Members of Siegel O’Connor’s litigation team. ()
Siegel, O’Connor, O’Donnell & Beck likes to do more than win cases. The firm, with Hartford and New London offices, wants to have an impact on the law. Its leaders say they’re able to do that by keeping their focus on one practice area.
Nearly 90 percent of Siegel O’Connor’s cases involve employment law, ranging from wage and salary law disputes to employee disciplinary actions to employment discrimination allegations. In 2013, the firm and its 16 litigators had enough high-impact success stories to be named the Connecticut Law Tribune’s Litigation Departments of the Year Award winner for labor and employment law.
Glenn Duhl, head of the firm’s litigation department, said his attorneys can get results faster than “someone who picks up an employment case for the first time or does it sporadically.
“If you ask me, ‘This is the fact pattern I have with my employee,’ I can immediately give good advice as far as what you might experience and how you might avoid further problems,” Duhl said.
But sometimes those problems can’t be avoided, and litigation ensues. One highlight for the firm last year, included in its application for the Law Tribune award, was winning a case that it considers to be “of paramount importance because of its precedential affect on unionized workforces and arbitration procedures as a whole.”
Siegel O’Connor attorneys George Kelly Jr. and Jillian Orticelli represented the Connecticut Judicial Branch against claims made by AFSCME, AFL-CIO, Judicial Employees Local 749. Herbert Bagwell worked as a juvenile detention staff supervisor until he was fired in September 2009. His union filed a formal complaint. Bagwell showed up for the first hearing, but left before the proceedings concluded. He didn’t show up for a rescheduled date. The arbitrator went ahead with the hearing and dismissed the grievance, finding that Bagwell had both abandoned his grievance and been terminated for just cause under the collective bargaining agreement.
In June 2011, a trial court granted the union’s motion to vacate the arbitrator’s decision. But on appeal, the Connecticut Appellate Court ruled that the arbitrator did nothing improper in reaching his decision. The appeals court noted that the arbitrator had found there was just cause for the Judicial Branch to terminate the worker, that the findings of just cause were unchallenged, and thus the arbitrator’s decision “legally can stand on that basis.”
In another Siegel O’Connor case involving wrongful termination claims, an employer fired a janitor who allegedly behaved aggressively toward a black employee of a security service while both worked at an educational complex called the Learning Corridor. The janitor asked for a cigarette, and when the security worker refused, the janitor reportedly hurled racial slurs. Later, the incident led to a nose-to-nose verbal confrontation that was witnessed by another worker.
The janitor claimed he later apologized, shook hands with the security employee and said that he thought using the racial slur as a slang term was OK because he heard the security employee and the third worker using it in other conversations. The janitor complained that the two other workers lied about what happened and that their complaints led to his termination.
Duhl and another Siegel O’Connor attorney, Angelica Wilson, represented the employer, Premier Management Inc. The arbitrator ruled in Premier’s favor after finding the security coworkers were more credible witnesses, stating: “Although [the janitor] presents himself as the victim of a conspiracy, he offers no reason to accept his version other than his assertion that he only did some of that of which he is accused and that he immediately apologized.”
The law firm calls the decision an important one, as it “affirmed the employer’s right to manage its workforce, and to enforce its zero-tolerance policy for workplace discrimination, harassment and violence despite the confines of a collective bargaining agreement.”
In another case, Duhl, Michael Spagnola and Orticelli won a defense verdict last August in the case of a salesman seeking $18 million after he claimed he was denied commission payments. Siegel O’Connor represented the salesman’s employer, IPT LLC, doing business as FM Facility Maintenance, as well as individual defendants.
At the summary judgment stage, Superior Court Judge William Bright noted that there was ambiguity in the employment agreement on what salesman had to do to earn commissions. The judge also ruled a reasonable fact finder could find bad faith by concluding the defendants changed their commission plan solely to deprive the plaintiff of a commission. Still, the Siegel O’Connor trio persuaded the jury that its client had not breached a contract or operated in bad faith.
The case also was an example of the firm’s use of technology. Siegel O’Connor created an internal discovery index and database to put production records at the fingertips of its legal team during trial and summary judgment hearings. An outside company was hired to set up the Hartford courtroom so deposition transcripts and trial exhibits could be called up at will and displayed to the jury on computer screens.
It’s just the latest development for a law firm that’s been around for half a century and, despite its boutique size, frequently receives referrals from other firms to handle labor and employment matters. Duhl said in addition to having an impact on the law, the firm’s goal is to save clients money, both by preventing litigation losses and keeping legal costs down.
“We’ve prided ourselves in trying to keep our rates affordable for our clients,” he said. “I’m [litigating] against firms that are sometimes charging two to three times more than what my rates are. We try to stay in a building with overhead that is more cost-effective. At the end of the day, if I can keep my costs down, I don’t have to pass on the markup to our clients.”•