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Amid the September melee of press releases and accusations against former Pillsbury Winthrop partner Frode Jensen, the embattled attorney said that “as a result of recent events, I have decided not to proceed with my partnership at Latham & Watkins.” Jensen’s statement came after his former employer had issued a press statement in response to an announcement that Jensen was joining New York-based Latham. Pillsbury contended that Jensen left its partnership under duress, the result of a sexual harassment allegation. This week, Jensen filed a $45 million suit against Pillsbury, alleging that its actions had forced Jensen “to withdraw from his partnership at Latham,” a post that would have paid him more than $1 million a year. But Jensen didn’t jump. His lawyers now say Latham pushed him. Laura Murray, an attorney at New York’s Arkin Kaplan, which represents Jensen, told The Connecticut Law Tribune, “It was not his decision to withdraw. I think that decision was made for him; it was not a voluntary withdrawal from Latham.” Employment lawyers say that’s a significant distinction. Although Jensen is aiming his legal guns at Pillsbury, he may have as good a case against Latham. Those observers say that rejecting Jensen was potentially risky for Latham, which is not named as a defendant. “If he relied on their offer, and then they pulled the plug, it would seem he has a right to sue for damages,” commented employment lawyer Peter A. Janus, of Hartford, Conn.’s Siegel, O’Connor, Zangari, O’Donnell & Beck, and author of the book “Connecticut Labor & Employment Law.” If a hiring firm in a case like this “acted on a suspicion, condemning him and planting a label on him [it would be] almost defamation — it’s definitely a high-risk move,” said Janus. But Jensen’s lawyers say the fault lies primarily with Pillsbury Winthrop. “Although they did not react courageously, Latham & Watkins are not the ones that poisoned the well. The decision was made to bring suit against the parties that poisoned the well,” said Arkin Kaplan partner Stanley S. Arkin. VICIOUS FALSITY But Latham’s actions might reinforce the weight of Pillsbury’s allegations, Janus indicated. The 24-page suit, filed Oct. 7 in Connecticut Superior Court, emphasizes that the Pillsbury sex harassment allegations are “vicious” and “untrue in their entirety.” Pillsbury Vice Chair John F. Pritchard characterized the sex harassment complaint as being disposed of “as a nuisance settlement.” Furthermore, everyone involved agreed it was nobody’s business, the suit states. A three-way Dec. 10, 2001, agreement between Jensen, Pillsbury and the complainant, entitled “Separation Agreement, General Release of Claims and Covenant Not to Sue,” was covered by a confidentiality agreement. Pritchard, at that time, told Jensen that no determination had been made by Pillsbury that Jensen engaged in sexual harassment, the suit states. “Indeed,” it states, “any common sense evaluation of the ‘allegations’ would necessarily conclude that nothing like harassment ever took place.” In the past, a “significant number” of Pillsbury partners accused of harassment have been able to keep those allegations secret, but Jensen was treated differently, the suit states. An exception was made in this case, it says, simply to “destroy his relationship with Latham.” The complaint says that on Sept. 15, Jensen was “obliged to withdraw his acceptance of a partnership with Latham” with his job prospects and reputation “grievously and falsely injured.” Pillsbury’s chairwoman, Mary Cranston, contends it’s all true. In the famous press release, she said the firm had investigated the sex harassment complaints and “concluded that there was a reasonable likelihood that harassment had occurred. …” She concluded with a final remark that, to her knowledge, no one at Latham contacted Pillsbury for a reference check of Jensen. Cranston, in a Sept. 5 interview with The Connecticut Law Tribune, said she was relying on truth as a defense for her comments. But relying on truth as a defense is not a quick way to make a defamation case disappear. Lawyers specializing in First Amendment and defamation law noted that truth can seldom be established as a matter of law, making it nearly impossible to win a summary judgment motion with truth as a defense. The case promises to have repercussions in the heretofore sheltered field of legal headhunting, and calls into question the strength of confidentiality and arbitration agreements. “John Does 1 through 5″ were named as defendants in the case, which alleges that on Sept. 3 Pillsbury managers, egged on by unnamed headhunters and advisors, counseled Cranston to fire back. Latham had issued a press release proudly announcing the fact it had snared Jensen. Pillsbury’s retaliation, ostensibly at the urging of nonlawyer advisers, revealed Jensen’s harassment complaint and impugned his attendance record. In a delicate public relations conflict like this, said Richard C. Auletta, of New York’s RC Auletta and Co., the wisdom of criticizing a departing colleague is “ultimately a legal decision, not a public relations decision” and one that the law firm itself was uniquely prepared to make. Richards Gordon, of Boston’s Bickerton & Gordon, a legal recruiting firm, said that headhunters have never been sued in this type of defamation-by-conspiracy case. In the delicate role of representing both candidates and hiring firms, the headhunter’s secrets are “Chinese-walled” for confidentiality. “Usually in situations like these the parties try to conduct themselves as professionally as possible and try to make things appear amicable,” said Gordon. “They worry about their own public relations.”

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