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Contentious Cellino and Barnes dispute could end in peaceful settlement

Attorneys Ross M. Cellino Jr. and Stephen E. Barnes have been pounding away at each other like two boxers for six months, hurling one nasty accusation after another at each other.

But there is still a chance that their fight could come to a relatively peaceful conclusion. Sources on both sides say a mediation settlement remains possible in the fiercely contested lawsuit to dissolve the partnership of Cellino & Barnes.

A retired judge who has been trying for months to settle the dispute between Cellino and Barnes is still meeting regularly with both sides in mediation discussions, sources close to the case told The Buffalo News on Friday.

The court-authorized mediation talks quietly continued since mid-May before retired State Appellate Judge Jerome C. Gorski, the sources said. There have been several sessions in which both sides spent an entire day talking with Gorski about a possible settlement.

Gorski was called into the case a few days after Cellino shocked the Buffalo legal community by filing a lawsuit against Barnes, seeking to break up the high-profile personal injury law firm.

"As long the two sides are talking, absolutely, you have a chance to settle," said Richard F. Griffin, a Buffalo attorney who serves as a court-appointed mediator.

Griffin has no involvement in the Cellino & Barnes case and no prediction on the outcome, but he is an expert in the art of settling cases.

"I've had case mediations that have gone on for a year, and ultimately we have been able to settle them," Griffin said. "Over the years, we've had success in settling about two-thirds of our cases."

Two recent scheduled dates for courtroom arguments in the case have been postponed by State Supreme Court Judge Deborah A. Chimes, who is trying to decide whether to grant Cellino's request to dissolve the law firm. The case is scheduled to be argued before Chimes on Nov. 16, but that is also likely to be postponed, legal sources told The News.

When a reporter asked Paul J. Cambria, an attorney for Barnes, whether the case will be settled in mediation, he responded, "I don't know."

But he said he could not rule out the possibility of a mediated settlement.

"My role in this case has been preparing for litigation. I have had nothing to do with the mediation talks," Cambria said. "But in every case, there's always an opportunity to resolve it out of court."

"Discussions continue" was the only comment from Cellino's lead attorney, Terrence M. Connors, who has been heavily involved in the mediation discussions. He declined to elaborate when asked if he expects a mediated settlement.

Gregory P. Photiadis, another attorney for Barnes, did not return a call seeking his comment. Efforts to reach Gorski, the retired state judge who oversees the mediation talks, also were unsuccessful.

Gorski is widely respected by Griffin and other local attorneys for his ability to negotiate settlements between two angry parties.

For three consecutive years — 2014, 2015 and 2016 — Gorski was voted a Top Ten Arbitrator in the New York Law Journal Annual Reader Rankings Survey. Last year, he was one of 48 mediators from throughout the country named as a National Law Journal Alternative Dispute Resolution Champion.

If Cellino and Barnes cannot reach an agreement on how to break up their law firm, or continue working together, legal experts say Judge Chimes will ultimately decide what to do with the firm's assets, employees and cases. The judge could wind up hiring a broker or auctioneer to sell off all the assets of the firm. That result could cause a lot of disarray for Cellino, Barnes and everyone else involved.

Griffin said that when he attempts to mediate a disagreement between two parties, he tells them that a mediated settlement is almost always much less stressful and less expensive than fighting it out in court.

“One of the things I tell the parties is that if we settle this here, you will not have this hanging over the heads of you, your families or your employees for years on end,” Griffin said.

Cellino & Barnes continues to be extraordinarily successful from a financial standpoint, especially for the firm's two leaders, according to court documents. Cellino and Barnes – the law firm's only two shareholders – each make $1 million a month, according to statements made in court.

But Cellino and attorneys aligned with him say the atmosphere at the law firm has become so "toxic" that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the two shareholders to continue working together. Cellino has stated his desire to begin his own law firm, working with several family members who are attorneys.

Cellino has accused Barnes of financial improprieties, a charge that Barnes vehemently denies. Barnes has accused Cellino of leaving most of the responsibility for important decisions to him, and then complaining about Barnes' decisions. Cellino vehemently denies that allegation.

Meanwhile, the two familiar faces appear together in dozens of television, billboard and newspaper advertisements every day in Buffalo, Rochester and the New York City area.

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