Lawyer Tossed Off Sexual Harassment Case for Improper Investigation

June 14, 2005 ( - A federal judge has barred a plaintiffs lawyer from participating in a sexual harassment lawsuit against a hotel company after finding that the lawyer improperly manipulated a hotel worker into giving up confidential company information.

>US District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that attorney Jana Barnett could no longer represent plaintiff Marnessta Beverly in her lawsuit against HORA Inc., the Legal Intelligencer reported. Barnett had gotten into the case as co-counsel to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which originally filed the suit.

>In her ruling in EEOC versus HORA Inc., Pratter said that Barnett had improperly communicated with HORA employee Deborah Richardson and had convinced Richardson to turn over privileged corporate information through a series of e-mails exchanged between the two.

>Asserted Pratter: “Every litigator knows that the discovery process has certain formal and informal rules. Ms. Barnett broke or ignored many of them. While some lawyers look at discovery with something of a Darwinian eye, the ethical rules should not be perused as if they were on an a la carte menu. Ms. Barnett is not permitted to pick and choose which ethical rules to ignore or misinterpret simply because avoidance or abuse of those rules seems conveniently more beneficial to her client.”

>Pratter found that Barnett used Richardson “as an informational mole” and then used the information to persuade the EEOC to take up the case on plaintiff Beverly’s behalf.

>According to Pratter, Beverly worked as a night auditor at a Days Inn hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania and claims that she was fired when she complained that she was being sexually harassed by a co-worker. The EEOC suit named as defendants HORA, the hotel owner, and Marshall Management Inc., a Maryland company hired to manage it. Barnett later intervened in the case.

>Defense lawyers contended in their request that Barnett be disqualified that she had a series of improper communications with Richardson, administrative assistant to the hotel’s general manager, Daryl Carr, and to HORA’s part-owner and senior on-site officer, Anna Koutroulelis. Pratter found that the e-mails between Barnett and Richardson began in August 2002 – about seven months before Barnett filed Beverly’s complaint with the EEOC.

>Pratter found that Barnett got confidential business and personnel information that was related to the hotel’s defense and that Richardson “was a secretly, but vehemently, disgruntled hotel employee who occupied a position of intimate business trust at the high level of hotel management.” Barnett argued that Richardson was acting on her own initiative when she supplied the information.

>According to the opinion, in one of the e-mail exchanges, Richardson said she had reviewed the personnel file of the alleged harasser, Nelson Garcia, for evidence of written discipline, but found none. In another e-mail, Richardson told Barnett that Garcia had been fired and that Richardson had also learned that he was on parole and had a “restraining order out on him for harassment.”