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A former associate who called a partner “abusive and nasty” cannot be sued by her former firm for defamation but may be liable for breaching her duty of loyalty, a New York judge has ruled. Five-lawyer Manhattan firm Greenberg & Reicher sued former associate Julie Hyman after she abruptly quit last November to start her own practice. The firm claimed her leaving without notice disrupted the firm’s work, causing it to incur great expense reviewing her files and completing unfinished files. The firm also accused Hyman of removing property from the office, soliciting clients prior to her departure and later defaming name partner Edward Greenberg to other employees of the firm. Hyman allegedly told a firm clerical employee that, along with being “abusive and nasty,” Greenberg was “difficult to work with” and a “person with whom you could not settle cases.” She also allegedly said she was informing clients of her departure and that she had been offered jobs by opposing counsel. Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Rosalyn Richter said the firm had failed to plead its defamation claim with sufficient particularity in terms of time, place and circumstance. She also said the statements could be considered non-actionable opinion rather than defamation. “The alleged statements that defendant made such as that plaintiff Greenberg was ‘abusive and nasty’ and ‘difficult to work with’ do not have a precise meaning, but rather are merely an indication of the defendant’s views of Greenberg’s temperament,” Richter wrote in Greenberg & Reicher v. Hyman, 117703/04. But the judge said the firm could proceed with its claim of breach of duty of loyalty on the grounds that Hyman may have used firm time and resources to promote her own practice. The judge said allegations that the former associate removed documents or contacted clients of the firm prior to her withdrawal raised legitimate questions as to whether Hyman exercised good faith and loyalty in performing her duties at the firm. Richter noted that the defendant had submitted an affidavit by a former Greenberg & Reicher client stating that he had not been informed of Hyman’s withdrawal before Nov. 3. He retained her on Nov. 4 and is engaged in a malpractice suit against Greenberg & Reicher. The firm has alleged that Hyman, while still an associate, encouraged a former client to dispute fees owed to the firm. Richter did rule that Hyman would not be liable for problems caused by her abrupt departure without notice. She noted that the associate was an “employee at will” whose employment could be terminated by either side without notice. Greenberg & Reicher was represented by Randy Kornfield of Stavis & Kornfield. Hyman appeared pro se.

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