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Law Firm Leading Bexar Opioid Suit Loses Partner, Employees Who Claim Abuse

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
Martin Phipps Speaks in front of the Bexar County Courthouse about the Opioid litigation.

One of the law firms handling Bexar County’s billion dollar lawsuit against opioid manufacturers is in uproar after several employees resigned, citing a hostile work environment and abuses from director Martin Phipps.

Phipps runs the law firm Phipps Deacon and Purnell, which at times does business as Phipps Mayes. Accusations about Phipps’ integrity and treatment of women emerged on Twitter from TJ Mayes, a former partner at the firm.

“I resigned from the Phipps firm after I became convinced without a shred of a doubt that Martin Phipps is a crook and a serial abuser of women,” Mayes tweeted Wednesday morning.

The law firm denied the claims.

“Unfortunately, social media gives anyone the platform to spew unfounded libelous accusations,” said Gabe Ortiz, another lawyer for the firm speaking on its behalf.

In a complaint addressed to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) obtained by TPR, Mayes and others called the workplace “hostile” and “abusive.”

“We deal in high stakes, high stress litigation,” said Ortiz, referencing the county’s opioid lawsuit.

Mayes said in the letter that law enforcement officials had audio recordings proving that “Martin Phipps believes in his ‘duty to kill’ those persons whom he believes have wronged them (sic).”

The EEOC complaint included a letter to Phipps signed by six employees that pointed out more than a dozen “personality traits,” including “misogyny” and “sadism.”

“This issue has been growing over a period of years and has accelerated in recent months. This must change,” said the letter.

Meagan Talafuse was among the employees who signed the letter.

“Martin Phipps stated to me on multiple occasions his intention to kill Ms. Talafuse,” said Mayes in the EEOC complaint. A statement that was corroborated by another former employee.

Talafuse remains at the law firm. TPR could not reach her for comment.

Nearly everyone who signed the letter immediately resigned when it was delivered on Jan. 11.

State Rep. Diego Bernal’s law firm had a relationship with the firm. He confirmed that the relationship ended around that time.

“I’ve never felt threatened,” said Ortiz.

Ortiz — who has been with the firm for five years — admitted he was a hard person to offend but said the Martin Phipps described in the letter was unrecognizable. Ortiz said he couldn’t speculate on the motivations of those who left.

Mayes, a former chief of staff to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, confirmed he sent the EEOC complaint dated Jan 19. Mayes declined to comment further, referring TPR to his lawyer.

He joined the firm two years ago. Phipps and he reportedly formed Phipps Mayes in August 2020.

In his resignation letter to the firm, Mayes said that Phipps was trying to defraud his creditors, and conspiring to destroy public documents related to his flash marriage to employee Brenda Vega. The marriage was annulled shortly thereafter. Mayes said — in his resignation — he observed Phipps psychologically abusing Vega.

Ortiz confirmed that Vega no longer worked for the firm but said he had never witnessed any abuse.

The opioid lawsuit is against several dozen companies including Perdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, for practices that may have encouraged the opioid epidemic that claimed several hundred lives in San Antonio. The city was not a party to the county’s suit.

It wasn’t clear if Phipps’ firm would continue to handle the opioid litigation for the county.

“We’ve all heard the allegations,” Wolff said. He explained that the civil attorney with the Bexar County District Attorney’s office was reviewing the situation, and so far believes they are “only allegations.”

When TPR asked Wolff if the county would continue to use the firm, he responded, “I don’t know what will happen.”

“For two years, this firm has devoted millions of dollars and thousands of man hours to do what is right by the citizens of Bexar County and hold the multibillion dollar pharmaceutical companies accountable for the harm they have caused,” Ortiz explained.

“The individuals who departed had no litigation experience and were not part of the trial team that we’ve assembled,” he added.

Ortiz said he wished Mayes and others could have sorted out the problems of the firm in private.

Phipps’ firm isn’t the only one representing the county in the matter. Mikal Watts of Watts Guerra also represents the county.

According to Wolff, the trial date is currently a year away. That date has been pushed back at least two times already. It was filed in 2018.

In December, the San Antonio Express-News reported that Watts’ firm and Phipps’ disagreed on the path forward with the case. Watts had signed on to a potential settlement with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that would have given the county an estimated $7 million. Phipps’ firm reportedly wanted to hold out for more.

This was the second time in three years that Phipps saw high-profile departures by legal colleagues. In September 2019, Daniel Griffin and Simon Purnell departed the firm. Phipps reportedly sued a former employee, Jason Reichl, along with three others accusing them of stealing more than $12 million from the firm.

Ortiz said the industry as a whole normally sees high turnover.

The letter from the departing lawyers to Phipps referenced the firm’s financial strain. Phipps was sued for in federal court over the ownership of a Gulfstream Jet G-IV that he bought with this company R.A.S.H. and leased to his then law firm Phipps Anderson Deacon.

“R.A.S.H. and Phipps are currently in payment arrears for three (3) full months of payments in the amount of $187,122.15,” said lawyers for PNC Equipment Financial in court documents.

PNC financed the purchase of the $3.4 million jet. The bank says it’s owed $1.7 million for the default.

According to the law firm, the debt has been resolved and the jet was sold.

It was around the time of the lawsuit that Mayes referred in his resignation letter to a voluntary pay cut that he and other staff took. The pay cut was verified by other former employees.

According to the letter to Phipps, his former employees were worried about his mental health and that he could be a threat to himself and others. Two other former employees TPR spoke to echoed those concerns.

Ortiz reiterated that this wasn’t what he observed at the firm.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org