Groping, extortion, litigation-funder fraud among claims in dueling suits by law firm, ex-partner

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A court fight between Pierce Bainbridge Beck Price & Hecht and one of its former partners is airing allegations of financial misconduct, sexual assault, masturbation, retaliation and a $65 million extortion attempt.

The dispute first received attention last Wednesday, when fired partner Donald Lewis sued Pierce Bainbridge in Manhattan state court alleging financial improprieties by the firm and a firing in retaliation for his knowledge. The law firm filed its own suit in Los Angeles state court the same day claiming that Lewis tried to extort it for $65 million as revenge for his firing. Bloomberg Law and the American Lawyer (in stories here and here) have coverage.

Lewis withdrew his suit on the same day he filed it, but then refiled the next day. Pierce Bainbridge attached Lewis’ May 15 suit as an exhibit in its own suit.

Many BigLaw refugees work at Pierce Bainbridge, a litigation boutique formed two years ago that now has offices in several big cities. Before joining Pierce Bainbridge, Lewis had worked as an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and as an in-house lawyer for WeWork.

The law firm’s suit said Lewis came to the firm “with much fanfare” in June 2018, but he “immediately became a corrosive presence” who spoke ill of colleagues. He had contributed little to the firm’s development before he was placed on leave that October, the law firm said.

In his own suit, Lewis said he was a high-performing partner who had received “a bevy of glowing praise from his fellow partners,” including a name partner who described Lewis as a “force of nature.” Lewis, who is black, says he was nonetheless held to a higher standard than white lawyers and was fired for alleged sexual harassment, although it was tolerated and even rewarded when committed by other lawyers.

Lewis claimed that he was fired after false allegations by a member of the firm’s staff and a sham investigation by Pierce Bainbridge. The allegations don’t involve a misunderstanding but rather a fabrication of purported events that didn’t happened, Lewis’ suit said.

In reality, Lewis said, managing partner John Pierce was aware of Lewis’ knowledge of “illicit financial activity,” and Pierce also knew that Lewis “would not fall in line like his other obsequious underlings.” Lewis’ firing happened a day after Lewis told Pierce to cut out the financial misconduct, Lewis’ suit said.

The law firm countered in its suit that Lewis grabbed a legal assistant’s breasts after she saw him masturbating in a glass-enclosed office. The firm said it put Lewis on leave and then fired him after he sent a mass email to partners disparaging several partners and the firm’s business practices.

Lewis claimed in his suit that Pierce Bainbridge was built “on smoke and mirrors,” and that incoming partners were misled about its prospects. He also claimed that the firm’s operations were supported with money from litigation funder Pravati Capital, the firm overvalued cases to obtain loans, and it wasted money that it received.

Lewis claimed that a culture of chaos at the firm facilitated financial mismanagement. Pierce displayed “an utter lack of class” and lacked “any modicum of a moral compass,” according to Lewis’ suit.

Pierce Bainbridge countered that Lewis had sent it a draft version of the suit in March and demanded $65 million, which amounted to extortion. Lewis’ allegations “are wholly false and completely irrelevant” to his wrongful termination claims, the firm’s suit said. In addition, the suit said, Lewis had told a firm partner after a hockey game in April that he would file suit absent a “real offer” of at least $3.5 million, and he would “lose weight” and “go on Oprah” to make sure the suit received publicity.

Pravati told the American Lawyer that it profited from its relationship with Pierce Bainbridge, although it no longer provided funding to the law firm.

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