For three decades, Timothy Moynahan and Martin Minnella practiced law together in Waterbury, forming a formidable practice known for its work in criminal defense as well as other practice areas. Now they’re adversaries in a civil suit linked to the breakup of Moynahan & Minnella two years ago.

Moynahan says his former colleague took with him more than 130 client files and has failed to pay fees generated by those clients.

Minnella says he’s shocked by the lawsuit, which makes breach of contract and unfair trade practice claims. He describes Moynahan as a mentor, someone who was “like a brother to him.”

“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be a lawyer,” Minnella said. “I characterize it as mind-boggling,” he said of the suit filed in Waterbury Superior Court. “I don’t understand it; it’s absolutely out of character.”

Minnella said he is hoping that the two can resolve the case without a trial.

Moynahan, who also handles commercial, employment and personal injury law cases, declined to comment.

Moynahan, who has practiced in Waterbury since 1964, is well-known not only for his courtroom work, but for his involvement in groups ranging from the Chamber of Commerce to the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association to Post University. He’s also a founding member of the international Global Virus Network, which works to identify, investigate and control viral diseases worldwide.

Minnella worked with Moynahan for about 30 years until 2012. At that point, Minnella left to launch a Middlebury firm with Joseph Tramuta and Mark Edwards, both of whom had previously worked at Moynahan & Minnella. Tramuta and Edwards are also named in the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, the three defendants had agreed to share “fairly and equitably any and all fees generated from the cases the defendants took from the Moynahan firm.” The former colleagues, Moynahan’s lawsuit claims, “now refuse to abide by their agreement.”

“Although the defendants claim to have provided an accounting at some unspecified date with respect to any or all of the more than 130 files taken by the defendants from the Moynahan firm and promised, in January 2014, to provide an ‘updated’ accounting, in fact they have … refused to do so,” the lawsuit claims. “Nor have the defendants provided proof that the funds in dispute are being held separately as required, pending the resolution of any dispute.”

Moynahan also states that, despite the name of the former firm, Minnella was never a formal partner. But it was not clear from the lawsuit how that matter affected Moynahan’s claim.

Steven Seligman, of Katz & Seligman in Hartford, represents attorneys and judges in legal disputes.

He said it’s not unheard of for a firm to file breach of contract or unfair trade practice claims when a lawyer or lawyers leave a firm and take clients with them. He referred to a “rather celebrated” dispute that began in 2003 when Michael Stratton and Joel Faxon broke away from Bridgeport’s Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder to start their own personal injury practice in New Haven.

The lawyers eventually resolved their differences. “Most of the time, they try to work it out” without filing a lawsuit, Seligman said.

Seligman was not familiar with the lawsuit filed by Moynahan or its specific facts or legal claims, although he was familiar with the reputation both lawyers have as “pretty strong personalities.”

Speaking in general terms, he said, all lawyers know that the Rules of Professional Conduct require them to provide clients with the “unfettered right to have the lawyer of his or her own choice.” In other words, when law firms break up, it’s up to the client to choose to go with the lawyer that left or the lawyer who stayed.

However, employment and contract law can come into play too.

“Once upon a time, it was common to bring a young person into a firm, have them sign an employment contract by which your person says, ‘If I leave, I promise to represent no client of yours from the date of departure for a five-year period,’” Seligman said.

But because such contracts would deny clients the right to choose their lawyer, those types of clauses were deemed in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct, Seligman said.

It is unclear whether the agreement between Moynahan and his former colleagues was in writing or not. But Seligman said a breach of contract claim can be made, and proved, even if there is no written contract.

As far as unfair trade practice claims made in the wake of law firm splits, one partner “typically accuses the other of making a disparaging statement,” Seligman said. While clients can choose whichever lawyer they want, Seligman said, attorneys “can’t induce clients to choose you by making disparging comments about the other guy.

“Lawyers are human,” Seligman concluded, “and therefore, they are unlimited in ways they can be abusive to one another, and useful to one another for that matter.”

Publicly, at least, Minnella is making no disparaging comments about Moynahan.

In fact, Minnella describes how when he was 19 and Moynahan was 30, they met through family members. “He was best man at my wedding. He is my kid’s godfather. He’s been my mentor since I was 19,” Minnella said.

“Everything I know I learned from him,” Minnella said. “I would do anything for him, even today.”

Minnella said that when he left the firm in 2012, he believe he and Moynahan to be on good terms. “I don’t think there’s merit to the suit. Hopefully, it will get resolved,” Minnella said.•