Manatt Phelps & Phillips has sued Brown Rudnick in Washington, D.C., Superior Court, demanding what it claims is its rightful share of a $10 million settlement in a contingency case handled by former litigation partner Benjamin Chew.
In a complaint filed earlier this month, Manatt asserts that it represented ex-client Rudolph Geist and his limited liability corporation, RJGLaw, from October 2016 through May 2018 in a breach of contract case in federal court in Maryland, Geist et al. v. Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network Inc.
As part of the terms of the representation, RJG agreed to pay Manatt 30 percent of any recovery, according to the suit.
After Chew left Manatt’s partnership in April 2018 to join Brown Rudnick, Geist followed him to his new firm and hired Brown Rudnick, dropping Manatt from the case, the suit says. When the case settled in November 2018 for $10 million, Manatt alleges, Chew’s old firm was left out of the recovery—despite having won a key ruling in March that allowed the core breach of contract claim to move forward.
“Mr. Geist, a lawyer, knows that legal services are not provided for free, and he was involved in the negotiations of the method of payment to Manatt at the outset of the HITN Litigation,” Peter Axelrad, Manatt’s counsel at Council, Baradel, Kosmerl & Nolan, wrote in the complaint. “Manatt is entitled to the benefit conferred upon Mr. Geist and RJG.”
Along with accusing Geist of breaching the initial contract, Manatt leveled claims of tortious interference and unjust enrichment against Brown Rudnick. The complaint alleges that Chew and Brown Rudnick received payment despite that “all the work that caused the settlement was performed by Manatt, prior to Manatt’s dismissal.”
Chew, who is not named as a defendant in the suit, said Monday that he had not seen the complaint and would not comment on it.
The case isn’t the first time a lateral move involving Chew has led to problems. In 2014, he was forced to leave Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman just months after joining that firm from Patton Boggs, due to a client conflict related to Patton Boggs’ work for Chevron Corp. He joined Manatt the same year.
When he left Manatt for Brown Rudnick last spring, Chew said in a statement that he immediately began working on a significant matter with an unnamed client, adding that he was able to provide, “seamless, high-level service even as I was transitioning,” which he called, “rare and special.”
According to Brown Rudnick, Chew’s clientele has included the governments of Dubai, Ecuador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, defense contractors, software companies and celebrities including Cher and Johnny Depp.
An initial scheduling conference in the case is set for June 7.