Fresh from jilting his bride at the altar (they subsequently did indeed marry), this time ole Jim is seeking to enforce a "verbal agreement" with his deceased law partner in Ohio:
For nine years, Michael Kelley and James Ferraro ran one of the most profitable plaintiffs' law firms in Cleveland — so profitable that they were able to buy three jets, million-dollar mansions and an arena football team.Hmm. Another well-written piece by Julie Kay, although I don't get the spin about "only three months," which is repeated more than once in the story. Three months is unusually short? How long should the wife have waited?
In 2003, a Cleveland business magazine put Kelley on the cover, labeling him "The King of Torts" for his "billion-dollar asbestos practice." Both partners were prominent political contributors and even lent their planes to Democratic heavyweights like Hillary Clinton.
But following Kelley's sudden death in 2006 of a heart attack, the fate of the law firm — and the estimated billions of dollars, planes and arena football team — is in the hands of a Cuyahoga County state court judge.
In a law firm battle that has turned downright ugly, Kelley's widow, Lynn, a former Cleveland Heights municipal judge, is battling Ferraro for half of the law firm's total assets, once estimated at $3.5 billion.
In a lawsuit filed in May 2006 — just three months after her husband's death — Lynn Kelley demanded dissolution of the 15-lawyer firm and division of the assets, including the jets and the arena football team, the Las Vegas Gladiators, which will be moving to Cleveland this year.
Kelley's lawyer, William Wuliger of Cleveland, said he has rock-solid evidence: a partnership agreement that spells out how, if a "liquidating event" occurs, the law firm would be dissolved and the profits and assets split. "And I believe a liquidating event includes death," Wuliger remarked dryly.
But Ferraro — who also owns a highly successful plaintiffs' firm in Miami, The Ferraro Law Firm; a well-known Coral Gables, Fla., restaurant, Randazzo's; and a 21,000-square-foot, 14-bedroom compound in Martha's Vineyard, Mass. — apparently sees things differently.
His attorney, John Climaco of Cleveland's Climaco, Lefkowitz, Peca, Wilcox & Garofoli, would not comment on the case, citing a gag order issued by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Daniel Gaul.
However, Ferraro has said in previous interviews that he had a verbal agreement with Kelley that, if one of the partners died, the deceased's family would get graduated payouts for several years, and then they would end.
Ferraro also promised to provide medical care for Kelley's son, Christopher, who was partially paralyzed in a car accident. Christopher died in January 2007.
Ferraro has maintained that the partnership agreement does not refer to death and that Lynn Kelley is mentioned nowhere in the agreement. According to a former partner who declined to be identified, since Ohio law is vague about partnership agreements, it will be strictly up to the judge or jury to decide what Kelley gets, if anything.
After mediation and settlement talks failed, the case is now headed for trial in March. The trial is expected to generate fireworks, and could include testimony from Bernie Kosar, a former National Football League quarterback and part owner, CEO and team president of the Gladiators.
And the state of the Kelleys' marriage is also expected to be under a microscope, according to sources.
Kelley's widow wasted no time in filing a lawsuit after her husband's death. Wuliger said he filed it quickly for fear that Ferraro would file his own action in Florida. Additionally, Lynn Kelley stated in her suit that she wanted to prevent Ferraro from wasting the firm's assets, frivolously flying around the country, and from cutting off medical benefits to her son. She sought a restraining order that would freeze firm accounts, but the judge has not ruled on it.
The case has been so contentious that both sides sought a gag order to prevent the other from talking to the press. Many documents have been sealed. One judge was removed from the case. Sanctions and protective orders have been sought by both sides.
And in a frustrated effort to gain information about finances at the law firm, Wuliger has tried to subpoena or depose everyone from Kosar to executives from the Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Cavaliers and Cleveland Browns sports teams. A former partner, John Sivinski, who has a contractual case against the firm, filed a motion to intervene.
Citing the gag order, Ferraro declined to comment.
Wuliger, however, said he did not believe in the gag order and the secrecy surrounding the case and decided to speak to The National Law Journal.
"This is a damn fog," Wuliger said. "Everything is under seal. I believe that these things should be open to the public.
"I'm very confident in my case," he added. "It's hard to imagine a more clear-cut case."
When asked where he got the figure of $3.5 billion, he said, "Information evolves over time. If you look at historical financial information, this law firm generated significant money."
Still, he acknowledged that it has been difficult for him to get financial information out of the firm.
I'd also like to see the partnership agreement. I don't see how a "verbal agreement" with a decedent could contradict or even inform a written agreement between law partners.