Do they often do business this way? The law firm of Coughlin Stoia, known as Lerach Coughlin before the departure of now-disgraced Bill Lerach, has been vying for lead counsel status in a shareholder class action against Coca-Cola. Now Roger Parloff at Fortune “Legal Pad” (Feb. 28) reports that a special master on the case has recommended that the firm be disqualified for “extremely troubling” conduct which it then defended after exposure using “pretextual” arguments. It seems two former Coke executives approached the law firm of Milberg Weiss (predecessor before its split of Coughlin Stoia), one of them in possession of more than 3,000 company documents he’d taken on departure, many stamped “confidential”. The law firm then agreed to pay the execs at least $75,000 to serve as “consultants”, part of the deal consisting of access to the documents, which it then used in its complaint.
When the consulting agreement came to light more than a year ago, Coughlin Stoia lawyers backed [Greg] Petro’s claim that neither he nor they had thought he was taking Coke documents without authority because, among other things, Petro had been ordered, when terminated, to “clean out his office.” Special Master [Hunter] Hughes found that such a command could not “rationally be construed to authorize Petro to walk off with company documents, any more than it authorized him to take the company’s desk, chairs, and computer.”
Hughes also rejected arguments that the firm was not really buying the documents, just entering into a consulting agreement, and a public-policy style argument that Petro’s conduct should be condoned because he was a whistleblower trying to expose corporate wrongdoing.
In a footnote, Hughes found that public policy arguments weighed in the other direction: “On a very practical level, for the Court to give Plaintiffs’ counsel a pass on this conduct, would simply invite terminated employees, particularly of public companies, to on a wholesale basis remove company documents following their termination in hopes they can sell them should the company be sued.”