Jeremy Pitcock, the former head of intellectual property at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman who was fired in December for inappropriate conduct, filed a defamation lawsuit against the firm Thursday seeking more than $90 million for what he calls the "malicious and unwarranted smear campaign" that followed his dismissal.
Pitcock, 35, joined Kasowitz in March 2006 after being wooed from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, where he was a senior associate. Kasowitz named him head of IP not long after. Less than two years into that stint, Pitcock left the 200-plus-lawyer firm for New York IP boutique Morgan & Finnegan.
After Pitcock was described as a "nab" by an article in trade publication IP Law 360, Kasowitz Benson issued a press release in mid-January, first reported by The American Lawyer, saying Pitcock was terminated for unspecified "extremely inappropriate personal conduct." According to Pitcock's complaint, that conduct was a "brief, consensual kiss" with an associate following drinking.
Pitcock lost his job at Morgan & Finnegan a few weeks later. At Kasowitz, Pitcock says he had a "substantial" book of business and earned more than $1.2 million annually. Now, with his reputation damaged, Pitcock is claiming he "simply cannot find another suitable legal job." His lawyer, John Balestriere of Balestriere Lanza in New York, says Pitcock interviewed with several firms, some of which had in the past offered him more than $1 million. But following the Kasowitz press release, Pitcock couldn't get hired.
"Although I have at all times tried to resolve this matter with Kasowitz in a manner that is appropriate among former partners, the firm's refusal even to clarify their statements has left me with no choice but to redress these wrongs through the courts," Pitcock said in a statement.
The complaint, filed in Manhattan federal district court, names Kasowitz Benson, partner Eric Wallach, and public relations firm Sitrick and Company, which issued the January press release.
Reached for comment, managing partner Marc Kasowitz says he only just heard about the complaint. "I haven't seen it yet, so it would be hard for me to comment on it," he says. Wallach and Sitrick and Company likewise declined immediate comment until they could read the complaint.
Pitcock is seeking compensatory damages of $540,000 for breach of contract and $30 million for injury to reputation. He also is seeking $28.5 million in special damages for lost income resulting from the tortious interference with his Morgan & Finnegan contract, as well as $60 million in punitive damages.
Law firms rarely respond negatively about lateral moves, and almost never in a firm-issued press release. In 2002 Pillsbury Winthrop drafted and distributed a press release which claimed that a former partner who left for Latham & Watkins, Frode Jensen III, departed "on the heels of sexual harassment allegations" after "a significant decline in his productivity." Jensen called the allegations false, sued the firm, and settled for a reported $5 million to $10 million.
A RAPID RISE
Pitcock's complaint reads like the IP version of a John Grisham novel. After earning his law degree at the University of Pennsylvania, Pitcock joined the IP practice of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. As an associate, he excelled, according to the complaint. "I was getting calls from recruiters all the time," Pitcock told The American Lawyer at the time.
According to the complaint, Kasowitz Benson, enticed by the promise of a new lucrative practice, set out to quickly start and build an IP practice. In February 2006, Kasowitz partner Salem Katsh, a recent IP lateral from Shearman & Sterling, approached Pitcock about joining the firm. The firm offered him partnership and a guaranteed starting salary of $1.2 million plus bonus. He joined as an equity partner in March 2006.
Not all of the partners were happy with the hire, the complaint suggests. Pitcock's ex-wife had previously worked as an associate under Eric Wallach, the head of the employment practice. Pitcock knew of unspecified allegations of misconduct by Wallach, the complaint says, who always wanted the firm to get rid of Pitcock so that he wouldn't air those allegations.
When he left Simpson for Kasowitz, Pitcock brought with him a patent case involving JDS Uniphase Corp., which retained Kasowitz for other litigation. By April 2007, the complaint says, Pitcock had developed a substantial book of business that included clients JDSU, Harmonic Inc. and Adelphia Communications Corp., among others. He also generated large contingency fee matters.
On the management side, Pitcock worked to build up the new practice. The lawsuit says he specifically hired one partner and one special counsel, and recruited several associates.
"By then, [Kasowitz Benson] believed that Katsh had already served his purpose because Katsh had recruited Pitcock and another senior partner, Lawrence Goodwin," Pitcock says in his complaint. The firm subsequently pushed out Katsh, the complaint says. Katsh, reached at his firm Katsh & Shapiro, declined to comment.
Goodwin -- another recent lateral who'd joined in January 2006 from Chadbourne & Parke -- was embarrassed he was passed over as head of the practice by a much younger partner, the complaint says. The promotion over Goodwin, who was older, caused "enormous conflict within the IP group," according to Pitcock. (Goodwin did not return a call for comment.)
On a personal front, all seemed well in Pitcock's life. He remarried, and by mid-2007 he and his wife had one son and were expecting a second.
A QUICK FALL
After work one night in September 2007, Pitcock and other firm staff went to a nearby bar. Afterward, Pitcock says he and an associate in another group went back to her apartment and shared a "brief, consensual kiss." Both realized it was a mistake, Pitcock says, and from then on, Pitcock saw her only twice at firm events and sent her only a couple e-mails.
One e-mail was on Dec. 5, a few days before the firm holiday party. As The American Lawyer reported in January, Wallach said the firm received a report of inappropriate conduct and began an investigation. "The firm's action was consistent with its zero-tolerance policy for such misconduct," Wallach was quoted saying at the time.
According to Pitcock's complaint, he met with two senior partners -- Wallach and Aaron Marks -- the same day as the e-mail to discuss the alleged misconduct. Pitcock told them about the kiss. After the 30-minute meeting ended, Wallach, who Pitcock says was "aggressive" during the meeting, reminded him he was still a partner and should act accordingly.
The next day, Pitcock apologized to senior partner Marc Kasowitz in an e-mail. Kasowitz replied that he should come see him the next day, Dec. 7. Kasowitz, who Pitcock says in the past complimented his work, fired him that day. (Under the firm's partnership agreement, Pitcock says, Kasowitz has the ability to fire partners for no cause. Kasowitz had even discussed firing Goodwin, according to Pitcock.)
Pitcock spent the next week negotiating a severance agreement. The last draft he received said he had "resigned for personal reasons," but Kasowitz Benson never finalized the agreement. Pitcock says the firm never intended to negotiate it in good faith. In the meanwhile, Pitcock went job hunting, receiving multiple offers before choosing Morgan & Finnegan, which offered more than $950,000 to equity partners. He informed Kasowitz's Marks of the move on Jan. 2.
Morgan & Finnegan, as most firms do, issued a press release about the lateral, which IP Law 360 reported on. Kasowitz Benson issued its rebuttal January 18 through the PR firm Sitrick and Company, saying Pitcock was fired for "extremely inappropriate personal conduct."
Pitcock was at a hospital where his wife had just given birth to his second son. Called for comment by a reporter at The American Lawyer, Pitcock the following Monday declined to discuss the specifics other than to say it didn't have to do with his practice.
While the press release did not specify what Pitcock had allegedly done, the vagueness "unleashed a torrent of rumors on blogs and in the legal media," the complaint says. Via a secret partnership meeting at Morgan & Finnegan, partners voted Pitcock out. He has since lost his clients and been unable to find a job. (A spokesperson for Morgan & Finnegan declined comment.)
Pitcock believes that behind the firing and press release were ulterior motives. Because of disagreements between Pitcock and Goodwin, many at the firm believed by late 2007 that Pitcock would jump ship for a large law firm after he got his end of the year bonus, the complaint says. (Pitcock's lawyer says this was not the case.) By firing him and then taking the incident public, the firm would be able to keep his clients by preventing Pitcock from taking his multi-million dollar book of business to another firm. Pitcock also says his former firm privately spoke to clients about him following his move to Morgan & Finnegan.
"[Kasowitz] achieved what they sought to," Balestriere says. "He has not been able to get a job."
Kasowitz in 2007 had gross revenue of $191.5 million and profits per partner of nearly $1.95 million, which ranked 131st and 21st, respectively.