Trial lawyer David Berg has had enough.
After being dragged into six fights by a former associate who alleges he’s owed back wages — before the labor commissions in California and Texas, the bar associations in each state and courts there — the Berg & Androphy partner is asking a Harris County district judge to sanction Justin Carl Pfeiffer. In an answer and counterclaim filed Monday, Berg referred to Pfeiffer as “unhinged” and a “vexatious litigant” who “harasses all whom he claims have wronged him.”
Pfeiffer, who is now a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, filed suit in Harris County Sept. 21, bringing a claim for breach of contract seeking about $32,000 in back pay and $15,000 in attorney fees he’s racked up over four years of pursuing his claims. Pfeiffer tendered his resignation to Berg & Androphy in September 2018 after the firm asked him to do so, one year after he started working there, but alleges he wasn’t paid for all his work.
One of the attorneys representing Pfeiffer in a parallel California lawsuit seeking back pay, Louis Benowitz, emailed a statement to The Texas Lawbook Tuesday saying his client’s dogged pursuit of wages he alleges he is owed is “something to be admired.”
“The defendants are attempting to assassinate Mr. Pfeiffer’s character regarding extraneous and collateral matters in hopes of getting away with wage theft,” he wrote. “The defendants even admit that they did not pay Mr. Pfeiffer for his work.”
Pfeiffer is representing himself in the Texas suit.
The Texas lawsuit, according to Berg, is just the latest in a long line of meritless attempts by Pfeiffer to recoup money he’s not owed for work he wasn’t asked to do following his resignation.
What work does Pfeiffer allege he’s being stiffed for?
As Berg explained it in his counterclaim, Pfeiffer billed the company for 32 hours spent “researching and drafting” what Berg characterizes as a routine motion to withdraw from a case the firm was handling in California following his resignation and for 19 hours he spent “organizing firm files and cleaning out his office.”
Berg, who alleges he also paid Pfeiffer two weeks severance that he wasn’t entitled to, said no firm would ever charge those hours to a client or pay it to an employee.
“In the past three years alone, Pfeiffer has sued a federal judge — whose withering opinion chronicled Pfeiffer’s breaches of fiduciary duty in a case Pfeiffer brought against a law firm that fired him for unprofessional conduct and shoddy work; Westlaw for publishing that opinion; and his former law firm, Ajamie LLP,” Berg told the court in his counterclaim.
After the state agencies in Texas and California tossed his wage claims, Berg alleges, Pfeiffer turned to the state bar organizations in each state, alleging Berg had practiced law in California despite not being authorized to do so.
Each of those complaints were dismissed.
Then came the lawsuits. Berg alleges in the counterclaim that the California Superior Court lawsuit is “hanging by a thread” after the judge there dismissed Pfeiffer’s complaint and denied his motion to reconsider. Those actions, Berg alleges, “sent Pfeiffer scurrying to this court, where he has filed the identical lawsuit, without mentioning the prior rulings in California, but tacitly admits the reason he filed here is that his case there is doomed.”
The opening lines of Pfeiffer’s petition recount his Order of the Coif graduation from the University of Michigan Law School, his clerkship for Fifth Circuit Chief Judge Priscilla Richman and his work representing “millions of people in seminal constitution and civil rights matters” before the highest courts in Texas and the nation.
He also claims in the petition to have “obtained the invalidation of a larger quantity of Texas statutes than any other attorney.”
Pfeiffer told the court he was seeking to enforce a contract that was entered into before a Superior Court in Orange County, California, during litigation of cases brought by some victims of disgraced former U.S. Women’s Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
Pfeiffer alleges he served as the attorney of record in those cases — representing gymnastics coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi — because he was the only Berg & Androphy attorney licensed to practice in California at that time and that Berg has refused to pay him what he’s owed for that work.
According to court documents, Pfeiffer was hired as an associate attorney by Berg & Androphy in September 2017 and was appointed attorney of record by the Karolyis in May 2018.
But just a few months later, in September 2018, Berg requested Pfeiffer’s resignation from the firm and, according to Pfeiffer’s lawsuit, “locked him out of firm telecommunications, electronic communications and electronic files,” making it impossible to contact the Karolyis without violating ethics rules.
He drafted his resignation letter Oct. 30, 2018, according to the lawsuit, and tendered it to Berg & Androphy. Pfeiffer was granted withdrawal from the California litigation, and the Karolyis filed notice they were changing their attorney of record.
According to Pfeiffer, he was hired at an annual salary of $170,000, which included 10 days of paid vacation time that accrued on his one-year anniversary: Sept. 18, 2018, two days before Berg requested his resignation.
The firm refused to pay Pfeiffer for his vacation time, he alleges, and he filed a claim for back wages with the Texas Workforce Commission. Berg subsequently filed a declaration with the TWC claiming Pfeiffer performed no services for the firm after Sept. 30, 2018.
In May 2019 the TWC decided it didn’t have jurisdiction over Pfeiffer’s claim, so Pfeiffer brought the claim to the California Department of Labor Standards and Enforcement, seeking pay for work he did between Oct. 5, 2018, and Nov. 27, 2018, totaling about $25,000, as well as vacation wages totaling about $7,000.
The Labor Commission declined to pursue the case in September 2019.
So, on Sept. 20, 2021, Pfeiffer sued his former firm in Orange County Superior Court. He alleges Berg & Androphy’s contention that the California court has no jurisdiction over the claim required that he file this “parallel action” in Texas.
Berg included a timeline exhibit in his answer titled “Pfeiffer’s Litigation Rampage,” noting the litigation with Berg & Androphy and a sprawling lawsuit Pfeiffer filed against the Ajamie firm that included claims for employment discrimination, breach of contract and alleged violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
The timeline also includes a lawsuit Pfeiffer filed against U.S. District Judge Charles Eskridge and Westlaw.
According to Berg’s counterclaim, it was during litigation of the Ajamie lawsuit before Judge Eskridge that Pfeiffer displayed “a stunning betrayal of his fiduciary duties” by attaching confidential client documents he took from Ajamie as exhibits to his publicly filed complaint.
Judge Eskridge issued a “blistering opinion” in November 2019 detailing Pfeiffer’s “numerous ethical breaches,” according to the counterclaim. Judge Eskridge also granted Ajamie’s request for a preliminary injunction and ordered that Pfeiffer return all confidential client documents in his possession.
Pfeiffer then sued Judge Eskridge in Fort Bend County district court for conversion, alleging the jurist “browbeat” him into surrendering documents to the federal district clerk’s office.
After the lawsuit was removed to federal court, Pfeiffer voluntarily dismissed the claim against Judge Eskridge on April 27, 2022. But in June, Pfeiffer sued West Publishing Corp., which operates as Westlaw, for defamation after the company published the headnotes describing Judge Eskridge’s holdings in the Ajamie litigation.
Berg told the court that the defamation lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice and Pfeiffer was ordered to pay Westlaw’s attorney fees.
“Pfeiffer … is morally bankrupt, unbound by the Rules of Professional Conduct and Texas procedure, or the rules of common decency that bind us as lawyers and ordinary citizens,” Berg said in his sanctions request. “There must be consequences for Pfeiffer. Otherwise, his malicious campaign will not stop. To that end, in an effort to stop Pfeiffer once and for all, defendants respectfully seek damages and sanctions.”
The case has been assigned to Harris County District Judge Cory Don Sepolio of the 269th District Court.
Pfeiffer is representing himself in Texas. In the California litigation he’s represented by Benowitz and Perrin Disner.
Berg and his firm are represented by John Zavitsanos, Paul S. Turkevich and Alexander M. Dvorscak of Ahmad Zavitsanos & Mensing.
The case number is 2022-60439.