Court documents that have been kept secret in the legal fight between law partners Ross M. Cellino Jr. and Stephen E. Barnes will soon be unsealed, State Supreme Court Judge Deborah A. Chimes stated Monday afternoon.
Ruling on a request made by The Buffalo News, the New York Daily News and the New York Post, Chimes said she now agrees that the complaint filed last month by Cellino seeking to break up the high-profile law firm should be made public.
The judge said she "temporarily" sealed the court document last month because, at that time, she felt that public disclosure of Cellino's legal action would cause "undue anxiety" for the law firm's 10,000 clients and more than 200 employees. At this point, she said, the law firm has had plenty of time to advise clients and employees of where the situation stands.
The document – which includes Cellino's complaints about the law firm's business practices and his reasons for wanting to break up a partnership reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars – could be made public as early as Tuesday, participants in the case told The News.
Karim A. Abdulla, an attorney for the three newspapers, said he appreciates Chimes' ruling and called it a victory for those who support open courts, which are funded by taxpayers.
"Open courts help to ensure that the legal process remains fair and transparent," Abdulla said.
Abdella said the dispute affects thousands of people and is of great public interest. Under the laws governing operations of the state's courts, actions filed in the courts are presumed to be open to public inspection unless a judge finds "good cause" to seal them, Abdulla said.
Cellino's attorney, Terrence M. Connors, and Barnes' attorney, Gregory P. Photiadis, did not object to the unsealing of the Cellino complaint. But both lawyers said they reserve the right to ask for some future documents in the case to be sealed.
Cellino was in court on Monday, but Barnes was not.
Speaking to news reporters outside the courtroom, Cellino said, "There have been some very serious disagreements between Steve and I." But he also said the law firm has a "bevy of very strong lawyers" who are making sure that clients' cases are being handled properly.
While Photiadis said he is "hopeful" and "optimistic" that the disagreement will be settled in mediation, Cellino did not appear to be quite as hopeful.
When a News reporter asked him if he is optimistic that the case will be settled in mediation, Cellino hesitated to answer. He was then pulled toward an elevator by his attorney, Connors, and as he entered the elevator, Cellino said, "Wait and see."
When another reporter asked Connors whether it is "definite" that the law firm will be split up, Connors answered, "Nothing's definite."
Cellino was also accompanied in court and outside the courtroom by Stephen W. Bell, a Buffalo public relations consultant whose specialties include crisis management.
What is in the document that Judge Chimes has agreed to unseal? According to sources who have seen it, the document is about five pages long and contains a list of Cellino's complaints about the law firm's business practices.
One of Cellino's complaints, multiple sources said, is his view that the law firm has become too aggressive in wooing clients who have already signed up with other law firms to take their cases – some of them worth potential millions.
“Ross told Steve and others in the firm that he wanted them to back away from that, to stop doing it. He couldn’t stomach it anymore,” a source who is sympathetic to Cellino told The News last month.
That allegation that Cellino & Barnes tries aggressively to steal clients from other firms was denied last month by the law firm’s managing partner, Robert J. Schreck.
“We emphatically deny that we have ever had a policy of stealing clients,” Schreck said last month. “We’re an advertising law firm. Potential clients see our ads, and they come to us."
Despite all the furor over the potential split, Cellino said the law firm is continuing to do good work for its clients, and the law firm issued a press release making the same claim.
"The legal action between the principals at Cellino & Barnes is garnishing the attention of the media, but the fact is, it has no bearing on our day-to-day operations," the law firm stated.
The firm said it recently obtained a $600,000 jury verdict for a man injured in a motorcycle accident.
Attorney Joseph M. Finnerty and Joseph T. Giglia II, general counsel for The News, also worked on the case that led to Chimes' decision to unseal the records.