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The Los Angeles office of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan must pay an ex-associate $500,000 for defrauding her and breaching an oral contract, a Los Angeles superior court jury decided Friday. Eileen Darroll alleged the firm recruited her with promises of lifetime employment and fired her less than two years later after she blew the whistle on a partner’s alleged bill padding. “A big law firm thought it could take advantage of my client, and she stood up to them,” said her attorney, Michael Sidley, moments after the jury returned. “I’m ecstatic.” At the firm’s New York headquarters, Chief Marketing Officer Gary Gerard said, “We are disappointed and of course we disagree with the decision. We do not believe the facts support the verdict. We intend to appeal this.” Following a nine-day trial, jurors deliberated for a week. “There were 16 special questions, and they involved sophisticated and intelligent people,” juror Ruben Contreras said. “This wasn’t ‘she said-he said’ by some folks just in off the street.” The single most difficult question, he and other jurors said, was whether Darroll’s employment was “at will,” as Stroock argued was clearly stated in an employee manual, or whether it was represented to her as allowing the firm to terminate her only for good cause. It took a full day of discussion to reach a 9-3 vote against the firm on that point, jurors said. On the cash damages, the vote was 11-1. They added there was quick and general agreement that punitive damages were not appropriate. Stroock’s trial attorney was Mary Lee Wegner, of Los Angeles’ Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan. The jury never heard the cause of action at the heart of Darroll’s suit — her claim she was fired in retaliation for telling a co-counsel that then-partner Ron Goldie charged a client for nearly three hours of work Darroll said he did not perform. During pretrial motions in March, a judge ruled the amount in question was too small to trigger societal concerns, and so the associate could not assert she was wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy. Goldie, now a partner at Los Angeles’ Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, has said he was aware of no overbilling. Stroock’s position at trial was that improper billing was intercepted and corrected before it went to the client. Darroll first went to work for the firm’s Los Angeles office in September 1997 as an independent contractor. Three months later, her supervisor, senior associate Alan Yudkowsky, recruited her as a $135,000-a-year associate with a bonus. Several jurors observed they found it damning that Stroock had not told Darroll of plans made when she was hired to review her work after six months. The firm maintained it had legitimate business reasons for letting Darroll go, including the loss of a major client and her low billable hours. Darroll said she has been virtually unemployable since a newspaper article quoted Stroock’s Los Angeles litigation chief Michael Perlis saying she was “blackmailing” the firm. She has, however, recently joined Sidley & Bell, the firm that represented her at trial.

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