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Legal Champion: Charlie J. Harris, Jr.

charlie-harris1Charlie J. Harris Jr.

Seyferth Blumenthal & Harris

Charlie Harris has a reputation as a lawyer who thinks outside the box, but his representation of Jackson County in 2018 stands out. How often does a seemingly routine employment-discrimination case lead to the downfall of a county sheriff?

Harris’ firm, Seyferth Blumenthal & Harris, defended the county in a suit brought against the sheriff’s office by an administrative assistant, Christine Lynde, who alleged she’d been subjected to sexual harassment on the job and retaliation after she complained. Harris didn’t get involved in the case until about a year and a half after it was filed, but his presence quickly changed the course of the case.

“I didn’t go into this case thinking that it would end up the way that it did,” Harris said. “But I and the team I assembled did have a healthy skepticism of her allegations. So we just dug and dug.”

They hit pay dirt. Harris’ investigation uncovered that Lynde had been involved in an ongoing romantic, sexual and financial relationship with Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp, who had approved multiple promotions and pay raises for her while she worked at the office. Sharp also had made an $8,000 down payment for a house they shared.

Sharp resigned in April after depositions in which they admitted to the affair became public. Lynde dismissed her case the following month without any payment from the county.

Now, Harris’ formidable litigation skills have landed him another form of public service. In October, he was appointed to take over as general receiver in one of Jackson County’s highest-profile wrongful-death cases.

David Jungerman is charged with first-degree murder in the October 2017 shooting death of Thomas Pickert, a Kansas City plaintiffs’ lawyer who had recently won a $5.75 million verdict for a wounded homeless man whom Jungerman shot while the man was trespassing on Jungerman’s business property. Missouri Lawyers Media named Pickert as a posthumous Legal Champion in 2018.

Jungerman and his businesses separately face a wrongful-death suit filed by Pickert’s family. On top of his legal practice, Harris now is working to identify and protect Jungerman’s assets so that, he said, “when the case is done and all is finished, the assets that are there now will still be there and thriving and making money.”

Harris is quick to note that he takes no position on the validity of either the civil or the criminal case. “I am a creature of the statute,” he said.

It’s an odd job for Harris, who said he has never before served as a receiver. He said he thinks the court chose him because of his litigation skills and knowledge of the court system — as well as the fact that his firm was involved in an accounting-heavy lawsuit against hospital operator HCA about a lack of capital improvements to hospitals in Kansas City’s urban core. That suit eventually settled for $188 million, earning attorneys at Seyferth Blumenthal a Legal Champion award in 2018 as well.

“You work hard to put yourself in a positon where people and courts and judges and the state will trust your judgment,” he said.

Harris previously earned a Missouri Lawyer Award in 2008, following his term as the first African American president of The Missouri Bar. But for all of his hard-edged lawyering skills, Harris’ greatest contribution to the bar might be what he does outside of it.

As profiled earlier this year in Missouri Lawyer’s Weekly, Harris has poured himself into playing the bass guitar. Far beyond a mere hobby, it has led him to play with world-renowned musicians and to record albums with his occasional band, Chilliott. Harris insists that lawyers must find a passion in their lives beyond the work of the law, lest it consume them. As busy as he is, you’ll still find Harris practicing the bass and sketching out new musical ideas early in the morning.

“If you love something,” he said, “it’s not work.”

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