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Bad breakup leads to lawsuit between former associate, firm

January 1, 2007
The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today on a case where a law firm sued its former associate who left, along with several other employees, to join a new firm.

In Kopka, Landau & Pinkus v. Larry Hansen, et al., No49A02-0611-CV-987, Hansen's previous employer, law firm Kopka Landau & Pinkus, appealed two trial court orders -summary judgment in favor of Hansen and judgment in favor of Hansen on the counterclaims against KLP.

Hansen worked as an associate attorney for KLP and was an at-will employee. In September 2000, Hansen quit along with four associates and three support staffers. All those who resigned joined Hansen at the law firm Skiles Hansen Cook & DeTrude, where Hansen became a partner.

KLP filed a complaint of eight counts against Hansen and his new law firm. After a hearing, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Hansen and SHCD on all eight counts. Hansen's two counterclaims against KLP - malicious prosecution and compensation and damages to Hansen pursuant to the Wage Payment Statute - were granted in Hansen's favor.

KLP appealed Count 1 of its complaint - breach of fiduciary duty by Hansen - and the judgment in Hansen's favor on his new law firm's claims.

KLP argued Hansen breached his fiduciary duty to KLP when he spoke to other employees about how much money it would take to have them join him at SHCD before leaving KLP. Although he expressed a desire to find positions for the KLP employees at his new firm, there is no evidence that Hansen made formal offers to any KLP employees or his actions constituted anything more than preparation to compete with KLP, so the Court of Appeals affirmed the summary judgment in Hansen's favor on Count 1 of KLP's complaint, wrote Chief Judge John Baker.

The Court of Appeals did reverse the trial court's decision to award damages and attorney fees pursuant to the Wage Payment Statute in Hansen's favor. The money he was owed was a bonus and he eventually received the payment from the firm. Despite the delay, his bonus does not fall under "wages" for purposes of the Wage Payment Statute and he is not entitled to up to double the unpaid wages and attorney fees for not receiving that bonus within a certain time period.

KLP did breach a contract with Hansen owing him the bonus money and Hansen argued that he is entitled to the prejudgment interest on those damages. The Court of Appeals remanded this matter back to the trial court for a calculation of the amount of prejudgment interest to which Hansen is entitled.
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