Jefferies Group LLC (JEF:US) wrongfully fired its former Asia head of equity trading Grant Williams over a newsletter that included a reference to a Hitler parody video, a Hong Kong judge ruled.
Williams drafted a newsletter to subscribers which included a link to a video clip depicting Adolf Hitler, with subtitles created by a U.S. filmmaker that mocked JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon. The newsletter was released prematurely and Jefferies fired Williams the next day for unacceptable and inappropriate conduct, according to the judge.
Jefferies management was “hypersensitive” and “irrational,” in its response to the publication of the Dec. 7, 2010 client newsletter, Judge Conrad Seagroatt said in issuing his decision today in Hong Kong’s High Court.
Williams is seeking damages of at least HK$13 million ($1.7 million) for wrongful dismissal and Jefferies’ breach of trust and confidence, his lawyer Kevin Bowers said. Seagroatt said he would issue written reasons for his decision and rule on the damages later.
It would be premature to comment on today’s ruling until the final decision is handed down and damages awarded, Jefferies’ lawyer Tom Fyfe said in an e-mailed statement.
The YouTube Inc. parody video clip uses a scene from the 2004 German movie “Downfall” showing Hitler screaming at his subordinates at the end of the war. Subtitles suggested Hitler’s character was Dimon, speaking in the context of bets on the price of silver.
“Jefferies was seen as a company associated with that video that insulted in a quite humiliating way a competitor and business partner,” Jose Maurellet, another lawyer for the bank, told the court yesterday.
Marie Cheung, a Hong Kong-based spokeswoman for JPMorgan, declined to comment on the case.
Williams had submitted a draft of the newsletter for approval to his London-based supervisor as required, his lawyer told the court in his closing statement yesterday. The newsletter was sent out from New York before being approved and without Williams’s knowledge, said Ashley Burns, another lawyer representing Williams.
As a senior employee of the New York-based investment bank, Williams was responsible for ensuring the content was appropriate, Maurellet said.
The newsletter for clients was intended to attract business and offended some instead, he said.
Jefferies senior management was aware of the tone of the newsletter, which they described as “irreverent,” “edgy,” “colloquial” and liked by subscribers, Seagroatt said.
Williams didn’t create the video and referring to it shouldn’t have been construed as promoting it, Seagroatt said.
Williams, in the newsletter titled “Things That Make You Go Hmmmm,” included a link to the video to make the point that a story which had begun as a fringe conspiracy theory concerning the price of silver had achieved sufficient public awareness such that a “Downfall” parody had been made, Burns said.
Williams included a warning about profane language and it is reasonable to suppose that readers of such newsletters are mature and sophisticated, Burns said. The segment of the movie has been used in hundreds of parodies, where subtitles wholly unconnected to the German soundtrack have been added, he said.
Jefferies Asia CEO Michael Alexander, who fired Williams, conceded the dismissal wouldn’t have happened had the newsletter not been distributed, Burns said in a closing statement yesterday.
“It has been a long hard fight,” Williams, who is now a portfolio manager with Vulpes Investment Management Ltd. in Singapore, said today after the ruling.
“It’s definitely taken a toll on me. But I felt I had no choice but to fight it. I didn’t think it was going to take 2 1/2 years.”
The case is Grant Williams and Jefferies Hong Kong Ltd., HCA320/2011, Hong Kong Court of First Instance.
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