Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, April 24, 2024


Page 3


Plaintiff’s Contention She Obtained Void Judgment Rejected

C.A., Deciding Case With Odd Fact Situation, Agrees With Law Firm That $107 Million Judgment It Obtained for Client

Against ‘Suge’ Knight, Record Company, Was Valid; That Client Now Seeks to Benefit Knight’s Former Attorney


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The Court of Appeal for this district—resolving an appeal in a case featuring bizarre twists and turns—has held that a woman who obtained a $107 million default judgment in 2005 against then-record executive Marion “Suge” Knight and Death Row Records has failed in her bid to have that judgment voided on the ground that she neglected to list her half-ownership in that company as an asset in seeking bankruptcy protection in 1996.

“[I]t is difficult to fathom why a plaintiff would seek to set aside a large judgment in her own favor,” the law firm of Wasserman, Comden & Casselman, LLP (“WCC”) remarked as an aside in its appellate brief in the case.

That law firm—which was known at the time of the Los Angeles Superior Court action against Knight and the record company as Wasserman, Comden, Casselman & Pearson, LLP—represented plaintiff Lydia Harris, co-founder of Death Row Records. She sought to establish her 50 percent ownership of the company.

Rendering the appeal all the more peculiar is that Harris’s effort to obliterate the 2005 judgment is to benefit Beverly Hills attorney Dermot Givens, who represented defendant Knight in that action. Givens was found liable, in a separate case, for interfering with Sohigian’s judgment, and has made numerous efforts to show that he cannot have interfered with a judgment that was a nullity.

WCC’s interest stems from its contingency-fee agreement with Harris. It was to receive 40 percent of any recovery, and it has received nothing despite the successful efforts of attorney David Casselman on Harris’s behalf.

 The appeal was decided in an unpublished opinion by Div. Seven on Thursday.

Factual Recitation

The barebone facts, as adjudicated, are these:

•Harris’s 1996 bid for a discharge of her debts in bankruptcy in 1997 fizzled.

•The action against Knight, Death Row Records, and others in Harris v. Knight, BC268857, was filed by WCC on behalf of Harris in February 2002.

•On March 9, 2005, then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald Sohigian (now retired) struck the answer of Knight and Death Row Records based on their failure to abide by discovery orders, and later granted the $107 million default judgment in Harris’s favor;

•Harris dumped WCC as her lawyers on May 19, 2005, and, the same day, it filed a notice of lien against any proceeds from the litigation.

•Givens engineered a secret accord under which Harris received $1 million in cash to resolve the dispute, with Givens assuring her that WCC would get no part of the proceeds.

•WCC learned of that settlement and sued Givens and others in Wasserman, Comden, Casselman & Pearson, LLP v. Givens, BC340196, with Givens winding up as the sole defendant.

•On April 30, 2008, judgment was entered against Givens in BC340196 for $1,055,752.00, plus costs (including a $250,000 punitive-damages award);

 •With Harris’s bankruptcy reopened in 2007 and Knight and Death Row Records also being in bankruptcy, the bankruptcy estates of Harris and Knight on Feb. 6, 2008, reached a settlement in which it was agreed that neither owed the other anything, and a judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for Central District of California approved that settlement on June 9, 2008.

Givens’s Efforts

In proceedings in the Bankruptcy Court, in the Superior Court, and in the Court of Appeal (in Givens’s unsuccessful appeal from WCC’s judgment against him), Givens has repeatedly asserted that the 2005 judgment Harris obtained against Knight and Death Row is void because Harris did not list her interest in Death Row as an asset when she declared bankruptcy in 1996 and the Bankruptcy Court had sole jurisdiction over that asset. Therefore, he reasoned, he should not have been found liable to WCC for interfering with the 2005 judgment.

His efforts consistently failed.

Givens is now allied with Harris. She asserted in Los Angeles Superior Court on March 14, 2020, in Harris v. Knight, that her judgment was void an initio.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Sotelo initially agreed, then changed his mind when he learned that the trustee in bankruptcy knew of the 2005 judgment in seeking approval of the settlement between the two bankruptcy estates.

On Nov. 1, 2021, Sotelo held:

“The procedural history in the BC340196 and BC268857 actions clearly shows the jurisdictional claims pursued by Defendant Givens are not warranted by existing law or its modification....

“Despite these clear propositions, Defendant Givens continues to advance his meritless jurisdictional argument against the BC340196 and BC266857 actions.”

Harris brought a motion for reconsideration.

An exasperated Sotelo said in an April 25, 2022 order:

“This is the latest groundless attempt by Plaintiff Lydia Harris and her current attorney Dermot Givens…to essentially void this action ab initio for lack of jurisdiction over alleged bankruptcy assets beyond this court’s authority, which, if granted, could collaterally affect LASC Action No. BC340196—in which a Los Angeles Superior Court rendered a judgment of over $1 million against Dermot Givens for engaging in conduct interfering with a 2005 settlement in this action.

“This Motion is DENIED, again.”

Appeals Court Opinion

Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss authored the Court of Appeal’s opinion affirming Sotelo’s April 25, 2022 postjudgment order. He wrote:

“Harris contended the superior court lacked jurisdiction over her 2002 lawsuit because the claims asserted were an asset of her bankruptcy estate and could only have been pursued by the bankruptcy trustee in federal bankruptcy court—an argument previously rejected on multiple occasions because the bankruptcy trustee had ratified the 2005 judgment through settlements, approved by the bankruptcy court, with Knight’s and Death Row Records’ bankruptcy estates.”

He said that Sotelo found “nothing in Harris’s papers that indicated those prior rulings were incorrect,” and declared:

“We affirm.”

Harris’s Arguments Recited

Perluss elaborated:

“In her appellate briefs Harris argues, as she and Givens have repeatedly done in other fora, that her claim to an ownership interest in Death Row Records was an asset of her bankruptcy estate omitted from the schedules she filed in 1996; that the federal bankruptcy court had exclusive jurisdiction over the claim; and that, as a consequence, the trial court in 2022 should have set aside the 2005 default judgment in the Death Row litigation. In support Harris asserts the December 1, 2021 opinion of the bankruptcy court agreed her claims to an ownership interest remained an asset of the bankruptcy estate….

“Contrary to Harris’s recitation, however, the bankruptcy court did not find Harris’s claims were currently an asset of a bankruptcy estate. What the court actually said was that Harris’s claims of ownership were not automatically abandoned when the bankruptcy case was closed in 1999. Crucially, the court added that the trustee was aware of the claims and ‘abandonment is not the issue.’ In other words, as the court emphasized, even if some pre-petition ownership rights had at some point been an asset of the bankruptcy estate, the trustee had fully settled the rights of the bankruptcy estate with respect to the claims, the state court case had been concluded, and neither the estate nor Harris had any further interest in the matter—all points ignored (repeatedly) by Harris.”

Proceedings Not Stayed

The jurist went on to say:

“Harris’s additional contention the 2005 default judgment and the April 25, 2022 postjudgment order now on appeal were improperly entered while an automatic stay imposed by federal bankruptcy law was in effect is utterly frivolous.12 Harris’s 1996 bankruptcy case was closed without administration of any assets in December 1999, three years before Harris’s initial lawsuit. It was not reopened by motion of the trustee until August 2007—more than two years after Harris obtained the $107 million judgment against Givens’s clients. And the reopened bankruptcy proceeding was again closed in December 2015, well before the superior court’s repeated rejections of Harris’s efforts to set aside the judgment. Not only was there no bankruptcy stay in effect at any material time, but also the automatic stay is not applicable to actions initiated by the debtor.”

The case is Harris v. Gilliam, B320824.

Givens was Harris’s attorney on the appeal and Peter Q. Ezzell and Nancy Lucas Ezzell of the Law Offices of Peter Q. Ezzell in Marina Del Rey represented Wasserman, Comden & Casselman.

Knight’s Whereabouts

Knight is in prison. He was sentenced to 28 years after pleading no contest to voluntary manslaughter.

Givens is facing State Bar disciplinary proceedings based on bringing a frivolous action (unrelated to Harris or Knight) and knowingly making false statements.

Harris, once known as “Lady Boss,” is now an author and a chef.

Pursuant to a pardon from then-President Donald Trump, Harris’s ex-husband, Michael “Harry-O” Harris, was released from prison after serving more than 30 years for trafficking cocaine and attempted murder.’

Rapper Snoop Dogg now owns Death Row Records.


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