I don’t usually spend my time wading through court filings, most are pretty dry and boring. Quite honestly I’d rather disembowel myself with a plastic butter knife than try and make sense of the arcane language so loved by the legal profession. However once in a great while a true gem pops up. That is certainly the case in the suit Joseph C. Maher II brought against  Weitz & Luxenberg, its founders Perry Weitz and Arthur M. Luxenberg  yesterday in Los Angeles Superior Court.

This suit reads more like a John Grisham novel than a real life case. It combines the lawyering skullduggery of The Firm with the medical malpractice aspects of The King of Torts.

Let me set the scene. In the legal world the rare form of lung cancer known as Mesothelioma has become a cottage industry. The only known cause for Meso is exposure to asbestos. For over the first half of the 20th century asbestos was classed as a wonder product. It had applications from brake pads to insulation. Over time however it became clear that it came at a price. Exposure to the air bourn fibers was found to be deadly. To complicate matters it could take anywhere from 20 to 50 years for the problem to manifest itself.  As a result, most victims are WW II veterans who worked in Naval shipyards when our nation need their help most.

Asbestos use is now a highly controlled and regulated arena, however new cases of Mesothelioma continue to occur. For the past decade or so that number has remained steady at about 3,000 per year. Meso settlements are almost always in the 7 digits, making it rich pickings for law firms specializing in the area. One only has to watch late night cable TV for a few minutes to see an advert for a Meso legal firm.

So let’s jump into the plot set out in the law suit. The New York based law firm Weitz & Luxenberg are major players in the Meso game. They have branch offices in New Jersey and Colorado, but want to break into the lucrative west coast region of Southern California. 

This makes great sense. asbestos was heavily used by the Navy during World War II. Its fire resistance properties made it ideal for ship building. So in 2010 they decided the time was ripe. Of course they had apparently tried this some 10 years earlier and failed. My guess is that LA 1.0 failed because they did not have a local legal guy with a track record running the show.

LA 2.0 was going to be a different game. Joseph C. Maher II was the candidate selected. He had over 15 years of bar experience, was well liked, well known and well respected in the local legal community. Weitz & Luxenberg needed this guy, so the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is a good one. A salary of $200,000 and the promise of an annual bonus that will probably require a Brinks truck to deliver.

In return Maher would have to work his lawyering tail off to make LA 2.0 a big success. Maher keeps his end of the bargain, he does indeed work his tail off.

Not long into the adventure a new name emerges. To assist Maher along comes Benno Ashrafi. Benno knows the world of Meso cases, because his former employer, law firm Waters, Krause & Paul, are also players in the Meso game. As meso is a bit of a legal specialty, this addition to the team seems like a coup.

The coup is just starting as Maher soon finds out. Benno Ashrafi brought more to the table than his experience. He brought the damn farm from Waters, Krause & Paul! 178 complete client files including all of their confidential medical records, health histories and the most intimate confidential data that people only give to their lawyers. These records represent millions and millions of dollars in potential settlements and the new BMW’s for all involved if they got in the wrong hands.

Maher starts to smell a rat. There are documents being filed that don’t have a sensible paper trail. Even worse, some are clearly the property of Waters, Krause & Paul.

Joseph does what he thinks is right, he reports his concerns to his bosses at Weitz & Luxenberg.

So, here is the question, who gets fired? I’ll give you a clue, it was not Benno Ashrafi!

This case opens many doors and behind each door are many questions. The suit as it stands is between Maher and Weitz & Luxenberg (with Benno Ashrafi in the spotlight), but there is far more to this suit than just being a pissing match over termination. It is claimed that the files that Benno Ashrafi brought with him include medical files from the victims various doctors, hospitals and clinics that would certainly contravene the HIPPA laws. It also casts a shadow on the ethics of this law firm.

The paperwork was filed yesterday, so it is still too early for any sensible comments from the people involved. But I’ll bet that the folks at Weitz & Luxenberg are missing their Friday afternoon cocktail hour! Equally the people at Waters, Krause & Paul are probably giving birth to kittens!

As for Benno Ashrafi, I have no clue what he is doing. But I suspect he is having a cow worrying about whether he will lose his job and his license to practice law!

In a brief telephone interview with Maher;s counsel, Emanuel Barling, Jr., he said, “These are despicable acts by people who care only about their profits and not the privacy of victims who gave up a portion of their lives in the war effort.  The question is how will the 178 victims feel when they find out that their privacy has been violated so that young lawyer could get a job at a law firm and increase his income while the law firm could make even more money than they were already.  It is so sad”

You can read the complaint here.

Simon Barrett

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