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New court filing: Cellino says 'bully' Barnes created 'venomous culture'

Legally speaking, Ross M. Cellino Jr. did not turn the other cheek Wednesday.

Cellino filed court papers accusing his estranged law partner Stephen E. Barnes of creating a "toxic environment" in the Cellino & Barnes law firm that Cellino now wants dissolved.

Cellino called Barnes "a bully."

He said Barnes created a "venomous culture" in the firm through threats, demands for loyalty oaths and retaliation against those he perceives as against him.

And Barnes continues to "instill a toxic, dictatorial environment" in the law firm, Cellino said in an affidavit filed in State Supreme Court Wednesday.

Cellino also accused Barnes of breach of trust by diverting Cellino & Barnes cases, clients and resources to a California law firm that Barnes now owns.

The two affidavits and a memorandum of law filed on Cellino's behalf Wednesday further reveal how the court fight to break up one of the busiest and most financially successful personal injury law firms in the state has turned more bitter and how the firm's employees have become embroiled in the law partners' dispute.

Cellino's statements come after Barnes filed his own court papers earlier this week accusing Cellino of "reprehensible conduct," including efforts to steal lawyers from the Cellino & Barnes firm to begin a new law firm.

The "contemptuous tone" of Barnes' filing and his conduct "reaffirms the depths of the divide between us and just how entrenched the division has become," Cellino said in his affidavit.

Barnes' filing prompted State Supreme Court Judge Deborah A. Chimes to sign a restraining order directing Cellino not to take any actions that would disturb the "status quo" of Cellino & Barnes, which continues to function despite a dissolution action filed by Cellino two months ago.

Barnes accuses Cellino of 'reprehensible conduct,' seeks restraining order

The parties and their attorneys are expected to appear before Chimes on Thursday.

"If the pot calling the kettle black were a formal legal principle, it would be our first citation," attorney Terrence M. Connors, who represents Cellino, said in a court filing Wednesday.

Receiver sought for firm

Barnes' request for a judicial status quo directive "smacks of hypocrisy in light of Barnes' own campaign to malign Cellino, take unilateral actions to further his own financial interests and demand that attorneys of the firm essentially pledge their loyalty to him," Connors said in his affidavit.

Attorney Gregory P. Photiadis, who represents Barnes, declined comment.

Sources close to Cellino have said he wants to leave Barnes and start his own law firm because he is unhappy with many of the firm's business practices, including the alleged practice of stealing clients from other local law firms. The sources said Cellino wants to start his own firm, with his own philosophy of practicing law, possibly joined by several of his sons and daughters, who are also attorneys.

Sources: Barnes' refusal to hire Cellino's daughter sparked rift

Cellino asked the court to appoint a receiver "to maintain the operation" of the law firm in the short term.

"I am convinced that a receiver is the only way to ensure that Cellino & Barnes continues to operate without internal dissension and to prevent Barnes from continuing to instill a toxic, dictatorial environment," Cellino said in his affidavit.

'Spiteful allegations'

Connors said Barnes' filing earlier this week showed why the law firm should be dissolved.

"The tone, tenor and overall spiteful allegations now made in Barnes' publicly filed papers leave no doubt that there is no viable partnership to save," Connors said in court papers.

Possible Cellino & Barnes breakup reverberates from NYC to LA

Barnes, in a statement filed with Chimes earlier this week, said "Ross ... visited numerous C&B offices in New York State ... including Buffalo, Rochester, Manhattan and Long Island, and attempted to solicit C&B employees in person and poach C&B cases. Within minutes of filing for dissolution, Ross began soliciting C&B employees to join a 'new firm' he contends he will form."

Barnes accused Cellino of "engaging in a pattern of conduct, which has caused and continues to cause catastrophic damage to C&B, its reputation and its brand." He charged that his estranged partner has tried to convince employees to "violate their duty of loyalty to the firm."

Barnes' accusation "that I am trying to harm Cellino & Barnes is outrageous," Cellino responded in his affidavit. "This firm was started by my father in Buffalo. It has been my life's work to grow this firm to where it is today."

'Demanding loyalty'

Cellino also denied trying to persuade lawyers, staff members and clients to leave the firm.

"Entirely the opposite, I have at all times urged and encouraged all Cellino & Barnes employees to report to work as normal, to keep their clients as the firm's top priority and to ensure that Cellino & Barnes continues to operate during these proceedings," Cellino said in his affidavit.

Cellino said he has made it clear to the firm's employees that if Cellino & Barnes dissolves, each will have a job in either a new law firm that he establishes or the firm he expects Barnes would form.

"I have never attempted to solicit anyone to leave Cellino & Barnes," Cellino said. "I have made it clear to all that I am not soliciting anyone to leave Cellino & Barnes and have unequivocally stated that I have not formed a new law firm and therefore have no law firm to which to move attorneys or clients," he said in his affidavit.

He said his communications with firm employees sought to ease tensions at the firm and "counteract the constant bullying by Barnes."

"I have always hoped that the attorneys at the firm would follow me in the event of dissolution, but I have also unequivocally stated that I would not hold it against any person who decided not to follow me if the firm dissolves," Cellino said in the affidavit.

"Nevertheless, I have been told that Barnes and agents acting on his behalf have gone office to office ... disparaging me, belittling me, and inaccurately and deceptively telling the firm's employees, including the attorneys, that Barnes is going to take control of the firm — all in an effort to compel the employees to follow Barnes," he added.

Connors, in his affidavit, said Barnes has engaged "in a coordinated campaign of bullying other attorneys into signing affidavits or otherwise declaring loyalty to Barnes" since Cellino filed the petition to dissolve the firm.

After 24 years as law partners, Cellino no longer trusts Barnes, Connors said in court papers.

"Due to this loss of trust, the two partners simply cannot work together," Connors said. "Respectfully ... no order of this court can mend this relationship, restore this trust or remedy the personal differences at the heart of this dispute."

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