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Lawyers for current and former Tribune Co. employees who sued over real estate mogul Samuel Zell’s purchase of the media company called a federal judge’s split decision last week “a great victory.” “Judge Pallmeyer wrote a strong opinion indicating that we have a claim for knowing participation in a fiduciary breach,” said Philip Gregory, a partner at San Francisco-based Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy who represents the plaintiffs. Oakland, Calif.-based Lewis, Feinberg, Renaker & Jackson is also representing the plaintiffs. U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ruled on Dec. 17 that plaintiffs could pursue their claims against GreatBanc Trust Co., the trustee for the employee stock ownership plan, with regard to a breach of fiduciary duty to the employees. She also let stand claims against Zell, the Tribune’s former chief executive and current chairman, over knowing participation in the breach and violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. But she dismissed similar claims against other company officials. In December 2007, Zell completed an $8.3 billion purchase and privatization of Chicago-based Tribune Co. that was financed with money from the employee stock ownership plan. The company filed for bankruptcy in December 2008 under the combined weight of debt taken on for the acquisition and declining revenue. The defendants sought to dismiss the claims on the grounds that they didn’t breach fiduciary duties and weren’t necessarily fiduciaries. Six current and former employees of the Los Angeles Times, which is owned by the Tribune Co., filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in September 2008. The lawsuit seeks class certification for tens of thousands of current and former Tribune employees who qualified for the stock ownership plan, including those at the Chicago Tribune, Hartford Courant and Baltimore Sun newspapers, Gregory said. There are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, he said. At the next hearing in January, the plaintiffs will take further steps toward winning class action status and beginning discovery, including the deposition of Zell, Gregory said. “That’s something that our clients in particular are looking forward to.” Zell’s attorneys at Chicago-based Jenner & Block, including Craig Martin and Barry Levenstam, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

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