Attorneys for the embattled owners of Billy Bob’s Texas squared off before the Texas Supreme Court on Oct. 10, arguing over whether a law firm should be disqualified from further involvement in the case.
The nine justices of Texas’ highest court made its second known appearance in Fort Worth to hear oral arguments in the Billy Bob’s case as well as a case from Lubbock County on an appeals court ruling in a product-liability and wrongful death lawsuit.
The hearing at Texas A&M University School of Law attracted throngs of attorneys, judges, law students and interested observers. Some were able to watch the proceedings live while others had to watch via from other TV monitors in other classrooms.
As the highest appellate court in the state, oral arguments focused on “mistakes of law made by the trial court of the court of appeals,” said Osler McCarthy, staff attorney and spokesman for the Texas Supreme Court.
The two cases heard in Fort Worth are among a tiny fraction of cases on appeal statewide selected for oral arguments before the Supreme Court.
As one of the most high-profile cases in recent Fort Worth history, the Billy Bob’s suit stems from an ownership struggle between a majority group of owners led by Brad Hickman and his family, which controls about 65 percent of the company, against the minority owners led by Murrin family, Dallas Mavericks executive Donnie Nelson and Concho Minick, ousted president of Billy Bob’s.
The ownership group is made up of long-time friends and family members, who reached a breaking point over control of the company and the role of two seemingly contradictory company documents that dictate ownership rights and decision-making rules for the iconic Fort Worth nightclub known as the World’s Largest Honky-Tonk.
The case was appealed to the Supreme Court from rulings by State District Judge Michael Wallach and Second Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court ruling.
The narrow matter argued before the high court focused on whether Wallach and the Second Court of Appeals erred in denying a motion from the Murrin-led minority owners to bar the Kelly Hart & Hallman law firm from representing the Hickman-led group of owners and serve as Billy Bob’s company attorneys at the same time.
The justices, who are expected to rule on the case by next June, will also consider whether the trial court “abused its discretion” by declining to disqualify Kelly Hart & Hallman, for a conflict of interest for dual representation of the company and one bloc of owners, according to an official court summary.
There is “an appearance at minimum of impropriety,” said Austin attorney Dale Wainwright, a former justice of the Texas Supreme Court who is representing the Murrin-led owners in Supreme Court proceedings.
Wainwright has said the case has implications for businesses far beyond Billy Bob’s matters of corporate governance and internal affairs.
Dallas attorney Chad Baruch, representing the Hickman-led group, argued that the one of the two documents at the heart of the case allows for majority rule decision-making and super-cedes the unanimous decision-making rules on major decisions spelled out in company agreement.
In court documents, he argued that the Murrin-led group “waived their complaint by waiting nearly eight months to file it.” The minority owners “seek to use the motion (to disqualify) as a tactical weapon.”
A jury trial on the merits or the case and the significance of the two documents has yet to be held.
Oral arguments and questions from the justices touched on larger issues in the case
Among the matters that surfaced, the Hickman-led group has shut out the Murrin-led group from company and is using company revenues to pay attorney fees and legal costs of the majority owners. As a result, the minority owners are paying their own legal bills and the company’s legal bills in the proceedings against them.
Baruch said the case is about “raw emotions and an ugly fight. It is not about money, but it is.”
Wainwright said “paying the lawyers” is a significant issue in this case.
Another matter that arose was appointment of an independent receiver to help settle the divisive issues in the case. Given the divisiveness, it is unclear whether that is possible.
In earlier hearings in the case two years ago, testimony revealed the bitter battles, nasty allegations and other efforts, including changing door locks changed to bar former company President Concho Minick and some minority owners from Billy Bob’s premises. Minick’s father, Billy Minick and Billy’s wife, Pam Minick, are aligned for the majority owners.
Besides hearing oral arguments, the justices answered questions from law students on political affiliation and judicial impartiality, the process of deciding cases and their career paths to becoming Supreme Court justices.
The justices also visited various law classes for more intimate dialogue.
In a session with the media, the two newest court members, Justice Brett Busby and Justice Jane Bland, said they look forward to court road trips and the opportunity to engage with students and the community.
These “road cases” occur about twice a year and have taken the justices to different areas of state to hear cases, sometimes of local relevance such as the Billy Bob’s case in Fort Worth.
Trips were instituted after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1997 to allow the court to meet outside of Austin. This is the court’s second trip to Fort Worth. Its first visit in 1999 occurred when the law school was part of Texas Wesleyan University.
The Texas Constitution requires Judges in Texas to be elected although some are appointed to fill out unexpired terms.
Running for office is a challenge, Bland noted, because judges can’t risk their impartiality but expressing personal views on issues or discussing cases or decisions.
“You can’t have this job unless you run for office,” Bland said.
The road cases and engaging with students and the public is a way to present the high court in a more open and accessible light, Busby said.