The former CEO of Nakheel was back in the spotlight Monday on the first day of a tribunal that will decide if he should receive as much as $3.7m in pay and benefits following his departure from the indebted Dubai developer in June.
Chris O’Donnell, who has accused the state-owned firm of breach of contract, is seeking $3m in long-term incentives, alongside sums related to damages, currency fluctuations and interest.
Nakheel, which wrote down $21.4bn of real estate assets when Dubai’s property market collapsed, yesterday told the tribunal that O’Donnell had breached his duties to the company by leaving before his five-year contract expired.
Among the claims made by lawyers acting for Nakheel were that O’Donnell acquired a luxury Palm Jumeirah villa at a price below market value, and withheld the information from the firm.
He was also accused of ignoring company procedures when making changes to the redundancy packages given to employees, including giving refunds to staff for properties they had contracted to buy from Nakheel, lawyers said.
Nakheel had initially argued that the tribunal does not have jurisdiction to hear the case and that the dispute should be brought before the Ministry of Labour.
O’Donnell dismissed any allegation of any impropriety in the acquisition of the villa.
“I paid a price which I thought was fair and market value,” he told the tribunal.
The former CEO also outlined the circumstances of his departure from Nakheel in June of this year, after five years at the helm of the developer.
O’Donnell told the tribunal a decision was made not to extend his AED400,000 ($110,000) per month deal in June of this year, ahead of the expiration of his fixed five-year contract on June 16.
The court heard an email was circulated by Nakheel on June 8 noting the contract would not be extended and that O’Donnell was placed on ‘gardening leave’ for the remaining time.
But O’Donnell told the tribunal that he had resigned from subsidiary groups of Nakheel – not from his position as CEO of the company – and had completed his five-year term, entitling him to full benefits.
Nakheel’s chief commercial officer Mr Aqil Khazim was asked by O’Donnell’s counsel, Mohammed Zaman QC, whether a document suggesting the Australian had resigned from the company was “not true”. Khazim said; “It was a mistake. It may have been overlooked. I can’t say yes or no as to whether he was dismissed. It [his contract] ended.”
Nakheel, which was carved out of parent company Dubai World in June, has seen a flurry of lawsuits against it following the collapse of Dubai’s property market in late-2008.
The property developer is engaged in at least 12 legal cases relating to The World, including one lawsuit against Kleindienst Properties that demands almost $200m in unpaid installments and delay fees.
Nakheel said in September it wrote down AED78.6bn ($21.4bn) from the value of its real estate during the Dubai debt crisis, which saw house prices in the city fall more than 60 percent from their peak. The company made hundreds of staff redundant as it struggle to stem losses.
Former Nakheel General Counsel David John Nicholson last August won a AED752,000 ($205,000) ruling against the developer after his role was terminated with a month’s notice.
The O’Donnell case will be seen as a bellwether for other outstanding employee disputes against Nakheel, an associate at legal firm Davidson & Co said earlier this month.
“A good outcome may lead to more cases been taken by ex-employees of Dubai World, Nakheel’s parent company,” the associate said. The law firm is overseeing some 30 cases against the developer, including O’Donnell’s dispute.