A federal judge has ordered Spitzer Management and its attorneys to pay $328,335 in legal fees to lawyers on the other side of a lawsuit accusing the Elyria-based car dealer of creating a hostile workplace in which employees at dealerships it operates were allegedly harassed based on their national origin.
U.S. District Court Judge John R. Adams issued the order last week after declaring a mistrial in January when he determined that Spitzer and its lawyers had failed to turn over documents that they had been ordered to produce earlier in the nearly 7-year-old lawsuit.
Other documents used by Spitzer’s lawyers in the case had been altered by removing the fax machine timestamps before they were presented as exhibits in the case, Adams found.
“The inability of counsel and the Spitzer corporate entities to comply with their discovery obligations has effectively set this case back to its starting point,” Adams wrote in his decision. “As a result, trial proceedings and for that matter, motion practice was rendered largely meaningless. Plaintiffs must now engage in new discovery, again with no guarantee that all documents have been produced, and the matter must again be tried.”
But Chris Cook, one of Spitzer’s lawyers, said the company and its legal team disagree with Adams’ decision and are reviewing their options.
“Obviously we’re disappointed,” Cook said. “But at the end of the day I maintain that we didn’t do anything wrong.”
The lawsuit dates to September 2006, when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Spitzer, accusing the auto dealer of creating a hostile workplace in which workers of Nigerian and Korean ethnicity were repeatedly subjected to derogatory statements about their national origins.
Those employees, as well as others, would eventually join the lawsuit as plaintiffs, suing Spitzer for the alleged harassment. There also were allegations that some faced retaliation for complaining about the alleged discrimination.
Over the next few years, both sides were required under various court orders to exchange a large volume of documents that would be used if the case went to trial, which it ultimately did in January.
It was not until about a week into the trial, Adams wrote, that lawyers for the plaintiffs discovered that the copies of several documents being used by Spitzer’s lawyers had been altered to remove the fax timestamps.
Adams wrote that Spitzer’s lawyers couldn’t offer an explanation about why the documents had been stripped of the fax headers when he first asked about the issue. The next day, the judge wrote, he was told that the timestamps were taken off as part of “cleaning” the exhibits for use in the trial.
“Counsel was specific that this was a common practice and had been performed on all of the exhibits,” Adams wrote. “Counsel also indicated that they could not provide this simple answer to the Court the prior day, despite numerous opportunities, because the Court’s inquiry had made them nervous.”
That prompted Adams to order Spitzer’s attorneys to produce the originals of every document in the case. Some of the documents that Spitzer’s legal team brought to court to comply with Adams’ order had been requested by the plaintiffs but never turned over, the judge wrote.
“Of course, simple neglect would be the kindest interpretation available for Defendants’ conduct,” Adams wrote. “In reality, in less than 24 hours following the Court’s demand to produce documents, Defendants were suddenly able to locate and produce documents directly responsive to years-old discovery requests.”
The paperwork that Adams wrote hadn’t been produced included not only documents from personnel files that weren’t turned over earlier — which Spitzer’s lawyers argued had no bearing on the case — but also notes taken by lawyers investigating the EEOC allegations.
Adams took particular issue with the failure of Spitzer and its lawyers to turn over notes taken by attorney Anthony Giardini, who serves as the company’s general counsel, regarding his investigations of the EEOC complaint.
Those notes had long been sought by plaintiffs’ lawyers, but were never produced and, when questioned about them during a deposition, Adams wrote that the responses of Giardini and Cook “bordered on both mockery and condescension.”
Although Spitzer’s lawyers argued to Adams that the notes were of minimal value to the plaintiff’s claims, Adams wrote that Giardini made a notation in his notes to “Document sales of Dean (Okafor),” one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Although Spitzer’s lawyers argued that documenting sales figures was common practice for all of those selling cars at Spitzer dealerships, Adams wrote that a jury could see making a note to check on Okafor’s sales specifically as evidence of retaliation for complaining about the working environment and that could have made a difference in trial.
“Spitzer’s primary defense relies upon a finding that it had an effective system in place to report and combat discrimination,” Adams wrote. “If a jury finds that the primary cog in that system, Giardini, is prone to retaliate against those making complaints, the heart of Spitzer’s defense is suddenly non-existent.”
Giardini, who was among those ordered to pay the attorneys fees, said Wednesday that he largely couldn’t comment on Adams’ decision because the case was still pending.
“No one that I know of did anything wrong,” Giardini said. “We totally disagree with the conclusions reached and a careful reading of the opinion, I think, demonstrates that.”
Attorney Cathleen Bolek, who represents Okafor, said while it’s not uncommon for a document or two to be missed during the discovery process, the breadth of what Spitzer and its lawyers didn’t turn over was beyond the norm.
Adams has ordered the lawyers and others involved in the case to appear for a hearing next week to decide where the case will go from here, including discussing a potential settlement, something both Cook and Bolek acknowledged is always a possibility in civil litigation.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or email@example.com.