In a curious postscript to a contentious 2011 deposition during which opposing counsel slapped a Paul Hastings partner in the face, the Am Law 100 firm has now been slapped with a lawsuit.
Filed May 8 in New York state court, Manhattan lawyer Kenechukwu Okoli’s suit accuses Paul Hastings and firm partner Allan Bloom of slander and assault in connection with the deposition fracas, which arose in the context of an employee discrimination case that pitted Okoli’s client, Olga Caro, against Marsh USA, represented by Bloom.
Paul Hastings responded to Okoli’s complaint last week with a motion to dismiss. In that motion, the firm argues that the suit, which seeks more than $1 million in damages, is “unique and spurious” and “should be quickly and definitively dismissed.”
Court filings submitted by the parties show they agree that the deposition in question, held on August 16, 2011, ended with Okoli slapping Bloom, the cochair of Paul Hastings’s New York employment practice. What exactly provoked the slap, however, is in dispute.
Okoli, who is representing himself in the suit, claims in his complaint that as the deposition progressed and the person being deposed began to have what Okoli describes as credibility problems, “things began to get tense between Bloom and Okoli.” At one point—as Bloom began to leave the room where the deposition was being conducted—Okoli asserts, the Paul Hastings lawyer “all of a sudden and without warning” rushed at the seated Okoli “and began yelling at the top of his lungs and shaking his pointed index finger violently less than one foot from Okoli’s face.” As the yelling continued, according to Okoli, “spittle from Bloom’s wide open mouth hit Okoli’s face,” prompting Okoli—who acknowledges that the spitting was accidental—”to protect himself” by slapping Bloom.
In its motion to dismiss, Paul Hastings points to what it says were Okoli’s increasingly hostile and disparaging comments to Bloom, including repeatedly telling him to “keep your mouth shut.” Among the issues over which the two lawyers were sparring, Paul Hastings says, were whether Okoli’s questioning was “relevant or harassing,” whether he had produced the correct exhibits, and whether Bloom was properly making objections during the deposition. (Additional information about the underlying 2009 lawsuit that was the subject of the deposition was not immediately available via New York’s online docket system Friday.)
The Paul Hastings motion adds that—according to a description of the events offered by a third party on hand for the deposition—Bloom began to retreat after being slapped, then turned back while rolling up his sleeve, at which point Okoli told Bloom “to desist from approaching in that manner if he did not want to be punched.”
Paul Hastings counters the assault allegations by arguing that fear “of more accidental spittle” is “not enough to plead assault; one must have a well-grounded fear of imminent physical harm, not a well-grounded fear of spittle.” The motion further argues that a raised voice, close proximity to Okoli, finger wagging, and inadvertent spitting are not sufficient to prove imminent physical danger.
Okoli backs his slander claim by alleging that Bloom called him “uncivilized, ignorant, and incompetent” on his way out the door of the room. Paul Hastings argues that those words do not appear in the transcript of the deposition, and, in any case, such a statement would have come in the “heat of passion,” making it harder to define as slander under New York law.
Okoli declined to comment when reached Friday. Bloom and Carla Walworth, a Paul Hastings partner representing the firm in the litigation, did not immediately return calls for comment. Allan Whitescarver, a Paul Hastings spokesman, said, “Because these matters are currently being adjudicated, we don’t feel it is appropriate to offer our views or perspective on the lawsuit or allegations.”
The parties are scheduled to appear in court July 31.