HOUSTON — A former associate suing Berg & Androphy for back wages was forced to resign because his work was erratic, he was “not trustworthy and an embarrassment,” and he made inappropriate comments in writing that undermined an important client, David Berg, co-founder of the Houston firm, testified Tuesday.
“I wanted him gone,” Berg testified on the second day of a jury trial before Harris County District Judge Cory Don Sepolio.
Berg was called to the stand by the ousted associate, Justin Pfeiffer, who has sued Berg and his firm for breach of contract. A counterclaim by Berg and the firm asks the court to sanction Pfeiffer, whom it describes as “unhinged” and a “vexatious litigant” who “harasses all whom he claims have wronged him.”
Pfeiffer is representing himself. His co-counsel is Louis Benowitz of West Hollywood, California.
Since Berg’s firm demanded Pfeiffer’s resignation in September 2018, one year after he was hired, the counterclaim said, Pfeiffer has unsuccessfully pursued his wage claim before state workforce agencies in Texas and California, lodged complaints against Berg before state bar organizations in both states and sued Berg in California Superior Court before filing the Texas suit now before Judge Sepolio.
Berg said the final straw in the firm’s decision to get rid of Pfeiffer was an email he wrote to an opposing counsel while representing Olympics gymnastics coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi in litigation in Southern California and Walker County, Texas, where the Karolyis had their ranch and gymnastics camp.
“I am a member of both the California and Texas State Bars,” Pfeiffer wrote. “Both states have, to put it diplomatically, unique idiosyncrasies. And, as a native of neither, I would be hard pressed to say which I find more asinine.”
Had the email been made public while the Karolyis had a lawsuit pending in Walker County, Berg testified, it could have tainted the view of a Texas judge and potential jurors against Pfeiffer and the firm’s client.
“He’s absolutely throwing the Karolyis under the bus” while handing opposing counsel a “lethal weapon,” Berg testified.
Berg’s testimony is to continue Wednesday, after which Pfeiffer is expected to take the stand.
On Tuesday, Benowitz told the jury in his opening statement that Pfeiffer wasn’t “fully relieved” of his duties at Berg & Androphy until November 2018, two months after he agreed to resign, when he filed a motion to withdraw as counsel in California in cases where he was a lawyer of record, and that motion was granted.
Benowitz went on to question Kathy Wagner, Berg & Androphy’s longtime business manager, about time sheets and billing invoices that, the lawyer suggested, showed Pfeiffer continued to do work for the firm — work for which Pfeiffer is entitled to compensation — for weeks after he agreed to quit.
Berg & Androphy contends that Pfeiffer had no role at the firm after Sept. 20, 2018, the day he was told to resign. In their counterclaim, Berg and the firm said “Pfeiffer was aware no work was expected nor required of him, and there was no agreement … that he would be paid for those hours, not only because B&A was anxious for Pfeiffer to be gone before he did any more damage, but also because B&A had already paid Pfeiffer more than he was owed in compensation.”
Pfeiffer, who was making $170,000 a year as an associate, was given three weeks’ severance when he left, even though Berg & Androphy was under no legal obligation to give him that money, Dvorscak said Tuesday morning in his opening statement to the jury.
Under questioning by Dvorscak, Wagner testified that no one at the firm had an employment contract. The defense contends that there can be no claim for breach of contract, since the firm had no contract with Feiffer.
Wagner testified that when Pfeiffer was forced to resign, “I was not surprised. His behavior was always very weird, and he spoke down to people.”
The first-year associate, she testified, “sent very condescending emails to the entire firm schooling them, acting like he was a partner.”