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Cellino & Barnes Legal Feud Incites Bias Suit From Partner’s Girlfriend

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The ongoing public legal feud between the two former partners of nationally recognized law firm, Cellino & Barnes, now includes a bias lawsuit from Barnes’ longtime girlfriend claiming withholding of owed legal fees.

The new lawsuit alleges Cellino is using attorney Ellen Sturm “to get back at Barnes” by withholding nearly $1 million in legal fees she’s owed for work on a former case. Strum has reportedly been employed at the firm since 2009, and in a relationship with Barnes for over a decade. Court filings expressly indicate the relationship predates her employment with the firm.

Strum filed the lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court earlier this week. In Strum’s complaint, she alleges Cellino is attempting to “gain leverage against [Barnes] in the dissolution dispute, in a manner that is unseemly, perfidious, unethical, and wrong.”

Ross Cellino Jr. and Stephen Barnes have been in the process of splitting up their firm — with each reportedly planning to go their separate ways and found new firms — since a May 2017 lawsuit was filed seeking to dissolve the company. The breakup has garnered extensive media coverage and public attention, as Cellino & Barnes was one of the most high-profile personal injury law firms in the country, famous for their “Don’t wait, call 8!” commercial jingle and easy-to-remember phone number — (800) 888-8888. Ross Cellino Jr. initiated the 2017 suit.

Strum’s lawsuit is the latest in what has been a somewhat contentious dissolution process. In the court filings, Strum alleges she worked for seven years on a lawsuit settled in 2018, which she describes as “one of the largest personal-injury settlements in American history.” The complaint describes it as a “highly complex products liability case” and lists the settlement amount as confidential

Sturm is alleging breach of contract and state labor law violations. Specifically, she contends that in 2012 the firm agreed to pay her and two other attorneys a total of 20% of the firm’s overall fee in the case. The three attorneys reportedly agreed to split the 20% based on the amount of work each performed on the case.

The lawsuit alleges that Cellino has refused payment to Sturm while offering “no rational explanation.” “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 states. The complaint indicates that one of the other attorneys entitled to a split of the aforementioned 20% has received his share.

Moreover, the complaint states that the amount owed to Strum is based on the firm’s fees, rather than the full settlement amount. It lists her 8% share of the firm’s “net legal fee” as $936,221. Court filings indicate, however, that Sturm is seeking $4.74 million from Cellino and the firm via the civil suit.