As mentioned briefly yesterday, a New York state court judge just dismissed the celebrated lawsuit of Berry v. Kasowitz Benson. As you may recall, a former Kasowitz first-year associate named Gregory Berry, who entered the legal profession after “conquering Silicon Valley,” sued his former firm for over $77 million. In his kitchen sink of a complaint, filed pro se, Berry tossed in some 14 causes of action, including wrongful termination, fraud, and breach of contract.
But that’s not all. Her Honor was displeased when Greg Berry walked out of her courtroom before the hearing was over, while she was still putting her ruling on the record. So later this month, he’ll have to appear before Justice Bransten again and explain why he shouldn’t be held in contempt….
In a nutshell, here’s what transpired yesterday, from Law360 (subscription):
Judge Eileen Branten [sic] ruled Tuesday that ex-associate Gregory Berry couldn’t sue because he’d signed a separation agreement and released the firm from legal claims when he left — and had accepted the $27,000 severance package that came along with it….
Berry told the judge that the firm hadn’t paid him for all his accrued vacation days as outlined in the agreement, making the agreement invalid. But Joseph Piesco Jr., who represents the firm, insisted that Kasowitz had paid Berry for everything in the agreement.
As it turns out, we can supplement this account with firsthand testimony from ATL readers who were present for the proceedings. Our tipsters can be found everywhere — on elevators, at airports, aboard crowded trains — including, of course, in courtrooms.
Prior to the hearing, it wasn’t clear which way things would go. Although it seemed that Kasowitz had a strong position, based on its argument that Berry relinquished his claims against the firm when he signed a general release and accepted a severance package, Berry vigorously opposed the firm’s motion to dismiss, offering various arguments as to why the separation agreement should not be enforced. One could imagine Justice Bransten having sympathy for Berry, a pro se litigant going up against a big and powerful law firm.
But that’s not how things actually unfolded. Partner Joseph Piesco got up and presented a few minutes of argument as to why the separation agreement should be enforced and Berry’s case dismissed with prejudice based on the release. Piesco offered to refute Berry’s attacks on the agreement’s validity and also to get into the nitty gritty of his substantive claims against the firm, but Justice Bransten told Piesco that wasn’t necessary; she all but told him to sit down.
Then Greg Berry got up — looking handsome, we hear, without his taped-together glasses (presumably he was wearing contacts) — and that’s when the fun started. Justice Bransten interrogated Berry for an estimated 20 minutes, challenging him as to why she should void the release after he willingly entered into the separation agreement (and accepted $27,000 as part of that deal). She was unsympathetic to Berry’s account of his brief time (about eight months) at Kasowitz. At one point in the argument, according to our tipsters (there’s no transcript yet), she said something to him along the lines of “You had a great thing at Kasowitz, and you blew it.”
As Judge Bransten put Berry’s feet to the proverbial fire, the young lawyer grew increasingly and visibly frustrated. It must be difficult when judges can’t accept your superior legal argumentation.
The end of the hearing was the best part. Justice Bransten ruled from the bench, dismissing Berry’s case in its entirety, with prejudice. Berry started to leave the courtroom, perhaps thinking the proceedings were over. The judge called the parties back to the bench, because she wanted to put additional reasons for her ruling into the record, but Berry just kept on walking. Justice Bransten sent a courtroom deputy or security officer out into the hallway to try and find Berry, but the effort was unsuccessful.
This did not please Justice Bransten, who’s known to be a stickler for courtroom etiquette and decorum. (She’s the kind of judge who gets mad when observers in the gallery type too loudly on their Blackberrys.) After calling the walkout “contemptuous,” she instructed the Kasowitz lawyers, who were still present, to inform Berry that she wants to see the parties back before her on the morning of January 24. As Law360 put it, “Berry left before Judge Bransten concluded the hearing, so she ordered the parties to return for a hearing later this month for Berry to explain himself.”
In fairness to Berry, we don’t know if he willfully left the courtroom, in defiance of the judge calling counsel back to the bench, or whether he simply thought the proceedings were over and didn’t hear or understand Justice Bransten. Apparently he was pretty dispirited and tuned-out by the end of the hearing, so he might have just wandered out without realizing there was still more to come.
We’ll find out more at the January 24th hearing — which we might attend in person, just for the lulz….
UPDATE (1/24/12): It turns out that Berry’s premature departure was not intentional. The January 24 hearing was canceled after Berry sent an apologetic letter to the court.
Judge Dismisses Ex-Kasowitz Atty’s $78M Suit Over Firing [Law360 (subscription)]