TEXARKANA, Arkansas —A Little Rock lawyer who was surreptitiously substituted as administrator of the estate of a diabetic 20-year-old who died in the Bi-State jail has been ordered to court to explain why she won't release settlement funds.
Morgan Angerbauer died of diabetic ketoacidosis in the early hours of July 1 after hours of yelling for help in a medical-observation cell. Her untreated high blood-sugar and lack of adequate medical care led to Angerbauer's death, just two days after her arrest for an administrative violation of probation.
The day after her daughter's death, Angerbauer's mother, Jennifer Houser of Texarkana, was contacted through social media by Little Rock lawyer Matt Campbell, according to prior probate court-hearing testimony and court filings.
Campbell filed a complaint in 2016 on behalf of Angerbauer's estate in the Texarkana Division of the Eastern District of Texas.
As the case proceeded, Campbell filed documents in Miller County probate court seeking to have Houser removed as administrator of the estate and replaced with Little Rock lawyer Victoria Leigh. Houser was unaware of her removal as administrator until she was contacted by a member of the media.
Houser hired Texarkana lawyer David Carter shortly after learning of Campbell's plan to settle the case for $200,000, and Carter put LaSalle's lawyers on notice that Campbell's acceptance of the settlement proposal was being challenged. At a March 2018 hearing in Miller County probate court, Circuit Court Judge Carlton Jones withdrew his preliminary approval of the $200,000 settlement after finding it was "not in the best interest of the estate of Morgan Angerbauer."
At that time, Campbell consented to withdraw from the case altogether with the agreement that when the case resolved, either through settlement or by a jury, he would still receive an $80,000 paycheck equal to 40% of the $200,000 settlement he wanted to accept. Carter argued that Campbell had hijacked Angerbauer's case from her family, failed to address certain legal arguments in his court filings, and failed to meet critical deadlines in the federal case.
Campbell later agreed to a reduced but immediate cash payment in lieu of the $80,000, Carter said at a hearing in February.
Leigh, who remained as estate administrator, was paid $6,150 in 2018. Estate administrators act like executors and are tasked with settling a deceased person's final bills and disposing of assets such as real estate. Angerbauer did not have any assets and did not leave behind a spouse, any children or dependents, meaning there was little for an administrator to do with respect to managing Angerbauer's estate.
Carter amended the complaint in the civil lawsuit to include as plaintiffs not only the estate of Morgan Angerbauer but Angerbauer's mother, two sisters and stepfather as individual plaintiffs seeking damages for wrongful death. Had the case settled with only the estate named as a plaintiff, the settlement proceeds remaining after attorney fees, administrator fees and other expenses would have been split between Angerbauer's legal heirs — her biological parents.
Angerbauer's biological father had little involvement in her life, according to testimony at a probate hearing.
A confidential settlement with LaSalle Corrections, the private company that manages the jail, was reached in early February.
At a hearing Feb. 26 at the Miller County courthouse,. Judge Jones approved the settlement and structured distribution of the proceeds. While the settlement remains confidential, court filings reflect that $200,000 was awarded to the estate. The bulk of the remainder was awarded to Angerbauer's mother and two sisters, and a small portion was awarded to Angerbauer's stepfather as wrongful death beneficiaries.
Leigh attended the hearing and gave testimony as administrator. Leigh testified that "100%" of the settlement should go to the estate and acknowledged when questioned by Jones that such a distribution would mean Angerbauer's sisters and stepfather would receive no compensation for the loss of their loved one. Such a distribution might have meant a much larger administrator fee for Leigh.
Leigh was represented at the final probate hearing by Little Rock lawyer Stefan McBride, who questioned the court about Leigh's fee at the end of hearing. Jones did not award Leigh any additional fee beyond what she has already been paid.
In the week following the hearing, McBride filed a notice of appeal of Jones' ruling on Leigh's behalf and filed a motion to halt the case while it is considered by a higher court.
A check was sent to Leigh, which was supposed to be endorsed and returned to Carter for distribution in accordance with Jones' order. Carter filed a motion for contempt and removal of Leigh as administrator.
"By failing to endorse and return the check Leigh has violated this Court's Order concerning distribution of the settlement proceeds. Moreover, Leigh's appeal of this Court's Order is further evidence that she continues to place her own interests ahead of the interests of the wrongful death beneficiaries. Accordingly, Movants request that the Court hold Leigh in contempt, order her to immediately endorse and return the registry check to the undersigned, and to refrain from further obstruction of or interference with the distribution of settlement proceeds as ordered by this Court," Carter's motion states.
The motion notes that the wrongful death beneficiaries have arranged to deposit the settlement proceeds into annuity accounts at a rate "locked in" prior to the stock market's recent tumble. Leigh's appeal places that arrangement in jeopardy and could cost Angerbauer's family substantially.
Carter's filings accuse Leigh of placing her own financial interests above the interests of Angerbauer's family. McBride filed a response to Carter's motion for contempt indicating Leigh will waive any additional fee but that she believes the money awarded to Angerbauer's wrongful death beneficiaries —her mother, sisters and stepfather —should go to her estate.
At the time that Campbell attempted to settle the case for $200,000, Leigh was in agreement with that proposal but McBride's filings indicate she now believes the estate should receive more.
"Ms. Leigh simply cannot stomach that the combination of LaSalle's incompetence and Morgan's suffering and loss of life is not worth more than $200,000," McBride's response states. "Avoiding the potential windfall to intestate beneficiaries is (respectfully) not a good reason to elevate the suffering of Morgan's family over her own suffering."
The "intestate beneficiaries" include Angerbauer's mother and biological father.
"Ms. Leigh is a party to this case (unlike the wrongful-death beneficiaries) and simply disagrees with the Court's ruling on the distribution of settlement proceeds," McBride's response states. "Mr. Carter has not shown good cause (or any cause) to remove Ms. Leigh as Special Administrator. Ms. Leigh is in fact the only person in the case that is currently showing any concern for Morgan Angerbauer."
McBride's response does not take into account that Leigh was brought into the case by an attorney her mother retained who did not consult her mother about Leigh's involvement. The response also does not explain how depriving Angerbauer's family of the settlement proceeds benefits Angerbauer, a deceased person.
Jones issued an order in the case Thursday directing Leigh to appear in court this week on Carter's motion for contempt. The order includes an instruction for Leigh to bring the check she has refused to endorse with her to the hearing.