Legal documents explaining efforts to dissolve the famed Cellino & Barnes law firm not only remain sealed, but officials have now removed references to documents in the case from the court system website following challenges filed by The Buffalo News and two New York City tabloids.
The News – along with the New York Daily News and New York Post – continues to question why the suit filed by Ross M. Cellino Jr. seeking to dissolve his long partnership with Stephen E. Barnes should not be open for public inspection.
But so far, State Supreme Court Justice Deborah A. Chimes has not directly answered communications from The News or offered comment to its reporters. She did not return a call on Thursday.
Joseph M. Finnerty, the Barclay Damon attorney representing The News, notes that while the court docket information pertaining to the case – including the titles of some of the documents at issue – was previously available, it has now been scrubbed from the internet.
“The court system’s response to our collective media requests has been, not only to double down on the refusal to unseal the documents ‑ or even substantively to respond to our correspondence,” Finnerty said, “but now to have removed even the description of the documents that reside in the court file and yet unavailable to public inspection.
Finnerty and Joseph T. Giglia II, general counsel for The News, have argued that the case records before Chimes should be open.
“This blanket seal interferes with the public’s rights of access to records relevant to the judicial process in New York State,” Finnerty said in a letter to Chimes last week, “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.
The list of document titles recently removed from the website include the firm's standard employment agreement, a redacted proposed employment agreement, emails and charts demonstrating the law firm's profits.
Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the state Office of Court Administration in Manhattan, said the decision to seal the records falls within the judge’s purview as a matter of “judicial discretion.”
“This is not something that has not happened before,” he said. “It is not common, but it does happen from time to time.”
The News continues to seek the opening of the files despite adjournment of the case until June 26 following its assignment to a mediator agreed upon by the warring parties. The agreement to submit the case to retired Appellate Justice Jerome C. Gorski followed filing of the original litigation last week and following national media attention.
The News reported over the weekend that part of the dispute between the partners, known for their ubiquitous billboards and broadcast jingles throughout much of New York State and California, surrounded Barnes’ 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 Barnes had ruled out her employment at the firm, but that bigger issues also influenced the move for a split.
Cellino’s lawsuit has shocked the legal community, with lawyers noting that 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.
Connors declined comment.