JL Salazar Law Firm, an intellectual property firm in Houston, seeks up to $1 million in damages from former member Valerie Friedrich, alleging she began working for a new firm while still employed by JL Salazar and attempted to shift clients to one or more new firms.
JL Salazar alleged in a petition filed on April 10 in the 157th District Court in Harris County that Friedrich, while still employed at the firm, moved client files to her own private practice. It alleged that a paralegal working with her began using personal email accounts to handle firm patent matters, which deprived the firm of access to client information. The firm also alleged that Friedrich denied she was joining another firm shortly before she notified the firm on Feb. 28 that she was terminating her status as a member of the firm as of March 1.
On April 10, 270th District Judge Brent Gamble signed a temporary restraining order ordering Friedrich and those working with her to not destroy, hide or secrete any written or electronic information that contains or describes the plaintiff’s client files or other client information. A hearing on a temporary injunction is scheduled for Friday.
“Plaintiff has only recently discovered the magnitude of Friedrich’s bad conduct, which is continuing,” JL Salazar alleged in the petition.
Friedrich said the allegations are “all completely false,” and referred further comment to her attorney, Andrew McStay, a partner at Porto, Trueheart & McStay in Houston. McStay did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The petition filed by JL Salazar in JL Salazar Law Firm v. Friedrich provides some details of the allegations.
“In early 2016, unbeknownst to JL Salazar, Friedrich, while still employed full-time with the firm, put a plan into place to misappropriate the client work performed by her and those assisting her. Specifically, Friedrich moved client files belonging to the firm from JL Salazar to her own private practice,” the firm alleged.
The firm further alleged that beginning in August 2016, a paralegal working with Friedrich began using personal email accounts to correspond on firm patent matters and to file patent cases. The firm alleged that because the paralegal and Friedrich had sole access to certain client systems, the firm no longer had access to some client files. The plaintiff also alleged that Juanita Salazar, the majority member of the firm, repeatedly tried to discuss the matter with Friedrich and obtain access to client files, but Friedrich avoided most attempts to talk with her.
According to the petition, Friedrich approached “Client X” early this year seeking permission to transfer all of its files to another firm, Hammer and Associates, a North Carolina IP firm. The plaintiff alleged that since January 2016, Friedrich, who lists Hammer and Associates as her firm in State Bar of Texas membership records, had steered most, if not all, of her contract patent work to a lawyer who is also “affiliated” with Hammer and Associates.
The firm alleged that on Feb. 21, Friedrich denied she was joining another firm when Salazar broached the subject. However, the firm alleged that on Feb. 3, Friedrich formed Friedrich Law Firm. Salazar first learned on Feb. 23 that Friedrich had joined another firm, but Friedrich did not notify her until Feb. 28 that she was terminating her status as a member of JL Salazar Law Firm, according to the firm’s allegations.
The firm said that a “significant number of files and emails related to Client X” had been deleted from a laptop Friedrich’s paralegal returned to the firm. It alleged that because it cannot access numerous client files worked on by Friedrich and the contract lawyer, “the firm has no means to respond to client request for documents, work requests, or to determine whether any issues remain for which the firm could be held liable.” It alleges it also cannot submit invoices without those files.
According to the petition, Friedrich, of Boerne, started working at JL Salazar in October 2010 as an independent contractor doing patent prosecution work. She formerly was a partner with Baker McKenzie in Houston. Friedrich worked at JL Salazar on that basis through Jan. 1, 2014, and on Aug. 20, 2015, she became a member of the firm when she purchased 20 percent of the shares in the firm under an agreement retroactive to Jan. 1, 2014.
JL Salazar is suing Friedrich for breach of fiduciary duty, common-law fraud, tortious interference and unfair competition, and seeks an accounting of all money Friedrich or entities controlled by her earned from Jan. 1, 2016, through March 1. It is seeking fee forfeiture, and due to Friedrich’s “bad faith,” asks that she return her ownership shares in the firm. In addition, the firm is seeking between $200,000 and $1 million in actual and punitive damages, plus attorney fees.
JL Salazar is being represented by Norma Bennett, a shareholder with McFall, Breitbeil & Eidman in Houston. Bennett did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
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