From time to time I have the opportunity to report on interesting issues that arise as I review reports for my ethics and fraud prevention blog. Michael Ray is a unique individual who has quite the story to tell. Below is a report issued in South Carolina Lawyers Weekly that I have reprinted with permission from Michael Ray.
A former prison law clerk who was once investigated for practicing law without a license and who calls himself “America’s Most Famous Jailhouse Lawyer” is basking in the limelight of a $23,000 verdict.
Ray, a former federal inmate who provided legal assistance to other prisoners for 29 cents an hour, made national headlines in 2008 when he got the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments in one of his cases. The court ruled against his client, Ray said.
Today, Ray works at a retail store, handles what he calls “freelance work” for lawyers and enjoys his notoriety as a former jailhouse lawyer.
Submitting information about the verdict to Lawyers Weekly, he included the title “America’s Most Famous Jailhouse Lawyer” along with his name and contact info.
He said he received the moniker from The Associated Press, which covered the Supreme Court case and a subsequent state investigation into whether Ray was practicing law without a license.
“The case took on a life of its own, and the AP ran with it,” Ray said. “It was run internationally, and I still get letters today from people all over the place trying to get me to help on their cases.” In the July 28 Horry County verdict, Ray won $8,000 in punitives and $15,000 in actual damages. Both he and the defendant were pro se, raising some unusual procedural issues for Judge Hyman, Ray said.
“It’s a difficult thing for a judge to have one pro se party, let alone two pro se parties. Testimony becomes a problem. Evidence becomes a problem. So he relaxed all the rules with our agreement, and we proceeded,” Ray said.
The case revolved around Ray’s claims that the defendant violated an agreement to store and care for Ray’s belongings while Ray was serving a six-year prison sentence in connection with a real estate scheme in Myrtle Beach. Ray, who completed the sentence in April 2008, was still in prison when he sued on a variety of claims, including breach of contract and conversion.
The defendant denied the claims in his answer.
Ray said the trial judge didn’t know about his activities as a jailhouse lawyer or a state investigation into whether Ray was practicing law without a license in the U.S. Supreme Court appeal. The state later dropped the probe, he said.
“Judge Hyman was not aware of any of that going into the trial,” Ray said. “He just thought he had two pro se litigants that were going to try a case. He did commend me after the trial on my conduct.”
Brief statement of claim: Breach of contract, conversion
Principal injuries (in order of severity): $15,000. Loss of property, loss of money/valuables
Special damages: $8,000 punitives
Tried or settled: Tried
County and court where tried or settled: Horry County Court of Common Pleas
Case name and number: Ray v. Park, case No. 2007-CP-26-00922
Date concluded: July 28, 2010
Name of judge: Hon. Larry B. Hyman
Insurance carrier: None
Attorney for plaintiff: Michael R. Ray, pro se (Myrtle Beach)
Other useful info: This case was tried in the circuit court without counsel on either side, which the trial judge described as a “very rare occurrence,” according to the plaintiff. After a two-day jury trial, the verdict finding in favor of the plaintiff on all grounds was rendered in about an hour.
Summer intern law students from both the University of South Carolina and the Charleston School of Law attended the trial and watched as the plaintiff presented his case and examined and cross-examined the witnesses. After the trial, one of the students said he had automatically assumed that the plaintiff was a licensed attorney simply prosecuting the case himself, according to the plaintiff’s report.
The plaintiff claimed that the defendant was entrusted with the plaintiff’s property and that the defendant agreed to sell some of the property to protect the remainder. The plaintiff claimed that, after he verbally and formally demanded the return of the property, the defendant either destroyed or sold the remainder.
The jury found that there was not only a verbal contract, but that its terms were clear, there was an offer, an acceptance and, foremost, a definite agreement by the parties. They further found that the defendant acted maliciously and with fraudulent intent, and they awarded punitive damages.
Judge Hyman thanked the plaintiff for his professionalism and conduct during the trial, even though it was difficult for the judge to preside over non-attorneys, the plaintiff said. The judge relaxed some of the procedural requirements, etc., according to the plaintiff.
Submitted by: Michael R. Ray
Editor’s note: The information in Lawyers Weekly’s verdicts and settlements reports was submitted by the counsel for the prevailing party and represents the attorney’s characterization of the case.