Dewey & LeBoeuf pension plans seized; faces lawsuit

NEW YORK Thu May 10, 2012 8:37pm EDT

Pedestrians walk past a sign outside of the building housing the law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP in New York, May 8, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Pedestrians walk past a sign outside of the building housing the law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP in New York, May 8, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Regulators moved on Thursday to seize control of pension plans at Dewey & LeBoeuf, the latest sign of likely collapse at what was once a top U.S. law firm. Dewey also faced its first lawsuit over plans to fire hundreds of employees.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation said it would take responsibility for three pension plans covering 1,800 current and future retirees. The plans were underfunded by $80 million, it said.

Angelo Kakolyris, a spokesman for Dewey, declined to comment.

Dewey has been struggling for weeks with partner defections and debt. It has warned employees that it could close its doors and it has said that New York prosecutors are probing allegations of wrongdoing by its former chairman, Steven Davis. Davis has denied wrongdoing.

In its statement, the pensions regulator said it was stepping in to secure its ability "to collect against the firm's affiliates that share funding responsibility for the pension plans."

The announcement came the same day an employee sued Dewey for failing to provide adequate notice of layoffs. The firm is firing about 450 people in its New York office effective Friday, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed by Vittoria Conn, a worker in Dewey's document production department, who said the company owes her 60 days of pay because it failed to give adequate notice.

The lawsuit sought class-action status for others laid off by the company. Dewey "terminated approximately 450 employees at its (New York office) on or about May 7, 2012, effective on or about May 11," the lawsuit said.

The action was brought in federal court in New York under federal and state laws that require employers to give 60 to 90 days' notice before mass layoffs. Conn said she was notified Monday that her last day would be Friday.

While it was not known how many people Dewey employs in New York, the 450 layoffs would likely be a big chunk of its workforce in the city, and provided an indication of how fast the firm was unraveling. Spokespeople for the firm have declined to say how many employees will lose their jobs.

In 2011, Dewey employed 1,040 lawyers worldwide, according to an annual survey by the National Law Journal, a legal publication. More than 180 of its roughly 300 partners have announced they have left or will leave since the firm's troubles began. On Wednesday, two of the firm's top leaders, Jeffrey Kessler and Richard Shutran, said they would leave Dewey & LeBoeuf for other firms.

But it is employees and junior lawyers who face the toughest times in a job market still recovering from the recent U.S. recession, experts said.

"When it comes to associates and non attorney staff, those are the people I really feel for because they're going to have a much harder time getting work," said Kent Zimmermann, a legal consultant at the Zeughauser Group.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Richard Pullin)

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