Slippery Slopes for Lawyer Who Owns Ski Resort - Lawsuits claim that attorney left state after misleading clients

Tremont Sheldon Robinson Mahoney attorney Douglas P. Mahoney has filed two malpractice claims against former Maher Williams partner James L. Sullivan, who moved to Vermont in 2006 to take ownership of the Magic Mountain ski resort. (photographer: Autumn Pinette)

January 7, 2008

A former Fairfield lawyer allegedly assured clients that he was dutifully handling their cases while he was operating a ski resort in southern Vermont.

But when those clients realized their cases were never filed or dismissed due to inaction, they retaliated by filing two malpractice lawsuits in Bridgeport Superior Court against James L. Sullivan, formerly a partner of Maher Williams.

Plaintiffs' lawyer Douglas P. Mahoney, of Tremont Sheldon Robinson Mahoney in Bridgeport, contends in his complaints that Sullivan led two of his clients to believe that their cases were "pending and proceeding through the court system in a typical fashion," when the opposite was true.

Sullivan moved to Manchester, VT, with his wife and two daughters in late 2006 when he became managing partner of an investment group that took over Magic Mountain in Londonderry, VT.

"Our clients were told he would be running the ski lodge and maintaining a practice in Connecticut," Mahoney said in an interview with the Law Tribune. "What Sullivan did was just blatantly lie to these people for years."

A December 2006 story in the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper about Sullivan taking over as president of Magic Mountain, quotes his sister-in-law, Katie O'Grady: "For [Sullivan], it's a dream come true, chucking a law career for his passion."

Magic Mountain

Magic Mountain, which opened in 1960, has changed hands four times in the last 11 years and was sold in 2002 at a bankruptcy auction. Sullivan's group took ownership in September 2006. By most accounts, the new group has done a good job.

"Jim Sullivan is dedicated to the Magic experience," states a Feb. 15, 2007, posting on www.onthesnow.com, which reviews ski resorts. "I saw him out there teaching ski lessons for the last three weekends. Show me another owner as hands on. The mood is great, and the staff believes in him and the new direction he will take the mountain."

Sullivan did not return telephone calls seeking comment. On Magic Mountain's web site, he offers a brief message to potential patrons, promising "the best skiing … experience in southern Vermont." The note ends: "Think Snow!"

Sullivan was admitted to the Connecticut bar in 1993 when he joined Maher Williams and remains listed as an active attorney in the Connecticut Judicial Branch's attorney database. He is not admitted to practice law in Vermont nor has he filed an application to do so, said Martha Hicks-Robinson, program administrator for the board of bar examiners in Vermont.

In Connecticut, the Statewide Grievance Committee has not received any complaints against Sullivan, but Mahoney's lawsuits may be the first of several malpractice complaints. Mahoney said that since filing the lawsuits, he has heard from "one person who believes he's in a similar position" as the plaintiffs.

Sullivan was retained for the cases on a contingency basis, and his clients paid him no money during his representation, Mahoney said. But in both cases, the plaintiffs' only recourse is through the malpractice lawsuits because of Sullivan's inaction and his insurance carrier's refusal to settle, Mahoney noted.

One malpractice lawsuit stems from a personal injury matter involving the Sieling family and injuries suffered in their 1999 automobile accident. The case was terminated in April 2003, two years after it was initiated, because Sullivan neglected to move the case forward. His attempt to reopen the case in November 2003 through a motion failed because he waited more than the four months allowed by law.

The family knew nothing of these developments because until November 2006, Sullivan stayed in touch and "advised them untruthfully" that the case was proceeding, Mahoney stated in his complaint.

Sullivan went so far as to prepare the family for depositions after the case had been dismissed, Mahoney noted. They did not learn of their case's dismissal until they spoke with another lawyer.

Also in 1999, Sullivan took on Dr. Roy Kalman's case against various insurance companies for their failure to timely pay disability benefits to which he was entitled.

Sullivan then told Kalman that "he had commenced litigation against the various disability insurers," Mahoney stated in his complaint, a message Sullivan continued to deliver until 2006.

Sullivan regularly updated Kalman on the progress of the litigation and settlement negotiations, but Kalman claims that he learned in 2006 that none of Sullivan's information was truthful.

After a telephone conversation in December 2006, during which Sullivan provided Kalman an update of the case, Kalman confirmed that litigation never had been filed on his behalf and the statute of limitations had expired on his claims.

Mahoney, who is president of the Bridgeport Bar Association, said he does not know Sullivan personally and added that the Maher Williams firm has "had a fine reputation" in the legal community.

"The issues raised [in the complaints] weren't brought to our attention until after [Sullivan] departed," Scott Wilson Williams said, declining to comment further.

Richard N. Freeth and Sergio Alves, of Winget, Spadafora & Schwartzberg in Stamford, represent the law firm, which also is named defendant.

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