The Work

December 18, 2009 11:56 AM

L.A. Legal Blotter: Triumph, Tragedy, and Tiger in the City of Angels

Posted by Brian Baxter

As the motion picture capital of the world--and the setting for such big-screen classics as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential--Los Angeles is no stranger to legal drama.

But a series of notable stories--some of them tragic--over the past two weeks inspired us to pull together a roundup of L.A.-themed legal news. The deaths of two lawyers, domestic violence charges against a third, and new developments for several tabloid staples that involve an array of outside counsel have all grabbed headlines recently.

Elizabeth Fontaine

By now most have heard about the shocking murder-suicide that claimed the lives of former Howrey senior IP associate Elizabeth Fontaine, her two young daughters, and Fontaine's mother.

The Orange County Register has the gripping story--not for the squeamish--about the circumstances surrounding Fontaine’s death. The 38-year-old associate had transferred from the firm’s Irvine, Calif., office to Houston last month amid a bitter custody battle she was having with her ex-husband.

After a court ordered Fontaine to temporarily turn her daughters, Catherine, 4, and Julia, 2, over to her ex-husband’s sister, several reports indicate police believe Fontaine allowed her mother to kill the three of them and then herself in the gated community where they were staying in San Clemente, Calif.

“[Elizabeth] was a talented lawyer who was advancing quickly in her career at Howrey,” the firm said in a statement. “We will feel her loss deeply as a friend and as a colleague.”

Fontaine’s former husband, Jason Fontaine, is not currently a suspect in the killings.

Jeffrey Tidus

Last week Jeffrey Tidus, a founding partner of downtown Los Angeles litigation boutique Baute & Tidus, was found shot dead on the lawn of his home in a suburb south of L.A. Law enforcement officials say that Tidus was getting a laptop from his car when he was shot in the head by an unknown assailant.
Tidus (right) had represented a number of high-profile clients, most recently defunct subprime lender New Century Financial. The killing came just hours after three former New Century executives were charged with fraud by the SEC, leading some to wonder whether the two events could somehow be related.

But the Los Angeles Times reports that early signs in the investigation point to a 2005 case in which Tidus, 53 at the time of his death, obtained a restraining order against a litigant who threatened him--former L.A. tax attorney Christopher Gruys. Tidus won an $11.2 million judgment in the case, which stemmed from state criminal charges of tax evasion.

Gruys told the LAT he didn’t even know that Tidus had died. Police are reportedly searching through Tidus’s files for more clues.

Richard Widom

MetNews reports that the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office has filed a misdemeanor spousal battery charge against Richard Widom, a former name partner at L.A. workers’ compensation firm Stockwell, Harris, Woolverston & Muehl, as a result of an incident that occurred in March involving his wife, Lisa Kerner.

An unnamed sourced told MetNews that Widom severely beat Kerner, a vice president at Stockwell Harris, and as a result Widom was subsequently terminated by the firm. Widom now serves as managing general partner of his own employment shop.

MetNews notes that lawyers from Katten Muchin Rosenman are representing Widom, who has maintained his innocence. According to MetNews, deputy district attorneys have declined to bring felony charges against Widom.

Michael Jackson’s Estate

In life, Michael Jackson kept more than his fair share of attorneys busy with various legal entanglements. And after the King of Pop passed away last summer, most of those legal bills didn’t simply disappear.

The Am Law Daily reported last month that Arnold & Porter had sued Jackson for roughly $170,000 in outstanding legal fees the firm claims it hasn’t been paid. Now the executors of Jackson’s estate are seeking compensation for their work, along with three firms that are performing legal services for the estate, which the deceased singer’s parent have tried to wrest control of.

According to, executors John McClain and John Branca of high-powered L.A. entertainment shop Ziffren Brittenham Branca, are asking for 70 percent of the fees they have earned pending court approval of an unspecified full amount. Both state they’re also seeking the statutory amount of executor fees for the first $25 million of the estate, or roughly $188,000. With Jackson’s estate estimated to be worth well more than that, McClain and Branca would be entitled to a windfall “for their extraordinary services,” notes TMZ, citing state court documents.

Also seeking $1.5 million in fees are Greenberg Traurig, where entertainment partner Joel Katz long served as Jackson’s outside lawyer. (Katz’s firm bio states that the King of Pop appointed him to the board of the music publishing company co-owned by the Jackson Family Trust and Sony.)

Santa Monica litigation firm Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert wants another $420,000, while L.A. estate planning and trust administration shop Hoffman, Sabban & Watenmaker is seeking nearly $958,000.

McSteamy’s Video / Tiger’s Troubles

And now for some lighter fare.

Enter Davis Wright Tremaine, a firm known for its First Amendment exploits, which in the past few months has represented a Holocaust survivor’s heir, challenged the Governator, defended a Seattle street musician, advised on the sale of a legendary music catalog, and helped open up a ‘secret’ trial. Now, add a sex tape to the mix.

Representing Gawker Media, the firm dealt a blow to married celebrities Eric Dane of Grey’s Anatomy fame and Rebecca Gayheart of Noxzema notoriety in their request to recover damages for copyright infringement over a racy video Gawker posted in August starring the two and former Miss Teen America Kari Ann Peniche. (There’s no sex on the tape, but the trio are shown in various states of undress.)

U.S. district court judge George Wu in L.A. ruled that Dane and Gayheart had not registered a copyright to the 12-minute video before it was posted on Gawker, precluding the couple from seeking statutory damages and attorneys’ fees. Gawker, advised by Davis Wright partner Alonzo Wickers IV, could still be hit with actual damages and enjoined from distributing the video if Wu doesn’t buy the company’s fair use defense. (Click here for an IP blog’s breakdown of the case.)

Dane and Gayheart are represented by Martin Singer of L.A. litigation boutique Lavely & Singer, which recently represented an L.A. lawyer who pleaded guilty to tax evasion and was also retained this week by Tiger Woods to help manage the fallout from his marital discord. With news emerging on Friday that the golfer's estranged wife, Elin, had hired powerful L.A. divorce lawyer Sorrell Trope, Tiger will need all the legal help he can get.

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