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In what was termed by the judge a groundbreaking ruling, a “captive” insurance company lawyer, allegedly fired for excessive client loyalty, can sue in federal court for wrongful termination on public policy grounds. The suit was filed by Larry Lewis, who since 1986 had headed Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.’s “Law Offices of Larry H. Lewis.” He eventually built the Meriden, Connecticut, captive firm into a 17-lawyer operation. The Columbus-based Nationwide paid him a salary to represent its policyholders in settlements and court cases. As is typical in captive firms, the policyholders didn’t pay him, but were his clients, entitled to his loyalty and judgment. Highlighting the tensions inherent in captive firm settings, Lewis alleges in his complaint that Nationwide claims office personnel repeatedly interfered with legal decisions he made on behalf of clients. Over time, Lewis’s complaint alleges, Nationwide claims managers made it increasingly difficult for him to exercise professional independence. Normally, an at-will employee can be fired for any reason, except in cases that clearly violate public policy, such as civil rights discrimination or whistle-blowing. And courts have repeatedly ruled that attorneys’ rules of professional conduct — such as the duty of independent judgment and loyalty to a client’s interests — do not give rise to civil lawsuits. Nationwide argued this last point strenuously — and without success — before Judge Robert Chatigny. In addition to his wrongful termination claim, Lewis rebuffed Nationwide’s bid to dismiss a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Lewis complained that after his December 26, 2001, firing, some of his personal effects were missing. He also alleged that after being told he could keep his office intact temporarily, he was given 30 minutes’ notice that a moving company was on its way. Shortly afterward, Lewis says, the movers unceremoniously deposited his damaged and hastily packed furniture on his front lawn. Nationwide settled the case after the ruling; it declined to comment.

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