Reckless. Conniving. Unfair. Egregious. Shameless. Duplicitous. Malicious. Oppressive. Retaliatory. Illegitimate. Unlawful. Absurd.
These are the adjectives that partners at Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano have been hurling at each other in court documents within the last 48 hours.
The four law partners once worked in harmony in their Center City headquarters, raking in millions of dollars by successfully representing injured workers, and establishing themselves as major players in Democratic politics.
More recently, however, that relationship has been strained. Now, it has disintegrated, to the point that one faction is fighting over clients with an excommunicated partner who was locked out of the building this week.
Legal filings provide an extraordinary play-by-play of a simmering management dispute that devolved into internecine war at the largest workers’ comp firm in Pennsylvania. The court docket reads like an alternative version of The Lord of the Flies, one where the boys grew up and started wearing suits.
“The partnership has voted to expel you from the partnership as per the partnership agreement,” managing partner Sam Pond wrote in an email to partner David Stern’s Gmail account at 5:44 p.m. Tuesday. “Please do not enter the premises of any Pond Lehocky offices or attend any Pond Lehocky events."
Pond also said Stern owes the firm “approximately $311,000.00.”
“Please advise as to where you would like to have your personal belongings delivered,” Pond added.
The feud among the high-powered lawyers became public last week when Stern chose the nuclear option. He filed a lawsuit in Common Pleas Court — apparently without prior notice — against Pond and the firm’s other partners, seeking to dissolve the partnership.
“Pond has gone on the warpath against Stern,” Stern alleges in the lawsuit, which also says that Stern has been the firm’s top earner and that “it has not even been close.”
This week, Pond’s faction began fighting back in court, seeking to have Stern’s lawsuit dismissed. Pond’s side has accused Stern of inappropriately airing the firm’s dirty laundry in a public forum and wants the matter resolved through binding arbitration, where it would remain private.
In addition to barring Stern from the building, court documents allege Pond has also removed Stern’s name from the title of the company and references to Stern have been scrubbed from the website — even the firm’s September announcement that Stern had been named “Best of the Bar” by Philadelphia Business Journal. (That’s now a broken link.)
Stern on Thursday filed an emergency petition seeking an injunction to protect his interests at the firm, which he said has more than 40 attorneys and 250 staff members, and is worth an estimated $90 million.
In the petition, Stern said employees at the firm, within minutes of Stern’s supposed expulsion, began sending Stern’s clients letters and emails informing them of “Mr. Stern’s departure” and forcing them to choose between going with Stern or switching to a remaining partner at the firm.
“The Pond defendants have made it appear that Stern’s whereabouts are ‘unknown,’ causing some clients to believe Stern has been physically harmed and others to believe he stopped practicing law and otherwise causing extreme confusion and upsetment amongst his clients,” wrote Stern’s attorney, Benjamin Garber, who added that some Stern clients “have informed Stern that they ‘love him’ and are extremely confused by the notices....”
“Stern’s personal belongings," Garber continued, “are being stored in boxes at the office, and his name has been removed from the signage around the office.”
Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano is perhaps best known from its omnipresent billboards along Philadelphia-area roadways. But its partners have also generated some less-than-flattering headlines in recent years.
In 2017, The Inquirer reported on a questionable side business in which partners opened a mail-order pharmacy to dispense medication to their clients. The partners sold the pharmacy soon after the story was published.
Last month, Pond Lehocky was back in the news after a workers’ comp judge was reinstated by the state Civil Service Commission. The judge, Andrea McCormick, had been fired after the law firm dished dirt on McCormick’s romantic life to one of Gov. Tom Wolf’s cabinet secretaries. She appealed, and the commission found that she hadn’t done anything wrong.
There is no indication that the dispute between Stern and Pond is related to either of those matters.
Stern’s attorney declined to comment on the lawsuit.
In a statement to The Inquirer Thursday night, Pond said that he and the remaining named partners, Jerry Lehocky and Tom Giordano, and the firm staff have been “disappointed” by Stern’s legal action.
“We clearly disagree with the allegations — we have no apologies for demanding excellence for our clients," Pond said. "I’ve said all along that our concern first and foremost always is for our clients, staff and referral partners. That’s where our focus has to be and this will not disrupt our mission.”