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Lawyer Departs After Note Left on His Chair!

Since 1971, Michael Hausfeld has been one of Washington’s most feared “big case” lawyers. He takes aim at oil and tobacco companies, handgun manufacturers, and especially Swiss banks and American corporations that he believes allowed the Holocaust to occur.

Operating out of plush quarters in the old Greyhound bus station on DC’s New York Avenue, Hausfeld had built one of Washington’s premier firms, Cohen Milstein Hausfeld & Toll. Among his partners was Joe Sellers, onetime head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Sellers has largely made his name from sex-and gender-discrimination suits against Boeing and Wal-Mart.

Was a clash of egos not inevitable?

Hausfeld’s grandiose ideas—he is trying to pursue war-crimes claims against IBM that date back to 1939—eventually proved too much for Sellers and most of the 70 other partners. While Hausfeld was away on business, they voted to remove him as head of the firm and taped a note to his chair.

Hausfeld responded by sending out a mass e-mail—appropriately enough for someone who specializes in “mass torts”—to all his friends claiming he had been “expelled from the firm I co-founded.” He called his departure “abrupt and unceremonious.”

Hausfeld hauled his papers and possessions over to Venable, another Washington megafirm, and announced that his next legal target will be his longtime partners.

Sellers said he was replacing Hausfeld on the letterhead of the firm, which has morphed into Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.

Sellers scoffed at criticism of placing the note on the chair, calling it entirely “proper under the partnership agreement.”

“Cold,” replies Hausfeld.

This article first appeared in the January 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.

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