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BY SAM SPOKONY | Days after filing a $100 million class action lawsuit against the landlord and management of Gateway Plaza on behalf of a fellow tenant of the complex, Democratic District Leader Jenifer Rajkumar is dealing with an ethical crisis of her own.
Rajkumar, who spoke openly about the suit a day after it was filed by her law firm, Sanford Heisler, on April 1, suddenly went silent after she was accused of plagiarizing the suit from a draft previously written by two other law firms.
In an action filed in State Supreme Court on April 3, those two firms — Morgan & Morgan and Newman Ferrara — sought to disqualify Sanford Heisler as lead counsel on the class action suit, explicitly claiming that Rajkumar acted in an “unprofessional and devious manner” by taking and using their documents to serve her own firm’s ends.
According to the April 3 memorandum, Rajkumar — who currently lives at Gateway Plaza, a six-building complex in Battery Park City — received a call from a Morgan & Morgan attorney on March 5, regarding the possibility of a class action suit, after which Rajkumar expressed interest in joining that litigation solely a plaintiff (not as an attorney).
That discussion came after a March 4 inspection of Gateway Plaza apartments, which was conducted by attorneys from Morgan & Morgan and Newman Ferrara (and without any involvement by Sanford Heisler), according to the same documents. That inspection had shown the supposed problems with shoddy windows, heating and other elements that would eventually form the basis of the litigation, which seeks damages against Gateway’s management.
After subsequent discussions in which Rajkumar continued to express interest in becoming a plaintiff, a Morgan & Morgan attorney sent a draft of the litigation to Rajkumar’s personal email on March 7, according to the memorandum, believing she would be reviewing the documents for personal, rather than professional purposes.
Then, on March 10, Rajkumar changed course unexpectedly by calling Morgan & Morgan to tell them that she no longer wanted to join the suit as a plaintiff, but instead wanted to serve as co-counsel along with her firm, according to the memorandum.
Several conversations followed over the next few weeks between Sanford Heisler and the two other firms, regarding the possibility of Rajkumar serving as co-counsel, but no final agreement on that issue was ever reached. And when Sanford Heisler filed and announced the Gateway Plaza suit on the morning April 1 — featuring Rajkumar as a key attorney handling the case — attorneys from the two other firms say they were caught completely by surprise, because they were still waiting for a call back from Rajkumar and several of her colleagues regarding their previous discussions.
“The complaint filed in the [Gateway Plaza class action lawsuit] by Sanford Heisler on April 1, 2014, is, in all material and substantive respects, an identical of [sic] draft complaint emailed by [Morgan & Morgan] to Ms. Rajkumar to her personal email account on March 7, 2014, after she had stated that she wished to pursue litigation as a plaintiff,” the April 3 memorandum reads.
“No permission was ever granted to Sanford Heisler by Newman Ferrara or Morgan & Morgan to utilize the complaint which was provided to Ms. Rajkumar with the express understanding that she was reviewing the complaint in her capacity as a possible plaintiff in the case,” the memorandum continues. “Nonetheless, Sanford Heisler now uses that same information, plagiarized from the draft received by Ms. Rajkumar, personally, for use in [Sanford Heisler’s April 1 lawsuit].”
Rajkumar did not return multiple phone calls on Tuesday, and Sanford Heisler did not allow her to be interviewed regarding the plagiarism allegations.
David Sanford, chairperson of Sanford Heisler, told Downtown Express on Tuesday afternoon that his firm is now in the process of negotiating a deal with Newman Ferrara and Morgan & Morgan, which would allow all three firms to act as co-counsel on the Gateway Plaza lawsuit.
“We’ll make Jenifer available once that deal is done,” said Sanford. He added that Rajkumar was not involved at all in the negotiations, and that, at that point, it “doesn’t make sense to talk to her, because she doesn’t even know what’s going on with that right now.”
When Sanford was asked to address the allegations against Rajkumar he claimed they were all “inaccurate,” but declined to go into any further detail.
It’s unclear how far the negotiations Sanford explained had actually gotten as of Tuesday afternoon.
Just an hour before Sanford made those comments, Lucas Ferrara, a partner at Newman Ferrara, told Downtown Express that his firm expected to continue its April 3 motion, and did not mention anything regarding an imminent deal.
Ferrara declined to comment on the details of the memorandum, but stressed that his firm planned to present its case at an April 29 hearing before a State Supreme Court judge, who would then decide whether or not Sanford and Heisler — along with Rajkumar — should be disqualified as lead counsel on the Gateway suit and replaced by the two other firms.
This is not the first time Rajkumar has taken heat regarding debatable aspects of her career.
Last May, while she was running in the Democratic primary for the City Council’s District 1 seat against incumbent Margaret Chin — a race Chin eventually won by 17 points — Rajkumar admitted to the New York Post that her nonprofit organization W-Spin Inc., which she founded, had actually never done anything in its three years of existence.
Responding to a question about her political future, Rajkumar previously told Downtown Express in an April 2 phone interview that she has no “current” plans to run for office again.
On April 9, 2014, the day after this article was posted, the two law firms withdrew their accusations against Jenifer Rajkumar and her firm, and all three firms announced that they would work together on the lawsuit.