Attorney Jeffrey Liddle of New York, who represents Minneapolis broker T. Sheridan O'Keefe in a long-running wrongful termination case against Piper Jaffray, claims that a recently produced internal Piper document proves the firm fired his client in 1991. Piper's defense in the case is that O'Keefe left voluntarily.
O'Keefe left the firm in early 1992, claiming the firm forced him out at a Dec. 18, 1991, meeting in which he was threatened with a dirty U-5 if he refused to leave voluntarily.
(O'Keefe has since founded the National Association of Investment Professionals [NAIP], an association for brokers, and writes the "From the NAIP" column for Registered Representative. The editor of this magazine serves on the organization's board.)
In one of the most bizarre arbitration cases ever, O'Keefe claims his former manager, Steven Berghs, along with Minneapolis regional boss Earl Johnson, and the then associate general counsel at Piper, AnnDrea Benson, forced him out after O'Keefe got a restraining order against a female Piper employee who harassed him in a series of incidents at work and home--including a threat that she would come after him with a gun. O'Keefe had earlier broken off a relationship with the woman.
The case was filed in 1994 but didn't get under way until last year. In the latest turn of events, Liddle contends that a package of documents a new panel chairperson ordered turned over to him during hearings last October contains, ironically, a "smoking gun" proving that Piper decided to fire O'Keefe prior to the Dec. 18 meeting.
The document in question, one of the exhibits filed in the case and obtained by this magazine, is a page of handwritten notes from a Dec. 10, 1991, meeting authored by Benson, now the firm's general counsel. The meeting also was attended by Berghs, Johnson and a Piper human resources officer.
In the Dec. 10 note, Benson wrote, "Staying in Mpls. [the Minneapolis branch]--not possible as far as SB [Steven Berghs] is concerned" and that O'Keefe was "not the type of person PJH [Piper Jaffray] wants as IE [investment executive]."
O'Keefe had shown a "pattern of inappropriate personal behavior," she wrote, noting a series of rumored incidents O'Keefe supposedly was involved in at a past employer and at Piper. Several of the alleged incidents involved sexual behavior and harassment of colleagues and a client.
Liddle and O'Keefe claim he was being set up, and under questioning from Liddle during the October hearings last year, Benson acknowledged she was not aware of any actions taken to substantiate any of the rumors about O'Keefe.
Also during questioning, Benson, Johnson and Berghs all testified that they thought O'Keefe himself had decided to leave the firm, and said repeatedly that they had no recollection of any of the meetings.
But another handwritten note by Benson, also turned over by Piper last October, recorded what happened during the alleged termination meeting of Dec. 18, and indicates that O'Keefe was in fact fired.
Benson's note of the Dec. 18 meeting, attended by O'Keefe and his attorney at the time, Rod Krass, along with Benson, Johnson and a Piper human resources officer, begins by saying, "Explained to TO'K [O'Keefe] that the relationship between himself & PJH [Piper] had deteriorated--no confidence left. ... " The harassment incident with the female Piper employee "was only one in [a] series of comments" the firm had heard about, Benson wrote. The note further states, "Prefer to end empl[oyment] relationship in a mutually agreeable manner" and "Earl [Johnson] disc[ussed] his position." Benson concludes with the statement, "R. Krass will get back to me after he & TO'K have chance to discuss."
Benson was unable to explain why she wrote about ending the employment relationship if O'Keefe had in fact decided to quit by the time of the meeting. Benson acknowledged that she had received a Dec. 6 letter from Krass (soon after O'Keefe obtained the restraining order) and another letter from Krass dated Dec. 17 and allegedly given to her at the Dec. 18 meeting. Both letters recommend that O'Keefe be transferred to another Piper office.
At the first set of hearings in March 1997, Krass testified that O'Keefe had been fired at the Dec. 18 meeting and that Benson had threatened O'Keefe's U-5 if he didn't go quietly. Krass produced a note at the hearing, introduced as evidence, which quotes Johnson as saying, "We are going to terminate you [O'Keefe]."
Johnson testified that the Dec. 18 meeting was "very short," "amicable," and that it was his understanding that O'Keefe's departure was a "done deal" prior to the meeting.
Benson's 1991 notes appear to be covered by a document-discovery request from O'Keefe's former attorney going back to 1995, as well as subsequent requests from Liddle.
Last May, Liddle filed a formal complaint with the NASD asking for sanctions against Piper Jaffray for withholding evidence in the case.
A spokesperson for Piper Jaffray says the firm can't comment on pending litigation.
In an unrelated development, this year Benson was named to the NASD's National Arbitration and Mediation Committee, which sets policy for arbitration, approves
and trains arbitrators, and oversees the NASD's Office of Dispute Resolution.
The O'Keefe-Piper case is scheduled to resume this month.