Katrina firm hit with sexual harassment suit

John O'Brien Dec. 14, 2007, 4:32pm

JACKSON, Miss. - A paralegal is alleging that her time at Nutt and McAlister was more like Spring Break and that she was fired for complaining that the firm's attorneys were violating a judge's injunction in a Hurricane Katrina-related case.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court, Maria Brown says attorneys at the firm, part of the Katrina Litigation Group (formerly the Scruggs Katrina Group), engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior like online masturbation and sexual favors that were paid for performed in a broom closet.

"The overall environment was saturated with sex..." says the complaint, filed by Jackson attorney Louis Watson.

Nutt and McAlister is one of the remaining members of the Katrina Litigation Group, which changed its name after the Scruggs Law Firm stopped handling Katrina claims. It did so because members Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, son Zack Scruggs and Sidney Backstrom were indicted by a federal grand jury.

They are three of five who are alleged to have attempted to bribe a state judge in a $26.5 million attorneys fees dispute. The others are attorney Timothy Balducci and business partner and former state Auditor Steven Patterson. Balducci has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with federal prosecutors.

Now it is another Katrina firm that has a lawsuit on its hands. Brown says she was fired a month after reporting sexual harassment and four months after informing what she saw as a violation of a federal judge's order to Mary McAlister.

Brown also claims she is owed $80,000 by the firm for off-the-clock work she performed on Katrina cases.

The complaint specifically alleges:

-William Jones, a member of the firm's management, continually rubbed Brown's hand and made her feel uncomfortable;

-Another employee, Ernie Coward, showed her a picture of his genitalia and asked for one of her's;

-McAlister and Derek Wyatt promised Brown they would pay off her home if she gave up her personal time to work on Katrina cases. Instead, they gave her only $5,000 of the $85,000 promised;

-The firm electronically copied and saved documents from E.A. Renfroe, a claims-handling company working with State Farm Insurance Cos., in violation of U.S. District Judge William Acker's order to give them back to Renfroe's attorneys (Dickie Scruggs has been charged with criminal contempt for allegedly turning the documents over to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who had a class action case against State Farm and four other insurance companies).

Brown says she was told by McAlister that because the documents were saved on the firm's local Internet server, they were part of public domain and not subject to the injunction;

-She reported the situation with the documents in March and the sexual harassment in June before being laid off in July because of "reorganization."

The 11-count complaint seeks punitive and compensatory damages, as well as reinstatement or front pay, back pay and lost benefits.

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Mississippi Attorney General
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Jackson, MS 39201

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