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Jenner & Block Blasts Law Firms Advising Russia’s Sberbank (1)

March 14, 2022, 11:08 PMUpdated: March 15, 2022, 12:14 AM

Two major law firms cutting ties with a sanctioned Russian bank shouldn’t be allowed to stall a lawsuit over a commercial airliner attack in Ukraine, a rival firm told a federal judge Monday.

Lawyers for the parents of a U.S. teenager killed in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 asked a court to reject Sberbank’s request to pause the case for 30 days. They said the decision by law firms White & Case and Debevoise to drop the bank as a client should not stop the litigation from moving forward.

“While the shameful conduct of their client may provide a basis for counsel to withdraw from representing Sberbank of Russia, it is certainly not a basis to stay the pursuit of justice,” Jenner & Block partner David Pressman wrote.

Pressman is part of a Jenner & Block team suing Sberbank for allegedly providing financing to the Donetsk People’s Republic, which it calls a terrorist group operating in eastern Ukraine. The lawyers say DPR shot down the plane using a surface-to-air missile, killing 298 people.

Many Big Law firms have cut ties with Russian clients and closed offices in the country following the invasion of Ukraine. Both White & Case and Debevoise have said they will close their offices in Moscow and wind down work on behalf of some Russian clients.

The firms asked Manhattan federal Judge Andrew Carter Jr. on Friday to delay a discovery deadline by 30 days while they seek new counsel for Sberbank. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Sberbank last month following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Lawyers at White & Case and Debevoise have represented Sberbank in the case since late last year.

Jenner & Block’s team said it has no objection to White & Case and Debevoise withdrawing. But the lawyers, representing the family of 18-year-old victim Quinn Lucas Schansman, said the judge should hold the bank to a Wednesday deadline to turn over documents.

White & Case and Debevoise lawyers’ actions in the anti-terrorism case were “particularly confounding,” Pressman said, compared to how the firms have handled withdrawing from a separate lawsuit representing Sberbank in the same court.

Debevoise lawyers said last week they would work to mitigate any delay to any party resulting from their withdrawal of representing Sberbank and its CEO, Herman Gref, in the separate matter, according to Pressman.

White & Case’s Nicole Erb predicted the argument in her letter to the court on Friday, saying opposing counsel might accuse Sberbank’s lawyers of seeking a “tactical” delay.

“No tactics whatsoever are at play here,” Erb wrote.

A White & Case spokesperson said the firm declined to comment on specific client matters. Debevoise did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Latham & Watkins represents Russian bank VTB Bank, which is also being sued over the plane attack and was sanctioned last month. A firm spokeswoman and a lawyer representing VTB did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case is: Schansman v. Sberbank of Russia, S.D.N.Y., No. 1:19-cv-02985, 3/14/2022

(Adds White & Case declined to comment in third to last paragraph. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com