The white-hot dispute between warring partners of the Cellino & Barnes law firm could be headed for a mediation cool down.
Robert J. Schreck, managing partner of the firm headed by Ross M. Cellino Jr. and Stephen E. Barnes, said late Tuesday that litigation will hopefully be avoided through a dispute resolution process now scheduled.
“The parties are optimistic this will bring a resolution of the situation,” Schreck said.
Though he would not discuss the dispute any further, one source familiar with details said mediation sessions are slated for next Monday and Wednesday before retired Appellate Division Justice Jerome C. Gorski.
The move follows last week’s revelation that Cellino had filed suit in State Supreme Court seeking to dissolve the firm known for its ubiquitous billboards and broadcast jingle.
Mediation between the two law partners could now prove the first step in an attempt to reach a settlement, with various outcomes possible. One source who asked not to be identified said possible results range from resolving differences and continuing the firm to dividing its assets and personnel.
The process is overseen by a mediator trained in conflict resolution. If an agreement is reached, according to two sources familiar with dispute resolution, the legal action in court would be discontinued.
Both sides were slated to appear before Justice Debora A. Chimes on Friday, but that action has now been adjourned to June 26.
What will be learned during any court proceedings, however, remains in doubt since the case papers sealed by Chimes -- which include everything from emails and show cause orders to a proposed employment agreement and documents demonstrating company profits -- are now the subject of their own legal efforts. The Buffalo News has asked the judge to reverse her decision in a letter from Joseph M. Finnerty, the newspaper’s attorney.
“This blanket seal interferes with the public’s rights of access to records relevant to the judicial process in New York State,” Finnerty said, “and thereby impedes the public’s corresponding right fully and fairly to be informed about matters of legitimate public interest.
“The ability of the press to keep the public informed is premised in large part on open access to the court system and on its ability to examine and report on judicial documents,” he added.
A spokeswoman for the judge said she would have no comment on Finnerty’s request.
The News reported over the weekend that part of the dispute between the partners surrounded Barnes’s objection to Cellino's effort to add his daughter to the firm’s legal staff. A source close to the case who asked not to be identified said it was hurtful when Barnes ruled out her employment at the firm, but that bigger issues also influenced the move for a split.
Cellino sought a different approach when clients of other attorneys approached the law firm looking to switch their legal representation, the source said. Cellino wanted a policy that called for encouraging the clients to go back to their attorneys and to attempt to work out concerns.
If that failed, the source said, Cellino wanted to work out an arrangement in which the original lawyer on the case stayed on as a co-counsel and shared in the work and in the fee, if there was an award.
This approach, the source said, would “cut down on jealousy and animosity” toward Cellino & Barnes.
“Attorneys are colleagues and don’t need to be at each others’ throats,” the source said in providing insight into Cellino’s position. “He wants to be a gentleman lawyer, the same as his father, who practiced law from the 1950s to the 1990s.”
Cellino’s lawsuit had shocked the legal community, who said it is highly unusual for an attorney to file such a legal action against his own law firm – especially one that he co-founded. The pair also hired two legal heavyweights – Terrence M. Connors for Cellino, and Gregory P. Photiadis for Barnes – in the dispute now headed for mediation
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