Make My Clients Old and Ugly Every Time

Anna Nicole Smith’s sudden death is reminiscent of her case that the U.S. Supreme Court heard a while back. The beautiful Miz Smith married billionaire Texas-oilman Howard Marshall in 1994. He was 89. She was 24. They met in the gentlemen’s club where she was a dancer. Smith survived 14 months of marital bliss. She had been battling for a chunk of his estate ever since then.

The gist of Smith’s case was that hubby Howard set up a trust in her name, but after his demise (smiling, I don’t doubt), nasty little Pierce Marshall (his son) destroyed the documents. A Texas jury ruled against her. Undeterred, the exotic dancer filed her claim in federal bankruptcy court, where she was awarded $88 million. This victory didn’t end the buxom blonde’s legal rollercoaster ride. The U.S. Court of Appeals tossed out her multi-million-dollar judgment, ruling that the bankruptcy judge lacked jurisdiction to second-guess the state-court verdict. This was the ruling the Supremes were reviewing.

Reading about all this again swept me back about two decades. I was a labor lawyer with a big Philly firm. A colleague of mine (I’ll call him Monty) was the picture of a straight-arrow legal eagle. No one looking at his Ivy League haircut, gray suite and power tie could have guessed that he was also an accomplished card-counter at the blackjack tables in Atlantic City. This detail would be of no moment, except for the hostess he had gotten to know at the Atlantis Casino. Suzie (not her real name) had launched her Boardwalk career as a Bunny Dealer when the Atlantis was the Playboy Casino. When Elsinor Corporation bought the establishment, Suzie moved up the corporate ladder to the rank of “hostess.” As such, she met the high rollers, authorized their perks, and kept them coming back. When she was fired, Monty was convinced she was a victim of sexual harassment. Now, a plea of sexual harassment by a Bunny Dealer/Hostess might seem at first glance equivalent to Saddam Hussein pleading self-defense in his current mass-murder trial. But on second glance… well, when that second glance was of Suzie, with her frilly spring dress, blond hair and freckles, posed in my office doorway … well, let’s just say that the first glance was never taken.

Au contraire, Monty and I plunged ahead on a contingent fee basis, filing sex harassment charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. No investigation… we took our beautiful client’s word that her supervisor had been hitting on her, and fired her when she refused to come across to him. Never mind the company’s answer that she’d screwed up a high roller’s perks one too many times. Why let hard facts interfere with a long, leisurely lunch with Miz Sue? The wheels of justice grind slow and fine. Time passed. Elsinor Corporation went bankrupt; I filed our proof-of-claim with the federal bankruptcy court. Miz Suzie married an Air Force pilot and moved to the mid-west. And more time passed. Then, one day, when she had become just a sweet memory, her deposition was ordered by the bankruptcy court.

I caught up with my client while she and her pilot-hubby were home on leave in New Jersey. We met for the first time in almost two years in the waiting room of a big bankruptcy firm in Newark. I prepped her hastily, not anticipating any particular trouble. What followed in the firm’s conference room makes the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib look like fitness centers. Suzie never made it past her resume before being caught in her first lie… a made-up Bachelor’s degree. And that was the best the afternoon ever got. Two decades down the road of life I still can conjure up my last sight of my beautiful, blond client. I had escorted her to the elevator, following her disastrous interrogation — in which she’d been caught in more lies than Pinocchio. Despite all the fibbing, her nose was as tiny and cute as ever. As the doors closed, she mouthed one word: “Settle!”

Settle I did, for $8,000 on a $30,000 claim. And time passed. A year later, a check came across my desk. The $8,000 settlement was paid off in the same percentage as all the other creditor claims, which is to say, pennies on the dollar. I held in my hand a check for $150. I took out my contingency… fifty bucks… and sent a check for $100 to my client. I suggested it might be enough for one great evening in the officers’ club at the Oklahoma base where her husband was stationed. Suzie wrote back to me… a lovely little note I still keep, pressed between the page and the plastic of an old photo album. Thanks, she said, I can use a night out. I have three kids now. This place is pretty dull, but we hope United Air Lines will hire Orville (yeh, I made that one up, too), when he gets out. I could almost hear the fly-flecked screen door of the married-officer’s bungalow banging in the Okie breeze. I shuddered. With $88 mil at stake, no doubt Miz Smith’s lawyers looked at things differently, as will those seeking to “capitolize” on Ms Jessica Cutler’s capitol antics. Numerous lawyers may be panting now for a piece of Miz Smith’s legal hairball. But make my clients old and ugly from now on, thank you very much.

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