Pillsbury Winthrop is defending a $45m claim as ex-partner sues for libel

Former partner Jensen brings action as proposed Latham move goes sour after allegations of sexual harassment

Pillsbury Winthrop is defending a $45m (£28.8m) defamation suit by a former partner, who is accusing the firm of “character and commercial assassination of a disgraceful and repugnant sort”.
Frode Jensen, a former member of Pillsbury's managing board and co-head of the international M&A practice, is seeking damages after his former firm issued a press release accusing him of sexual harassment soon after he announced his decision to join Latham & Watkins. The claim is for $15m (£9.6m) compensatory damages plus $30m (£19.2m) in punitive damages.
Following the publication of the release and the furore it created, Jensen will no longer be moving to Latham.
In the extraordinary complaint, Jensen, represented by Arkin Kaplan & Cohen, claims that the action was “committed not by some scandal sheet hack or other modern day form of yellow journalist, but rather by the managing members of an erstwhile 'white shoe' law firm against one of its former senior partners”.
The claim also states that before and following the January 2001 merger between San Francisco's Pillsbury Madison & Sutro and New York's Winthrop Stimson Putnam & Roberts (Jensen's original firm), the combined practice had lost “more than 70” partners.
It was this outpouring of lawyers, claims the suit, as well as the departure of litigation partners Stephen Stublarec and Christopher Byers to Latham just prior to Jensen's announcement of his move, that inspired Pillsbury to issue the release on 4 September.
In a statement issued to The Lawyer, Ronald Van Buskirk, general counsel at Pillsbury, said: “Pillsbury Winthrop does not comment on active litigation and will not comment on the many charges made in the case filed… by Mr Jensen, except to say that Mr Jensen is a disgruntled ex-partner making unjustified allegations. While we regret the filing of the lawsuit, we've thoroughly reviewed all the facts and absolutely stand by those individuals named in the case.” Pillsbury is being represented by Debevoise & Plimpton.
According to the claim, Pillsbury was advised by a so far nameless headhunting firm that Jensen's departure would be viewed as a serious blow to the firm and its ability to attract lateral hires.
Also in the litany of claims is the allegation that Pillsbury managing partner Marina Park had made an “unsolicited call” to Latham's New York managing partner David Gordon and head of corporate Kirk Davenport. Park allegedly read them the substance of the 4 September release. But the suit claims that Park remarked to the Latham partners during the phone call: “I hate doing this.”
Jensen also says in the brief that he was due to be paid $1m (£639,600) on joining Latham, which is substantially more than the remuneration he received at Pillsbury.
From his arrival at Pillsbury in 1988, Jensen's billings rose from $1m annually to $10m (£6.4m), making an average of $5m (£3.2m) over the last six-year period.
In the claim Jensen also responds to the allegation of sexual harassment made by Pillsbury. The suit says that the references to allegations against Jensen are “untrue in their entirety”.
The suit claims: “Pillsbury also knowingly violated a confidentiality provision contained in an agreement entered into between Pillsbury, Jensen and a third party dated 10 December 2001, entitled 'Separation Agreement, General Release of Claims and Covenant Not to Sue'.”
Allegedly, the confidentiality provision stated that Pillsbury “agrees to keep all information which it has concerning the Potential Claims and terms of this Separation Agreement, as well as the terms of and the reason for your [the third party's] departure confidential”.
Jensen claims that, contrary to the release by Pillsbury on 4 September, no determination had been made by the firm that he had engaged in sexual harassment.
The claim then adds: “On information and belief, a significant number of other Pillsbury partners accused of harassment never had those allegations publicly disclosed by the firm, and the only purpose of the disclosure regarding the unfounded allegations against Jensen was to destroy his relationship with Latham.”
Jensen is highly critical of his former firm in the claim. He says he was dissatisfied by the direction that the Pillsbury senior management was taking.
The complaint also states: “In particular, he had serious concerns about the relentless and, in his view, unrealistic focus of senior management at Pillsbury on achieving The American Lawyer 100 'first quartile profitability', and the elevation of that goal over the goals of professional excellence and successfully serving the firm's clients.”
The legal community in the US and the UK has become fixated on the issue between Jensen and Pillsbury, especially as it calls into question the role of a headhunter in this type of unusual situation.