A Cherry Hill, New Jersey, law firm has been sued for race discrimination and fraud by a former associate who said he never received his agreed-on share of fees collected by the firm in personal injury cases.
Benjamin Smith, who graduated from Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in 2016, says in his suit, filed Wednesday, that the Cronin Law Firm shortchanged him by more than $15,000 in earnings and also subjected him to derogatory comments about his Asian heritage.
Joseph Cronin, the firm’s principal, entered into an oral agreement with Smith in October 2016, giving him a specified portion of the firm’s fees for cases he worked on, according to the plaintiff. But Cronin later told the firm’s office manager in a series of text messages that he wanted to change the terms, according to the complaint. After that, he failed to pay Smith any more bonuses on cases where the firm collected fees, the suit claims.
Smith, a Philadelphia resident, brought claims for racial discrimination under 42 U.S.C. §1981 and for race and national origin discrimination and for a hostile work environment under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. He also brought claims for violation of the New Jersey Wage Payment Act, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, fraud, conversion and accounting.
Cronin told the New Jersey Law Journal he considered Smith’s claims to be frivolous.
Smith began working at Cronin’s office as a law clerk in 2015. In October 2016, after passing the bar exam, he became a full-time associate attorney at the firm. In December 2016, the firm entered into an oral agreement with Smith and two other attorneys, calling for 5 percent of fees from contingency cases settled by the firm to be paid to each attorney working on the case. The agreement also gave Smith and the others 33.3 percent of the firm’s contingency fees for cases originated by the attorney. The agreement also gave Smith and the others 20 percent of fees generated from hourly cases that were originated by the attorney.
Cronin’s firm previously had a Philadelphia office as well but now operates out of its Cherry Hill site.
Early this January, Smith received two payments of around $5,000 each for cases that were settled. He says those payments “substantiated” the agreement.
In June, the firm settled a case with a total recovery of $920,000, and Smith was entitled to $10,000 from the case, he says. But the firm never paid him that amount. And in July, the firm obtained a $225,000 recovery on behalf of another client, and Smith was entitled to $4,000, but that amount was never paid either. He also never received payments of $500 each in three other cases, including one in which his mother was the firm’s client, Smith says.
In August, the complaint said, Smith learned that Cronin and others at the firm were exchanging text messages that included derogatory jokes about Asians, including one picturing a purported Samurai with the caption “Me Doggie Gotta Poopie So Me Late.” Cronin associated himself with the bigotry by commenting that the picture was funny, according to the suit. On Aug. 25, Smith says, he was constructively discharged when he rendered his resignation over the discriminatory text messages.
When he tendered his resignation, Smith demanded his fees but Cronin said they were “discretionary,” according to the complaint.
Cronin said he had not seen the complaint but considered Smith’s claims both “frivolous” and “without merit.”
The suit seeks actual damages, damages for pain and suffering and punitive damages, as well as compensation for all pay and benefits the plaintiff is entitled to.
Smith’s attorney, W. Charles Sipio of Kolman Ely in Penndel, Pennsylvania, declined to comment on the case.