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Faced with employment lawsuit, Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen goes into attack mode

Published Aug. 28, 2012

Earlier this summer, a former employee sued prominent Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen. Now he's fighting back with everything from a motion to dismiss the case to accusations of perjury and bankruptcy fraud.

In July, Natalie Khawam and her attorney Wil Florin sued Cohen, his law firm and other defendants on six counts, including sexual harassment and breach of contract claims. Cohen owed her money, she said, and he also failed to properly take action when she reported a sexual harassment issue involving a financial officer doing work for the law firm.

Cohen contested those charges, submitting piles of evidence to the contrary.

But since filing the complaint in early July, Khawam has been noticeably mum on the subject, dodging depositions and refusing further action, Cohen said recently.

"She wants to avoid dealing with these facts," Cohen said. "They just want to let that be an obstacle in me getting to the truth of this thing."

Florin said that's not the case, and that he intends to pursue the claims. The delays are procedural and there has been movement, he said.

"You ever tried to coordinate things with four lawyers? It doesn't always move with lightning speed," Florin said.

Things might appear slower on Khawam's side, but Cohen has already started battling.

Since her filing, Cohen has delved into Khawam's past: He's uncovered court documents from a bankruptcy. He also unearthed a searing, 19-page child custody order from a Washington, D.C., superior court judge calling her out in 2011 for a lengthy "history of abusing the litigation process" and a "willingness to say anything, even under oath, to advance her own personal interests."

In court documents, Cohen also claims that Khawam "fraudulently omitted Rolex watches, sable mink furs and a diamond ring" from a list of her assets in an April bankruptcy.

On top of that, Cohen has filed a motion for dismissal and requested sanctions against Khawam for a bad-faith filing.

All told, Cohen's Aug. 13 motion and exhibits detailing many aspects of 37-year-old Khawam's life weighs in at some 120 pages.

"I think (Florin) thought he would be perceived as a tough enough lawyer that he would take on anybody, including me, and that would bring him business," Cohen, 73, said.

Cohen's actions are a natural reaction for anyone who thinks they're being sued unjustly, Florin said. But he said he doesn't want to get into a pingpong match in a public forum.

Cohen said he made a mistake by not further vetting Khawam before her mid 2009 hiring. And that's a mistake he won't repeat, he said. "I think her lawyer and she underestimated the oppositional component of my personality, and there was no reasonable basis for them to do that," Cohen said. "There's no way … I'm going to let this drop. I'm going to take her down, and I'm going to hold him accountable in the appropriate forum."

Cohen said the lawsuit has only further inspired him to continue advocating for his own clients. It takes a long time to build a good reputation, Cohen said, and it only takes a one accusation to tear it down.

"What this did was reinspire me to protect the people I protect," Cohen said. "It makes me able to better empathize when they're falsely accused and gives me more motivation because I've been there."

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