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An Elkridge woman’s company sued her son who started a similar business, hired her employees. Now he might pay $5 million.

In a power grab that could cost him $5 million, Vincent Cleary Jr. poached more than 200 corporate clients and 20 employees from his mother’s company to start his own business with a nearly identical name.

A civil jury found Vincent Cleary Jr. and his Linthicum company, Cleary Packaging LLC, conspired against and interfered with his family business — Cantwell Cleary Packaging Company — of which he was formerly president when he started a new business seven miles down the road and hired away around 20 employees. Cleary has appealed that decision.

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The venture resulted in a $13 million loss for the family company run by his mother, Shirley Cleary, and siblings, their attorneys argue. That company was established in 1952.

“Everyone expected him to be the leader and be the owner but he could not wait his turn,” said John Lynch, attorney for Cantwell Cleary Packaging Company.

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In one of the last trials before the coronavirus pandemic caused jury trials to be once again put on hold, six jurors ruled Cleary Jr.’s company to pay $4.7 million in damages and Cleary himself to pay $300,000 for hurting business relationships of the competing Elkridge paper and packaging company.

Attorneys representing Cleary Jr. and his company filed a motion Monday asking Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Mark Crooks for a new trial and smaller damages decided by the jury. Cleary Jr. did win $165,000 awarded by the jury in a counter lawsuit over unpaid sales commissions when he worked for Cantwell Cleary Packaging Company.

The three-week trial ended Nov. 19, a week after Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera reimposed restrictions on jury trials to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which is currently surging across the county, state and country. Jury trials had just resumed in early October with extensive health measures and protocols in place to keep jurors safe while working through a mountain of backlogged cases.

Regardless of mask and social distancing guidelines, cases crept into the courtroom. The Cleary v. Cleary civil suit was expected to take two weeks but stretched on as witnesses exposed to COVID-19 awaited test results, and long-winded opening and closing statements became cumbersome behind a mask.

“It’s a substantial impact not only on individuals but businesses throughout the state because no one can get their civil matter heard,” Lynch said. “These kinds of disputes aren’t being resolved and they get prolonged. This (case) is two and a half years later.”

According to the lawsuit, Cleary wanted his mother Shirley Cleary, who owned the business with her late husband Vincent Cleary Sr., to sell him 50% of her stock interest in the family company. Negotiations surrounding the sale fell apart in June of 2018. Cleary Jr. was fired shortly after.

His firing was linked to plans to start a competing business and his efforts to recruit the Cantwell staff members to join him, Lynch said.

Bruce Marcus, an attorney for Cleary Jr., said that he started his own business after his firing for reasons that were never made clear.

His sister Kathleen Cleary testified that Vincent Cleary Jr. said the family was incapable of managing the corporation and he would “destroy the company brick by brick” if he was not given the authority to run it. Other witnesses were able to testify from different states over Zoom, an element that provides the witness with an advantage, both attorneys said, because their credibility can be judged without the cover of a mask.

Around three weeks after Cleary’s termination, about 20 employees, including salespersons, left the family company to join his new venture. Cantwell Cleary did not have contracts with their customers, whose business followed the salespersons that joined the younger Cleary’s company.

Some of the employees who left to work at the second packaging company down the road had signed non-compete agreements at Cantwell, making direct competition illegal within a year of leaving a company. Attorneys for Cantwell Cleary Packaging Company used phone records to argue Cleary Jr. conspired with the employees who left the family company to plan a mass exodus, leaving his family members to scramble with lost staff.

Since trials are once again on pause and court matters in flux as the state manages a surge in new coronavirus cases, it could be a significant amount of time until Cleary Jr.’s appeal is heard.

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