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Cellino & Barnes employees file affidavits to fight firm's dissolution

Roughly two dozen Cellino & Barnes lawyers who submitted filings in the court case over Ross M. Cellino Jr.'s attempt to break up the law firm portrayed him as a disengaged boss.

It is Stephen E. Barnes they call, email or meet with to discuss their personal injury cases, according to their affidavits.

Attorney David E. Silverman, who handles personal injury and medical malpractice cases in Long Island for more than 200 clients, said Barnes' involvement provides a "seasoned and battle-ready perspective that only he can offer."

"On the other hand, Ross Cellino was not involved in the settlement or resolution of my files in any way ... ever," Silverman said in an affidavit. "Settlement advice was neither given by him, nor offered. From the time I have started here, I can count on one hand the number of occasions where I have actually had a conversation with Ross Cellino. They were not about cases. Instead, the conversations were about his children or mine."

The two dozen lawyers — most of whom work at the firm's New York City or Long Island offices — submitted their affidavits to support Barnes' effort to keep the law firm from dissolving.

In his court papers, Cellino accuses his estranged law partner of creating a "toxic environment" in the Cellino & Barnes law firm that Cellino now wants dissolved. Attorney Terrence M. Connors, who represents Cellino, said in a court filing last week that Barnes has engaged "in a coordinated campaign of bullying other attorneys into signing affidavits or otherwise declaring loyalty to Barnes" since Cellino filed his petition to dissolve the firm.

"Many of the attorneys approached me because they felt pressured to sign the affidavits and feared reprisals," Cellino told The News on Sunday. "I told them to sign, and I would not hold it against them."

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

The lawyers' affidavits describe a busy and profitable law practice in which Barnes plays an active and supportive role in settling cases or going to trial. For the most part, the matter-of-fact affidavits simply describe the involvement or lack of involvement of the two partners in their cases.

Barnes' attorneys Gregory P. Photiadis and Paul J. Cambria have said Cellino's plans to leave the firm would hurt not only Barnes, but hundreds of employees and thousands of Cellino & Barnes clients.

Over the past 11 weeks, according to Photiadis, Cellino and Barnes have each received $2 million in profits from the company. And over the past four years, each man has made $40 million — four years of $10 million paychecks.

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Some of the attorneys would like to see Cellino play a larger role in the firm.

John E. Lavelle, a senior trial attorney who has secured settlements totaling more than $10 million since joining the firm in 2012, communicates with Barnes three to four times a week. Before and during trials, "Stephen Barnes and I brainstorm about witnesses, potential pitfalls, jury selection, jury charges and other trial issues.

"My contact with Ross Cellino, while invariably pleasant and positive, has been much more limited. I usually speak to Ross Cellino 3-4 times per year," he said in his affidavit. "He handles calls from unhappy clients and tries to resolve any issues. I would welcome a more active role for Ross Cellino which would only serve to make our firm stronger."

Erica B. Tannenbaum, who works in the firm's Manhattan office, said Barnes personally approved every settlement over $25,000 that she made since February 2014. "Therefore, I have personally worked and communicated with Stephen Barnes on over 200 civil files to their resolution," she said.

Most of the attorneys who filed affidavits say they spoke to Cellino only about cases in which a client grievance was filed or if the attorney wanted to withdraw from a case.

Robert J. Schreck, the firm's managing attorney since 2005, said in his affidavit that he is not aware of any pressure from Barnes to persuade the attorneys to submit the affidavits. The attorneys willingly provided them, he said.

Schreck said he has not witnessed any instance in which Barnes took action to exclude Cellino from his role as owner, director or officer of Cellino & Barnes.

"Ross voluntarily disengaged himself from C&B," Schreck said in his affidavit. "For instance, earlier this year, Ross went to Florida for about 30 days without hardly communicating with anyone at the firm."

Behind the Cellino & Barnes breakup: Cellino, the 'warm and fuzzy' partner

But Cellino has maintained an active role in the marketing decisions of the personal injury law firm, known for its ubiquitous advertising.

If fact, it's because of Cellino that the recognizable faces of Cellino and Barnes don't appear on even more TV advertisements, according to Daryl Ciambella, the chief operations officer at Cellino & Barnes for more than 17 years.

"A number of years ago Ross objected to being the face of the firm because he thought people were tired of seeing he and Steve in the commercials," Ciambella said in his affidavit. "He suggested that we use a spokesperson to pitch for the firm instead of he and Steve."

Barnes consented and the firm ran advertising without either of the two law partners.

Since then, the firm "has used a blend of Ross and Stephen and a spokesperson," Ciambella said.

Ciambella, in his affidavit, said he was in a meeting with Cellino and Barnes about three years ago.

"Ross said that he recognized that he hasn't really done anything for the last 10 years, that Steve and I have done a good job making decisions and running the business, that he was 'bored,' but that he likes coming into the office, and that he wants to contribute and do something," Ciambella said.

Barnes suggested reviewing the case files for several of the firm's top 50 cases and calling the clients and establishing a relationship.

"I am not aware that Ross has made any progress contacting clients with the top cases or even discussing these cases with the firm's attorneys," Ciambella said in his affidavit.

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In May, Ciambella went to Cellino's office to talk about Cellino's complaint that he "was not included in management meetings," according to Ciambella's affidavit.

Cellino said "that he felt that Steve and I were 'colluding on how to get rid of him,' " according to Ciambella's affidavit.

"I told him this was not true and that, as always had been the case, Ross and I could meet, with or without Steve, to discuss any issue," Ciambella said.

At another meeting in June, Cellino said, "I know that you and Steve have conspired to shut me out of the business and that you deny it and Steve denies it, but I know you have worked on a way to squeeze me out and make it the Barnes firm," according to Ciambella.

Ciambella said he told Cellino that was "absolutely wrong."

But Cellino didn't buy his reassurances.

"I see you close the door to Steve's office and shut me out," Cellino said, according to Ciambella's affidavit. "I know that you have said to him 'Ross is making $10 million, if you just cut him out, you will make $20 million.' "

"I told him that I never said that and I have never heard Steve say anything like that," Ciambella said in his affidavit.

Ciambella said he told Cellino that "this is your firm, I work for you and Steve."

But Ciambella, in his affidavit, said "it is apparent that Ross is questioning his own responsibilities at the firm and is fixated on a conspiracy and/or myth."

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