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WFW and former real estate head settle £300k High Court claim

A longstanding legal wrangle that saw Mark Prevezer, Watson Farley & Williams’ former head of real estate seek £300,000 in damages from the firm, has been settled out of court.

The move puts an end to a law suit that was expected to head to trial at the High Court in November this year, in which Prevezer alleged breaches of a consultancy agreement signed by the parties in March 2016 and for reputational harm suffered for ‘wrongful removal’ from his position of global head of the firm’s real estate practice.

The claim was filed against WFW by Prevezer, who now works as a senior consultant at Forsters, in the High Court’s Business and Property Court in August last year.

A spokesperson for WFW told Legal Business: ‘WFW and Mark Prevezer are pleased to report that they have resolved all disputes between them and in doing so they have withdrawn all allegations on the pleadings. The other settlement terms are confidential to the parties.’

Although the particulars of claim refer to an ‘apparent policy’ of age discrimination at the firm, Prevezer’s damages claim of at least £300,000 was not directly connected to that.

According to the particulars, Prevezer had claimed to have seen over the course of several years ‘many older and experienced partners in the firm being gradually and reluctantly manoeuvred by [WFW’s] management first from the status of partner to consultant and then… being asked to leave or retire before the retirement age in the [firm’s] partnership agreement.’ By 2014, the document states, it became apparent to Prevezer, who turned 60 in 2015, ‘that he had become the focus of the inappropriate manoeuvring and age discrimination’.

The document, filed with the Business and Property Court on 6 August 2018, cites an alleged incident where the firm’s managing partners [Chris Lowe and Lothar Wegener] refused Prevezer’s joining the main management committee, with all the vacancies going to ‘three much younger, and less experienced partners’.

Prevezer became global head of real estate in 2006 and was entitled to 60 equity points and an annual income of around £600,000. He claimed that during his tenure, the annual turnover of the real estate practice increased from £800,000 in 2006 to roughly £17m a decade later, making it the third biggest sector and responsible for 11% of the firm’s global turnover annually.

The claimant outlined an ‘inappropriate restriction’ on 15 March 2016 whereby Prevezer was not allowed to travel abroad without consent from the managing partners, a move which he claimed would prevent him from successfully running and driving forward the real estate sector.

The following day Prevezer had lunch with Wegener where a conversation ensued about Prevezer leaving the partnership and having a consultancy agreement instead to start at the end of March 2016.

The consultancy agreement was signed on 31 March and the role of part-time consultant took effect from 1 May 2016. The arrangement entitled Prevezer to a fixed annual fee until 30 April 2018 of £250,000 per annum as well as a ‘results based element. It also was alleged to state that it was the firm’s intention that he continued as global sector head for real estate.

The meaning of this was later disputed by the firm. In a letter dated 25 April 2018 James Penn, a consultant to WFW, wrote to Prevezer claiming that the firm was entitled to remove him from the position because ‘the wording of the consultancy agreement did not say he would continue as the global head of the global real estate sector’.

Then at a meeting on 16 February 2018 between Prevezer and Wegener, the managing partner told the claimant that he had been told that Gary Ritter [head of the London real estate group] and another partner had lobbied at a partner meeting for Prevezer to be replaced as global head of real estate and that the firm intended to replace him. Before the beginning of May 2018, corporate partner Felicity Jones was appointed to the role.

Prevezer was asked not to return to the London office and told that the firm was no longer willing to honour an agreement in December 2017 for a single fee of £250,000 for a third year, including fees due for the result-based part of the contract for the first two years.

The firm also claimed that ‘there is no results based element due to you over and above the £250,000 per annum which you have already been paid for the periods 1 May 2016 to 30 April 2017 and 1 May to 30 March 2018’.

The firm told Prevezer ‘we recognise that you may wish to terminate rather than continue the arrangement in a third year.’ The offer to terminate the consultancy agreement was rejected by Prevezer in May 2018, after which he pursued the damages claim for loss of fees and reputational damage.

Talking to Legal Business on the thorny issue of age discrimination, one employment partner said: ‘Provided the firm is managing the equity a business case can be justified – you could say it is needed for the benefit of succession and recycling the equity.’

They added: ‘Larger law firms are all aware of the challenges. It’s getting harder to justify and individual partners are becoming much more aware that they can’t just be offloaded.’

‘WFW are grateful to Mark Prevezer for his work over many years. The parties wish each other well for the future,’ the WFW spokesperson concluded.