Playboy Sues Sheppard Mullin Law Firm for $7.6 Million

Rhett Pardon

LOS ANGELES — Playboy Enterprises Inc. on Friday filed a $7.6 million malpractice suit against the international law firm of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP for allegedly exposing the adult entertainment company to millions of dollars in damages by failing to settle an employee’s claim of retaliation out of court.

The professional negligence suit, filed at Los Angeles Superior Court, said that the law firm lost the case against former Playboy controller Catherine Zulfer in "spectacular fashion" after she claimed she was fired as payback for exposing a scheme to award company executives $1 million bonuses without board approval.

Playboy had a chance to settle the Zulfer’s whistleblower suit for $1 million, but Sheppard Mullin recommended that it take its chances at trial.

Playboy claims that Sheppard Mullin gave it a 75 percent chance of prevailing in the case after it formulated a mock jury trial and polled participants. The firm estimated wage losses of between $1.5 million-$3.24 million if Zulfer prevailed in the case in a worst-case scenario, according to the suit.

But in March 2014, a Los Angeles jury returned with a verdict of $6 million in compensatory damages and a finding of malice.

Playboy’s new counsel — Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack — said in the suit that an "attorney of ordinary skill and capacity" would have advised the company to settle the case, noted that a more thorough analysis would have showed that Playboy could be liable for an award beyond its $5 million policy limit.

Zulfer's suit maintained that Playboy violated the California Whistleblower Act and that she was terminated because of her age, which was 56 at the time.

The Playboy veteran was fired on Dec. 31, 2011, after refusing a second request to dole out unwarranted bonuses in January 2011. At that time she blew the whistle on the scheme and reported what she saw as questionable accounting practices to Playboy’s general counsel and the Securities and Exchange Commission.