An innovator in consumer-fraud cases

For many of the litigators on the NLJ’s 40 Under 40 list, early success was almost predictable.  They earned high marks at top law schools and clerked for judges before going on to that first real job.  But for plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas J. Methvin, the chances of achieving national fame as a litigator were far more remote.

Methvin graduated in 1988 in the middle of his class at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala., and no one was clamoring to hire him.  “I sent out about a thousand resumes and no one gave mea job offer.”  The lone exception was a small Montgomery, Ala. Plaintiffs’ firm, Beasley & Wilson.  Methvin went to work for the Beasley firm for the princely wage of $5 an hour.

At the time, the Beasley firm was a small five-attorney shop, led by plaintiffs’ attorney Jere Locke Beasley.  Beasley had had a few big verdicts by that point, Methvin recalls, but these judgments were nothing compared to what the firm would do in the future.

“When I started, there was no office for me,” Methvin adds. “I had to workout of the library.”  At the beginning of this career, Methvin did not specialize.  In 1992, he says,” the firm started getting a lot of predatory-lending cases.”  His role before trial was to investigate and develop the cases.  He began creating theories on why the lenders and insurance companies should be held liable for fraud.  Methvin began to develop a specialty in consumer-fraud litigation; ultimately he would become a leading litigator nationally in these cases and would pioneer numerous legal theories that have become commonplace in lender-liability litigation.

Insurance companies and lenders were targeting people in the poor, rural areas of Alabama, he says, and packing insurance products onto loans and pushing the borrowers into refinancing loans.  When the borrowers had paid off the interest on a loan, Methvin says, “the company wasn’t making any money.”  So the lenders would offer a new loan to the borrower; the borrower might take out a loan for $500 but with interest would owe $2,000 to $3,000.

Methvin began filing numerous cases against lenders for “loan flipping.”  Most of these cases settled, he says.  Over time, he says, charges of loan flipping would become a common cause of action.

Finance companies, he adds, would commonly sell unneeded insurance products as part of the loan packages, then have the borrower use a useless object for collateral, so the company could charge higher premiums.  Thus, “the consumer would go in to borrower $500, but would actually owe $1,000.”

As he built these consumer-fraud cases, Methvin began building up a roster of big wins.  He has been a lead or co-lead counsel in more than a dozen verdicts of $1 million or more, including a $581 million verdict in 1999 in a consumer-fraud action against Whirlpool Financial National Bank.  Methvin has been involved in 69 cases that have resulted in a verdict or settlement in excess of $1 million.

Now a name partner at the firm Beasley, Allen, Crow Methvin, Portis & Miles, Methvin has recently been branching out.  He’s scheduled for trial next month in Montgomery in a products liability action representing a bottle manufacturer.  In September he’s due to try a products action against John Deere Tractors on behalf of several loggers.  In December, he will be trying a group of asbestos cases in Mississippi, representing 200 clients who are suing multiple defendants.  Next February, as co-counsel with Jere Beasley and Johnnie Cochran, Methvin will be involved in the largest environmental case in the country, representing 15,000 plaintiffs who were exposed to PCBs in Anniston, Ala.

None of these may end in a verdict, however.  Most of his recent cases settled just before opening statements.  The only case that got as far as the presentation of witnesses settled at the beginning of his closing argument.

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