Professional associations provide members with numerous benefits and opportunities – networking and mentoring, continuing education, up-to-date information, resources, job prospects, and social events. On the national level, the American Bar Association offers countless resources to lawyers, judges, and law students. Locally, the Southwest Louisiana Bar Association (SWLBA) promotes high professional and ethical standards among members of the Bar who practice law in Calcasieu, Cameron, Beauregard, Allen, and Jeff Davis parishes.
They strive to uphold the honor and dignity of the courts and of the legal profession; to promote the delivery of prompt, efficient, and competent professional services to the public; and to promote professional courtesy and cordiality among the members of the Bench and Bar.
The SWLBA currently has approximately 400 members which include lawyers and judges in the five-parish region. They host several events throughout the year such as Law Day, held each May 1 to celebrate the role of law in our society and to cultivate a deeper understanding of the legal profession, and Fall Court Opening, which designates the new term for hearing cases. But most exciting is their annual OktoBARfest – a gumbo and chili cookoff – hosted by their Young Lawyers section. The event will take place at Crying Eagle Brewing on October 29, 2022 at 11:00 a.m. and raises money to fund their Holiday Helping Hands program that gives toys to children at Christmas.
In this special Justice League section, get to know the Vamvoras/Antoon family at Antoon Law Firm and read fascinating firsthand accounts of interesting cases tried by a variety of local attorneys.
Alyson Vamvoras Antoon grew up watching her father defend clients in court and was fascinated by judicial process. Glen Vamvoras never pushed his daughter to become an attorney, and he was honest about the hard work and stress that comes with the occupation. So, Alyson understood what she was getting into when she decided to become a lawyer. “I knew I had an interest in the law from a young age,” she says. “Both my dad and I have a soft spot for ‘the underdog’ and are innately passionate about helping people and causes we care about. I had a great admiration for his dedication, compassion, and how hard he worked for his clients.”
Michael Antoon’s father owned several small businesses in the service industry, and on his mother’s side of the family, there are several doctors and nurses. “While science and hospitality management both interested me, Mom and Dad pushed me toward law,” says Michael. “I suppose my predisposition to be analytical comes from the science and medical influence while the enjoyment I get from entertaining and interacting with people comes from the service industry influence. Coincidentally, I was also born with a tendency to be stubborn and argumentative. I guess Mom and Dad saw the aggregate of those qualities as an aptitude to practice law.”
It might have been Alyson’s admiration for her father that drew her to Michael. The couple married in 2013 and joined forces professionally, which has both benefits and challenges. “Luckily for us, we work most of our files independently and maintain autonomy,” says Alyson. “I handle most of the family law side of the practice and Michael handles most of the criminal defense. Some cases have elements of both family and criminal law, so we work together to help clients get through tough times without the need to hire multiple firms.
I love that we really understand what the other is going through. We bounce ideas off each other, and we are truly a team. Being in the same field means we often attend conferences together and other legal events. Unfortunately, we can’t help but talk about work outside of the office – and I’ll admit I’m the biggest culprit because I like to vent. As two attorneys with strong personalities, we also can’t help but have ‘spirited discussions.’ Certainly, there are challenges to working with your spouse on a daily basis, but overall, I really love it.”
Michael says the law talk naturally carries over into family gatherings. “And the non-lawyers are forced to suffer through it!” Alyson also has a cousin who practices law. “But once we get past the law talk and unwind, we have a great time laughing, cutting up and spending time with the kids in the family,” Michael adds.
In recent years, Glen Vamvoras has taken a step back from the firm to enjoy partial retirement, however, he is still involved with the firm on a limited basis and select cases. “I cannot adequately express how proud I am to be in the same firm as Alyson and Michael,” he says. “They are both excellent attorneys and I am most fortunate to share their professional and personal company.”
“Both Michael and I are fortunate to have had his guidance and mentorship during our early years as attorneys,” Alyson says of her father. “We are grateful and honored to have had the opportunity to work alongside him and continue his legacy.”
compiled by Angie Kay Dilmore
Attorneys witness some crazy life situations – stories so unbelievable they could be straight out of Hollywood. Except that they’re not. Lawyers deal with real life people in real life circumstances. In this feature, while maintaining client confidentiality, local lawyers share some of their most interesting cases – the type that pose difficult challenges, but also bestow satisfying, rewarding outcomes.
Heartbreak Serves as a Reminder
My toughest case happened very early in my career, and it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s a case that haunts me to this day. It involved the death of two young cousins, both girls, ages three and four. They were attending a birthday party with other family and neighborhood friends. A young boy at the party was playing with matches and a fire started. These two cousins – babies, really – were burned to death. It was a horrific tragedy. The mothers of victims came to me for help. I searched to find something that might lighten their burden, knowing there was nothing I could really do to ease their grief. This was a was a loss they’d carry with them the rest of their lives. The family of the young boy who started the fire were also suffering and they didn’t have any financial resources to help the family of the victims. The home where the fire occurred was a rental, but I was able to find a small insurance policy that paid $25,000. I took no fee so they could keep every penny — $12,500 each. I’ll never forget having to go to these grieving mothers to tell them all I could get for them, to help compensate for the loss of their child, was $12,500. It seemed obscene to suggest the life of their child, who had their whole life ahead of them, was only worth this small amount. The girls’ families were very gracious and appreciative. They gave me a plaque with the girls’ photos on it and I kept it in my office, close to my desk so I could see it every day. I had some tough, lean times in those early years, but that plaque reminded me of why I chose to be an attorney and why I chose to focus on personal injury. There were many times it gave me the inspiration to keep going. I’ve had a lot of big cases since then, with notable headlines and settlements more than a hundred times the size of that one, but not one of them was ever as hard or as heartbreaking as that case with those two little girls. Unfortunately, I lost the plaque during the damage to our office in the Capital One Tower during Hurricane Laura two years ago. But even without it in front of me, it’s a case I’ll never forget. When life and business and kids make me feel worn out, I remember that plaque and pictures of those beautiful children and remember, WE ARE SO BLESSED. IT MAKES ME REMEMBER WHY GOD PUT ME IN THIS PROFESSION.
Ron Richard, Attorney, Richard Law Firm
Persistence Not in her Favor
This was a ten plus year child custody dispute. The SWLA Law Center represented the dad. Dad was falsely accused of molesting his young son. Child Protection invoked limited access between Dad and child. After three years of intensive investigation, everyone involved concluded that the molestation did not happen – everyone, that is, except for the mother. She continued to insist that Dad was guilty. She would not let go and drug out civil custody proceedings for years. When the court finally ruled that she had no grounds to deny Dad access, she then started in on child support. She attempted to put Dad in jail for non-payment. Dad was a house painter and had limited resources. He had exhausted his ability to pay child support from years of lawyer fees and court costs. We defended Dad pro bono on the basis that Mom had wrongfully withheld Dad’s access which would suspend the child support obligation. Eventually, with a lot of work, we resolved all matters. Dad went on to have a great relationship with his son. He painted the interior of our office in a partial trade deal for attorney fees. The walls still look good.
Mark Judson, Executive Director/General Counsel at SWLA Law Center
You Can Bank on It
An older lady contacted us because her bank accounts had been frozen by her own bank! Her daughter had died years earlier and left $25,000 in stock – a finder’s company gave it to her for a percentage ($5000). But the bank discovered that the daughter had a husband at the time of her death, so they froze her accounts and demanded any money that had been spent, including the finder’s fee! I started by writing letters to the bank just to find out who their legal representation was. No response. I sent certified mail. I realized I would need to research the appropriate court to sue a bank, and sue the right entity; basically, learn how to take on the big banks. But all I was asking was which firm represented them, and no one was talking. Mark [Judson] told me about a Regional Vice President here, so I called and asked if he could just tell me which law firm represents them. He said he would have them call me. Nothing, for weeks. Another call, another few weeks. Finally, I had to play hard ball, and our last conversation went like this: (VP) “Hmmm, I wonder why they are not contacting you. I don’t know what to tell you.” (ME) “I don’t know either. But I am going to file suit, and some firm from New York will be livid and make a scene in court that they were not contacted beforehand. And I, Jonathan Fontenot, do hereby swear that I will tell the judge that I BEGGED someone, anyone to just give me the name of the firm – and I will tell the judge YOUR name. And no one would tell me.” The next day the lady called. All her funds had been restored, including the finder’s fee.
Jonathan Fontenot, Attorney at Law, Fontenotlawfirm.com
Who Will Raise these Children?
A family law case is normally difficult due to heart-rending or emotional situations. It is strange to say, but that is par for the course in family court. The most difficult case that I have ever heard involved a custody determination with facts that seemed straight out of a publisher’s rejection stack – too crazy to be true. Though certainly emotional, the difficulty came from the complicated facts. The case involved a deceased mother of four children under the age of six and at least three fathers (the father of one child was unknown). None of the fathers had been involved parents. One child’s father had been killed in an accident and that child stood to receive a few million dollars. Prior to her death, the mother had given provisional custody to one of her friends. This friend had no job but had supported the children with help for several months. There were two sets of grandparents who had petitioned for custody. One had a grandmother who was wheelchair-bound and a grandfather who had to work. The other set were healthy and amazing people, but both were in their mid-eighties, meaning that the young children would likely experience another major change at some point if custody went to them. The final potential custodians were relatives from several states away and, though young and financially stable, they had only met the children a handful of times. Of course, none of these folks were related to more than one or two children and did not necessarily want all of them. These kids had their siblings and really nothing else so separating them was not a real option. Then was the ugly question of motivations concerning the million-dollar child. What would you do? Ultimately, the children remained with the friend and the relatives were awarded regular visitation rights.
Dean Manning, Hearing Officer, 14th JDC Family and Juvenile Court
Pets and Plants are Important, too
My hardest case may have also been my easiest. You be the judge. So, my client had Friedreich’s Ataxia– a slow, paralyzing disease. She received free home health care via the state-funded “community choices waiver program.” She insisted that her sitters feed her pets and water her plants. She was demanding and mean about this. Eventually, the home health company attempted to evict her from the program. They said plants and pets were not part of the long-term care plan. To defend her, I had to read a massive ring binder that contained many pages of the long-term care plan. Sure enough, buried deep in the binder, was a provision that read: “Pets and plants are important to the wellbeing of the patient. Caregivers should water the patient’s plants and feed her pets.” This is what we lawyers call a “smoking gun.” The hard part was starting in on the massive ring binder. The easy part was winning the case because of what I found in the ring binder. It was also one of the most fun reasons to win that I have ever had.
Defending a Man and his Dog
I have a soft spot for certain people and certain cases. I sometimes take cases on principle that have little-to-no chance of paying the bills. It’s happened so many times over the years my partners started calling these cases my “passion projects.” This story is about one of those cases.
A man called and begged to talk to me about being falsely arrested. We don’t practice criminal law, but I took the call thinking I would give him some quick advice. I was still talking to him every week two years later.
In a thick Cajun accent, he told me how he was trying to get his dying dog to the vet on July 4th, but a police officer would not let him cross the town’s parade route. He finally grabbed his bulldog and carried him the rest of the way while sharing some choice words with the officer – usually not a great idea but didn’t justify what happened next.
The officer and his partner arrested the man at the vet’s office. My client was dragged out of the vet’s office in front of his crying children and parade goers, handcuffed and brought to jail in the back of a police cruiser. He was released a short time later and charged with Disturbing the Peace. The report described some terrible behavior by client that never happened.
I thought I could drive to this small town on the other side of Louisiana and get the charge dismissed, which I offered to do for free. I was shocked twice on the court date. First, we were the only case on the criminal trial docket. Anyone who has been to court knows that never happens, ever. Then, contrary to video evidence I was received from a parade goer, the judge believed the officer’s lies and convicted my client.
Driving home, I knew I had to make things right. Even though it was a misdemeanor with no sentence or fines, it was wrong. The officer lied in his report and in court. I came up with an idea. I sued the Officer and the City as his employer for the false arrest, false report, and for giving false testimony in court leading to a wrongful conviction. To avoid the judge, I asked for a jury trial.
A year later, I was back in the same courtroom making my case to a jury. Keep in mind, I was asking this jury to disagree with the decision of their elected judge that my client was guilty. We used the criminal trial transcript as evidence in the civil case. In a wonderful moment of justice, the jury unanimously ruled in our favor, awarded most of the damages we asked for, and they all gave my client a hug.
In my investigation, I had uncovered a lot of terrible things about this officer, although none of it was admissible. I wrote a letter to the City recommending they take some action to remove him from duty. About six months after our trial, this same officer shot an unarmed man and his five-year-old son. He is now serving a life sentence.
There are two sidenotes to the story. First, when I left the courthouse late that night, in my hurry to get home, I just grabbed a banana at a gas station for dinner. I was so excited about turning things around, I left the banana on my truck bumper. By some miracle, the banana was still there after driving three hours. Second, the dog lived.
Aaron Broussard, Managing Partner – Trial Lawyer, Broussard + Williamson
Found Innocent by a Jury of Peers
My most challenging case was probably also the most rewarding case I have had thus far in my career. I had a client who was accused of a crime of which they adamantly maintained their innocence. The case had been pending for close to 10 years prior to the client retaining me. I cannot imagine the stress of having a criminal prosecution hanging over you for that many years. The more we worked the case and got to know the client, the more we also adamantly believed in our client’s innocence. The State was absolutely determined and dogged to convict our client. There were several reasons motivating this, but I will summarize it this way: some cases must be presented to a jury for a fair result and that is exactly what happened. We went all the way to jury trial, and after a week of evidence, witnesses, and arguments the case was submitted to the jury for their consideration. It took them a mere thirty minutes to return unanimous: not guilty. My client embraced me and with tears in their eyes said, “After ten years I finally have my life back!” The achievement of justice makes it all worth it!
James E. Sudduth III,, Esquire, Sudduth and Associates