Architect's Suit Charges Big Firm Stole His Plans
by Greg Sargent
An architect who worked for Michael Bloomberg in the 1990's has launched a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which he says contains proof that Skidmore conspired with top executives at Bloomberg L.P. to unlawfully copy millions of dollars worth of his work, The Observer has learned. The lawsuit, while directed at Skidmore, implicates top Bloomberg L.P. executives, and it's possible the Mayor may be called to testify in the case.
The architect, Alan Feltoon, filed the suit in Manhattan Federal Court on Sept. 17. It alleges that the architectural firm committed extensive copyright theft by copying hundreds of drawings he did for Bloomberg L.P.'s corporate campus in Princeton, N.J.
Mr. Feltoon's suit doesn't specifically name Bloomberg L.P as a defendant-a settlement reached in previous litigation between Mr. Feltoon and Bloomberg L.P. apparently precluded him from doing so-but it places the Mayor's media company at the center of the dispute. It relies on internal Bloomberg L.P. documents as key evidence and raises questions about whether top Bloomberg L.P. executives directed the alleged theft.
In 1992, Bloomberg L.P. hired Mr. Feltoon's New Jersey-based company, Alan Feltoon Associates, to design and build interiors on Bloomberg's Princeton campus. Mr. Feltoon worked on the Princeton facility until 1997, when Bloomberg L.P. replaced him with Skidmore, one of the world's leading architecture firms, which is headquartered on East 42nd Street and is deeply involved in the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site.
It was during this transfer, Mr. Feltoon alleges, that Skidmore copied a massive architectural database, as well as hundreds of drawings, that he had created while he worked on the Princeton facility. Mr. Feltoon charges that this was done without his knowledge and without his written consent, in violation of copyright law. He is seeking millions of dollars in damages from Skidmore.
In an interview with The Observer, Mr. Feltoon said that he could prove not only that Skidmore had taken his work, but that the firm had done it at the direction of top Bloomberg executives.
"The evidence that we have shows that Bloomberg directed Skidmore to copy my work," Mr. Feltoon said. "We're talking about hundreds and hundreds of drawings and sketches here. Skidmore shouldn't have copied my work, and they know it. And when Bloomberg asked them to do it, they should have said, 'Absolutely not.'"
Christine Taylor, a spokeswoman for Bloomberg L.P., said she had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment on Mr. Feltoon's allegations. A spokesman for Skidmore didn't return calls by press time.
Mr. Feltoon said that Bloomberg L.P. executives had probably saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars by having Skidmore copy the database. Otherwise, he said, Bloomberg L.P. would have had to pay Skidmore to compile another one.
To bolster his case, Mr. Feltoon and his lawyer, David Mair of the law firm Kaiser Saurborn & Mair, are relying on documents that come from Bloomberg L.P.'s own files. According to the complaint, Mr. Feltoon's main piece of evidence-the "smoking gun," as he puts it-is a letter from a Skidmore partner to a Bloomberg executive that discusses plans to copy Mr. Feltoon's work. The letter, which is on file with the complaint, allegedly proves that Skidmore was proceeding on the company's orders.
Despite such evidence, it remains to be seen whether Mr. Feltoon can prove that the copying violated his intellectual-property rights, which may not be an easy task, given the complexities of copyright law.
Either way, Bloomberg L.P. is likely to play a central role in the case as it unfolds. Mr. Feltoon says that Mr. Bloomberg had a hands-on role in building the Princeton campus and thus may have had direct knowledge of the transfer of his work. If that proves to be true, and if the lawsuit proceeds to trial, it's possible that Mr. Bloomberg could be deposed.
One expert noted that the lawsuit was likely to require the deposing of Bloomberg L.P. executives and could allow Mr. Feltoon's lawyers to scrutinize internal company documents detailing its relationship with Skidmore.
"It's highly unlikely that this will be tossed out before discovery," said Robert Appel, a partner at the international law firm Salans, Hertzfeld & Heilbronn, who is an expert in law relating to architecture and design.
"That is likely to allow the plaintiff's lawyers to delve deeply into whatever files Skidmore and Bloomberg may possess that are relevant to the allegations," added Mr. Appel, who has not seen the complaint but had it described to him by a reporter. "Though not technically a party to the lawsuit, Bloomberg would be subject to discovery as well."
Mr. Feltoon declined to say why he hadn't sued Bloomberg L.P. as well as Skidmore. That conspicuous omission, and Mr. Feltoon's refusal to explain it, suggests that he is precluded from naming the company in the new litigation because of a sealed settlement Mr. Feltoon recently reached in a now-concluded case between himself and Bloomberg L.P.
The settlement of the old lawsuit, and the launching of the new one, are the latest developments in a long-running legal saga that stretches back nearly a decade, involving everything from complex embezzlement schemes to charges of sexual harassment against Mr. Bloomberg that surfaced during last year's Mayoral campaign. The circumstances explain why Mr. Feltoon is only now suing over events that happened five years ago.
In the mid-1990's, Bloomberg L.P. executives became aware that a former employee at the Princeton facility had orchestrated a complex kickback scheme designed to bilk millions of dollars from the company. (The employee's wife also sued Mr. Bloomberg for sexual harassment; the case was settled, but the details became public during the campaign.)
After a U.S. Attorney's investigation landed the scheme's ringleader in jail, Bloomberg L.P. launched a massive civil action against several of the plot's alleged perpetrators.
One of these was Mr. Feltoon. In 1999, a year and a half after he had been removed from the Princeton job, three packages arrived on his doorstep; they contained a lawsuit drawn up by Mr. Bloomberg's lawyers, the best legal muscle in the business.
The suit alleged that Mr. Feltoon, who had worked on the Princeton facility as the scheme unfolded and was friendly with the plot's organizer, had been involved in the embezzlement scheme.
Mr. Feltoon angrily denied the charges, saying that he had nothing to do with the plot. He fought back and won a victory of sorts last March, when Mr. Bloomberg, who was about to be deposed by Mr. Feltoon's lawyers, quietly settled the case instead. The whole affair embittered Mr. Feltoon and left him a good deal poorer.
"I cooperated with the U.S. Attorney's criminal investigation and the guilty parties were caught," Mr. Feltoon said. "But Bloomberg came after me anyway. His lawsuit dragged on for years and cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in needless defense costs."
Now, in an interesting twist, the previous lawsuit may have given Mr. Feltoon the ammunition he needs to launch the new one and recoup his lost millions.
It was during that earlier discovery process, which took place last year, that Mr. Feltoon said he found the documents that are now central to his case.
"Had I not been dragged into that lawsuit, I would never have found this evidence," he said.
Mr. Feltoon said he initially had no idea that Skidmore and Bloomberg L.P. executives had copied his documents-that is, until April 2001, when he sifted through thousands of Bloomberg documents during the discovery process and found a wealth of alleged evidence to the contrary.
For instance, Mr. Feltoon found drawings that were commissioned from Skidmore by Bloomberg L.P. after Skidmore took over the Princeton job. These drawings, the complaint says, are either direct copies of Mr. Feltoon's work or "derivative architectural drawings unlawfully created by [Skidmore]."
Discovery also yielded the central piece of evidence: the "smoking gun" letter from a Skidmore partner to a Bloomberg executive.
The letter was sent by Peter Magill, a partner at Skidmore, to a top Bloomberg executive named Stuart Bell, who was then the director of Bloomberg's Princeton campus and is now Bloomberg's worldwide manager of training.
In the letter, Mr. Magill spells out in detail exactly how Skidmore intends to copy Mr. Feltoon's database. The letter also seems to show that Mr. Bell had directed Skidmore to carry out that task.
"Further to your request ... we understand that our task is to create and maintain a database which matches the Alan Feltoon data," the letter reads. It continues: "To accomplish this we will utilize hard copies of the AFA [Alan Feltoon Associates] drawings [and] we will employ a combination of electronic scanning and manual computer drafting to create the database."
(Mr. Magill has also been named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Both Mr. Bell and Mr. Magill declined comment.)
Mr. Feltoon says this evidence shows that Skidmore and Bloomberg violated an arrangement reached in 1997, when Bloomberg L.P. decided to replace him.
At the time, Bloomberg L.P. asked him to turn over his database and drawings to Skidmore, so the architectural firm could continue working on the Princeton project.
Mr. Feltoon said he would-for a fee. He says he sent several computer disks containing the database to Skidmore, along with an invoice detailing the amount of money he wanted in exchange for transferring the copyright. (The standard copyright arrangement, experts say, allows architects to retain the rights to their work, even if they have done it in the course of a job for a client, unless a written agreement specifies otherwise.)
But Bloomberg L.P. executives decided they didn't want to pay for the copyright, Mr. Feltoon says. At this point, Skidmore returned the disks to Mr. Feltoon, along with a letter saying that the company had decided not to use his work.
"Enclosed please find the disks ... sent to [Skidmore] on May 9, 1997 by your office," reads the letter, which was sent by a Skidmore executive and is also included with the complaint. "We are returning the unused disks per the direction of Bloomberg, who have indicated that they would like to pursue other options."
As far as Mr. Feltoon was concerned, that was the end of the story: Skidmore had decided not to use his work. But then he discovered the documents which, he asserts, prove otherwise.
"I took it at face value that my work was not going to be used, and that Skidmore was going to re-create the database themselves," Mr. Feltoon said. "But the documents show that they were discussing how to copy it and use it for their own purpose."
The challenge ahead for Mr. Feltoon will be proving not only that Skidmore copied his work, but that such actions were a violation of copyright law. Mr. Feltoon's case may turn on his ability to demonstrate the extent to which Skidmore and Bloomberg used the work once they copied it.
"If Skidmore only copied the work and put it in a drawer, and nothing ever came of it, there's a question whether the court will find that his rights have been violated," said Mr. Appel, the partner at Salans, Hertzfeld. "On the other hand, if it can be shown that the copied work was in fact used to Skidmore or Bloomberg's advantage, then that would clearly constitute a violation.
This column ran on page 1 in the September 23, 2002 edition of The New York Observer.