For those who track such things, there is never a shortage of litigation involving Am Law 200 firms as either defendants or plaintiffs. Several suits in particular have caught the attention of the legal media in recent weeks, including Shook, Hardy & Bacon being targeted by the bankruptcy trustee overseeing the estate of convicted Florida Ponzi schemer—and notorious University of Miami football booster—Nevin Shapiro; a former Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr associate filing a $5 million discrimination suit against that firm for allegedly retaliating against her for taking adoption leave; and Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice drawing fire from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over allegations it dismissed an employee who had undergone treatment for cancer.
Several firms, meanwhile, enjoyed positive developments in connection with suits filed against them. Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, for instance, won a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirming that the firm did not engage in racial discrimination when it laid off former associate Tameka Simmons, who is black, in 2009 amid the economic downturn. A separate racial discrimination suit filed against Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in New York federal district court by a former contract attorney alleging she was assigned less lucrative work than others at the firm was also dismissed.
Elsewhere, a federal district court judge ruled that Greenberg Traurig was not liable for $2 million in losses suffered by an investor in a resort project in the Bahamas who claims he had relied on the firm’s advice, Law360 reports. And sibling publication The Legal Intelligencer reported on two firms achieving favorable outcomes: Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, which just days ahead of a scheduled January 3 trial date got a malpractice case involving an allegedly botched real estate finance deal tossed on summary judgment; and Clifford Chance, which was dropped as a defendant from a lawsuit brought by investors following Diagnostic Venture Inc.’s $1.7 billion collapse a decade ago.
Other firms went to court to compel erstwhile clients to make good on unpaid bills. Consider two recent cases in that category, both playing out in New York state court. In one, Chadbourne & Parke filed suit January 23 to make Broadening-Info Enterprises, a company it represented between 2008 and 2009 in connection with an attempt to reclaim a piece of artwork seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, pay $122,253. In the other, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler sued December 3 over $1.5 million the firm says it earned in 2008 and 2009 for establishing trusts for the four children of client Barbara Stewart.
Here’s a rundown of some of the other law firm–related litigation that has caught our attention of late:
Blank Rome and Cozen O’Connor: A $27 million suit brought by a group of British investors, first reported by Reuters, claims that attorney Charles Naselsky—who at different points was a partner at both firms—urged investors to give money to a “fictitious” real estate development project. The suit, filed December 18 in New York federal court, alleges Naselsky—who was disbarred last month after being convicted in connection with an unrelated tax-evasion scheme and sentenced to serve nearly six years in prison—conspired with Philadelphia real estate developers to persuade the plaintiffs to pour millions of dollars into a project that could never be built because of local zoning restrictions. Representatives for both Cozen and Blank Rome told sibling publication The Legal Intelligencer the firms plan to mount a vigorous defense against the suit. “We didn’t enter in to any kind of conspiracy to defraud anybody,” Cozen O’Connor CEO Thomas “Tad” Decker told the Intelligencer.
Cozen O’Connor: A 2010 fire in the firm’s New York offices is at the crux of a New York state court suit filed January 8 by Cozen, its insurer Great Northern Insurance Company, and Cammeby’s Management Company, which owns the building at 45 Broadway in Manhattan that houses the firm’s New York offices. The three plaintiffs are collectively suing two contractors in an effort to recoup $7.8 million in costs incurred after foam insulation being installed on deck overhangs caught fire. (Cozen’s portion of the damages being sought is $17,460, including a $1,000 deductible). The defendants, Boorom Facility Solutions and Air Seal Insulation Systems, denied the majority of the claims contained in the suit in a January 22 court reply, saying the plaintiffs’ own negligence helped cause of the blaze.
Foley & Lardner and GrayRobinson: The two firms are among a handful of defendants accused of helping to orchestrate a Medicare fraud scheme that resulted in the liquidation of failed HMO Quality Health Plans. Ohio-based Envision Insurance Company filed the suit January 11 in federal district court in Florida arguing that the law firms and their fellow defendants fraudulently induced the company into entering into a contract with QHP under which Envision was required to pay a $600,000 up-front fee to fulfill Medicare prescription orders. The suit singles out health care regulatory lawyer Tina Dunsford, a current GrayRobinson shareholder in Tampa who previously worked at Foley, saying she “was a key player in creating a cloak of legitimacy and orchestrating the massive Medicare fraud scheme.” The complaint also includes counts of civil conspiracy, negligent misrepresentation, fraudulent concealment, aiding and abetting fraud, violating Florida’s deceptive and unfair trade practices, and civil RICO. An attorney representing Envision tells The Am Law Daily the company lost more than $10 million via its involvement with QHP. In an interview with sibling publication Daily Business Review, which has more on the suit, GrayRobinson president Byrd “Biff” Marshall called the suit a “nonsense” attempt for a begrudged investor to recoup its money. Dunsford and a spokeswoman for Foley & Lardner did not return requests for comment.
Greenberg Traurig: Greeberg has been sued several times in recent months. In one of the suits, former employee Patrecia Carpenter-Sarr sued the firm November 27 in New York federal district court, claiming she received unequal pay and fewer opportunities for advancement because of her gender; her race (she is black); and her age (57). Carpenter-Sarr, who filed the complaint pro se, began working at Greenberg in 2004 in the document center and later became an administrative assistant. A Greenberg spokeswoman said the EEOC declined to make findings backing Carpenter-Sarr’s claims and that “we continue to have confidence that those allegations have no merit.” In early December, Greenberg was also hit with a gender discrimination suit filed by former shareholder Francine Griesing as covered by sibling publication The Legal Intelligencer. Greenberg Traurig executive committee member Hilarie Bass said in a statement to the Intelligencer that the suit is a “financially motivated publicity stunt without merit.” The firm recently hired Proskauer Rose partner Bettina Plevan to represent it in the case.
In a separate matter, Greenberg asked on December 12 that a suit accusing the firm and former partner Juan Marcelino of breach of contract and malpractice be moved from state to federal district court in Boston. The plaintiff, Thomas Keough, says in the complaint, filed in October, that he hired Marcelino to assist in a potential Securities and Exchange Commission investigation targeting him based on Marcelino’s experience working at the agency, but that Marcelino actually spurred the SEC to launch a probe by contacting the agency about the case. Marcelino, now a partner with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, did not return a request for comment. A Greenberg spokeswoman says the firm believes the case has no merit and that Greenberg and its former lawyer “will be shown to have acted appropriately.”
Hodgson Russ: The receiver overseeing what remains of one-time Ponzi scheme Westmoore Entities sued Hodgson Russ in Los Angeles federal court December 28 seeking $400,000 he claims the firm improperly received in connection with the scam. Hodgson Russ allegedly borrowed the money from Westmoore between 2007 and 2009, according to the suit, which names several additional defendants. A Hodgson Russ spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Miller Canfield: In November, a Michigan state court judge sided with a former Miller Canfield partner who claims he was improperly ousted from the firm’s partnership after he requested a leave of absence to pursue a position as an analyst on the University of Alabama football coaching staff. Dean Altobelli, 47, sued seven of the Michigan firm’s top partners in June, including CEO Michael Hartmann, claiming that after advocating for more transparency in management and pushing for other changes—including questioning why the firm extended same-sex health benefits to employees without consulting all the principals, their term for partner—he was a victim of retaliation and bullying and was subjected to threats. Firm management ultimately forced Altobelli out in 2010 despite his insistence that the firm’s partnership vote on the dismissal. The defendants are seeking an expedited appeal of the November decision, which backed Altobelli on three of the counts contained in his complaint against five of the defendants. Three other claims are set to go to trial after the same judge rejected the defendants’ bid to have the dispute moved out of court and into arbitration. (The Detroit Free-Press has more on the suit). In a statement to The Am Law Daily, the firm contends that Altobelli left Miller Canfield voluntarily. “The firm continues to wish Mr. Altobelli well in his football coaching career,” the statement says, “but strongly believes that being a full-time football coach or analyst at the University of Alabama and continuing as a lawyer at Miller Canfield are inconsistent career paths.”
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom: The former CEO of defunct food packaging maker Radnor Holdings Corporation sued Skadden for allegedly conspiring with another client—hedge fund Tennenbaum Capital Partners, which is also named as a defendant—during its 2006 bankruptcy to make sure Tennenbaum ended up with Radnor’s assets, according to Reuters. The suit, filed December 26 in U.S. bankruptcy court in Delaware by Michael Kennedy, seeks repayment of more than $75 million. Skadden general counsel Lawrence Spiegel told Reuters that the suit is a “re-hashing of baseless allegations” and an attempt for Kennedy to avoid liability related to business deals executed prior to the company’s bankruptcy.
Squire Sanders: Former client Equatorial Marine Fuel filed a malpractice suit against the firm in Los Angeles state court January 24 over what the company says was Squire Sanders’s bungled attempt to help Singapore-based Equatorial go after an unpaid bill that wound up costing Equatorial hundreds of thousands of dollars. The company hired Squire Sanders in 2008 to help it seize vessels owned by MISC Berhad, which had bought marine fuel oil from Equatorial, under an admiralty law procedure that allows companies to hold ships that owe debts. In the end, MISC not only succeeded in rebuffing the seizure as the case made its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and then back to federal district court—it also won a judgment against Equatorial. A firm spokesman had no comment.
White & Case and GrayRobinson: The firms, along with Sunshine State shop Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod, were sued in mid-December in Florida state court by a private oceanfront club that claims a “botched effort” to reduce its property taxes cost it more than $50 million, according to sibling publication DBR. The plaintiff, Surf Club, accuses the firms of professional malpractice, breach of contract, and breach of fiduciary duty. An attorney for Bilzin Sumberg said the firm has no comment. GrayRobinson president Marshall said his firm expects the suit to be dismissed “as soon as the court receives an accurate statement of the fact.” A White & Case spokeswoman had no comment.