A rogue paralegal who has already admitted guilt, an unwitting attorney distancing himself from claims with a counter suit, an unsuspecting partner who was left in the dark and a string of victims are central characters in a real-life courtroom drama set in Lee’s Summit.
The case – or in this instance, the cases – centers around the former law office of Lee’s Summit attorneys Dana Altieri and David Kelly, Kelly’s paralegal Jennifer Ivey, and a trio of people who alleged malpractice and misrepresentation by Kelly and Ivey.
One of the alleged victims, Ian Robinson of Lee’s Summit, claims malpractice, negligence and emotional distress in a lawsuit filed against Kelly and Ivey. Robinson made the claims in Jackson County Circuit Court in February after finding out his divorce from ex-wife Gretchen Robinson (now Bennett) was not valid.
Bennett, and current husband Doug Bennett, filed a similar lawsuit in February of last year in circuit court against Kelly and Ivey claiming malpractice, fraudulent misrepresentation, emotional distress and loss of consortium, among other claims.
Gretchen Bennett also claimed in the lawsuit negligent supervision and breach of contract against Kelly.
A third suit filed against Kelly and Ivey in March of this year in circuit court by Jennifer Nelson of Lone Jack accuses Kelly and Ivey of malpractice, fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation and emotional distress, among other claims. Nelson also filed claims against Kelly for negligent supervision and breach of contract.
Through his attorney Paul Croker, Kelly denied all claims, pointing to Ivey’s guilty pleas last August on state charges of forgery and theft relating to nearly one dozen instances of falsifying records in divorce and child custody proceedings. Croker said Kelly filed a counter suit against Ivey to dissolve him of all claims filed against him in circuit court.
“(Ivey) was a paralegal that worked for (Kelly),” Croker said. “She committed all of those forgeries while concealing it from any attorneys at the law firm as she testified to at her criminal sentencing hearing.”
Who is Jennifer Ivey?
Reached June 12 seeking comment, Ivey, 43, told a Journal reporter she needed a moment to see if she wanted to speak on record. She didn’t return the call before the Journal went to press. Calls to Ivey’s attorney Dennis Waits seeking comment were unreturned.
Court records indicate Ivey, of the 1600 block of S.W. Mission Rd in Lee’s Summit, began work as a paralegal for the law firm Altieri and Kelly in early 2007. Her duties included setting up appointments, intake of clients and preparation of documents needed for litigation and bill collection for clients assigned to her by Kelly, her immediate supervisor.
Ivey routinely handled the processing of mail from courts and clients and initially took most of the calls that would come in on divorce and custody cases. By early 2010, Ivey’s lack of productivity caused enough concern that both Kelly and Altieri sat down with her to put her on notice that she would be terminated if her work efforts did not improve immediately, Kelly said in court documents.
Citing health problems, Ivey told the partners that she was struggling with back pain from time to time. Ivey resigned from the law firm that August after it came to Kelly’s attention that Ivey had failed to put on the schedule a trial for one of Kelly’s clients.
After Ivey’s resignation, Kelly discovered that 10 of his clients’ files – including that of Gretchen Robinson’s before she remarried – could not be located at the firm. Kelly stated in court documents that Altieri emailed Ivey asking if she had the files in question. Ivey indicated that she did and promised to return them.
Eventually, one by one, clients of Kelly began contacting him stating that their divorce and custody proceedings and rulings were not valid although they had judgments in their possession which bore the name of Kelly and the firm. Kelly later authorized his accountant to review all income received by the firm for the three previous years on any family law case involving Ivey.
Findings included the revelation that Ivey failed to complete work she had promised and/or billed for 10 other cases. In most of those cases the clients’ funds had been received but no work had been done nor had the cases been officially filed. Kelly, court documents state, was able to contact each client and get their cases filed, updated and ultimately successfully concluded.
After an investigation by the Lee’s Summit Police Department, Ivey would later be charged with five counts of forgery and one count of theft, all Class C felonies. One of the counts alleged that Ivey forged the name of Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Vernon Scoville on a legal document.
Last August, Ivey pleaded guilty to the felony counts of forgery and the theft charge was dropped as part of the plea. Division 28 Circuit Judge Glen Dietrich handed Ivey a three-year suspended sentence on each count to run concurrently.
As part of the sentence, she was placed on three years supervised probation, ordered to undergo a substance abuse and mental health evaluation and treatment as directed and ordered to not renew her public notary status.
Dietrich also ordered Ivey not to work as a paralegal and to perform 40 hours of community service. At her plea hearing, Ivey admitted that she worked alone and that Kelly, Altieri nor attorney John Reed knew of the fraudulent work. Reed rented space from Altieri and Kelly.
Altieri, a Lee’s Summit municipal judge, is listed a third-party defendant in the Ian Robinson and Jennifer Nelson cases. Kelly claims in court papers that as a member of the firm Altieri and Kelly, both Kelly and Altieri – and any other non-parties – are each responsible for their share of claims against them and they jointly owed a duty to control, direct and supervise Ivey as an employee of the company.
Altieri denied any knowledge of Ivey’s practices and distanced herself from Kelly’s claim that as law partner she should share some of the blame and burden of the lawsuits filed against Kelly and Ivey. Altieri left the firm in October of 2011.
“I was saddened when I learned about the events that had transpired between my former law partner, his clients and his paralegal,” Altieri said in a statement to the Journal. “I never met any of the plaintiffs nor ever worked on any of their cases. These events came to surface after I had departed the firm.”
Robinson’s attorney, Michael David Townsend, doesn’t believe Altieri knew of Ivey’s devious indiscretion.
“Based upon my investigation it was my understanding that (Ivey) was David Kelly’s paralegal and therefore I did not believe there were any facts to support a claim against Mrs. Altieri,” Townsend said. “When I filed the lawsuit, I had no information in my possession to suggest she was the responsible attorney for managing this paralegal.”
He did not have the same empathy for Kelly, Ivey’s direct supervisor.
“I believe that attorneys have a duty to supervise their staff,” Townsend said. “When a staff member is utilizing a law firm to perpetrate a fraud, that attorney can be held legally responsible for that.
“It is my belief that Mr. Kelly denies any knowledge of wrong-doing. I do not know if that is or not the case. It is my position that lawyers should know what their staff is doing. From my own personal experience, none of my paralegals would be meeting with clients without me knowing about it.”
“Ms. Ivey acted criminally and independently and as a result was convicted of her crimes,” Croker said in defense of Kelly. “She testified at her sentencing hearing that she did all of this on her own. She was keeping it from the attorneys and the attorneys had no knowledge of her misdeeds. He has filed cross claims against Ms. Ivey.”
As for his client, Townsend said the situation has been taxing on Robinson and his new wife.
“We’re asserting claims and we’re seeking compensation for the damages my client sustained as a result of Mr. Kelly’s alleged negligence,” Townsend said.
Calls seeking comment from Daniel Thomas, who represents both Gretchen Bennett and Jennifer Nelson, were not returned.
Good standing with Missouri Supreme Court
Both David Kelly and Dana Altieri are still in active status and in good standing with the Missouri Supreme Court, which makes final determination in disciplinary actions against attorneys. The court’s Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel is responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct by lawyers and maintains current records of disciplinary information for lawyers licensed to practice law in Missouri.
However if there is an investigation or a complaint, it doesn’t become a public record until a case or investigation is scheduled for a disciplinary hearing. Neither Kelly nor Altieri have pending hearings against them.
Speaking in general terms not related to the Kelly and Altieri suits, Missouri Bar media relations director Farrah Fite said: “Once a disciplinary hearing takes place – even if they recommend action to the Supreme Court – that would be a public record in Casenet. If it gets to that point it becomes a public record.”
Fite recommends anyone who is thinking about hiring an attorney should visit www.mobar.org to see if an attorney is in good standing.
“It’s just a preventative, proactive action that we encourage consumers to do to make sure they don’t enter a situation that might not be positive,” Fite said.
Upcoming court dates
Ian Robinson’s suit against Kelly and Ivey is scheduled for a case management conference in August before Division 13 Judge Charles McKenzie.
After being dismissed because of a technicality then re-instated, Gretchen Bennett’s suit is scheduled for case management July 11 in front of Jackson County Circuit Judge James Kanatzar. Kanatzer granted Croker and Kelly’s motion to dismiss the case in March after Bennett’s attorney failed to respond to a legal proceeding, but Kanatzer vacated the motion June 6 and four days later set the case management date.
Nelson’s case will proceed with a case management conference Aug. 11 in front of Division 4 Judge Justine Del Muro.