Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Family of Robert Johnson Turns on Kitchens' Law Firm

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 2020 - THE (MEMPHIS, TN) COMMERCIAL APPEAL
Johnson's heir fights lawyers' perpetual pay


For more on this dubious legal case, click HERE - "How Claud Johnson won the Royalties of Robert Johnson's Estate"

For more on the problematic stories of blues tourism in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, read THIS ARTICLE.

Legend has it he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent as a blues musician, but few would hear his music. He mysteriously died at age 27 and didn't become famous during his lifetime. Even though he only recorded 29 songs, the royalties from his music are in the millions and the law firm which proved who was the rightful heir is still being paid for its services 20 years later. 

"That litigation went on from 1991 to 1999, actually, when the appeal came through,” said Michael Johnson of Crystal Springs. "It was settled in the Chancery Court in Greenwood, Miss. So, it actually was a 10-year battle from the beginning to the end." 


The battle was determining if Michael's father, Claud Johnson, was the biological child of blues legend Robert Johnson and rightful heir. Claud had al­ways known he was the son of the blues musician who died in 1938, but had no idea his recordings were generating a small fortune until someone came knocking at his door. 

"The guy contacted my father and said, 'You know, the music has come back into popularity,' and they wanted to know the legitimacy of the birth cer­tificate found down at the courthouse," Michael said. "He told him ·his father's money was generating royalties and he might want to look into it." 

According to Michael Johnson, the royalties were being paid to a relative of Robert's, but should have been paid to Claud as he was the only known de­scendant. So, Claud hired a law firm in Crystal Springs, Kitchens & Eliis, to prove in court he was Robert Johnson's son and rightful heir. The agreement was this: if the firm won Claud's case, it would receive 40 percent of any money received from Robert's music both ini­tially and in the future. 

Today, Michael Johnson has gone to the Mississippi Supreme Court to ap­peal the royalty agreement his father struck with attorneys - a deal that paid the attorneys a percentage of Robert Johnson's royalties for years. 

'My Daddy had an 8th-grade education.' 

Michael Johnson has been the ad­ministrator of the funds since Claud's death in 2015. He is now frustrated be­cause although the family's share is more than $3 million, he feels 20 years of payments totaling more than $2 mil­lion to the firm, which is now the Kitch­ens Law Firm, is enough. 

"To this day they're still receiving 40 percent of the royalties," Michael said. "That is not right. 

"That contract shouldn't last forever. It's time for that to end." 

Michael also said he feels his father didn't understand · the contract with Kitchens and Ellis. 

"My Daddy had an 8th-grade education," Michael Johnson said. "He didn't know what he was signing. He was a gravel truck driver." 

However, the. court system has so far disagreed with Michael and other mem­bers of his family. The Chancery Court in Copiah County ruled against argu­ments stating the contract sh9uld be nullified. In 2017, the Court of Appeals upheld that decision. 

The case has now been filed with the Mississippi Supreme Court, but Michael has reservations about that. Jim Kitch­ens, who was Claud's attor:qey and had received contingency fees from the roy­alties, is a Justice in the court. Even with his recusal, Michael feels his associa­tion with the court could impact the decision. 

"I want to get a fair shake in the court system about this case," Michael said. 

"The outcome is going to affect our family tremendously. 

"We think that you have a supreme court justice that could have an adverse effect to the decision. I think they're going to be biased. They build a friendship because they are working colleagues every day:' 

The Clarion Ledger contacted Kitchens Law Firm and was told it would not discuss pending litigation. However, Mississippi College Law School professor Matt Steffey talked about the case and contingency fees. 

Steffey disclosed that he taught Kitchens' sons in law school and his wife works as a law clerk in Kitchens' chambers, but he said that does not change the facts of legal cases involving contingency fees. 

Access to justice for the ordinary person 

"This is not unprecedented and not particularly uncommon," Steffey said. "Having fee arrangements is not uncommon." 

Some frown on attorneys charging 40 percent of what clients receive, but Steffey said there is risk involved. 

''Lawyers can invest 10 years of effort and at the end of the day get nothing," Steffey said. 

Steffey said such agreements are needed, even if they are long and pro­tracted. 

“Contingency agreements are the engines that drive access to justice for or­dinary people," Steffey said. "Without contingency agreements, access to justice would be hard to obtain. Most ordinary people can't pay lawyers, much less for years of their work." 

Michael knows that without the contingency arrangement, the family may have never received the royalties, but said it has gone on too long. 

"It's been over 20 years," Michael satd. "They have received well over $2 million in payment. 

"They have been well compensated. I don't think the contract should continue forever."

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