When Jackson Walker leaders confronted its partner, Elizabeth Freeman, in 2021 and 2022 about reports that she was in a romantic relationship with then Chief Bankruptcy Judge David Jones, Freeman assured them that “there was no ongoing intimate relationship with Judge Jones,” according to a court document filed Monday afternoon by lawyers for Jackson Walker.
“Jackson Walker did not know of any ongoing intimate relationship between Ms. Freeman and Judge Jones until 2022 when it learned, quite by accident, that Ms. Freeman’s denial was possibly false or at least no longer true,” the firm states in a five-page filing titled “Preliminary Response Of Jackson Walker To Recent Filings By The Office of the United States Trustee.”
On Nov. 3, U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee Kevin Epstein filed documents stating that at least 26 corporate bankruptcy cases — and possibly as many as 30 — in the Southern District of Texas are tainted and that $13 million in legal fees awarded to Jackson Walker should be revisited or declared invalid because of the undisclosed romantic relationship between Judge Jones and Freeman, who was a partner at Jackson Walker from 2018 to December 2022.
In its filing, Jackson Walker states that the trustee’s filings “make allegations based, in part, on largely unsubstantiated media stories and from preliminary allegations made by the Fifth Circuit in a complaint against Judge Jones filed on October 23, 2023.”
“The Filings are premised upon incorrect and incomplete facts, and necessarily rely upon some degree of speculation about Jackson Walker’s knowledge and conduct,” Jackson Walker claims in its filing submitted Monday.
The controversy initially surfaced in early October when a pro se litigant in a bankruptcy handled by Judge Jones filed a lawsuit claiming the judge had been secretly living with Freeman, who worked for Jackson Walker, which represented the debtor in his case.
A few days later, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit publicly announced that the court was investigating Judge Jones for misconducted. All of Judge Jones’ cases were reassigned to other bankruptcy judges in Houston.
Judge Jones resigned from the bankruptcy bench Oct. 15.
Monday’s filing by Jackson Walker is the law firm’s most comprehensive public response to the controversy. It was filed in the bankruptcy case of J.C. Penney Direct Marketing, which was filed in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“While Jackson Walker has found itself dealing with a very difficult and challenging set of circumstances, the firm takes very seriously its responsibility to operate in accordance with professional ethics and integrity, as the firm has done for more than 130 years,” Norton Rose Fulbright partner Jason Boland, who is representing Jackson Walker, wrote in the filing. “Jackson Walker is not perfect — no firm is. But in the case of the relationship that has come to light between Ms. Freeman and Judge Jones, Jackson Walker believes the Firm acted responsibly.”
Freeman clerked for Judge Jones for six years and joined Jackson Walker in 2018.
“At no time during the interview process did Ms. Freeman mention or indicate that she had in the past — or was currently having — an intimate relationship with Judge Jones,” the firm states in the filing. “Nor did Ms. Freeman state that she was living with him at the time.”
In the filing, Jackson Walker leaders said they learned about a possible relationship between Judge Jones and Freeman from the filing of the pro se litigant in March 2021.
“The firm immediately asked Ms. Freeman to confirm or deny the allegation. She denied the charge of a current romantic relationship but admitted to a past relationship which had ended, the Jackson Walker filing states.
The firm states that it still hired a prominent ethics expert, Peter Jarvis of Holland & Knight, to advise Jackson Walker leaders and “and set up certain safeguards regarding Ms. Freeman’s future involvement in Judge Jones’ cases.”
At the same time, Jackson Walker’s general counsel “prepared a statement of relevant facts and presented a draft to Ms. Freeman who, after reviewing it, stated in writing that she had no issues with its accuracy.”
“The factual summary that was confirmed by Ms. Freeman stated, among other things as described below, that there was no ongoing intimate relationship with Judge Jones,” the firm stated in Monday’s filing.
The allegations resurfaced in 2022.
“Ms. Freeman acknowledged that there had been a romantic relationship between her and Judge Jones, but that such relationship was well in the past, was not ongoing, and was not likely to rekindle,” the filing states. “In light of this information, Jackson Walker instructed Ms. Freeman that she could not and should not work on any matters that were assigned to Judge Jones, and Jackson Walker advised that it would deduct from Ms. Freeman’s compensation as an equity partner any profits associated with work that was performed by Jackson Walker in cases pending before Judge Jones.”
“When confronted again, she initially denied the relationship but later on admitted to a current romantic relationship,” the filing states. “Jackson Walker then commenced discussions with Ms. Freeman and her counsel that ultimately resulted in her separation from the firm.”
“To this date, Jackson Walker still does not know the state or history of the relationship between Judge Jones and Ms. Freeman over time since Judge Jones gave another version of their relationship to The Wall Street Journal when he purportedly admitted that he and Ms. Freeman have been living together for years,” the firm states in its filing.
Efforts to obtain a comment from Freeman have been unsuccessful.
Norton Rose Fulbright partner William Greendyke is also representing Jackson Walker.