Unhappy With Ralphs, Five Lawyers Drop Grocery Employees

Accusing Ralphs Grocery Co. of playing hardball on fees, five attorneys have withdrawn as counsel to current and ex-employees facing federal charges in connection with a bitter 2003-04 supermarket labor dispute because the grocery chain stopped advancing payments on their clients’ legal bills.

The attorneys who have stepped down from the case since late September are Gary S. Lincenberg of Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks & Lincenberg; Nicola T. Hanna of Gibson, Dunn Crutcher; Edward M. Robbins of Hochman, Salkin, Rettig, Toscher & Perez; Bart H. Williams of Munger, Tolles & Olson and David C. Scheper of Overland, Borenstein, Scheper & Kim.

The three lawyers remaining on their clients’ cases are solo practitioners Spertus and Russell Petti, and Mark A. Byrne of Byrne & Nixon.

Six new attorneys are Michael M. Amir and Hilari Hanamaikai of Doll Amir & Eley; David A. Kettel of Venable; sole practitioners Evan A. Jenness and Sonia Chahin; and Deputy Federal Public Defender Gerald Salseda.

When federal authorities began investigating the grocery chain in 2004, Ralphs agreed to advance the legal fees of its current and former employees under investigation. The employees signed a document promising to reimburse attorneys’ fees if they pleaded guilty or were convicted, according to one attorney with knowledge of the case.

In late September, about one week after a federal grand jury in Los Angeles returned indictments against the workers, the grocery chain sent a two-sentence letter informing those indicted and those still under investigation that the fee advancements would cease in 15 days, according to one attorney, who asked to remain anonymous.

The letters did not mention whether Ralph's would indemnify them if they were exonerated, one attorney said. Defendants, who may now be paying their legal fees out of their own pockets, have been left twisting in the wind and may be forced to pay all of their legal costs, attorneys have said.