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March 21, 2016

Law Firm Can't Have Info In Fire Fight, Ex-Client Argues

A former Reed Smith LLP client accusing the firm of botching an insurance settlement after a fire at a historic suburban Philadelphia mansion has objected in Pennsylvania state court to subpoenas that he says seek protected information from other law firms.


Jerald Batoff said Thursday that parts of the Reed Smith subpoenas ask for information from Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young LLP, Elliott Greenleaf & Siedzikowski PC and public adjusting firm Clarke & Cohen Inc. regarding his communications with them about litigation against Chartis Property Casualty Co. over the blaze at the Bloomfield estate.


“Objection on grounds that the request seeks communications, information and documents protected from disclosure under the attorney client privilege, the attorney work product doctrine, the joint defense and/or common interest privilege as well as trial preparation material in other litigation in federal court in which plaintiff was an indemnitor,” Bartoff said, adding, “The privilege is claimed and is not waived.”


Furthermore, several of the requests are overly broad and burdensome because they don’t limit the requested communications to a time period, topic or issue, Batoff told the court.


Batoff launched his suit in February 2015 claiming that when Reed Smith attorney Douglas Widin advised him on the $20.5 million insurance settlement over the mansion he owned in Villanova, he erred by reaching a settlement that left out Bloomfield's tenants at the time of the fire, Dean Topolinski and Julie Charbonneau, who were intending to buy the place.


Widin and Reed Smith launched a declaratory judgment suit on his behalf against Charbonneau and Topolinski, arguing that Batoff was the only insured party.


Batoff said that while that litigation unfolded, Widin negotiated his insurance settlement with Chartis, which when finalized in October 2012 included a provision that Batoff would indemnify the insurer for any claims launched by the two tenants.


Once they received word of the settlement, Charbonneau and Topolinski obtained an order freezing Batoff’s receipt of the insurance proceeds until the end of the fight over who had rights to the payments under the policy. Some of the $20.5 million insurance settlement had already been paid out by Chartis for limited restoration and construction work, and the remaining $17.4 million was directed into escrow, according to the complaint.


Batoff then reached a settlement with Charbonneau and Topolinski in April 2013, in which the renters received $11 million of that sum and he held onto the remaining $6.4 million.


But in July 2013, Charbonneau filed a new federal suit against Chartis, seeking additional insurance proceeds and levying breach of contract and bad faith claims.


Charbonneau lost her suit in September following a bench trial, but Batoff said in his complaint that he was responsible for paying the insurer’s defense costs, $500,000 at the time of the complaint.


Reed Smith asked the court last month to toss Batoff's malpractice suit against the firm, arguing Batoff had hired other counsel to provide advice over the settlements with Chartis and Charbonneau. It said that Batoff reached the settlement with Charbonneau at a mediation without any Reed Smith lawyers present, and that he failed to secure a release from her of any rights that she was claiming under the Chartis policy.


The firm subsequently issued subpoenas to Stradley Ronon, Elliott Greenleaf and Clarke & Cohen seeking all documents and communications between the firms and Batoff, Charbonneau, Topolinski and any other individual regarding the Chartis litigation in addition to other documents.

According to court records, Batoff hired Clarke & Cohen to help with his property insurance claim to Chartis, while Elliott Greenleaf defended Chartis from Charbonneau's suit before being replaced by Stradley Ronon.


But Batoff fired back Thursday that the subpoenas are trying to infringe on his attorney-client privilege and urged the court to evaluate them.


Representatives for the parties didn’t immediately respond Monday to requests for comment.


Batoff is represented by Jack A. Meyerson and Debora A. O’Neill of Meyerson & O’Neill.


Reed Smith is represented by Nicholas M. Centrella and Aya M. Salem of Conrad O'Brien PC.


The case is Batoff v. Widin et al., case number 2014102350, in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.


--Additional reporting by Dan Packel. Editing by Jill Coffey.


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