A Chicago aviation lawyer who made international news when she filed the first court action shortly after a Malaysia Airlines jet vanished earlier this year now faces sanctions from Illinois’ attorney disciplinary agency for filing the allegedly frivolous case.
Monica Kelly held a heavily publicized news conference in Kuala Lumpur in March to announce she’d filed a petition alleging that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had experienced a catastrophic mechanical failure before plunging into the southern Indian Ocean, killing all 239 passengers and crew on board.
A complaint made public Tuesday by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission alleged that the claims “had no basis in fact and were frivolous” because Kelly had no evidence of a mechanical malfunction on the still-missing Boeing 777.
The complaint also alleged the court filing -- a request to conduct discovery -- was frivolous because Kelly already knew that Chicago-based Boeing and Malaysia Airlines were the parties responsible for the flight.
A Cook County judge dismissed Kelly’s petition three days after it was filed. Judge Kathy Flanagan, who oversees airline-related suits, also threatened to impose sanctions on Kelly’s firm if it continued to file such petitions, which are typically the precursors to a lawsuit. Kelly has appealed the judge’s ruling.
An attorney at Ribbeck Law, where Kelly is a partner, said the Loyola University Chicago law school graduate was out of the country Tuesday and could not comment on the ARDC complaint.
The hard-charging attorney has garnered wide media attention in recent months. In an interview earlier this year with the Tribune, she described herself as “a piranha ... who eats sharks for breakfast” when it comes to competing with other lawyers for clients.
While she goes by Kelly at her law firm and in legal filings, the ARDC complaint was filed against Monica Ribbeck, the name Kelly is registered to practice law under in Illinois.
Her attorney, George Collins, said he believes Kelly had a good-faith basis to file the petition in March and said it was “very rare” for the ARDC to file a complaint on such an issue.
“If you’re going to file a lawsuit on the theory that this airplane could not have wandered off course, that there was a defect in the airplane ... you have to know who made all the instruments in the airplane if you’re going to have an engineer try to figure what went wrong,” he said.
It’s not the first time Kelly has faced scrutiny from the ARDC. A hearing board earlier this year recommended that she be censured for continuing to try to represent a survivor of a 2009 Turkish Airlines crash in the Netherlands that killed nine and injured dozens even after the onetime client sent a letter terminating their relationship. Kelly has appealed that ruling.
Last year, after three died and dozens were injured in an Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, the National Transportation Safety Board reportedly recommended that Illinois regulators investigate Kelly's firm over allegations that its attorneys violated a U.S. law that prohibits uninvited solicitations of air crash victims in the first 45 days after a crash.
Kelly told the Tribune earlier this year that state regulators were looking into the allegation but she denied she did anything wrong. She said her firm had been invited to talk to victims and that it would have been impossible to solicit them because they were in a heavily secured hotel.
She said in the Tribune interview that she has filed about 40 airline crash lawsuits representing people from 70 countries.
If the ARDC complaint is sustained by a panel of attorneys after hearing evidence, Kelly could face a range of punishment from censure or suspension to losing her license.
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