In a new lawsuit claiming $30 million in damages, a prominent personal injury firm, Ginarte Gallardo Gonzalez & Winograd, is alleging two competitor law firms enticed clients to switch attorneys by offering them Uber rides from a doctor’s office and then money from a briefcase full of cash in a partner’s office.
New York courts have seen several scandalous spats among personal injury law firms. However, the lawsuit filed Monday in Manhattan Supreme Court includes especially remarkable claims, such as competitor attorneys using “case runners” to meet clients at a pain management specialist’s office, then luring them to their firm and finally paying them off in cash if they agreed to substitute counsel.
“Although blatant ambulance-chasing of this kind strikes at the heart of the legal profession as a whole, defendants’ unlawful, coordinated and elaborate scheme … has inflicted serious financial harm upon Ginarte,” the firm’s complaint said. Ginarte alleges the defendants’ conduct caused it to lose ”several of its clients.”
The Ginarte firm is suing William Schwitzer, his New York law firm, William Schwitzer & Associates, and other attorneys at the Schwitzer firm, including Barry Semel-Weinstein, Beth Diamond and Giovanni Merlino. The complaint also names as a defendant Rene Garcia, a solo attorney who allegedly maintains an office at Schwitzer’s firm.
A spokesman for William Schwitzer & Associates and its lawyers named in the suit blasted the lawsuit as baseless and without merit, saying Ginarte’s allegations were “motivated by professional jealousy of our firm’s success.” The spokesman also said the Schwitzer firm does not employ the two people who are named in the suit as case runners.
“We are preparing a counterclaim that will expose the lies in their complaint,” the spokesman said.
Garcia did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
The Ginarte firm, represented by Clifford Robert and Michael Farina of Robert & Robert, is suing the defendants for civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, conspiracy, defamation and attorney deceit under Judiciary Law Section 487, which allows parties to recover treble damages.
Founded by Joseph Ginarte and headquartered in Newark, New Jersey, the firm has about 30 attorneys and more than 100 support staff at seven offices throughout the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area. It represents plaintiffs in construction and car accidents, medical malpractice, premises liability, workers’ compensation and Social Security Disability.
The Ginarte firm learned of the alleged conduct just recently, the suit claimed, noting Ginarte began receiving substitution letters from the Garcia and Schwitzer firms, indicating that its clients had retained those firms in their personal injury cases.
Of those former clients, each had a “common link,” Ginarte said, in that Ginarte had referred the clients to a pain management specialist, whom the complaint refers to as “Dr. X.”
The complaint alleges that non-attorney case runners met with clients of Ginarte in or in front of the doctor’s office and then denigrated Ginarte to the clients, telling them Ginarte is ill-equipped or incompetent to handle their cases. They enticed them to retain the Schwitzer and Garcia law firms through “unlawful and unethical tactics,” the complaint alleges.
In particular, if the targeted client agreed at the doctor’s office to meet with substitute counsel, the clients would get driven by Uber to Schwitzer’s office, accompanied by the case runners. The complaint alleges when they arrived at Schwitzer’s firm, the Ginarte clients would be directed to meet with Schwitzer firm attorneys, such as Merlino, Semel-Weinstein and Diamond, who would confront the clients “with high-pressure sales tactics,” including “extravagant promises” and further denigration of Ginarte.
Once a targeted client agreed to substitute counsel and retain the Schwitzer or Garcia firms, Ginarte alleges, the defendants gave the client up to $3,000 in cash and “immediately paid off any loans the client had previously taken out,” according to the suit.
Schwitzer “kept a briefcase full of cash in his office, from which he made the foregoing cash payments to the targeted Ginarte clients,” the suit alleges.
The complaint alleges a “pattern of wrongdoing and deceit,” nothing that William Hamel, previously an attorney of a predecessor Schwitzer firm, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor arising from his involvement in a scheme of paying hospital employees for client referrals. Meanwhile, Garcia was suspended in 2009, based on a special referee’s report sustaining 10 charges of professional misconduct. He was reinstated in 2010.
In a statement, Robert, Ginarte’s attorney, said the matter has been reported to “appropriate authorities.” He added, “It is a highly unusual set of circumstances for an attorney of Joe Ginarte’s stature to be substituted on several high values cases in such a short period time.”