LOS ANGELES (Legal Newsline) – A lawsuit brought by a former attorney against a major asbestos law firm has been removed to federal court.
Attorneys for Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik removed plaintiff Marc Willick’s lawsuit to Los Angeles federal court on Jan. 28, arguing that the complaint crosses a $75,000 amount-in-question threshold and that there is a diversity of citizenship among the parties.
Willick’s original lawsuit was filed Dec. 12 in Los Angeles Superior Court. It alleges Paul Napoli and Marc Bern owe him a portion of fees obtained from cases he helped prosecute for the firm.
After the suit was filed, Napoli told Legal Newsline that he considers the claims made in the lawsuit “nonsense.” He also called Willick “an opportunist who is apparently not doing well in his own practice.”
But Willick claims the firm has not paid him what he is owed.
In his complaint, Willick alleges that he was in talks with the defendants regarding the fees he claims to be entitled to before Napoli had a brief setback while battling leukemia.
Willick also claims that in November, he learned that millions of dollars in judgments were entered against defendants for the percentage of attorneys fees they allegedly owed to other lawyers in similar situations.
“Plaintiff is informed and believes, and on that basis alleges, that defendants’ misconduct, as alleged herein, is part and parcel of a pervasive scheme in which defendants underpaid, refused to account to, and have otherwise mistreated their employees and similarly situated attorneys who entered into similar agreements with defendants and each of them,” Willick alleges.
The removal notice says Willick made a base salary of $15,000 per month at the time of his termination, plus referral fees and bonuses.
In his complaint, Willick mentioned a recent power struggle between Napoli and Bern over alleged irregularities in the firm’s operations.
In a statement previously provided by Paul and Marie Napoli, he addressed Bern’s allegations of irregularities by stating that his partner attempted to humiliate him, his family and his office.
“As many of you know, Marc (Bern) for inexplicable reasons, decided once I got sick to try and take over the law firm I have built over the last 20 years. He quietly waited until I went under the knife for my transplant before firing key employees who worked for me in running the firm. At the same time, he fired my 72-year-old father (the biggest earner in the office in personal injury). While in ICU Marie had to leave my side and rush to Court to get the Court to order him to cease,” Napoli stated.
Willick, who is founder of the Law Office of Marc I. Willick, claims that in March 2011 he entered into a written agreement stating that his law office would act as local counsel for the defendants in asbestos related cases referred by the defendants.
They agreed that the fees generated from the allotted cases would be divided 10 percent to Willick and the remaining 90 percent to the firm, he said.
Then in May 2011, the parties entered into another written agreement that directed Willick to devote his full time and attention to the business and affairs of the law firm, he said.
Willick stated that the defendants led him to believe that he would be provided with full and timely accountings reflecting the necessary compensation.
“These representations were knowingly false and were made with the intent of deceiving plaintiff into executing the second agreement, providing services pursuant to the second agreement and introducing defendants to plaintiff’s referral sources,” the complaint stated.
However, Napoli explained that Willick’s agreements included a “draw provision,” which he was required to meet before getting paid on settlements. Because Willick never met the draw, he was not entitled to the money he claims to have lost, he said.
Additionally, Willick alleges the defendants filed and prosecuted multiple cases in his name without his knowledge or consent, indicating to the court that the plaintiff was the counsel on the case. As an example, he claims the defendants affixed an electronic image of the plaintiff’s signature on pleadings.
As a result of these written agreements, Willick claims he is entitled to an award reflecting the fees the defendants received on cases filed or prosecuted in his name, cases brought to them by the plaintiff and cases Willick referred to the defendants by his own referral sources.
The complaint states that Willick ended his employment with the defendants on or about Dec. 14, 2012.
However, Napoli said the firm had to let him go after he was frequently absent and continuously missed deadlines. As a result, Willick was asked to resign subsequent to a performance review, Napoli said.
The five-count lawsuit also claims the firm misrepresented itself as an LLP, or having a limited liability partnership, and named the “Napoli Bern entities” as defendants.
“The Napoli Bern entities are purportedly limited liability partnerships, but, in reality, are names used by Napoli and Bern to conduct their personal business,” Willick alleges.
Furthermore, Willick takes issue with the number of similar, but different, names the firm has used when filing cases, stating that the firm does business as no less than 11 different LLPs and have a combined 100 bank accounts.
Napoli said the allegations regarding the Napoli Bern entities aren’t true. He explained that the firm changed names as different partners were employed there over the years, adding that every name change was legal and appropriate.
Calling the Napoli Bern entities the “alter egos” of Napoli and Bern, Willick further claims there is a unity of interest, ownership and operation between the defendants and urges the court to treat the actions of the law firm as the actions of the two accused attorneys.
According to the complaint, Willick also claims Napoli and Bern used assets of each of the entities and withdrew funds from the bank accounts for their personal use.
“The defendants exercised such complete control and dominance of the business assets of the Napoli Bern entities and used and mingled the assets and monies of them such that an individually or separateness of [the defendants] does not, and at all times herein mentioned did not, exist,” the complaint states.
According to the complaint, Willick urges the court to order the defendants to provide an accounting that reflects all fees and costs received by them for matters in which Willick was named as the counsel of record, asbestos cases Willick brought to the defendants and cases that came to the defendants through Willick’s referral sources.
He also seeks actual damages, prejudgment interest, punitive damages, costs of suit and any further relief the court deems just and proper.
Willick is represented by James L. Goldman of Pircher, Nichols & Meeks.
From Legal Newsline: Reach editor John O'Brien at firstname.lastname@example.org.