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Waiting more than a year to inform a client about the outcome of her case was a costly mistake for a Florida law firm. A jury in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Wednesday awarded Jackie Young $4.5 million because her attorney at Becker & Poliakoff waited 13 months to tell her that her employment discrimination case had been dismissed. That case — which alleged that BellSouth Corp. was unfairly denying promotions to black workers — was dismissed by a judge in September 2001 due to mistakes in the original complaint filed by Becker & Poliakoff attorneys, according to court records. Young wasn’t informed of that dismissal until November 2002, according to her attorney in the malpractice suit, Craig Zobel. By the time Young was notified by mail of the dismissal, it was too late to revive her discrimination claim. Becker & Poliakoff “made mistakes in the original complaint that they never fixed,” Zobel said. “She lost her rights because they didn’t act.” Becker & Poliakoff, which is based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and has more than 100 attorneys, said in a written statement that it would appeal the verdict. The firm blamed the handling of Young’s case on Thomas Romeo, an attorney at the firm who has since been fired and disbarred, according to the statement. “We disagree with the verdict blaming the firm for Mr. Romeo’s rogue behavior and we believe the damages are excessive,” the firm said. The development was the latest in a tangled web of litigation. Young was one of 56 plaintiffs in an employment discrimination class action filed against BellSouth in 1996. That action settled the following year for $1.6 million, far below the amount of the plaintiffs’ claims. Subsequently, the plaintiffs hired Becker & Poliakoff to sue Ruden McClosky, the firm that represented the plaintiffs in the first discrimination case. That suit claimed Ruden McClosky breached its fiduciary duty to the plaintiffs. At the same time, Becker & Poliakoff attorneys filed a second workplace discrimination suit against BellSouth on behalf of Young and a dozen other black employees who claimed that they still were being passed over for promotions notwithstanding the 1996 lawsuit. Because the suit against Ruden McClosky was seen as more lucrative, Becker & Poliakoff concentrated its efforts there and virtually ignored Young’s discrimination lawsuit, Zobel said. The firm had reason to hide the fact that her case had been dismissed because Young was one of the plaintiffs in the Ruden McClosky case who were responsible for communicating information to all the other plaintiffs, he said; she easily could have alerted her fellow plaintiffs to mistakes made by Becker & Poliakoff and they could have replaced the firm as counsel on the Ruden McClosky case, which eventually settled for $8 million. “They wanted the $2.9 million fee” from the case against Ruden McClosky, Zobel said. During the trial in Young’s malpractice case against Becker & Poliakoff, the defense argued that Romeo didn’t have permission from his firm to file Young’s discrimination suit. “Thomas Romeo was a rogue lawyer who filed this case without authority and contrary to his supervisor’s clear direction,” the firm said in its written statement. “Unbeknownst to the firm and his colleagues, the case was filed and dismissed due to his error. Mr. Romeo purposely hid that information from all parties.” Attempts to contact Romeo for comment were unsuccessful. Zobel said that it became clear in court that other attorneys at Becker & Poliakoff did know about the Young’s discrimination suit and that they simply “dropped the ball.” The jury deliberated for five hours before returning the $4.5 million verdict in Young’s favor.

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