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Cellino & Barnes breakup is finalized – in California

Ross M. Cellino Jr., the millionaire lawyer who filed a lawsuit four months ago to get out of the Cellino & Barnes law firm, is getting his wish – at least in California.

The Cellino & Barnes law firm no longer exists in California. In early September, the firm began operating as The Barnes Firm in Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland. And according to Barnes Firm spokesmen who spoke to The Buffalo News on Thursday and Friday, those California offices are now run entirely by Cellino's estranged partner, Stephen E. Barnes.

The new Barnes firm also agreed to stop using the ubiquitous Cellino & Barnes hotline number of (800) 888-8888 for California business. Barnes has registered a new hotline number there, which is (800) 800-0000.

While the law firm's offices in Buffalo, Rochester and New York City continue to be operated by the two feuding partners, Cellino no longer has any part in running the California offices, according to Paul J. Cambria, who represents Barnes; Robert J. Schreck, the law firm's managing attorney, and Shawn Kline, a spokesman for the firm.

What will happen to the offices in Buffalo, Rochester and downstate?

That will be decided in a legal battle that began in May and continues in State Supreme Court.

"Mr. Cellino never had anything more than a very small role in the California offices. He has relinquished his interest. The Barnes Firm has been launched out there and is moving full steam ahead," Schreck said. "So far, we've seen no negative effects from changing it to The Barnes Firm out there."

That information was essentially confirmed by Cellino, who also spoke to The News. Cellino said Barnes had no other choice after Cellino filed legal actions removing himself from the California offices and blocking Barnes from using the (800) 888-8888 hotline number in California.

Cellino said he is optimistic that State Judge Deborah A. Chimes will ultimately allow him to break away from Cellino & Barnes. Eventually, he envisions both he and Barnes operating their own law firms in New York State.

"I withdrew myself as a stockholder in the California offices, and after that, it would have been unethical for them to continue using my name," Cellino said. "I wish Steve well in California. I am happy to stay in Buffalo, Rochester and in the New York City area."

Attorneys for Cellino will argue against Barnes' attorneys on Oct. 24 before Judge Deborah A. Chimes. The main issue before the judge will be Cellino's desire to leave the law firm and start his own.

The dispute affects far more people than just the two battling law partners. The firm's New York State offices have more than 200 employees, including 56 attorneys. They currently handle the personal injury cases of thousands of clients, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although Cambria said on Friday that the law firm has continued to be "very successful" since the public dispute erupted between Barnes and Cellino, he maintains that continuing the partnership would be the most beneficial move for the firm's employees and clients.

"The law takes into effect what is best for the corporation, not just for Mr. Cellino," Cambria said. "Our position is that the lawyers, the other employees and the clients would not benefit from splitting up this partnership."

Cellino and his attorney, Terrence M. Connors, disagree. They maintain that the working relationship between Cellino and Barnes has become so poisoned that the two really cannot work together anymore.

Cellino stunned the legal community in May when he filed a civil action seeking to dissolve the extremely profitable partnership that he and Barnes began as two little-known attorneys about 25 years ago. Cellino said he can no longer work with Barnes because of numerous business disputes that have arisen between the two men.

In a statement that Connors filed with the court in July, Cellino said the issues of disagreement between him and Barnes are "fundamental and pervasive." He added that the disagreements touch "nearly every aspect of Cellino & Barnes ... including its internal management, external marketing and overall philosophy."

If the judge grants Cellino's request to dissolve the firm, she could appoint a receiver to oversee a split of assets between the two men. Those assets would include attorneys, employees, technical equipment, offices, all the cases and the firm’s 888-8888 hotline number.

Commercials showing the two law partners together are still airing on local TV and radio stations. Cellino told The News those commercials were put together before he filed his legal action in May. He said no new commercials have been recorded.

While he and Barnes often report to work at the same downtown Buffalo office, Cellino declined to comment when asked if the two ever speak to each other. But he added that he, Barnes and other lawyers in the firm are still "working hard on cases" for their clients.

How does he feel when he is watching television and a "Cellino & Barnes" commercial comes on?

"Truth is, I really don’t watch TV much," Cellino said. "I'm working."

He added: "I really can't wait for this to be over, and to have the opportunity to start running my own offices. People from the firm who want to work for me can work for me. And people who want to stay with Steve will be able to stay with Steve."

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