Holland & Knight Sued for Tortious Interference

In 1 on January 15, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Former director of Holland's litigation support group claims law firm caused Hughes Hubbard to rescind job offer

Nathan Carlile
Legal Times
January 4, 2008

 It's not unusual for a firm to use tough tactics when litigating a case. But tough tactics cost Patricia Dillman her job.

After working under three bosses in less than a year, Dillman, the director of Holland & Knight's litigation support group, decided to look for a fresh start. She settled on not only a different firm, Hughes Hubbard & Reed, but also a new city. Dillman accepted a $200,000 annual salary to move from Washington to Hughes Hubbard's New York office.

In September 2007, Dillman put in her two weeks and prepared for the move. But then Hughes Hubbard informed her that because of a possible conflict, raised by Holland, there was no longer an offer. Dillman was out a job. She responded by suing her former firm for tortious interference in D.C. Superior Court in November, asking for $300,000 in damages.

"I've never seen anything like this," says Lynne Bernabei, Dillman's attorney and a name partner at Bernabei & Wachtel. "The bar has an ethical concern with lawyers being stopped from moving from one firm to another firm. But Dillman was a paralegal."

Holland, through attorney Robert Trout, a name partner at Trout Cacheris, has filed a motion to dismiss the case.

Hughes Hubbard's decision to rescind its offer stems from an oil spill off the northwest coast of Spain in 2002. The tanker Prestige sank, spilling most of its load of 77,000 metric tons of oil. It was Spain's worst environmental disaster, damaging the fishing and tourism industries. Hughes Hubbard is representing the American Bureau of Shipping in a lawsuit filed by the Spanish government in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Holland is representing the Spanish government.

Spain said the bureau, which checks the structural fitness of ships, was negligent in classifying the 26-year-old vessel as fit to haul fuel. Six months after the bureau gave clearance, the Prestige became caught in a storm and Spain refused to give the ship port. The Prestige eventually split in half and sank.

According to the complaint, as director of Holland's litigation support, Dillman billed less than 15 hours, mostly in early 2005, while finding e-discovery vendors to work on the case. Dillman says she did not have access to sensitive information. "Dillman did not participate in legal strategy, had no direct contact or communications with the client, and had no involvement with the preparation of court filings, case chronologies or deposition outlines," says the complaint.

Holland, as you might suspect, has a different take. "She worked on a matter in which both firms were engaged as counsel," says Holland partner Mark Baker, an employment lawyer who is handling the matter for the firm. "Because of knowledge she gained there was the possibility of a breach in client confidentiality. Holland & Knight had a duty to protect our client."

Hughes Hubbard declined to comment.

According to the complaint, Holland partner Brian Starer told Hughes Hubbard attorneys during a deposition in the Reino de Espana case that Holland might try to disqualify the firm from the lawsuit if Dillman began working there.

Bernabei argues that Holland took extreme steps that were unnecessary. "Usually you wall someone off from a case and make it clear that you can't talk about it," says Bernabei. "The New York rules are very protective of the ability of support staff to move."

In an ironic twist, U.S. District Judge Laura Swain on Wednesday dismissed the damage claims filed by Spain, ruling the government has to take action against the American Bureau of Shipping in its own courts.

Posted via email from HKLaw Investigation


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