A Greenwich lawyer who started his own practice almost two years ago has filed a possible class action lawsuit against a company that operates 350 dental offices across the country.
Brian Cohen, who previously worked for six years at the New York litigation firm of Bernstein Liebhard, claims that Aspen Dental Management and the private equity firm that controls it are putting the interests of making money ahead of caring for patients.
Cohen and New York attorney Jeffrey Norton have filed suit in federal court in New York on behalf of 11 former Aspen Dental patients in Connecticut and 10 other states. The action accuses the company of using unfair business practices to operate its dental clinics.
“People go to see a dentist for a few minutes and then they’re pushed into a sales manager’s office like they’re buying a car,” Cohen said. “They are then pushed into these treatment plans that cost them thousands of dollars.”
One of the plaintiffs, Leslie Talman of New Haven, expressed concerns about the treatment plan that cost her thousands of dollars after visiting Aspen Dental’s clinic in Orange in 2010. “She realized something was wrong and she contacted me,” Cohen said.
The lawyers are seeking class action status, which must be approved by the court, which could cover tens of thousands of current and former patients and result in millions of dollars in monetary damages. Since the lawsuit was filed last month, Aspen Dental has not yet responded to the claims. Cohen said he anticipates the case to feature “a lot of testimony and a lot of paperwork.”
He feels up to the task. “I’ve been practicing for almost 16 years and I’ve worked specifically in complex and class action litigation,” he said.
In 2009, Cohen was part of a Bernstein Liebhard litigation team that obtained a $400 million settlement agreement on behalf of investors who sued Marsh & McLennan Companies, one of the world’s biggest professional services and insurance brokerage firms.
The class action charged that Marsh & McLennan made false and misleading statements in its public filing paperwork about its investment returns. Cohen said he gained valuable experience in that case while representing the co-lead plaintiff, the New Jersey Department of Treasury.
“I was a senior member of the litigation team and that case lasted for five years,” Cohen said. His responsibilities included writing pleadings and filing motions in the case. He supervised the work of 15 associates and paralegals, who poured through 35 million pages of documents to develop the faces of the case.
He also deposed key witnesses on the defense side, including top executives with Marsh & McLennan.
When it came time to negotiate the settlement, Cohen was there. “I really had my hand in all aspects of that case, from start to finish. And as far as the complexity of [this] case goes, it doesn’t get any bigger than that,” he said. “When you’re reviewing 35 million pages of discovery and taking 100 depositions, from start to finish, it prepares you well for a case of any size, including one like this.”
In January 2011, Cohen decided it was time to go out on his own. He lives near the Connecticut border in Westchester County and has been licensed to practice in both New York and Connecticut since 1997. When he was looking for office space, Cohen said he decided on nearby Greenwich because of its proximity to his home and clients coming from New York.
Since then, Cohen has been involved as a plaintiffs’ lawyer in another proposed class action involving claims that HSBC uses an unfair method of computing customers’ account balances that serves to drive up overdraft fee collections.
Cohen and co-counsel Timothy Macfall, of Rigrodsky & Longwon, won a ruling this summer when a New York trial court judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed.
The Aspen Dental lawsuit claims the company committed two violations. First, it claims the patients were lured to dentists’ offices with aggressive sales pitches for free exams, but then misled into purchasing expensive treatment plans that they could not afford.
Second, the lawsuit calls into question the legality of other corporate dental chains like Aspen Dental that are owned, operated and controlled by private equity firms. Aspen, based in upstate New York, is funded by Leonard Green and Partners, a $15 billion private equity firm in Los Angeles. The lawsuit says that arrangement violates New York laws that require dental practices to be owned by dentists who are onsite and performing the procedures they determine to be needed, according to the complaint.
Aspen Dental has not officially responded to the lawsuit, which was filed last month. Kasey Pickett, Aspen’s director of communications, declined to comment for this story. But in an earlier interview with the Associated Press, she said the accusations made in the lawsuit were “completely without merit.”
She said Aspen does not employ the dentists or control clinical care at its clinics, but instead provides “management support.”
Cohen’s partner in the Aspen Dental lawsuit, Norton, said it was their collective extensive experience with class action litigation that led to their partnership in the lawsuit. Norton’s practice in New York City is primarily in the area of shareholder rights, consumer fraud and protecting employee retirement pension plans.
Especially relevant to this new lawsuit was Cohen’s experience working on the Marsh & McLennan case and Norton’s own experience as part of a team of attorneys who won a $90 million settlement in a class action lawsuit against oil company Royal Dutch Shell over employee savings plans. “After you’ve litigated cases like that, no case seems too big,” Norton said.•