A state appellate court Wednesday ruled former Conrad & Scherer partner William J. Wichmann could proceed with three of five counterclaims against the Fort Lauderdale firm in a case with “a fact scenario rivaling those that might be found in a John Grisham novel.”
Wichmann “abruptly resigned” from Conrad & Scherer in February 2009, “stealthily” taking 120 files, software, original documents and work product, according to a recitation of claims from the law firm’s complaint, cited in the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruling.
The firm further claimed the former partner also used company resources to file court notices to move several pending Conrad & Scherer cases in state and federal courts to a competitor, Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler—a firm led in part by Scott Rothstein, who was later convicted as a Ponzi schemer and sentenced to 50 years in prison in the case.
Conrad & Scherer sued Wichmann and his firm, William J. Wichmann P.A., in a 12-count complaint amended four times before April 2016. It claimed breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, conspiracy and defamation, among other counts. It sought damages and a constructive trust to recoup any income Wichmann acquired from his alleged “massive client-grabbing scheme.”
But the former partner fired back with five counterclaims of his own, accusing Conrad & Scherer of witness bribery, suborning perjury and money laundering. He claimed he objected to the illegal behavior, refused to participate and instead severed his relationship with the trial law firm that has offices in Florida, North Carolina and Ecuador.
“He’s saying he left for good cause,” Wichmann’s appellate counsel, Nichole J. Segal of Burlington & Rockenbach in West Palm Beach, Florida, said. “He didn’t just pick up and leave in the middle of the night. … He felt it was in the interest of himself and the clients to leave.”
Wichmann worked for Conrad & Scherer as a nonequity, “contract partner” for four years from 2005 to 2009. During that time, he handled mass tort litigation involving wrongful death cases against several large conglomerates, including aviation firm DynCorp International, Chiquita Brands International Inc., Dole Food Company Inc., Drummond Company Inc. and others. The court dismissed the Conrad & Scherer litigation. This prompted what the firm claimed was a “retaliatory lawsuit” by Drummond, alleging name partner Bill Scherer and attorney Terry Collingsworth “engaged in a witness payment scheme in order to bolster its claims against the corporation,” according to Conrad & Scherer’s answer brief in the Fourth DCA case.
The law firm suggests these refuted allegations provided fuel for Wichmann, who months later, filed counterclaims for the first time in a seven-year case against his former employer.
“If this was a true reason for him leaving—which it isn’t—he would have raised it from day one in 2009. And he never did. He never raised this until after press articles about the Drummond case came out several years ago about the Drummond lawsuit,” Conrad & Scherer partner Albert L. Frevola Jr. said. “Now he’s using this to deflect from the fact that he walked out in the middle of the night with a large number of clients improperly. “He’s doing this to try to avoid all of his misconduct. His reasons for leaving are not as he’s now claiming.”
Under the first three counts of the counterclaim, Wichmann alleged Conrad breached its contract and fiduciary duty to him by engaging in illegal activities, then committed fraud by concealing that alleged illicit conduct. His two other claims allege the firm interfered with his business relationship by sabotaging his employment at the Rothstein firm. He alleged his former employer contacted Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler, lied about him and persuaded the firm to revoke its job offer to him.
The question before the appellate court was whether Wichmann had missed the window to countersue, and if the five-year statute of limitations now barred his case against Conrad & Scherer. Wichmann’s hope hinged on an exemption that allows defendants to countersue beyond the statutory deadline if their allegations are compulsory counterclaims—meaning they stem from the same facts in the plaintiff’s complaint.
At trial, Broward Circuit Judge Thomas M. Lynch IV dismissed all five of Wichmann’s counterclaims, ruling they fell outside the statute of limitations. But a state appellate panel disagreed in part, allowing the first three to stand, but not the claims alleging Conrad & Scherer cost Wichmann a job with Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler.
“Wichmann would still have had a cause of action against Conrad for intentional interference with a business relationship,” Fourth DCA Judge Mark W. Klingensmith wrote in a unanimous decision with Judges Robert M. Gross and Melanie G. May.
Wichmann’s lawyer, Segal, celebrated the appellate ruling, saying it would give her client the opportunity to not only defend himself against the long-running Conrad & Scherer suit, but also raise his own allegations.
“Essentially everybody can just put out their arguments, and the jury can decide,” she said.
Conrad & Scherer partner Albert L. Frevola Jr. said the firm intends to seek a rehearing before the appellate court.
Frevola said, “We believe the trial court got it right, and respectfully are going to ask the appellate court to reconsider.”