High-profile Edmonton lawyer sues former partners for $4.8 million

The law firm founded by high-profile Edmonton criminal lawyer Brian Beresh in 1982 was dissolved at midnight on Feb. 28, 2018, after months of bitter disputes between Beresh and his five partners.

Now Beresh has filed a $4.8-million lawsuit with Court of Queen’s Bench against his former partners: Bob Aloneissi, Ed O’Neill, Brian Hurley, Eamon O’Keefe and Chris Millsap. The 28-page statement of claim, filed in Edmonton on Sept. 28, says the five all began at the firm as articling students under the mentorship of Beresh.

The court document, filed by corporate lawyer Richard Cotter, describes Beresh in glowing terms.

Beresh “is a highly respected, well-known lawyer with a pre-eminent reputation” who has been practising law for over 42 years, the document states.

It adds his “stellar reputation” is enhanced by mentoring and teaching law students and lawyers, and at one point refers to Beresh as a “rainmaker.”

The beginning of the end

According to the statement of claim, Beresh and Associates began to unravel in late September 2017 when Beresh told his partners he wanted to withdraw as partner and assume the role of counsel.

According to www.lawcrossing.com, which bills itself as America’s top legal job site, the title of counsel is traditionally given to “older lawyers seeking to curtail their workloads and escape the pressures of partnership.”

The lawsuit states Beresh wanted to stay on with the firm to continue to attract and retain “lucrative legal work” with his  “significant reputational cache.” He offered to keep sharing expenses by paying the firm $50,000 monthly — “an extraordinarily generous” offer, the statement of claim added.

Beresh’s five former law partners, from left to right: Eamon O’Keefe, Ed O’Neill, Bob Aloneissi, Brian Hurley and Chris Millsap. (Aloneissi O’Neill/Liberty Law )

But on Oct. 7, 2017, according to the statement of claim, Beresh’s five partners rejected his offer.

They told him “he could remain a partner … as they did not have the legal right to expel him, or he could leave — no other alternative was possible.”

At first, Beresh told them he would consider resigning from the partnership at the end of the year. Then he clarified “that he would remain a partner … until such time as all outstanding issues had been resolved.”

According to the statement of claim, Beresh’s partners began to push back.

The lawsuit states that from the beginning, Beresh and Associates “carried on the practice of law without a written partnership agreement,” describing it as “partly oral and partly based upon the conduct and customs carried on over [the firm’s] existence.”

At the end of October 2017, Beresh alleges his partners unilaterally changed the business conduct of the firm. During a partners’ meeting, Ed O’Neill was appointed as the new managing partner and a resolution was passed that set a $30,000-per-month salary limit for all partners until the Beresh issue was settled.

Beresh voted against the resolutions, which were passed and implemented.

The statement of claim says the resolutions were passed in a “capricious, deceitful and arbitrary manner, contrary to law or equity.”

The lawsuit also alleges O’Neill was the ringleader and instigator, and that the resolutions were his initiative and part of a conspiracy “to injure the commercial interests” of Beresh.

His conduct was motivated by greed, fear and jealousy.– statement of claim 

“His [O’Neill’s] conduct was motivated by greed, fear and jealousy of [Beresh’s] past success,” the lawsuit states.

‘A conspiracy’

Anger and frustration become apparent as the statement of claim begins to detail actions of the defendants that it alleges were a conspiracy.

“In furtherance of the conspiracy,” the lawsuit states, “Mr. O’Neill … announced that Mr. [Beresh] was resigning from [the firm] and that a transition would take place.”

Beresh indicates that he was blindsided by the announcement and quickly set out an email to all staff to let them know he had not resigned.

Beresh and Associates in happier times after a bar admission. (Facebook )

By then, rumours about trouble at Beresh and Associates were swirling among members of the Edmonton legal community. The lawsuit states that in early 2018, Beresh found out some or all of his partners told people outside the firm that Beresh had been “expelled.”

The court document states that “incorrect” information “caused significant emotional distress” to Beresh and “significant damage to his reputation.”

“Such conduct was extraordinarily vindictive and was designed to cause embarrassment” to Beresh, the lawsuit says.

Beresh pulls the plug

Thirty-six years after founding the firm, Beresh sent a notice of dissolution to his partners to become effective Feb. 28, 2018. He made plans to vacate his spacious corner office immediately.

According to the statement of claim, on March 1, the remaining five partners formed a new firm — Aloneissi O’Neill — and decided it would be “business as usual.”

It took months to wind up the financial affairs of Beresh and Associates. Beresh claims he’s still owed further compensation, including more than $500,000 as his share from the firm’s capital fund.

He is also seeking $4 million in aggravated damages for allegedly “sullying” his reputation.

Both sides have moved on

Beresh has set up a new law firm, Beresh Law, on the 24th floor of the downtown Bell Tower.

The website for Aloneissi O’Neill / Liberty Law states, “We … are excited about a new chapter in our firm’s long and storied history.”

CBC requested comment from O’Neill and received an email response from William Kenny, the lawyer representing the firm.  

“Any claims by Mr. Beresh against his former partners are considered to be without merit and are expected to be successfully defended,” Kenny wrote.

“In the meantime, the former partners wish Mr. Beresh well in his new endeavour.”

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