There’s new collateral damage in the long-running feud between personal injury attorneys Ross Cellino and Stephen Barnes.
Barnes’ longtime girlfriend claims Cellino is “using her to get back at Barnes” by withholding nearly $1 million in legal fees she’s owed for work on a lucrative case, a new lawsuit alleges.
Attorney Ellen Sturm — who’s been at the firm since 2009 and in a relationship with Barnes for a decade — charges that Cellino is trying to “gain leverage against [Barnes] in the dissolution dispute, in a manner that is unseemly, perfidious, unethical, and wrong,” a Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit filed late Tuesday says.
The estranged legal duo have been in the process of splitting up their firm, known for its catchy jingle “Don’t wait, call 8!” and easy-to-remember phone number: (800) 888-8888.
Sturm and two other lawyers — including Barnes’ brother Richard — secured “one of the largest personal injury settlements in U.S. history” from a case she joined in 2012 involving a 14-year-old boy who was badly burned by an exploding product, according to the court papers.
Prior to her work on the case, Sturm — who normally received 10 percent of the total legal fees on cases, in addition to her wages — verbally agreed to split the case’s 20 percent fee three ways with the other two attorneys who worked on the case, court papers say.
When the case was settled in 2018, “Cellino personally made several million dollars from the settlement” — despite not having done any work on the case, the court documents allege.
But Cellino refused to pay Sturm her cut — $936,220 — claiming he never made the agreement to split the entire fee three ways, the suit alleges.
Cellino accused Barnes of “favoritism” toward Sturm and his brother, the court papers claim.
Despite Sturm’s extensive and well-documented work on the case, Cellino claimed that Sturm’s salary alone was sufficient compensation for her work, which he characterized as assisting “in drafting motions and appeals,” the suit claims.
But Sturm says she regularly received the 10 percent bonus on her work in prior cases, which is laid out in her contract. And Cellino hadn’t taken issue with anyone receiving their fee ever before, the court documents allege.
“Cellino has thus cynically abused his position of power at the Firm in an effort to seek retribution against Barnes through his longtime girlfriend Sturm,” the suit charges.
Sturm is seeking $4.74 million from Cellino and the firm — four times the original fee she is owed, the papers say.
Sturm attorney Clifford Robert said his client “is a highly accomplished lawyer who will no longer tolerate being disrespected by Ross Cellino, Jr.”
Going forward, Cellino and Barnes — who began their legal divorce in 2017 — will work respectively at Cellino Law and The Barnes Firm.
“This lawsuit highlights why Ross dissolved Cellino & Barnes,” his lawyer, Terrence Connors, told The Post. “He simply does not agree with preferential treatment for any lawyer in the firm and that will be one of the cornerstones of Cellino Law.”
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