'Tis the season to be jolly and for unwitting companies to set themselves up as targets for sexual harassment and liability lawsuits with holiday parties.

Increasingly concerned about the catalytic effects of combining young and old staff members, alcohol, dancing and mistletoe, litigation-wary companies are finding ways to tone down their annual bashes.

"If someone kills a family of four because they got drunk at your holiday party," said attorney Karl Lindegren of Fisher & Phillips LLP, "plaintiff lawyers are going to look at the holiday party."

Detection Logic Fire Prevention Inc. Chief Executive Mack Katal said changes have been made at the party his L.A. company hosts for its roughly 300 employees.

"We still have a bar in our parties," said Katal, "but there is security so no one can get outside the building with drinks, and there are breathalyzers where people can voluntarily check how much they've had to drink. There's also a car service they can call if they need."

Katal said that some of his employees who are members of Alcoholics Anonymous helped make up his mind.

"In talking to them, and looking back through our previous parties we've had, we've decided to do these things," said Katal, noting that litigation wasn't the only concern. "We like our employees. We don't want anything to happen to them and we don't want them doing anything to somebody else."

The potential for a company to be drawn into harassment cases is on the rise, several attorneys said.

"In the last four or five years I've seen the trend increase," said Scott Witlin of employment firm Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart P.C. "It's one of these sad turn of events that result from overzealous litigation."

While paying for representation can cost a firm about $300,000, paying out a claim can be much pricier. The awards in sexual harassment cases can go into seven figures, and if an inebriated employee injures himself or herself or someone else driving home, a company could wind up paying millions.

"It's sad because these parties have been to reward employees for a hard year's work and raise morale and now being turned around and used against the employer," Witlin said.

Experts advise employers to limit alcohol, invite spouses, avoid after parties and make sure employees have a safe way to get home. Employers may also consider scheduling the parties in the daytime or offering hotel rooms at a discounted rate. They shouldn't pay for them, however, to avoid any part in a sexual harassment suit.

By inviting spouses, the idea is that employees will behave better, either drinking less or having an available ride home. This also lessens the possibility of office affairs that can end in harassment suits.

Lindegren said he gets calls from clients every year, with horror stories from holiday parties. And we're not talking about just sitting on the Xerox machine.

"I've had clients whose employees had fights in the bathroom over a woman, people kissing each other," Lindegren said. "One union worker claimed the plant manager kissed him on the lips at the Christmas party."

Witlin said he has advised clients to hold holiday parties during the day, thereby avoiding many of the problems alcohol causes.

Marley Majcher, who owns Party Goddess Inc., a catering and party planning business, said her clients are getting more careful in their planning.

She said one of the most important steps for an employer is to send out an email citing expectations for professional behavior, and pointing out the kind of antics that could get an exec busted back to the mail room.

"It's kind of like when you go to the prom and there's a chaperone," Majcher said. "You know somebody's going to be paying attention."

Another trick is serving heavy food, appetizers with lots of carbohydrates and a filling buffet, "so people won't have some light, fanciful dinner while they're totally boozing."

Some of her clients also use L.A.-based Home James USA Inc., a service that sends out drivers on collapsible scooters. The Home James driver stows his scooter in the trunk of the booze-wobbled worker, drives him or her to their home, and then heads back to the bash on his scooter.

Employees should also remember that holiday office parties are professional events.

The landscape is "strewn with tattered careers of people who did stupid things at holiday parties," Lindegren said.

Greener Pastures

James Richman has joined Arnold & Porter LLP from Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan LLP. Richman leaves Alschuler as the name partners are splitting up the firm. There has been much speculation about which lawyers will follow Larry Stein and Robert Kahan and which will stay with Marshall Grossman. During the long period of uncertainty, however, partners seem to be choosing to go their own way. Several Alschuler partners have left in the last year. Richman's arrival at Arnold & Porter's L.A. office comes shortly after that of Thomas McLain, a transactions partner, from Sidley Austin LLP. Los Angeles-based Latham & Watkins LLP has hired Sean M. Berkowitz, former director of the U.S. Department of Justice's Enron Task Force, in its Chicago office. William Carter, former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, is moving to Musick Peeler & Garrett LLP. Rutter Hobbs & Davidoff Inc. has added Elizabeth Botsford in trusts and estates and William Kampf in labor and employment. Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy LLP has upped Edward Kayukov to partner in the L.A. office. The UCLA School of Law has appointed two faculty members to chaired professorships. Lynn Stout has become the Paul Hastings Professor of Corporate and Securities Law and Stephen Bainbridge has been appointed the William D. Warren Professor of Law.

Staff reporter Emily Bryson York can be reached at (323) 549-5225, ext. 235, or at eyork@labusinessjournal.com.

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