SLO County under fire over attorney in opioid class action suit


San Luis Obispo County Counsel Rita Neal told the Board of Supervisors last year that they needed to hire a local attorney to represent the county’s interest in a national class action suit against Purdue Pharma over the opioid epidemic.

She recommended local attorney Don Ernst, a man who has close ties to Neal. The Board of Supervisors agreed to a contingency fee agreement with Ernst even though the case had reached its settlement stage long before Neal recommended him. Ernst could now stand to collect a substantial amount of money from a $6 billion national settlement reached by 23 states and more than 2,000 local governments.

California is expected to get $486 million to pay for opioid addiction treatment and prevention.

Neal made her recommendation despite a vote by the Board of Supervisors some years earlier to have the District Attorney’s Office upgrade its consumer protection department. District Attorney Dan Dow was allowed to hire an attorney and investigator who were to be funded by lawsuit revenues.

Dow disagrees with Neal’s hiring of a private attorney when his office should have been involved in the process.

“The District Attorney’s Office was not consulted regarding the county’s opioid litigation and was not asked to give our approval for the use of our exclusive prosecutorial authority,” Dow said. “If I had been asked, I would not have agreed because the hiring of private lawyers on a contingent-fee violates California’s ethical principles for public prosecutors, according to Supreme Court decisions and the California District Attorney’s Association ethics manual.”

Dow is the chair of the California District Attorney’s Association Consumer Protection Committee.

The recommendation of Ernst also appears to violate California’s Business and Professions Code 17204, which requires the District Attorney’s Office have first crack at representing the county in the suit, according to Dow.

Contingency fee agreements typically call for attorneys to be paid a percentage of the settlement or award in civil cases. Those percentages usually start at 33 percent and go up depending on the type of case and its particular elements.

It’s not known what percentage the Board of Supervisors agreed to regarding Neal’s recommendation because it was agreed to in closed session. It is also not known what role Ernst played or would play in the settlement that was finalized by a federal judge in March of this year. The lawsuit entered its end process in August, 2019, when the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, offered a multi-billion-dollar settlement.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss whether Ernst or the District Attorney’s Office should represent the county in the case during closed session on Tuesday, according to the agenda.

Ernst met with Supervisor Lynn Compton after she voted against renewing Neal’s contract with the county, to voice his support of Neal.

Ernst told Compton that Neal is “family,” Compton said. Ernst warned that if Compton made another attempt to remove Neal, he would put enough money in to her opponent’s campaign to defeat her in the 2022 election. Ernst’s wife and business partner then donated heavily to Jimmy Paulding’s successful campaign for supervisor.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that overdose deaths from opioids topped 136,000 in the past two years. The CDC also reported that the opioid epidemic costs the United States $1 trillion a year.

The settlement protects the Sackler family from any existing or future lawsuits filed over OxyContin and other Purdue pain medications, National Public Radio reported in March, when the settlement was approved by a federal judge. It does not shield either the Sacklers or Purdue from any criminal prosecutions.

The Sackler family has admitted no wrongdoing in its business practices.

The settlement covers 138,000 claims made against Purdue over deaths, the birth of children exposed to OxyContin who suffered neonatal abstinence syndrome, and expenses resulting from opioid addiction. Claims required that people provide detailed accountings of prescriptions, urine tests, doctors visits, detox and rehab stays, National Public Radio reported in Sept. 2021.

NPR reported that the family of one opioid addiction victim, who spent $125,000 trying to treat his addiction, could receive a maximum award of between $26,000 and $40,000 over his death.

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