Attorney Claims Firm Swiped Asbestos Files
LOS ANGELES (CN) - An attorney claims in Superior Court that a law firm specializing in asbestos claims shared confidential client files stolen from a competitor, and fired him after he discovered the data on the firm's servers.
Attorney Joseph C. Maher II sued Weitz & Luxenberg, Perry Weitz, Arthur Luxenberg, and Benno Ashrafi, also an attorney.
Ashrafi, now managing attorney of the defendant firm's Los Angeles office, stole the files from his former employer, Waters, Krause & Paul, according to the complaint.
Waters, Krause & Paul is not a party to the case.
Maher claims he was forced out of Weitz & Luxenberg as "part of a Machiavellian plot" after he discovered the files had been swiped from Waters, Krause & Paul.
Maher claims his employers tried to stop him from disclosing the alleged theft as part of his termination agreement.
Maher says he worked for Weitz & Luxenberg for a year and half on the recommendation of famed legal clerk and activist Erin Brockovich, who works, or worked, as a consultant for the firm, according to a 2008 article in the ABA Journal.
"On August 27 and again on August 29, 2011, plaintiff Maher discovered, on the Weitz & Luxenberg Los Angeles office T:/drive computer file, the contents of the Waters, Krause & Paul law firm computer files that seemed to be a wholesale copy of the entire and complete Waters, Krause & Paul confidential and/or proprietary asbestos legal practice," the complaint states. "As emails, later discovered, bear out, these Waters, Krause & Paul files were uploaded from defendant Benno Ashrafi's personal external hard-drive to the Weitz & Luxenberg servers and computer network as hereinbefore described, with the knowledge and approval of Perry Weitz and Arthur M. Luxenberg."
Maher claims the information included Waters, Krause & Paul databases, client files, settlement documents and confidential patient information, including medical records and Social Security numbers.
Maher claims that the data on the firm's network and servers was made available to more than 370 employees, so that "a janitor, law clerk, secretary or any other personnel in the office could access this data, take this data for their own personal use and/or steal a copy of the data for themselves and then sell their services to yet another law firm who stood to gain from the misuse of the Waters, Krause & Paul clients."
Maher claims the stolen information also allowed Weitz and Luxenberg to solicit Waters, Kraus & Paul clients.
"The enormity and breathtaking scope of stealing the entirety of the Waters, Krause & Paul clients is massive from an anticompetitive and unfair trade practices perspective," according to the 59-page complaint. "The asbestos litigation arena is an area that is continuing and which does not end with a settlement. Unlike a single class action that ends when it is settled, asbestos mesothelioma lawsuits are individual cases, and by current epidemiologic estimates, the disease of mesothelioma will continue almost at its current rate until 2040, and will continue after that but will decrease. Here, all of the client files contained the confidential settlements. Therefore, defendants could 'reverse engineer' the profitability of Waters, Krause & Paul, and with the market strength that defendants have, they can engineer national settlements so as to undercut Waters, Krause & Paul in an attempt to drive down Waters, Krause & Paul settlements which would be severely injurious to Waters, Krause & Paul. Additionally with such confidential settlement information, defendants could use that information to court and solicit also take away known attorney and prospective referrals from Waters, Krause & Paul. This anticompetitive effect could be so significant as to reach well into multiples of tens of millions of dollars over time. ...
"The asbestos exhibits stolen from Waters, Krause & Paul have a cost over time in the multiple millions of dollars, having come from hard-fought discovery against opposing lawyers and their clients over decades, as well as from highly paid experts."
Attached as an exhibit to the complaint is a copy of an email dated Sept. 2, 2011, at 1:45 p.m., from Maher to Perry Weitz, Arthur Luxenberg and two others, "their partner Robert Gordon and the managing attorney in New York," according to the complaint.
Maher writes in the email: "I am reporting to you a very serious matter that requires your immediate care. It has come to my attention that virtually the entirety of the Waters, Krause & Paul firm files were copied and taken from WKP and are now on the Weitz & Luxenberg network and servers, accessible on a firm wide basis for any person to view and copy. This information appears to include WKP databases and client files containing confidential settlement documents and memoranda and personal records such as medical, social security and tax info, etc. Given the scope and magnitude of the WKP files and info on our network, it appears the firm has rec'd confidential and proprietary materials belonging to WKP, This places the firm, as well as myself, at great risk and makes me nervous. Please look into this immediately. Joe Maher," according to Exhibit 1, attached to the complaint.
Arthur Luxenberg's emailed response, dated six minutes later, states: "Have u spoken to Benno about this?" according to the exhibit.
Maher says in his complaint that the firm "did not seem alarmed by the situation, and made excuses for defendant Benno Ashrafi's behavior."
Maher claims he was fired less than two months later, while Ashrafi was promoted.
Maher claims the firm negotiated an "all encompassing" and "take it or leave it" severance package and separation agreement to intimidate him into silence.
"The agreement was an effort by defendants to control plaintiff Maher and prevent him from making any moral or ethical disclosure that may be required by the Rules of Professional Conduct regarding the stolen data or the despicable conduct of the thief, defendant Ashrafi. The sole purpose of this was to ensure the defendants ability to continue to use the stolen data and profit by it as described hereinabove," the complaint states.
Maher seeks punitive damages for breach of implied contract, wrongful termination against public policy, implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, fraud, unjust enrichment, unjust enrichment for wages earned, tortious interference with contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
He is represented by Emanuel Barling Jr.
Weitz & Luxenberg did not immediately respond to a request for comment.