Koffee Kup

Vermont Bread Company in Brattleboro.

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BURLINGTON — A federal judge threatened to hold in contempt a major figure involved in the closure of Vermont Bread and its two affiliates.

“You can object to those questions, but you answer them,” said Judge William Sessions to Leonard Levie, the founder of American Industrial Acquisition Corporation, during a hearing on March 2 in U.S. District Court in Vermont. “And when you argue that this is totally unfair and that you are not going to — or you suggest ... that you are not going to comply with these offensive questions in your responses, you are inviting a violation of this process, and that will not be tolerated.”

Even if the plaintiff’s attorneys ask about the color of the furniture in his office, said Sessions, answer the question.

“[W]hat is the problem with answering a question which you feel to be irrelevant?” said Sessions. “My real concern is that you are sitting there evaluating a question as to whether it’s relevant or not relevant or what she’s trying to do, and then you are using that as an excuse to disrupt the process.”

On April 1, 2021, an advisement firm announced it had reached a deal for AIAC to provide “immediate capital infusions [and] enriched credit facilities” to KUPCO, the majority shareholder of Koffee Kup Bakery in Burlington, Vermont Bread in Brattleboro and Superior Bakery in Connecticut.

But less than a month later, the three bakeries were abruptly closed and a few days after that, a federal complaint was filed, saying whoever owned the three bakeries at the time had violated the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.

Levie has argued that his company, AIAC, which owns a pair of aerospace supply firms in Vermont, did not own the bakeries and should not be subject to a class action suit filed on behalf of the 500 employees, 90 of whom worked at Vermont Bread in Brattleboro.

Levie launched AIAC, a New York-based investment company, in 1996, and has been characterized as a master of the turnaround, bailing failing businesses out of trouble.

The deposition is meant to determine who exactly gave the order to close the three bakeries on April 28, 2021. Levie has denied any role in the decision, contending KUPCO owned the bakeries, and it’s KUPCO that should be held responsible for the WARN Act violation.

Scheduling a deposition with Levie to figure out what KUPCO is and what AIAC’s relationship is to the three bakeries has taken more than a year, with Levie contending he has a busy schedule and resides most of the time in Puerto Rico.

Sessions has taken under advisement motions filed by the employees’ attorneys to sanction Levie for being so difficult and for not providing requested documents.

Sessions noted that he scheduled the deposition in the federal courthouse in Burlington because he wanted it to be “under the court’s watch” so he could determine if Levie should be held “in further contempt ...”

“We started the deposition ... this morning and began with some background questions for Mr. Levie and have already experienced difficulty getting answers from him, have already had questions from him to restate very basic, straightforward questions,” said Mary Olsen, of the Gardner Firm, a law firm in Mobile, Alabama, that represents itself as “Lawyers Representing Workers,” according to its website.

Levie is represented by Terry Kirwan, of Kirwan Law in Syracuse, N.Y. and Daniel Burchard, of McCormick, Fitzpatrick, Kasper & Burchard in Burlington.

Levie told the judge he had talked with “dozens and dozens of attorneys across the country” who say the Gardner Law Firm has sued “hundreds of companies and all of their affiliates and all of their subsidiaries on a meritless basis in order to win about 3 percent of those cases.”

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“[Olsen] is rarely successful, but she harasses hundreds of companies a year,” said Levie, also contending he has been portrayed “as a predator, as a ne’er-do-well, as a horrible, horrible investor ...” throughout the process.

“But my experience is identical to that of hundreds and hundreds of companies across the country that have been subjected to the sheer harassment of Mary Olsen,” said Levie, who went on to claim he is “a very good employer” in Vermont, having saved hundreds of jobs at Champlain Cable Corporation in Colchester, reinvesting the profits and not taking “a single penny in salary or any compensation of any kind,” not even a dividend.

“I am offended by Ms. Olsen’s narrative and tactics,” continued Levie. “It’s wrong, and we must not allow this to happen in Vermont.”

He also took credit for contributing to “dozens of charities in Vermont ...”

Levie also pointed out that Olsen comes from Alabama, and Peter Wolfson, who represents Linda Joy Sullivan, the dissolution receiver appointed in state court, is from Manhattan.

“I’m the only one here that actually is an employer in Vermont. I’m the only one here that’s a taxpayer in Vermont. I’m the only one here who has donated to dozens and dozens of charities in Vermont. And I’m the only one here that has saved businesses in Vermont.”

But Sessions told Levie he was “on the verge of being in real trouble ...” if he doesn’t answer questions the plaintiff’s attorneys have an absolute right to ask.

If you don’t want to answer them, asked the judge, “What are you hiding?”

If KUPCO owned the bakeries and not AIAC, said Session, “I assume ... you’ll file a motion to dismiss or a motion to resolve the case in your favor based upon exactly what you are arguing.”

But for now, he said, discovery must continue and he must answer the questions or will be held in contempt.

“I have been asked questions that are so irrelevant and so completely disingenuous that it got me wondering, maybe this is a methodology,” said Levie. “Maybe this is an abuse of not only my time but the Court. Maybe this is an abuse of discovery.”

Sessions was not receptive to Levie’s argument.

Sessions said a violation of the procedures “will not be tolerated” and that he should “stop evaluating what Ms. Olsen or any other lawyer is trying to do ... Why somebody is asking you the question is irrelevant. ... Their motivation, their reasoning, their logic, their whatever is totally irrelevant to a witness.”

“Are we not given license to harassment by giving that broad instruction?” asked Levie.

“We are opening up the process for discovery so that the witness is not being invited to decide what questions to answer and what questions not to answer,” said Sessions. “[Y]our lawyers have the same opportunity to question other witnesses in depositions, and those other witnesses cannot evaluate whether or not they decide to answer the question based upon their feelings about the questioner.”

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.