It was at the quintessential Hamptons luncheon the Golden Pear that agent Jesse Spooner says his boss Meg Salem, a top producer at Saunders & Associates, made her fateful pitch.
While Salem was making the case for Spooner and the rest of the team to follow her to venture-backed Compass, a colleague was at Salem’s home printing out some real estate listings that belonged to her and some that did not, he testified at U.S. District Court in Islip on Tuesday. And after the Saunders Bridgehampton office had closed for the day, Spooner said he and Salem surreptitiously emptied file cabinets with client information, loaded them into boxes, and carried them into the trunk of her car. She also told him to download emails, print listings, set up email forwarding and save files to a hard drive, though he ultimately ignored her request, he testified.
It was one of three instances of large-scale data theft allegedly orchestrated by Salem in late 2015 that resulted in multiple firings, a skirmish between an established Hamptons brokerage and its tech-fueled upstart rival, and cutting lawsuits between the star broker and her former employer.
On Tuesday in U.S. District Court, Salem, the sole defendant left in a case that once included Compass and teammates Spooner, Vanessa Bogan and Jessica Grainger-Rozzi, made bombastic claims of her own. Her attorney Robert Folks said that Saunders suffered no actual damage in the data theft — which purportedly included 11,600 active and inactive listings pulled from Saunders’ computers and filing cabinets — and therefore had no case. Instead, Folks argued, Saunders’s real motive was to use the data breaches as a “golden opportunity” to wage a campaign against Compass, to hobble a well-funded newcomer that was struggling to find a footing on the East End and had no listings of their own.
Salem, meanwhile, is seeking $5 million from Saunders, alleging the brokerage screwed her out of $430,000 in unpaid commissions and has blackballed her from working as a broker in the area. Saunders’ attorney spoke of Salem claiming to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and said she hasn’t looked for work in two years to “protect her brand.” Saunders says Salem breached her contract and forfeited her right to those commissions, which closed after she decamped for Compass.
On the first day of the trial, Saunders’ legal team called several witnesses who had lawsuits dropped against them in exchange for their testimony against Salem.
Grainger-Rozzi, a former marketing administrator who left Saunders in July, testified that Salem contacted her while she was working at the Corcoran Group. Grainger-Rozzi claimed Salem told her she was having health issues and needed to move to another house. Grainger-Rozzi told the jury that Salem requested access to the Corcoran database in order to find herself a new home even though Salem had left Saunders two weeks earlier and was working at Compass. Grainger-Rozzi told the court she was uncomfortable giving out access to private company information and instead did the research herself to provide to Salem. According to Grainger-Rozzi, Salem then asked for access to the database at Saunders, and she provided Salem the login of Saunders employee Anna Alexopolous, who was on vacation at the time. In prior court documents, Saunders claimed Alexpolous discovered her login was used on Nov. 17.
“She (Meg) called me after she used them. She sounded panicked,” Rozzi testified. Salem inadvertently CC’d Alexopolous on an email that was issued while she was in the database according to Grainger-Rozzi, who added that Salem then asked if she could recall the email or reach out to Alexopolous. Grainger-Rozzi said that Salem instructed her to delete the text messages between them. She later told her they should only communicate over the phone or in person, not via text or email.
Grainger-Rossi was put on leave by Corcoran after the breach. And Bogan, who was allegedly at Salem’s home copying listings while the broker met Spooner at the Golden Pear, was fired from Compass along with Salem in December. Bogan is no longer a licensed broker in the State of New York, according to the records. And although Spooner landed at Brown Harris Stevens, he does not have any listings, according to the firm’s website.
Compass, which has been accused of broker poaching by a smattering of residential firms in the New York area, confirmed it received listings from Salem. The brokerage settled the suit with Saunders in November 2016. It was sued by Queens-centric brokerage Modern Spaces last week, accused of poaching agents.
The first day of the trial also featured a forensic examiner, who testified that he traced the IP address and determined that Salem was responsible for the breach. The trial, with 18 witnesses and multiple counterclaims, is expected to last up to two weeks.