Steve Berman of Hagens Berman.
Steve Berman of Hagens Berman. (Courtesy photo)

Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro refuted claims that it breached a lawyer’s employment contract, and instead accused the lawyer of misleading the firm about his ability to find plaintiffs for a potential class action over the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan.

Hagens Berman and firm leader Steve Berman lodged an answer and counterclaims on June 23 in Washington federal court responding to a contract lawsuit filed by Van Carter. A former Kelley Drye & Warren lawyer, Carter claims that he signed an agreement in late 2012 to join Hagens Berman, only to see the firm back out a few weeks later.

The employment pact called for Carter to take an of counsel role at Hagens Berman and receive a $225,000 base salary for the first year, according to Carter’s suit. His primary responsibility would be to work with clients on developing claims for a case against General Electric Co., which had designed reactors involved in the Fukushima meltdown.

In his lawsuit, Carter claimed that after he signed the agreement, Hagens Berman chose not to pursue the GE litigation and then took steps to “disavow the employment relationship.” Carter alleges those moves were a breach of his agreement with Hagens Berman and seeks damages of at least twice the amount that he would have been paid in wages.

On June 23, however, Hagens Berman told a different version of the events surrounding Carter’s entanglement with the firm.

The firm’s counterclaims allege that Carter met and spoke with Berman, the firm’s managing partner, multiple times in 2012 to discuss a potential class action against GE. During those discussions, Carter “represented that he had knowledge of and familiarity with Japanese culture and business practices, had relationships with government officials, lawyers, and … had all but secured potential clients as class representatives,” Hagens Berman wrote.

Then in late December, Carter and Hagens Berman name partner Tony Shapiro traveled together to Japan, purportedly to meet Carter’s contacts in the country. But when the lawyers arrived, it became clear that Carter had misrepresented the nature of his connections, Hagens Berman alleged.

“Carter did not have established relationships and prospective clients on the verge of signing up to participate in the litigation. In fact, the meetings he had set up were the beginning phase of connecting with individuals in Japan regarding the proposed litigation,” the firm wrote in its counterclaims.

In late December 2012, Carter and Berman had another spurt of contact, with the Hagens Berman leader telling Carter that the firm wouldn’t be pursuing a case against GE because it would be untenable in light of a compensation program set up for Fukushima victims.

Carter, meanwhile, sought assurance that the employment contract was valid, according to Hagens Berman’s counterclaims. Berman took the position that the agreement was not set to take effect until Jan. 1, 2013—a term that Carter allegedly insisted upon—and that the late December 2012 communications between Berman and Carter “constituted rescission of that contract.”

The counterclaims further allege that Carter falsely told Hagens Berman that he would leave his position at Kelley Drye starting at the beginning of 2013, but that Carter actually remained employed at Kelley Drye past the beginning of that year.

A lawyer for Carter, Terry Venneberg of Gig Harbor, Washington, said in an email Tuesday that Carter’s complaint speaks for itself. As for Hagens Berman’s counterclaims, he said he believes “it will be found that those claims have no merit.”

Berman, the Hagens Berman managing partner, said he had no further comment beyond what was filed in court. 

Carter initially brought his suit in Ohio federal court in March 2016. In March 2017 it was transferred to federal court in Seattle, where Hagens Berman is based, according to court records.