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Legal Secretary Can Sue Shapiro Over Her Firing

July 06, 2006|Greg Krikorian and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

A legal secretary who was fired after she accused well-known Los Angeles attorney Robert Shapiro of overbilling clients can sue his law firm for wrongful termination, a state appeals court has ruled.

In its 3-0 decision, a panel of the 2nd Appellate District concluded that Pauletta James was entitled to move forward with a claim that she was dismissed from the firm of Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro because she reported Shapiro's alleged misdeeds.

The ruling overturned a lower court decision that James had not proved her firing violated rules protecting whistle-blowers.

"If an employee at a law firm reports that a partner is defrauding clients out of money by issuing inflated legal bills, then that report inures to the benefit of the public as well as to the law firm," the court said.

Shapiro is perhaps best known as part of the defense team that won an acquittal in the high-profile murder trial of O.J. Simpson.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Robert Shapiro: A headline in Thursday's California section incorrectly said that a legal secretary can sue attorney Robert Shapiro over her firing. A state appeals court ruled that Pauletta James can sue the firm where Shapiro is a name partner, but not Shapiro himself.

The appellate ruling is another potential setback for his firm, whose first name partner, Terry Christensen, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with the ongoing wiretap and racketeering case against onetime private eye Anthony Pellicano. Christensen has pleaded not guilty.

The firm now is known as Christensen, Glaser, Fink, Jacobs, Weil & Shapiro.

While Shapiro declined comment, another name partner said she believes the firm will prevail against James' claim of wrongful termination. "I am confident, based on what I have been told, that there is no merit to her position," said Patricia Glaser.

James' attorney hailed the court for holding that attorney overbilling is an important public policy issue.

The 22-page ruling, lawyer James K. Autrey said, "also shows the court's willingness to hold large and prestigious firms like Christensen-Miller accountable when allegations are made that they have overbilled or fraudulently billed their clients."

James, who joined the law firm in March 2002, was fired from her job in January 2003. In suing Shapiro and the firm, she maintained that the dismissal was in retaliation for exposing Shapiro's billing practices.

In court papers, Shapiro and the firm portrayed James as a problem employee who was fired because no one wanted to work with her.

In its ruling, the court noted that Shapiro said that James spent too much time away from her desk or talking with other employees, and that many of his telephone calls went to his voicemail. The situation got worse when James repeatedly refused his request to track her time and to update information in his personal directory, Shapiro said.

After telling her to work only on the personal directory, Shapiro said she told him: "I got your message. I will do one but not the other. I will complete the work, but I will not keep track of time. I'm not on a plantation."

Another employee at the firm, Sara Caplan, told Shapiro that James could have jeopardized one of his cases by giving incorrect information to a court clerk. Caplan also said she once overheard a phone call in which James told a client how they could report Caplan and Shapiro to the state bar for malpractice.

James noted that she got excellent job reviews in 2002. And, the court noted, at the bottom of one evaluation -- in a handwritten message apparently written by Caplan -- James was described as "a godsend to [Shapiro] and me."

The next month, according to James' sworn deposition, she first became aware of Shapiro's alleged billing practices. In one case, she testified, Shapiro told her to "white out" the bills from an outside attorney doing work for the firm, and that a client would be charged $7,000 to $10,000 for that attorney's work when the lawyer had only billed Shapiro $2,000 or $3,000.

On another occasion, James alleged, Shapiro became furious when he learned that she was maintaining a separate ledger reflecting the bills and payments relating to a client.

Shapiro's firm, in its papers, said that James had been fired from two law firms and left a third, and had made a claim to the State Labor Commissioner alleging an unsafe and unhealthy work environment at a previous employer's office. Autrey said that was irrelevant, and the appeals court agreed.

The court also said the law firm's arguments missed the bigger issue.

"The problem for [the law firm] is that while it tries to rehabilitate Shapiro and focus on the gaps in James' knowledge, it ignores the proverbial elephant in the room," the court said. "James declared and testified that Shapiro told her to alter legal bills and inflate hours spent on legal tasks."

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