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Engineers sue AT&T Paradyne

A group of AT&T Paradyne Corp. engineers in New Jersey is suing the company, claiming the planned sale of the modem manufacturer will hurt their retirement benefits and job prospects.

The suit was filed by a group of engineers who work in two Paradyne offices in New Jersey. It does not affect any of the 1,100 employees that work at Paradyne's headquarters in Largo.

But Noel Crowley, the lawyer who filed the suit in U.S. District Court in New Jersey on Wednesday, said that he has talked with Paradyne employees in the Tampa Bay area and that another suit could be filed on their behalf.

AT&T officials declined to comment on the suit, which comes just days before the company is expected to complete the Paradyne sale.

Dan Coulter, a spokesman for Lucent Technologies _ an AT&T spin-off that includes Paradyne _ said the deal between AT&T and investment group Texas Pacific Group was made with employees in mind, however.

"One of our most important criteria in seeking a buyer was finding a company that would treat our people well," Coulter said.

At issue in the suit are the pension plans and job opportunities for about 70 engineers who work in the two New Jersey offices of Paradyne.

The five engineers who sued _ all involved in research and development at Paradyne, and all making at least $50,000 a year _ claim that their pension plans will be eliminated by Texas Pacific Group.

At the same time, they claim, they can't leave Texas Pacific and find similar work elsewhere in New Jersey. That's because for eight months after the close of the deal, neither AT&T nor Lucent can hire any Paradyne worker who makes at least $50,000 annually, according to the terms of the transaction. And since their work is so specialized, the engineers claim only AT&T or Lucent would be interested in hiring them.

"These people are figuratively chained to their desks," said Crowley, the group's attorney. "The list of (potential) employers is very short."

The suit, which seeks class-action status to include all of the 70 engineers, asks a judge to declare AT&T and Lucent's refusal to hire the engineers illegal, based on federal anti-trust regulations. It also seeks unspecified monetary damages for the engineers.

AT&T Corp. agreed in June to sell Paradyne for $175-million to Texas Pacific Group. The deal is expected to close by the end of the month.

The announcement of the sale last month immediately sent shivers through many at the company. Texas Pacific is comprised of venture capitalists who were former advisers to billionaire Texas takeover artist Robert M. Bass.

Immediately after announcing the acquisition, the group appointed a new chief executive, Thomas E. Epley, who told employees they could face layoffs and tough cost-cutting after the deal is completed.

Texas Pacific also owns Continental Airlines and America West Airlines. In September 1995, it bought Florida's St. Joe Communications telephone company.