Wednesday, April 23, 2014
BROTHER VS. BROTHER
PORTLAND -- A Cumberland County jury has returned a $7.3 million emotional distress verdict against one of the state's largest law firms in connection with the now-defunct business Northern Mattress & Furniture Co. of Fairfield.
The jury, which reached its verdict on Friday, decided that Bernstein Shur Sawyer & Nelson, was negligent in its representation of Peter Redman in a workplace sexual harrassment matter.
Their verdict ended a jury trial that began in Cumberland County Superior Court about three weeks ago.
Peter Rubin, an attorney representing Bernstein Shur Sawyer & Nelson, said his firm will ask for a new trial. He said the amount of the award, which the nine-member jury set, also will become an issue at a new trial or at an appeal.
"We don't believe we were negligent. We expect we will be vindicated," Rubin said.
Bernstein Shur is one of the largest law firms in Northern New England, with more than 85 attorneys practicing in Portland, Augusta and Manchester, N.H.
Redman alleged that Bernstein Shur worked against his interests in a dispute with his brother, Mark Redman, about control of Northern Mattress, which has since gone out of business.
Redman, who was company president, was prohibited from entering the family business' Fairfield headquarters because of a sexual harassment claim that he contends was orchestrated by his brother to wrest control of the business.
According to Redman's civil suit, which was filed by his attorney, John S. Campbell of Portland, Northern Mattress grew under Redman's leadership from one small store to six stores between 1980 and 2004.
Stores in Waterville, Bangor, Brunswick, South Portland, Auburn and Augusta were doing $18 million in sales, the lawsuit states. As of 2004, the company employed 120 people.
Campbell said his client took a 10-month sabbatical in 2003 to support his wife, who had been diagnosed with cancer, and to take a break from his 90-hour work weeks.
When he returned to the business in early 2004, friction between Redmond and his brother grew as they tried to resolve who actually would control the company, as well as how it should be structured.
In April 2004, Peter Redmond hired Bernstein Shur to represent him. Around the same time, the brothers were considering expanding by building a new Ashley furniture store in South Portland.
Redman had concerns about the expansion project which his attorney said moved ahead without his consent.
During this period, Peter Redmond sought advice from his attornies about a number of matters, including his brother challenging his share of the company's ownership, and allegations that employees could not work with him.
"I am not sure what transpired yesterday, however, I am being set up to take big fall," he wrote in an email to his attornies dated May 5, 2004. "I am alone and strong. However we need to plan our next strategy, because he (Mark) has planned his already."
The civil suit alleges that Peter Redman was being set up by his brother in an attempt to force him out of the company.
Allegations of sexual harrassment by a female co-worker were brought against Redman in May 2004. Campbell says Bernstein Shur failed to investigate and defend him against the accusations.
No harrassment complaint was ever filed with the state, but according to Rubin, the attorney for Bernstein Shur, the matter was handled internally without publicity as Redmond requested.
Campbell and Rubin said the employee testified that at least on one occasion Redmond, instead of shaking her hand, held her hand for an inordinate amount of time.
Redmond denies the allegation.
"We don't believe we did anything wrong. We were instructed to resolve this (harassment allegations) internally and that's what happened," Rubin said.
Campbell said Maine law allows for the recovery of emotional distress damages resulting from an attorney's neglect. An individual may recover expenses and lost income, but can also be entitled for any resulting loss of reputation and emotional injuries.
"Peter was desperately looking for help in dealing with his brother, who was acting unusual," Campbell said. "Peter came to Bernstein Shur for help, but his impression was they were ignoring his pleas for help."
Campbell said Northern Mattress, which was established in 1950, went out of business in late 2006. He said Mark Redmond committed suicide in 2006.
Peter Redmond, 52, has started a new business -- Priceless Mattress and Furniture in Augusta.
Rubin points out that Bernstein Shur only represented Redmond for just over four months in 2004. "I am surprised by the jury verdict based on the evidence presented at trial," Rubin said.
If a new trial is not approved, then Rubin said he intends to appeal the verdict to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.