Two Philadelphia firms, Cozen O’Connor and Blank Rome, shot back at allegations brought in federal court in New York that the firms were involved in a scheme to defraud real estate investors of $27 million.
The investors allege that Charles Naselsky, a disbarred lawyer who once worked at both Cozen O’Connor and Blank Rome, conspired with Philadelphia real estate developers to get the investors to put millions of dollars into a project that would be barred by zoning restrictions.
Naselsky is currently serving 70 months in prison for an unrelated tax evasion scheme and is not a defendant in this suit.
Both Cozen O’Connor and Blank Rome argue among their affirmative defenses in their separate answers that the plaintiffs’ claims against them are time-barred and that Naselsky’s alleged actions were not within his scope of work at either firm.
The firms have asked the New York court to move the case to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where the underlying real estate project had been proposed.
They noted in their joint motion to transfer that the three earlier suits the plaintiffs filed stemming from the failed project were brought in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
"Since 2007, plaintiffs have acknowledged that the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is the appropriate situs for disputes relating to the real estate in question," the defendants said in that motion.
One of the earlier suits stemming from the project that was brought in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ended with a jury verdict of over $34 million from Ravinder Chawla, a developer, and other defendants in 2010. Naselsky wasn’t a defendant in that case and neither were the law firms.
Berish Berger, a British investor who manages his family’s various real estate businesses, led the previous suits as well as the current one in New York.
Naselsky worked at Cozen O’Connor for four years before joining Blank Rome in July 2006, the year that Berger invested in a development project called River City. The project was billed as being a 12-million-square-foot mixed-use development that would include skyscrapers, according to the complaint. In December 2006, though, Philadelphia imposed a height-limit that would preclude the 600-foot skyscrapers.
Berger alleges that Naselsky, who was the lawyer for developers Chawla and Richard Zeghibe, helped the pair hide the city’s plan for the height ordinance from Berger, according to the complaint.
In his most recent lawsuit, Berger alleges that Cozen O’Connor and Blank Rome conspired to defraud him and aided and abetted Naselsky’s scheme, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs seek to recover their losses from the two law firms and the commercial real estate firm of Cushman & Wakefield "because of Naselsky’s role in River City conspiracy while he was a partner at Cozen and Blank Rome and because of the substantial assistance provided to Chawla and his conspirators by all defendants," according to the complaint. Cushman & Wakefield, which had prepared an appraisal of the River City project in 2006, has filed a motion to dismiss the complaint against it.
It also joined the motion to move the case to Philadelphia.
"Because the real estate at issue is located in Center City Philadelphia, and the professional services at issue are said to have been rendered by the defendants in Philadelphia, it is unsurprising that most of the witnesses and documentary evidence are located in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania," according to the motion to transfer.
Neither Brett Dockwell of Morrison Cohen in New York, who represented Berger, nor Philip Touitou of Hinshaw & Culbertson in New York, who is representing the defendants, could be reached for comment.