity for years until a test proved otherwise.

In November, 2021, McClain and Mosely reached an agreement in a civil rights case against the city of Aurora and settled for a then-record $15 million later that year. It was at that time the highest settlement ever reached after police misconduct. Of that $15 million, McClain got $9.75 million and Mosley received $5.25 million.

McClain told CPR News that she remains irritated at Newman’s share of the settlement fees, despite the Colorado Court of Appeals decision that Newman must cut it in half. 

Newman initially sought more than $3 million from McClain.

“Mari Newman lied to me on numerous occasions. Mari Newman worked behind my back in opposition of my goals by standing against me in Elijah’s civil rights case, while she snaked up beside Elijah’s absent parent to increase her profits,” Sheneen McClain wrote in a response to the appellate court ruling.

Sheneen McClain terminated Newman after she said she didn’t feel like she was being represented fairly, or being listened to about her concerns that Newman was simultaneously representing Mosley.

Newman said, according to the ruling, to Sheneen McClain, "my role is to get the most money that I can for you in the civil rights case, and your probate lawyers will make sure you are fairly represented in how it gets divided up."

According to the ruling, McClain expressed concerns about Newman trying to get her to split any proceeds from a cash settlement in half — given Mosely was not at all in their son’s life and owed her child support.

In 2020, Newman filed a lawsuit on behalf of McClain and Mosely against Falck, the paramedic company. They eventually settled this case for $350,000. The health care provider furnished ketamine to the Aurora Fire Rescue fire medics who injected McClain with a lethal dose of the sedative the night he was forcibly detained by police. 

In that settlement, Newman split the proceeds with McClain and Mosley 50-50 and took 40 percent of the contingent fee.

The Colorado Court of Appeals said in its ruling that Newman’s work was "extraordinary" during the pursuit of the civil rights case against the city of Aurora. She authored the initial complaint and wrote "voluminous filings, legal and medical research, formal and informal discovery" on behalf of McClain and Mosely.

She went to protests and engaged news media to try and gin up support for police reform in wake of McClain’s death, the court said.

But, the court also acknowledged that the firm did all that — all the while representing both McClain and Mosely — in part, to maximize its own profits.

“We must also acknowledge the obvious point that KLN had a vested financial interest in representing all the parties because doing so would maximize the total sum from which its 40 percent contingent fee would be calculated,” the court said. “And despite the clear conflicts that existed by August 2020, KLN continued to represent all parties until McClain terminated its representation.”

In a statement, Newman said her entire motivation was to do "everything possible to get the best outcome for my clients and effect systemic change."

"I spent weeks in the Capitol helping author and pass the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act simply to ensure that other mothers do not have to suffer like Ms. McClain and to honor Elijah's legacy," she wrote. "There was no financial incentive for me to do this, but I knew it was the right thing to do for my clients and my community. Ms. McClain has suffered an unimaginable loss, and my heart will always go out to her."