Law Firms

Lawyer ordered to pay $775K to former law firm for failing to return electronic files

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A St. Louis lawyer was held in contempt, jailed for two days and ordered to pay more than $775,000 to her law firm for expenses incurred in its bid to gain return of electronic files that she was accused of taking before her resignation.

Judge Kristine Kerr ordered lawyer Chelsea Merta on Tuesday to pay the money to the Stange Law Firm, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

The money is intended to cover the law firm’s costs of investigating the case, an examination by a forensics expert and the firm’s attorney fees.

Kerr also ordered Merta to return or destroy the stolen files. Merta served her two-day jail sentence for contempt in August.

Kerr had previously found that Merta failed to return the files relating to law firm clients, despite a prior contempt finding. Some of the files taken were for clients she did not represent and never had represented, Kerr said.

In a confession of judgment filed Sept. 20, Merta said she took about 22,000 data files from the law firm in February 2018, about a week before her resignation. She agreed to a permanent injunction requiring her to delete or return the files to the law firm and to pay $557,292—in addition to $218,414 in damages already awarded to the law firm.

Merta said she contacted a number of clients to inform them of her resignation and tell them that they could transfer their cases to her new law firm.

Merta had filed for bankruptcy and unsuccessfully sought to remove the case before Kerr to the federal bankruptcy court in St. Louis. In a motion to dismiss, filed Sept. 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.

Merta “has repeatedly attempted to use this court as a refuge from the consequences of her larcenous and contemptuous conduct,” the Stange Law Firm argued in its dismissal motion.

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