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Legal feud over defecting partners ends
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Legal feud over defecting partners ends

A bitter legal feud involving former Atanaskovic Hartnell lawyers, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and included the ownership of a horse breeding partnership, has finally ended.NSW…

A bitter legal feud involving former Atanaskovic Hartnell lawyers, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and included the ownership of a horse breeding partnership, has finally ended.

NSW Local Court Magistrate Daphne Kok has awarded costs to Atanaskovic Hartnell (AH) after the founding partners of Chang, Pistilli & Simmons (CPS), all formerly of AH, initiated legal action against their old firm in July 2007.

The initial action included a claim against John Atanaskovic, Tony Hartnell and Danny Farrugia for fees of around $30,000 that CPS founders Diana Chang, Danny Simmons and Mark Pistilli claimed were owed to them from their former firm.

Kok ruled against CPS in the matter in February this year, and she has now ordered CPS to pay costs, which AH managing partner John Atanaskovic claims are approximately $300,000.

CPS used Clayton Utz in the matter, with special counsel Henry Herron and partner Peter Mann involved in significant aspects of the case. Stan Lewis from Corrs Chambers Westgarth initially acted for AH, but the firm later turned to one of its own, with commercial litigation partner Michael Sophocles taking the lead role. Barristers Rachel Pepper (now a Judge of the NSW Land and Environment Court) and Michelle Painter also provided assistance.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, John Atanaskovic described the CPS claims as "hopeless" and said that his firm had been totally vindicated.

"I have no pleasure in saying that," Atanaskovic, a former partner with Blake Dawson and managing partner of Allens Arthur Robinson, said. "CPS became a bit emotional about the whole matter, and rejected our repeated offers to walk away with no costs order."

Atanaskovic also said that CPS and their lawyers engaged in "much delay and spurious argument" in this case.

CPS managing partner Mark Pistilli told Lawyers Weekly that Atanaskovic's claim that his firm's legal costs were around $300,000 seemed "high", and they would be checking that figure before any payment was made.

"I don't regret the initial legal action we took and overall, I am satisfied with how this matter finished up and with the work of our external legal advisers," he said.

Pistilli claimed that the current ruling as to costs and the initial claim was "only a small part" of a raft of legal matters between the two firms, with a separate Supreme Court action including a horse breeding partnership that involved numerous partners of AH, and a claim to be allowed access to financial documents held by his former firm settled in a satisfactory manner.

"There is no doubt that as the matter ran on it became a nuisance, but if I had the choice all over again about whether to initiate action or not [against AH], I would still take the decision to support it," he said.

"The lesson from all of this is that you let your external legal advisers run such matters, while you continue to concentrate on business, and that is something that we did."

Atanaskovic rejects any notion that Pistilli can claim any element of success in the legal stoush between the former colleagues.

"The appointment of a manager to a horse breeding partnership was actually made by agreement," he said. "With regard to the copies of thousands of documents CPS demanded, they also failed on this claim, with costs awarded against them, and were only able to inspect documents that were always available to them."

"It is hard to understand how a mere 'nuisance' required Pistilli to carry on litigation for three years at material expense, rather than accept AH's repeated offers of settlement on a walk away / no costs basis."

Pistilli said that he had no lingering bitterness towards members of his former firm.

Justin Whealing

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