Lawyer Accused of ‘Frivolous’ Filing After Malaysia Airlines Tragedy

PHOTO: Malaysias acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, center, comforts a relative of passengers on board the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at a hotel in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Saturday March 29, 2014.
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A Chicago lawyer who was the first to file a legal petition after the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 in southeast Asia is under investigation after an ethics committee criticized her conduct and called the petition “frivolous” – an allegation she firmly denies.

Less than three weeks after Flight 370 disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China, in early March, the law firm of attorney Monica Ribbeck Kelly filed a petition for discovery on behalf of 25-year-old Indonesian passenger Firman Siregar, naming Malaysia Airlines and the plane’s manufacturer, Boeing, as initial defendants.

The petition was filed a day after Malaysia’s prime minister controversially told reporters he had concluded that the plane was lost and that there were no survivors. However, today, nearly five months after the plane’s disappearance, still no wreckage or significant evidence has been found to indicate what might have happened to the plane and its passengers. The petition was dismissed, but Kelly says she appealed that decision.

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After the petition’s filing, Siregar’s parents quickly said they had not authorized the legal move and claimed that a man the law firm identified as Siregar’s father was actually a distant relative, according a letter that the family sent to the Indonesian Embassy in Malaysia.

Then last week the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee claimed in a complaint that Kelly “has engaged in… conduct which tends to defeat the administration of justice or bring the courts or the legal profession into disrepute…”

“…Respondent [Kelly] alleged that she represented the estate of Firman Chandra Siregar (‘Siregar’), that Siregar had been a passenger on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, that the aircraft had crashed, that Siregar had been killed,” the ethics committee filing says. “Respondent’s allegations… had no basis in fact and were frivolous, because Respondent knew at the time she filed the petition that no evidence had been discovered regarding the location or disposition of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.”

The commission also rapped Kelly for alleging a mechanical malfunction had contributed to the tragedy when committee said there was “no evidence” suggesting such a malfunction.

Kelly has been called to a hearing to answer the commission’s allegations. She told ABC News today that the petition she had filed was hardly frivolous and that she “did nothing wrong.”

“We have been filing these petitions for 15 years,” she said. “I have no idea why the ARDC filed a complaint against me since the case is pending before the appellate court.”

Her attorney, George Collins, said that the ARDC’s action was “unusual” and that Kelly filed the petition in “good faith.”

“The fact is the airplane acted in a manner that could not have occurred without somebody being negligent,” Collins told ABC News. “Somebody wasn’t doing what they were supposed to or some machine on the airplane wasn’t operating correctly. By her discovery petition, [Kelly] seeks to find out who were the manufacturers of the various components of this aircraft so that she can make inquiry of those who might have evidence that could explain this.”

Collins conceded that it’s possible something other than a mechanical malfunction may have brought down the plane – for instance a failed hijacking or pilot suicide – but claimed what little evidence there was about the plane’s extended flight without contact didn’t line up with other popular theories.

Attorney Bob Clifford, whose firm Clifford Law has represented the families of victims in domestic air crashes for decades and is a competitor of Kelly’s, told ABC News he was critical of Kelly’s petition from the start.

“I didn’t think that it comported with the law, but more importantly, I thought it was one of those things that does not serve the families well because it gives them the false hope of believing there’s a meritorious claim when I don’t think the evidence supported that,” Clifford said. “These are the kinds of filings that make lawyers look bad.”

Collins disagreed, saying that it’s a lawyer’s duty to try and recover what he or she can for them.

“I don’t think it’s wrong to say to the person, ‘I will try,’” Collins said. “If a client comes to you with a problem, you have to be truthful with them, but it’s not improper to try.”

Prior to the ethics complaint, ABC News reported in late March, Kelly’s firm, Ribbeck Law Chartered, had been aggressively distributing cards and brochures in Chinese to family members of the passengers – a practice that legal experts said would be illegal in the U.S. due to laws designed to protect families at vulnerable times. The ethics complaint does not mention this purported practice.

Caesar Sun, a volunteer grief counselor in Beijing, told ABC News in March about the experience of one family member.

"He told me that a lawyer came to him and said, 'You can get a million dollars if the plane was confirmed as crashed. And you have to let us do it... Sign something so we can do it for you,'" Sun said.

The Ribbeck firm lists its address in a Chicago high-rise, but in March the offices appeared to be empty, supposedly being remodeled, as first reported by The Chicago Tribune.

At the time Kelly denied that any of her lawyers had contacted families directly and said that while her firm had signed up dozens of families, all of them had asked her to represent them.

"It's up to the families," Kelly told ABC News then. "It is ethical and moral.”

Today Collins reiterated Kelly’s claim that her actions in southeast Asia were above board, saying that all major law firms have ways to reach out to potential clients and in the case of international incidents, American lawyers often “make arrangements” with local attorneys.

Clifford said that until the remains of the crash are discovered, or new evidence is presented, it will be difficult for the families of victims to claim wrongdoing in American courts. If the plane is never found, Clifford said he could foresee a case to be eventually made against the airline, but it’s difficult:

“Basically, ‘My father got on your plane and he was alive. He’s now been declared dead and the last person to be in control of his safety was you,’” he said. “I think you’re going to see those fights.”

An official at the ARDC said that if wrongdoing on an attorney’s part is found during trial, disciplinary action could follow in the form of reprimands, censure, suspensions, or in the most extreme cases, disbarment. The ARDC website shows a pre-hearing conference for Kelly’s case is scheduled for Aug. 26.

Christine Negroni, author of “Deadly Departure,” is a freelance reporter contributing to ABC News.

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