Scruggs' former business partner fights sexual harassment suit

By John O'Brien | Apr 2, 2008

JACKSON, Miss. - The firm providing the financial support of the former Scruggs Katrina Group is trying to turn the tables on a former employee who filed a sexual harassment suit against it.

Defendants led by trial lawyer David Nutt last week filed with a federal court a series of e-mails from fired paralegal Maria Brown's work address that show she may have contributed to the overly sexual atmosphere she complained of.

The e-mails were submitted in response to Brown's motion to add complaints against Nutt's attorneys, though the response makes no mention of them. They include conversations of a sexual nature with an unknown individual and messages sent to Nutt & McAlister's Ernie Coward, one of the men Brown alleged harassed her.

"The only thing that the IRS has not taxed yet is the male penis," Brown says in one e-mail that can be found on page 36 of the exhibits file. "This is due to the fact that 69 percent of the time it is hanging around unemployed, 10 percent of the time it is hard up, 20 percent of the time it is pissed off and 1 percent of the time it is in the hole.

"On top of that, it has two dependents and they are both nuts!"

Brown alleged that Coward asked her for oral sex after an employee that performed it for him left the firm and showed her pictures of his genitalia, requesting pictures of hers in return.

She also claims some employees were paid for sexual favors performed in a broom closet.

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

Other e-mails Brown sent to Coward include pictures of a nude woman having her body painted, a link to a website that tests the visitor's ability tell fake breasts from real ones and several jokes about the types of penises

When Coward asked Brown the best type of penis, she replied, "For me it would be the Snickers, cause you know life is all about satisfaction."

Brown is attempting to amend her complaint a second time, seeking to include attorney Christopher Shapley and his firm -- Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes of Jackson -- as defendants. She claims Shapley slandered her in a television interview.

"Defendant Shapley stated to Marsha Thompson, reporter for WLBT Channel 3 ... that 'the paralegal was discharged for inappropriate conduct on the job,'" her Motion to Amend says.

"This slanderous statement is patently false. In fact, Plaintiff was given severance pay and her subsequent request for unemployment compensation was not challenged by defendants for any supposed termination for cause.

"Defendant Shapley made this slanderous remark with the intent to injure the reputation and credibility of the plaintiff."

The defendants' response can be found here.

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 admitted to roles in an attempt 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.

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;

* 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 had 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, but the charge was dismissed.

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; and

* 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.

Renfroe and State Farm are seeking the disqualification of the members of the KLG (Nutt & McAlister, The Lovelace Law Firm, Barrett Law Office) from Katrina cases because of their connection to Scruggs.

Renfroe attorney Joseph Walker argued that Nutt & McAlister should be held accountable for Scruggs' actions because it handled the finances. Nutt & McAlister largely funded the group with the agreement it would receive 35 percent of the attorneys fees.

The KLG represents more than 1,100 Mississippi policyholders, approximately 450 of whom have complaints against State Farm.

"Pursuant to the SKG Joint Venture Agreement, any payment from the SKG's common fund, presumably including bribery payments, would have been approved by Nutt & McAlister ..." Walker wrote.

Nutt and Scruggs both made their names in asbestos and tobacco litigation. Nutt has moved to dismiss himself individually from the list of defendants, and Brown has responded.

Tuesday, Nutt and the firm Liston/Lancaster of Winona apparently reached a settlement with Houston firm Matthews & Associates. The three had teamed to bring complaints against prescription drug maker Pfizer over its diabetes drug Rezulin.

The firms entered into an oral agreement then disagreed over how to split attorneys fees once a 2004 settlement was reached.

A meeting of the two sides was cancelled because they notified the court that a settlement had been reached.

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