Attorney takes client information from law firm and is ordered to return the data and pay $775,000.
Attorney Chelsea Merta was ordered to pay more than $775,000 to the Stange Law Firm where she was employed for expenses incurred in its attempt to get her to return electronic files she was accused of taking before her she resigned. The funds are being requested to cover the law firm’s costs of investigating the matter, including an exam conducted by a forensics expert to determine exactly what information had been hijacked and associated attorney fees. This was reportedly more than $100,000. Merta was also ordered to either destroy or return the stolen files to the firm. She served a two-day jail sentence for contempt earlier this year.
In a confession of judgment recently filed, Merta admitting to taking no less than 22,000 data files from the law firm in February 2018, a week before her resignation. She had indicated she wanted to contact the clients she had previously represented with the firm and urge them to work with her again at her own firm. She said she had made contact with a number of clients, notifying them of her resignation. However, this wasn’t entirely true.
Judge Kristine Kerr, appointed by Missouri’s former Democratic Governor Jay Nixon, said there was “overwhelming and undisputed evidence that Merta accessed electronic client and proprietary firm files, including files for clients she did not represent and never had represented.” This was in direct conflict with her stated purpose for lifting the data from the law firm. Kerr also stated the attorney “appeared to be transferring the electronic files to a cloud storage account for the purpose of hiding them after the second contempt motion was filed.” In this way, she would be able to retain client information even after she fulfilled the court’s request to return the hardcopy files.
The judge added, “is in flagrant and blatant contempt of this court’s judgments and orders for her willful and contumacious refusal to comply with the judgments of this court.”
Merta “has repeatedly attempted to use this court as a refuge from the consequences of her larcenous and contemptuous conduct,” the Stange Law Firm said during the hearing. The original petition cited “Merta[‘s] acceptance and retention of that information for own [her] gain was inequitable and unjust and caused SLF to be damaged. WHEREFORE, SLF respectfully prays for the following relief: a. Restitution or disgorgement of profits in an amount greater than $25,000.00 and that is fair and reasonable; b. An award of SLF’s attorneys’ fees and costs incurred herein; and c. All other relief that this Court deems to be just and proper.”
Merta had filed for bankruptcy and unsuccessfully sought to dismiss her case before Kerr to the federal bankruptcy court in St. Louis. It is unclear why she felt this would better position her in the matter. In a motion to dismiss, filed on September 6, the Stange Law Firm said Merta admitted that she had not defaulted on any debts, and her reason for the bankruptcy filing was “to stop perceived harassment by the law firm.” Needless to say, the judge was not impressed with her repeatedly lying to the court.