San Antonio lawyer faces multiple lawsuits for allegedly stealing millions from clients

A San Antonio lawyer is facing mounting accusations that he has stolen millions of dollars from clients.

At least 10 lawsuits have been filed against attorney Christopher “Chris” Pettit in state district court in San Antonio and elsewhere over the past nine months. The most recent was Wednesday.

John Muller, a San Antonio attorney representing a woman who says in a court filing that Pettit “absconded” with about $2.8 million that belongs to her, estimated the amount of client money involved tops $40 million. He based that on conversations he’s had with other lawyers.

“Chris has embarrassed himself, and really our entire legal profession,” Muller said. “There are a number of very capable attorneys, including myself, who are dedicated to ensuring that all of the victims receive restitution.”

Neither Pettit nor his lawyers immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday. Pettit has given general denials to the allegations in responses to some of the lawsuits.

Fort Worth lawyer Craig Crockett has sued Pettit and his firm on behalf of a client who alleged they stole more than $950,000 — the client’s entire inheritance.

“There’s a surefire way to get your ticket punched as a lawyer, and that’s stealing client money,” Crockett said. “You’re done” practicing law.

“This guy did not just borrow a little money from a client and failed to pay it back,” Crockett added. “This is a Ponzi scheme.” Pettit has used one client’s money to pay another client back on at least two occasions, Crockett said.

San Antonio lawyer Sean B. McNelis, who represents a New Braunfels homebuilder suing Pettit and his firm, said he’s been contacted by the FBI as part of an investigation into Pettit. No criminal cases are pending against Pettit.

Pettit graduated from St. Mary’s University School of Law in 1988. He has been in private practice specializing in estate-planning and personal-injury law, according to his firm’s website.

Allegations

The State Bar of Texas publicly reprimanded him in 2012 after finding he “failed to ensure that his non-lawyer associate’s conduct was compatible with the professional obligations of a lawyer.” It fined him $850.

The state bar doesn’t comment on whether there may be pending complaints against a lawyer. But McNelis said he’s shared “a number of records” with the state bar’s disciplinary section.

“I was told by the state bar that this is one of the largest instances of attorney malfeasance and theft that they’ve ever encountered,” McNelis said.

Some of the civil lawsuits alleged he used client money for his “personal benefit” and commingled client trust fund money with other funds. None includes specifics of how Pettit allegedly spent his clients’ money. But Muller said he knows Pettit owns a mansion in Orlando, Fla., that’s on the market for about $8.5 million, as well as an Alamo Heights mansion on Argyle Avenue.

Pettit has been accused of avoiding clients with “excuses.” Emails attached to one lawsuit mentioned Pettit had medical issues, with the client repeatedly told he’d be back in the office the following week.

Thus far, a few of Pettit’s clients have been able to reach in-court settlement agreements.

Settlements reached

Crockett said he just obtained a $1.5 million agreed judgment for his client, though it had not been entered with a court in Tarrant County.

Court records show Dr. Salvador Ortiz entered into an agreed judgment with Pettit and his firm on March 18. State District Judge Laura Salinas in San Antonio ordered Ortiz can recover almost $2.9 million in actual damages and nearly $8.7 million in punitive damages.

Ortiz had retained Pettit for estate planning, including creating a will and forming two trusts. The doctor alleged Pettit misappropriated about $10.9 million but paid back $8 million before the payments stopped, prompting the doctor to sue.

Last month, state District Judge David A. Canales in San Antonio signed off on an agreed judgment that James and Gennifer Horan reached with Pettit and his firm. The couple alleged they deposited more than $900,000 in an escrow account with the firm. The money was earmarked for construction of a home in Comal County.

Earlier this year, the Horans approved a withdrawal from the account to JLP Builders Inc., the New Braunfels homebuilder. But they say Pettit’s firm never paid the money, so they sued for fraud and “felony theft.”

The Horans’ agreed judgment is for $908,148 in actual damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.

JLP Builders filed its own lawsuit in March, alleging it deposited several customers’ construction funds with Pettit for “safekeeping.” Pettit has refused to release the funds, causing project delays, it said.

Pettit also was supposed to be holding the settlement funds — just under $1 million — from a client’s divorce, said Michael Gayler, who is now representing the woman.

“We don’t seem to be able to get those funds,” Gayler said, adding he doesn’t know what may have happened to the money. “On behalf of my client, I am deeply concerned. We clearly are having trouble getting a resolution, but I’m trying to work with Mr. Pettit’s attorneys.”

Crockett expects his client’s $1.5 million judgment will be worth “cents on the dollar” when Pettit and/or his firm enter bankruptcy, which he said is “imminent.”

“My client will never be made whole,” Crockett said.

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