A former K&L Gates partner who claims the firm wrongly terminated him must take his case to arbitration, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals said today, rejecting the attorney’s position that a judge should hear the case. The court found the lawyer, Robert Ted Parker, was bound by an arbitration clause in his partnership agreement with the firm.
The decision did not resolve Parker's underlying claims against K&L Gates. Parker, a former equity partner in the firm's San Francisco office, sued K&L Gates for wrongful termination, breach of contract, age discrimination and other claims related to his departure from the firm.
Parker was not immediately available for comment. K&L Gates, represented by Zuckerman Spaeder partner Mark Foster, did not immediately return a request for comment.
According to court briefs, Parker was a partner at Preston Gates & Ellis before the firm merged with Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham in 2007 to form K&L Gates. When the firms merged and Parker joined K&L Gates as an equity partner, he signed a supplement to the partnership agreement.
In October 2009, Parker left the firm. The firm said Parker resigned, but he alleged in filings that the firm demanded his resignation. Parker claimed the firm pushed him out by forcing him to drop a securities action against Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., after Lehman offered the firm new business in exchange. Lehman denied any wrongdoing. After Parker sued in a California state court, K&L Gates moved the case to Washington, citing a forum-selection clause in the partnership agreement.
K&L Gates asked a District of Columbia Superior Court judge to compel arbitration, citing the partnership agreement Parker signed. After the trial judge agreed with the firm, Parker appealed.
Judge Roy McLeese III, writing for the three-judge appellate panel, found Parker was on notice about the partnership agreement's arbitration and forum-selection clauses and, as a result, "Mr. Parker is bound by those terms." The court added that the fact that Parker was a "seasoned attorney" also supported holding him to the terms of the agreement.
Parker challenged the firm's ability to trigger the forum-selection clause in the agreement, but the court said he failed to meet the standards for proving the clause was "unreasonable," such as that litigating the case in Washington would deprive him of his day in court or that enforcement would violate public policy. Parker argued the firm committed fraud at the time he signed the contract, but the court said he failed to raise that argument in time for the judges to consider it.
The court also rejected Parker's argument that the arbitration clause didn’t apply to all of his claims. McLeese wrote that the partnership agreement's language was broad and covered Parker's contractual, tort and statutory claims against the firm.
Nearly half of the opinion was devoted to a dispute among the judges about how to apply previous court rulings on the question of whether an order compelling arbitration was final and could be appealed immediately. The court concluded that the order in Parker's case was appealable, but disagreed on how to interpret and apply other court opinions in reaching that decision.
Judge Catharine Easterly and Senior Judge John Ferren also heard the case.