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May 20, 2010 4:19 PM

At Heart of Superman Suit, a Disappearing Lawyer with a Grudge

Posted by Drew Combs

Given that the story lines played out in Superman comic books are full of shadowy figures with dark motivations, it seems fitting that the real world legal fight over who owns the rights to the Man of Steel would feature such a character in a pivotal role. Call him "The Vanisher."

On May 14, in what The New York Times labeled "an aggressive move to defend its 'Superman' franchise," Warner Bros. sued Marc Toberoff, the lawyer for the comic icon's cocreators, in federal court in Los Angeles, accusing him of engaging in a "scheme" to "enrich himself" by trying to wrongfully seize control of a substantial chunk of the Superman property.

Toberoff_TOC_ In its 56-page complaint, Warner Bros., represented by O'Melveny & Myers partner Daniel Petrocelli, alleges that Toberoff (pictured here) "entered into a 'web of collusive' deals with the heirs of Superman cocreators Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster, that caused the families to repudiate their agreements with DC Comics in a bid to recapture the copyright to the character," according to the Los Angeles Times.  (Download Superman Complaint.)

Toberoff's reaction? "This frivolous complaint severely underestimates the intelligence of the federal judiciary," he says. At the same time, Toberoff suggests, his formal response to the suit could have serious consequences for The Vanisher, whose identity he has until now been content to keep secret.

The suit is based, in part, on a seven-page letter--laid out in time-line form and attached to the complaint as an exhibit--that Warner's characterizes as a detailed accounting of Toberoff's efforts to attach himself to the Superman franchise.

The source of the anonymous letter, which the court granted the studio access to in December 2008, is a lawyer who used to work for Toberoff. (Petrocelli would not comment on the case, but a source close to the matter says that no one at Warner or O'Melveny knows the lawyer's identity.)

While Toberoff wouldn't identify the attorney in question when contacted by The Am Law Daily, in a court filing last year he described the lawyer as someone who worked at the Toberoff firm for less than three months, "disappeared on his lunch break in November 2005 without notice," and didn't respond to e-mails or phone calls after disappearing. (Download Toberoff Declaration.)

"My law firm's investigation has revealed that the stolen documents were secretly copied and stolen from my law firm's files by a disgruntled attorney employed by the firm who thereafter furnished documents to Warner Bros," Toberoff states in the declaration, adding that the former attorney also contacted Toberoff clients soon after leaving the firm and offered to take on their matters at a reduced fee.

That the letter to Warner included a note saying the time-line information could lead to Toberoff being "suspended" and "disgraced" isn't something Toberoff takes lightly. He says he expects to reveal the mysterious lawyer's identity as part of his broader response to Warner's suit.

Even more ominously, Toberoff says he is considering reporting the associate's actions to the California bar. In other words, The Vanisher may face a day of reckoning. Stay tuned for the next installment.

 

Contact Drew Combs at dcombs@alm.com.

Photo by John Abbott

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