Members of McCarter & English's litigation team.
Members of McCarter & English’s litigation team. ()

When McCarter & English moved into the Connecticut marketplace about a decade ago, there was a general sense the New Jersey-based firm was strong in business litigation. Since then, the firm’s leaders like to think the reputation has grown.

Perhaps that’s so. This year, one year after winning the commercial litigation award in the Connecticut Law Tribune’s Litigation Department of the Year contest, McCarter & English has been named the top overall out-of-state firm with a Connecticut office.

“I think with this firm it has always been known for its quality of business litigation,” said Thomas Rechen, one of McCarter & English’s leading litigation partners. “I have been with the firm for six years. One thing that has grown over the last six years is the strength across the bench, if you will, including intellectual property litigation, product liability and labor and employment law.”

Eric Grondahl, managing partner of the firm’s Hartford office, signed on in 2003 when McCarter & English acquired Cummings & Lockwood’s litigation team and general practice professionals after the Cummings’ trusts and estates practice split off. Since that time, McCarter & English’s Connecticut-based litigation staff has grown to 27 lawyers, and Grondahl has seen steady growth in his personal practice area of IP litigation while also observing an overall uptick in the firm’s clout in the courtroom.

Opposing counsel “expect us to be well-prepared, and they’ll know they are in litigation with a high-quality and professional firm,” Grondahl said.

Rechen was in the middle of a couple of the firm’s most significant lawsuits in 2013, where pretrial preparation was vital to the outcome. One was a long-running Westport property dispute in Owenoke Association v. J.J. Salzman, which was being heard by Judge Douglas Mintz in Stamford/Norwalk Superior Court.

Rechen noted that the case involved “high net-worth individuals and extraordinarily valuable property.” It centered on a strip of land that provides access to Long Island Sound for swimming, canoeing and beach-going. The bottom line is that a homeowners’ association plus individual homeowners had all claimed easement rights to the strip of land owned by the defendant, a real estate holding company represented by Bingham McCutchen.

To prevail, Rechen and his team—including partner John Mallin and associates Jennifer Black Strutt and Jeffrey Matrullo—dug into the property archives to trace ownership rights.

“We were researching deeds going back to the early 1900s and researching minutes of association meetings going back to the 1920s,” Rechen said. “All of this was to refute the notion that there was an easement over this particular strip of land. You could see how certain landowners were gradually engineering this easement claim” over many years.

Rechen built a case strong enough that “all but one plaintiff walked away from their claims on the eve of trial, and these plaintiffs were significantly invested emotionally and financially.” Rechen concluded the favorable outcome “was a direct result of our thorough preparation of this case.”

In Carolina Casualty Insurance v. Jarrow Industries, Rechen and partner Mark Dunn Giarratana represented the defendants in a California insurance coverage dispute.

After Jarrow Industries’ chairman of the board was fired, he filed a wrongful termination lawsuit. Jarrow turned to its employment practices liability insurance policy with Carolina Casualty, only to learn the insurer had canceled the policy. The stated reason was that not all of the policy’s paperwork had been filled out as completely as it should have been. Rechen argued the insurer knew about the paperwork problems from the time it issued the policy to Jarrow.

“We raised the specter of an opportunistic insurance company collecting premiums and then not providing the coverage they promised,” Rechen said.

The case was headed to a bench trial before the parties settled in mediation. Jarrow used that settlement money to, in turn, settle the wrongful termination suit brought by its former board chairman. “That was a challenging one and we were fortunate to get it resolved on favorable terms, considering the underlying facts,” Rechen said.

Another part of McCarter & English’s litigation trademark is its role since 2002 as liaison counsel in the Connecticut asbestos litigation docket in Fairfield Superior Court. McCarter & English attorneys and staff coordinate more than 100 defense firms and more than 200 defendants while actively representing approximately 20 different defendants.

Catherine Mohan, a product liability partner and founding partner of the firm’s Hartford office, has a long history of coordinating asbestos litigation on behalf of manufacturers all over the country. While she was involved with on-the-ground representation of national companies in various product liability matters, she brought on John Robinson in 2002 to take the lead role as defense liaison counsel for all Connecticut asbestos litigation.

“We are very proud that the defense attorneys, their clients and the court have entrusted us with representing the group as a whole and being the voice of the defense for well over a decade now,” Robinson said. “We try to focus on the fact that this is a privilege, and not a right, and we try to go about our business each day with that in mind.”

Robinson leads the team responsible for organizing the overall litigation docket, including coordinating all joint defense meetings, serving as communications liaison between the defendants and the court, preparing joint medical defenses, coordinating group discovery, negotiating all trial dates and anything else required to keep the docket running efficiently. In 2013, more efficiency was demanded by Judge Barbara Bellis after she took over the docket.

“Working with the court and plaintiffs’ counsel, as well as other defense counsel, a large portion of the cases were resolved by way of granting summary judgment, or settlement, by many defendants in 2013,” Robinson said.

Complex financial services litigation was anther growth area for McCarter & English. The firm was cocounsel in a six-firm defense of MetLife and Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance subsidiaries against a proposed class action in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York. In Yale M. Fishman 1998 Insurance Trust v. General American Life Insurance, the plaintiff trusts held insurance products sold by a MetLife subsidiary that were invested in a MassMutual subsidiary’s fund, and the value was lost when the investments were exposed to Bernard Madoff’s elaborate Ponzi investment scheme.

The plaintiffs wanted to move ahead with a shareholder derivative suit, but Judge Thomas Griesa ruled they lacked standing as shareholders and were instead classified as policyholders. Further, Griesa said the plaintiffs’ derivative claims were barred by res judicata because “similar or identical claims were asserted on their behalf” in a state court case that been disposed of in 2011.

In another case where they served as cocounsel, McCarter & English litigators represented plaintiff Genworth Financial Wealth Management in a claim against five former officers and employees who allegedly took proprietary information from Genworth to establish a competing business and solicit Genworth clients. The case settled after three days of trial in New Haven federal court, and the defendants paid a damage award while submitting to a permanent injunction that restricts competition with Genworth.

Summing up the year, Rechen said the firm’s long-standing dedication to keeping clients involved at every step remains a key factor.

“Our clients have a real feeling of ownership in their matters, and they are involved in the strategic decisions and choices made,” Rechen said. “The McCarter brand is a pretrial assessment on the front end to take into account clients’ goals, costs and risks and assessing all of those factors throughout the litigation process.” •