Your rights when your attorney isn't helping after you paid them

HOUSTON – When you hire an attorney, it usually means you need someone in your corner to help right a wrong. But now some Houstonians say the attorney they hired to help them is causing them more problems.

They're asking KPRC2 consumer expert Amy Davis what they can do to get their money back and get the help they need.

Most attorneys require a retainer, a payment before they will start any work on your behalf, but the consumers we spoke with say almost as soon as they paid the retainer, their attorney disappeared for months. 

"After he cashed the initial check, that's when all communication stopped," said Jana Sutton.

Sutton and her husband say they called attorney John Mastriani repeatedly after they say they paid him a thousand dollars to help with a case. 

"It kept saying that he was not accepting incoming calls," Sutton said. "The office phone would just ring, no answering service, no nothing. Emails were left unanswered. Everything just dropped." 

It wasn't just Sutton getting blocked. The Houston Better Business Bureau received 7 more complaints since July 2018 from customers who say they paid money and they couldn't reach the attorney about their cases. 

"One of the complaints stated that they paid him $10,000 and now they're being left just high and dry," explained Denisha Maxey of the Houston BBB. "No one's followed up with the court and now they're having to hire someone else to take the case."

Channel 2 interviewed Mastriani in 2017 about a lawsuit he planned to file against the Harris County Toll Road Authority. The suit never went anywhere, and Mastriani declined our request for an on-camera interview about his clients' complaints.

During our interview with Sutton, we asked her to try calling Mastriani one more time. To her surprise, he picked up. 

"All communication has stopped, and we paid you," she told Mastriani via speakerphone. 
Mastriani told Sutton what he later told Davis by phone. He said his office computers and phone systems were hacked, his laptop was stolen twice in the span of a couple of months. He says he had no way to contact clients. In the same time period, he moved his office. 

"Obviously, there is someone still collecting payment for cases cause he's had complaints as recent as February," Maxey said. 

If this happens to you, file a complaint with the Texas Bar Association

Its Client Attorney Assistance Program (CAAP) can help reach out to attorneys to try and get communications back on track.

If the Bar substantiates your complaint and determines that the attorney does owe you money, you may be reimbursed from the Client Security Fund

"But it's his responsibility to make sure he's not accepting these payments if he can't actually provide the services," Maxey said. 

Mastriani told Davis he is providing the services. When we gave him the names of 9 clients who claim they are owed money, Mastriani called many of them to try and resolve the issues. The BBB sent the same list of complaints by certified mail in February with no response. Mastriani texted Davis the following statement: 

"I have not disappeared. I have never shot (sic) my office. I have had someone in my office between 8:30 and 5:30 approximately give or take but the majority of the time for the past 30 years I have an address I have a firm and unfortunately I had a bad sound system so the word disappearance does not need the definition or you're not including me as somebody that disappeared I haven't read or seen the rest of the story."