Ex-president, CEO files suit against First Place Financial

By Jamison Cocklin



Steven R. Lewis, the former president and CEO of First Place Financial Corp. and its subsidiary First Place Bank, filed a breach-of- contract complaint in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court, seeking more than $25,000 in damages from his former employer.

Lewis was terminated April 20 when the bank’s board of directors met to review his contract and decided it allowed for him to be fired; they filed their decision with the Securities and Exchange Commission that day. Lewis received written notice of his termination four days later.

It remains unclear why Lewis was fired, but according to court documents filed in June, Lewis cites his right under employment agreements to dispute the termination. By notifying the bank May 17 of his decision to dispute, court documents show that he feels entitled to all compensation under the terms of his contract until the matter is resolved.

Attempts to reach both Lewis’ lawyers and the bank’s lawyers for additional comments were unsuccessful Wednesday.

In his court filing, Lewis asked the bank for back pay, attorney’s fees and a lump-sum payment for the uncollected sick-leave benefits he accrued during the 29 years he spent with First Place.

On June 25, the bank refused to continue compensating Lewis, according to the lawsuit.

Furthermore, Lewis’ complaint alleges that the meeting by the bank’s board of directors April 20 violated the board’s bylaws and therefore was called improperly, making its decision to terminate him invalid.

At this point, in addition to the damages, Lewis has asked the court for an injunction that would nullify his termination and allow for his compensation to be continued until the court can rule on the merits of his case and resolve the issue.

The bank counters that Lewis was provided written notice of the board’s decision to terminate his employment in April, which it claims to be sufficient and pursuant to his contract in finalizing the process, court records show.

The bank also claims that a regulatory law, passed at the height of the financial crisis, allows it to discontinue any post-employment compensation. Lewis never entered into any severance agreement with the bank.

Separately, the bank also alleges that Lewis’ contract was amended in 2009 to exclude any post- employment compensation, which the bank claims Lewis agreed to.

First Place Financial Corp. is a $3.1 billion financial- services company. Lewis became the company’s president and CEO in 1997, and the bank found itself in trouble last November when it was taken off the Nasdaq for failing to file financial statements over a four-year period in a timely manner. It since has returned to trading on the Nasdaq.

On June 25, Louis J. Dunham was chosen as Lewis’ replacement.

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