April 14, 2024

Obligate Law

Professional Law Makers

Attorney Mikal Watts Resigns, Shuts Down Puerto Rico Office

3 min read
Attorney Mikal Watts Resigns, Shuts Down Puerto Rico Office

High-profile mass tort law firm Watts Guerra, helmed by attorney Mikal Watts, is shutting down its office in Puerto Rico and laying off at least 50 employees according to emails reviewed by Bloomberg Law.

Watts, who is known for leading big-dollar, multi-district litigation against corporations, told Bloomberg Law last month that he was “restructuring” Watts Guerra but did not intend to leave. But according to emails provided to Bloomberg Law, Watts sent a companywide email announcing that he was resigning from the firm for health reasons on Jan. 7. Watts then told Bloomberg Law that he and Guerra are separating and he will continue to practice law and handle his cases.

On Jan. 19, employees in the Puerto Rico office received a notice that Watts Guerra would commence “mass layoffs” that will affect at least 50 employees and at least 33% of its workforce. Around 110 employees work in the Puerto Rico office and handle much of the case management for Watts Guerra’s thousands of clients, said the employee who shared the emails. Watts said the other offices also have administrative staff. The employee declined to be named due to fear of retribution.

Watts told Bloomberg Law that he and Guerra were separating and as of this morning his new law firm began operations. He said subject to his clients’ approval, he will be keeping most of the mass tort cases and Guerra will take the individual personal injury docket.

Watts said that he’s referred employees to other law firms in Puerto Rico to help them obtain new employment and he will retain some employees in the area but does not know how many at this time.

Face of Mass Torts

Watts Guerra is among the firms handling some of the largest ongoing torts including water contamination at the Camp Lejeune Marine base causing cancer, and allegations of negligence from Hawaiian Electric causing deadly wildfires in Maui, and Johnson & Johnson talcum products linked to cancer. Watts is often the face of these cases, appearing in court and speaking to the media.

He represents around 16,000 J&J talc claimants and is part of the group of attorneys supporting a $8.9 billion proposed settlement.

In an email sent to employees on Jan. 8, the day after Watts announced his resignation, capital partner Frank Guerra and partner Alicia O’Neill wrote, “I know that many of you do not know Frank as well as you know Mikal—and that this may be a scary time – but you can rest assured that I do. He is kind, professional and a fierce advocate for our clients and for each and every one of us. I would go into any battle, any time with him. He wouldn’t even have to tell me who we were fighting. You all are safe to do the same.”

Less than two weeks later, a layoff notice was sent to employees. The notice, which was signed by Watts, said the layoffs were a preamble to closing of its operations in Puerto Rico by the end of 2024. He wrote that employees should consider the layoff to be permanent. They will begin layoffs on March 20, 2024 and may come in stages.

Regarding severance, the letter states, “it will depend.” Each employee will receive notice of termination on or before the last day of 2024. Watts Guerra will offer a voluntary separation payment to employees that execute and do not revoke a separation agreement and general release.

In 2015, he was among seven people charged with fabricating thousands of clients in a bid to collect payouts from BP arising from a settlement over its 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Watts and four co-defendants were acquitted.

Last year, he spoke at the semi-annual conference Mass Torts Made Perfect and was vociferous about the prevalence of false claims being filed in large mass torts. He outlined the way money travels—from litigation funders to law firms and then eventually to lead generators—who at times sign up clients providing fake information. He said he and his firm audited their leads and found “hundreds and hundreds” were bogus.

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