Girardi's Legacy In Shambles Amid 'Shakespearean' Scandal

Law360 (January 27, 2021, 4:39 PM EST) -- As a bankruptcy trustee's team toils away in Girardi Keese's deserted Los Angeles offices to prepare the plaintiffs firm for liquidation, numerous awards and photos of a triumphant Tom Girardi stare down at them from the walls.

Legendary plaintiffs trial lawyer Thomas V. Girardi, founder of Girardi Keese, is accused of misappropriating his clients' settlement funds. In the wake of the allegations, several organizations have rescinded or suspended awards and other honors granted to him over the years. (Irfan Khan/Getty Images)

Those accolades, awarded to an icon of the plaintiffs bar and champion of consumer rights, are quietly slipping away from him.

Last month's revelation that Girardi misappropriated his clients' money as his firm failed caused the legal industry to reconsider some of its praise for him. Girardi's name vanished from awards websites. Exclusive trial lawyer groups that he once led silently suspended his membership. A panel that helps the governor select judges no longer has a seat for him, and his alma mater appears to be subtly ending an endowed chair position that bears his name.

"There's so much that's Shakespearean about this tragedy," said Pierce O'Donnell of Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP, another iconic Los Angeles trial lawyer who has been friends with Girardi for decades. "Othello was a good man. Hamlet was a good son. Things happened in their lives that compelled them to be tragic."

Girardi vaulted out of obscurity as the first lawyer to break the $1 million trial verdict ceiling in a medical malpractice case in California, and in the years that followed, his firm would end cases for hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. He would say, somewhat truthfully, that Peter Coyote played him in the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich," about a $333 million toxic tort victory he helped to win.

He lived large, dining out at the finest restaurants, traveling in a pair of private jets he co-owned and funding his wife's career as a singer and dancer, ultimately landing them on the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." 

The firm's subsequent failure was just as dramatic. Though signs had been mounting for years that something might be wrong at Girardi Keese, it all ended spectacularly within a single month.

In December, a federal judge found that Girardi had misappropriated at least $2 million in settlement funds meant for the widows and orphans of a 2018 plane crash. He froze the assets of both Girardi and his firm and alerted federal prosecutors. A group of creditors forced Girardi and his firm into Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings. His wife, Erika Jayne, had filed for divorce the previous month.

Girardi's attorney and his brother have told courts that he has lost the mental capacity to deal with the fallout from his firm's collapse.

The fall of Girardi, for decades a legal giant, has left many of the prestigious organizations that have honored him over the years to reckon with the damning allegations against him. Several of his awards were rescinded or suspended without fanfare. Among friends, the news has been met largely with silence and sadness. Many high-profile friends of his in the legal community declined to comment or did not return multiple calls from Law360.

Super Lawyers, a lawyer-rating service that has honored Girardi since 2003, dropped him from its lists on Dec. 9. A spokesperson said the service made the decision as "part of due diligence."

Legal media company Lawdragon told Law360 on Wednesday that it has removed Girardi from its Lawdragon 500 Hall of Fame.

And the Litigation Counsel of America put Girardi's membership on hold pending the outcome of the allegations against him, according to the group's founder and executive director G. Steven Henry.

"Tom is an immense talent who has a long history of success and charity," Henry said. "It is unfortunate that he is now facing these issues, challenges and difficulties."

On Jan. 7, Girardi stopped serving on California Gov. Gavin Newsom's Judicial Selection Advisory Committee, which helps the governor vet and select judges for the state bench. A spokesperson for the governor said that they could not comment further on personnel matters.

On Jan. 19, the prestigious and exclusive International Academy of Trial Lawyers suspended Girardi's membership, according to Janel Fick, the group's executive director.

At Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, a few blocks from Girardi Keese's shuttered offices, Girardi is a favorite son. For decades, he has lavished gifts upon his alma mater, including millions of dollars in donations and a building, the Albert H. Girardi Advocacy Center — three stories of mock courtrooms and learning areas named after his father.

But this month, the school quietly stopped accepting gifts for the Thomas V. Girardi Chair in Consumer Protection Law, a school spokesman confirmed Tuesday, though a professor still bore the title on the school's website. On Wednesday, the professor's biography was updated to no longer include mention of Girardi's name.

Several professors and current and former members of Loyola Law School's board of directors did not respond to requests for comment. John Nockleby, who founded the school's Civil Justice Program, told Law360 that many might be hesitant to weigh in while the allegations against Girardi are so fresh.

"Tom has been a giant in the legal field, so if these allegations are indeed true, it will prompt a deep reckoning by all who know him," he said in an email.

The allegations have not been easy to accept for many who have worked with him.

During interviews in early December, days after the allegations came to light, a pair of former Girardi Keese associates told Law360 they couldn't imagine Girardi stealing from clients. They spoke on condition of anonymity, as they now work at other law firms.

They described Girardi as kind and generous. One of the associates said that he once saw Girardi give a contingency fee discount to clients in a car crash case, explaining that the extra cash would make a much greater difference for the injured family.

He said that some other ex-Girardi Keese attorneys held a more bitter view of Girardi because they had bought what the media was selling. Girardi wasn't the guy from the "Real Housewives," but the generous mentor who delighted in showering underprivileged kids with gifts during the Christmas season, the attorney said.

"They don't know the real Tom; they know Tom from the show, or they know Tom from these lawsuits that made headlines," he said. "This is just another day being someone who's important in the industry. You always have a target on your back. And sometimes people try to take advantage of that."

O'Donnell, the Greenberg Glusker trial pro, has counted Girardi among his closest friends for decades. They met at a Democratic fundraiser in 1980, when O'Donnell was unsuccessfully running for Congress. The two bonded. Like O'Donnell, Girardi came from a middle-class family before achieving great success as a trial lawyer.

Years later, O'Donnell later married his second wife in the backyard of Girardi's Pasadena mansion. Girardi sponsored O'Donnell into the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.

"Tom used to give away money, fly people on his planes, cruises, parties," O'Donnell said. "He was the king of torts in LA and eventually the country."

O'Donnell last saw Girardi in person before the pandemic. He said that Girardi seemed his typical self: "a whirling dervish, peripatetic, energetic."

O'Donnell, who himself has overcome a brush with scandal, lamented that these allegations come at the end of Girardi's career.

"I really wish him the best," he said.

George Hatcher, a longtime friend who worked for Girardi Keese as an on-the-ground liaison on overseas aviation cases, was among a handful of people who had monthly lunch dates with Girardi. Nothing ever seemed wrong, he said.

Hatcher said he worked with the Indonesian widows and orphans whose settlement funds Girardi allegedly stole from. Their relatives died when Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the Java Sea in 2018, one of two Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes that prompted international groundings and investigations of the aircraft.

He recalled seeing increasingly upset WhatsApp group chat messages from them as it became clear they hadn't received their money.

Girardi ultimately failed to pay $500,000 to each of four plaintiffs, and a fifth plaintiff may not have received any of the settlement money, according to court documents. Hatcher said that Girardi also owes him a sizable sum.

"I was totally pissed off, to say it frank," he said.

In December, when the firm was still mid-implosion, Hatcher's wife urged him to reach out to Girardi to show him someone still cared. They had a brief but pleasant conversation.

A few days later, on Christmas, Girardi called Hatcher. This time, Hatcher said, Girardi sounded disturbingly upbeat.

"He called me to tell me, 'Don't give up on me,'" Hatcher said. "He says, 'Hatch, next year is going to be a great year for us.'"

Contact reporter Brandon Lowrey at brandon.lowrey@law360.com. Contact reporter Ryan Boysen at ryan.boysen@law360.com.

--Additional reporting by Hailey Konnath and Ryan Boysen. Editing by Alanna Weissman.

Update: This story was updated to include a response from Lawdragon.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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