Wednesday, May 23, 2012
C.A. Overturns Discovery Orders in Firm’s Dispute With Ex-Partner
Justices Grant Writ in Battle That Led to Lawyer’s Ouster After He Allegedly Beat Spouse Working at Same Firm
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has ordered a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to reconsider several rulings in a nasty dispute between a Los Angeles law firm and a former partner who was ousted after he allegedly beat his then-wife, who was also an attorney at the firm.
Justice Walter Croskey, writing for Div. Three, said Judge Susan Bryant-Deason erred in ruling that Lisa Kerner lacked an attorney-client relationship with George Woolverton and must conduct further proceedings to determine whether Kerner waived the privilege.
The appeals court also ordered the trial judge to reconsider a ruling allowing Widom to obtain discovery of the net worth of his former partners, saying that some of the conduct that led the judge to conclude that Widom would likely prevail on his punitive damage claims was protected by the litigation privilege.
Croskey’s April 26 opinion was certified Monday for publication.
Widom, a longtime Los Angeles workers’ compensation attorney, was found not guilty of domestic violence charges in 2010. He was acquitted of one misdemeanor count of inflicting injury on a spouse and one misdemeanor count of spousal battery.
The acquittal followed by one week the dismissal, by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Louis M. Meisinger, of Kerner’s bid for a restraining order. The judge found some of Kerner’s testimony to be “among the most incredible testimony I have heard in a very brief period on the bench, but in 40-plus years as a trial lawyer, including most specifically her testimony about why she returned to the home because of concern over her cats and stayed there four days in the face of what she thought was her imminent demise at the hands of Mr. Widom.”
Kerner subsequently sued Widom for assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, but dismissed her action after the judge ruled that the finding that Widom did not commit domestic violence in connection with the incident had collateral estoppel effect.
Widom, who started his own practice after his termination, had been a name partner at the firm now known as Stockwell Harris Woolverton & Muehl prior to the 2009 incident in which Kerner said Widom beat her. The two had been married in 2005 and divorced following the altercation.
‘She Attacked Me’
Widom told the MetNews at the time that Kerner “made up this whole story about domestic violence after she attacked me” when he told her the marriage was over and that she needed to move out of his home.
.He sued the firm in June 2009, contending it used the criminal charges as a pretense to fire him and deprive him of $4 million on deposit in a deferred-compensation plan, among other benefits. His 15-count amended complaint includes causes of action for breach of contract, fraud, defamation, and unfair competition and seeks to put the firm in receivership, in addition to recovering damages.
The firm cross-complained, accusing the ex-partner of diverting money from the firm, inducing other lawyers to leave, stealing clients while still a shareholder, and exposing the firm to liability by beating Kerner and mistreating another employee.
The ensuing discovery led to four consolidated writ petitions, which were resolved by Div. Three’s ruling.
‘Any Legal Issues’
The issue of attorney-client privilege arose in connection with Widom’s motions to compel production of certain e-mails between her and Woolverton, and to compel answers to 43 questions that Kerner refused to answer at her deposition last year. She testified during the deposition that she sought legal advice from Woolverton “in all matters that involve any legal issues in my life” and that she considered him to be her attorney.
A discovery referee found the assertion of privilege to lack credibility, because neither Woolverton nor Kerner had asserted it earlier. The trial judge adopted the referee’s recommendations.
Croskey, however, writing for the appellate court, that the evidence compelled the conclusion that an attorney-client relationship existed.
Citing Kerner’s deposition testimony and a supporting declaration by Woolverton, the justice wrote:
“Kerner’s deposition testimony and Woolverton’s declaration were consistent, plausible and not inherently unbelievable. Both stated that Kerner had sought and received legal advice from Woolverton in connection with various legal matters involving Widom. This evidence was uncontroverted.”
With respect to the motion for net worth discovery, the justice explained that the trial judge erroneously considered evidence of the defendants’ efforts to have Widom criminally prosecuted. That evidence cannot support a tort claim, Croskey said, because all of the alleged conduct, including the hiring of private investigators was protected by the broad and absolute litigation privilege.
The case is Kerner v. Superior Court (Widom), 12 S.O.S. 2383.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company