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To serve as lead trial counsel in a major case for an important client is the dream of all ambitious big-firm litigation associates. If you ask the Sheraton Corporation, it is the client’s worst nightmare. On Wednesday, the hotel company, a subsidiary of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Inc., filed suit against New York’s LeBoeuf, Lamb, Green & MacRae in Manhattan Supreme Court, alleging that the 720-lawyer firm badly mishandled its defense of Sheraton by allowing an inexperienced and poorly supervised associate to act as lead trial counsel in a 1999 trial. Sheraton claims in court papers the associate mishandled the case, committing a multitude of errors before and during the trial, which ended with a federal jury returning a judgment of $50.1 million, including $37.5 million in punitive damages, against Sheraton in December 1999. “This is the worst instance of malpractice at a trial I’ve ever seen,” said Robert J. Ward, litigation partner at Mayer Brown & Platt, representing Sheraton in its action against LeBoeuf Lamb. “I’ve never seen a major firm blow a case like this before.” Sheraton is now seeking $50.1 million in damages from LeBoeuf Lamb for malpractice and breach of contract. LeBoeuf deferred comment to its counsel, Shearman & Sterling. Stephen Fishbein, the litigation partner handing the case, said, “LeBoeuf Lamb believes this lawsuit is without merit and intends to defend against it vigorously.” Fishbein declined further comment. In the original suit, filed August 1997 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, the owners of a Washington, D.C., hotel that Sheraton had been contracted to manage alleged that Sheraton was improperly profiting from a volume purchasing plan it was operating among a network of hotels it managed. Sheraton counterclaimed that the owners were acting in bad faith in trying to break their management contract with Sheraton because the long-term contract depressed the resale price of the hotel. Both sides claimed tens of millions of dollars in damages. Sheraton retained LeBoeuf Lamb to deal with the nascent dispute in 1995. The firm billed Sheraton $3.5 million for its services leading up to the 1999 trial. According to Sheraton, LeBoeuf partner John S. Kinzey told his client he was so confident of victory he would urge the firm to take a contingency fee. The jury awarded damages based on its finding that Sheraton engaged in negligent or intentional misrepresentation in operating its purchasing plan, breaching its management contract and its fiduciary duty. Sheraton prevailed against the plaintiff’s charges of fraud and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act violations. Post-trial motions are still being heard in the case. Ward said an appeal is planned. In its complaint against LeBoeuf Lamb, Sheraton alleges that, though Kinzey was nominally in charge of the matter, Scot C. Gleason, a senior associate at the time, served as lead trial counsel. Sheraton claims an inexperienced Gleason handled the trial incompetently, while Kinzey essentially stood by and watched. The plaintiffs were represented in court by a partner, a counsel and a senior associate from Morgan Lewis & Bockius. ERRORS ALLEGED Among the more serious errors Sheraton alleges are LeBoeuf Lamb’s failure to introduce the testimony of an industry expert to counter three plaintiffs’ experts, and the withdrawal of the defense that Sheraton had acted on the advice of counsel in running its purchasing plan. The advice of counsel defense, if successful, might have shielded Sheraton from paying punitive damages. According to Sheraton, Gleason made this defense central to his opening statement, but failed to produce evidentiary documents to support the defense. Sheraton claims these documents existed, but LeBoeuf withdrew the defense in order to avoid sanctions for its previous failure to produce them. Sheraton also alleges a laundry list of other mistakes, including failure to object at key moments, ineffectual cross-examinations and a general lack of preparedness. At one point, counsel allegedly referred to the wrong charts while making a presentation. Ward said Sheraton was aware that Gleason would handle parts of the trial, including the opening and some witnesses, but had no idea he would be handling the trial from start to finish, with Kinzey sitting in as an observer. The firm would not have agreed to this, Ward said. Given the potential industry-wide significance of the case and the amount of money at stake, Sheraton had every reason to expect a partner with significant trial experience, he said. According to Martindale Hubbell, at the time of the 1999 trial, Gleason, a 1984 graduate of New York University School of Law, had been a member of the bar for 14 years and was 41 years old. He no longer works at LeBoeuf Lamb and could not be reached for comment. DIFFICULT CASE It is not unusual for firms to give senior associates a level of responsibility clients may be uncomfortable with, said Lester Brickman, professor of legal ethics at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. “Firms will not infrequently assign junior partners or associates to matters in a way that clients are not happy about,” he said. Clients’ complaints about the staffing of more junior lawyers do not frequently give rise to lawsuits, Brickman said. Most legal malpractice claims involve missed deadlines, failure to question witnesses and similar errors of omission. According to Brickman, legal malpractice cases in general are extremely difficult to bring successfully. “Lawyers have a lot of room to make mistakes,” he said. “In the heat of battle, they make choices and those choices may be wrong but that is not a basis for a claim of malpractice.”

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