Meet the junior lawyers taking on Heenan Blaikie’s veteran counsel

Heenan Blaikie Sign
These four rookie associates have the chance to go up against the fallen firm

By Daniel Fish

On Friday December 5th, 2014

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It’s not every day that a rookie lawyer gets to sue a giant law firm. Yet, out of the seven ex-Heenan Blaikie legal assistants suing the now-defunct firm, six have tapped junior associates to lead their claims. Why? As employment lawyer Andrew Pinto explains, young lawyers are all “the assistants can afford.” So these lawyers can thank their lower billable rates for getting the chance to go head-to-head with a fallen Goliath, represented by Greg McGinnis, a partner at Mathews, Dinsdale & Clark LLP. He’s a labour and employment lawyer with almost two decades of experience, and a former Heenan Blaikie partner.

The rookies

Daniel RohdeDANIEL ROHDE
2012 call
· Cavalluzzo Shilton McIntyre & Cornish LLP
· Working with Christopher Perri
· One joint lawsuit, total claim: $56,886.26

  

Lumi PangeaLUMI PUNGEA
2012 CALL
· Samfiru Tumarkin LLP
· Two lawsuits, total claim: $125,006.37

 

 

Christine WestlakeCHRISTINE WESTLAKE
2011 CALL
· Koskie Minsky LLP
· Two lawsuits, total claim: $530,000

 

 

Chris PerryCHRISTOPHER PERRI
2010 CALL
· Cavalluzzo Shilton McIntyre & Cornish LLP
· Working with Daniel Rohde
· One joint lawsuit, total claim: $56,886.26

 

 

What we know about the law suits so far

Since the collapse of Heenan Blaikie LLP more than 10 months ago, seven legal assistants have launched lawsuits in Toronto against their former firm, seeking a combined total of close to $1.1 million, according to court documents obtained by Precedent. At the time of the dissolution, according to one statement of claim, Heenan Blaikie’s Toronto office employed more than 160 legal support staff. These claims, which range in value from around $15,000 to $418,000, offer a window into how Heenan Blaikie might have treated its support staff after it dissolved in February.

In one suit, two assistants (who found work after the collapse) claim Heenan Blaikie failed to pay them the minimum amount of termination and severance pay required by law. They allege the firm should have paid them eight weeks of termination pay, plus severance based on their tenure. Instead, according to the statement of claim, Heenan Blaikie gave them just two weeks of working notice. “I do find [Heenan Blaikie’s alleged conduct] very surprising,” says employment lawyer Andrew Pinto. Most employers “have no difficulty whatsoever paying the minimum standard.” (Heenan Blaikie says it will defend the claim, but, at press time, had not filed a statement of defence.)

Three other assistants, still unemployed, claim that, when they joined Heenan Blaikie, the firm agreed to recognize years they spent at their previous employer when calculating tenure (in fact, Heenan Blaikie reportedly gave them service awards acknowledging those previous years). But, when Heenan Blaikie drew up their severance packages, they allege the firm reneged on that promise, only counting time they spent at Heenan Blaikie. In one statement of defence, Heenan Blaikie says it agreed to recognize the assistant’s “prior service… if at all, only for the purposes of benefitsrelated entitlements such as vacation.”

Four assistants are also seeking punitive or bad faith damages, on the grounds that Heenan Blaikie misrepresented its financial health in the weeks leading up to its collapse. Heenan Blaikie, in one statement of defence, denies this allegation and says there is “no basis for punitive or exemplary damages, ‘bad faith’ damages, or any other form of damages.”

That only seven assistants out of a possible 160 have filed lawsuits is not surprising, says Daniel Lublin, partner and co-founder of Whitten and Lublin LLP, a Toronto employment firm. When it comes to enduring the stress of a lawsuit — and the prospect of cross-examination — he says “some people just don’t want that fight in their life.”

Lublin also says that, even if the ex-Heenan Blaikie assistants win, they might not collect any money. Before Heenan Blaikie pays out, he explains, the firm may have to first pay large creditors, such as banks and property owners, that have secured loans. Once these assistants resolve their cases, the firm could be out of assets, leaving them with no more than “a paper judgment.”

Legal assistants aren’t the only former employees suing Heenan Blaikie. At press time, a patent agent, a non-equity partner, an engineer and a mining lawyer all had pending lawsuits against the firm.