U.S. Labor Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo: Mike Scarcella/NLJ

A top U.S. Labor Department lawyer who continued to represent a private client in a federal court case against a union was suspended for two weeks without pay last year for exercising “bad judgment,” the agency said.

Michael Avakian was formerly the principal member in the Washington office of Atlanta-based Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider & Stine before joining the Labor Department in April as associate deputy secretary in the agency’s front office.

Avakian, representing the steel company D5 Iron Works Inc., filed court papers July 30 in a pending case in Indiana federal court against a labor union. The company alleges the union is responsible for a “violent attack” in an attempt to secure a collective bargaining agreement.

Before joining the Labor Department, Avakian reportedly told ethics officials about the ongoing case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, the Labor Department said in a statement.

Labor Department ethics officials advised Avakian to wind down the litigation, an agency representative said. Avakian said the filings in July were his final pleadings. Avakian withdrew from the case Aug. 2, citing a “change in jobs.”

The Labor Department said Avakian should have taken more steps to end his involvement in the Indiana litigation.

“Even though career ethics officials determined that Michael had not knowingly violated a criminal statute or particular ethics rule, the department concluded that Michael exercised bad judgment in not taking more expeditious steps to wrap up his participation in the ongoing litigation,” the agency spokesperson said.

Avakian agreed not to accept compensation for the work he did on the case during the time he was also employed at the Labor Department. Bloomberg Law first reported the sanction against Avakian.

Messages seeking comment that were sent to Avakian’s Labor Department email address and to his Wimberly email were not immediately responded to.

Avakian said in his financial disclosure, obtained by The National Law Journal, that his “practice [was] terminated before entry into government service.” He said he “retain[s] a contingency fees interest in cases with Wimberly, Lawson & Avakian (value not readily ascertainable) and any recovery obtained. Outstanding fees billed will be forwarded as received.”

The disclosure did not identify clients for whom Avakian provided legal services. The sources of income were identified as the Wimberly firm, and consulting work for the Center on National Labor Policy Inc.

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The Labor Department concluded that Avakian did not use government resources in his representation of the private client while serving as an agency lawyer. As associate deputy secretary, Avakian serves under Deputy Secretary Patrick Pizzella and Secretary Alexander Acosta.

“The incident highlighted the importance of providing specific advice on appropriate timeframes for winding down matters,” a Labor Department spokeswoman said.

Avakian, a veteran labor and employment attorney, earlier represented the company Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors in a case confronting the Obama-era joint employment standard at the National Labor Relations Board.

Trump-appointed NLRB leaders tried unsuccessfully to use Avakian’s case to create a more business-friendly standard, but an ethics conflict involving one of the board members stopped the effort. The labor board is now involved in a rule-making process to overturn the Obama-era standard.

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