Actress who sued Sterling now being sued herself

By BILL HETHERMAN, City News Service
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(AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – An actress appealing a judge’s decision that overturned a 2012 jury verdict directing Donald Sterling to pay her $17.3 million is herself being sued by the law firm that formerly represented her.

Katz & Yoon filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court against Robyn Cohen, demanding at least $760,000 for legal services provided her by the firm’s lawyers. The firm represented her from June 2012 until January 2013 in a lawsuit related to a fire at an apartment building owned by the Clippers boss, the suit states.

Attorney Brian Henri, a former member of the firm who along with lawyer Melissa Yoon represented Cohen during the trial, did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.

According to the lawsuit, Henri was obligated to obtain Cohen’s signature on a contingency fee agreement with Katz & Yoon. However, Henri said after the December 2012 verdict was reached against Sterling that he had not obtained Cohen’s signature on the agreement after all, the suit states.

A month later, Henri “disavowed any contingency fee arrangement with the firm and denied that Cohen had any obligation to pay a contingent or any other fee to the firm,” the suit states.

“Cohen then went silent, refusing to reply to any inquiries from the firm’s other partners as to the status of her written fee agreement,” the suit states.

The firm’s lawyers spent more than 1,600 hours working on the actress’ case, the suit states.

Henri now has his own firm, Henri Law Group, located in Sunnyvale.

In her case against Sterling, a jury found the billionaire real estate mogul liable to her for breach of contract, breach of the warranty of habitability and intentional infliction of emotional distress and awarded her $2.3 million in compensatory damages. The panel also found that Sterling and his employees at the West Hollywood property acted with malice toward Cohen, triggering a punitive damages phase of the trial in which she was awarded an additional $15 million.

Cohen said she lost most of her personal property in the Sept. 28, 2009, fire and maintained that the building had an inadequate fire detection system.

A three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal has received the initial briefs filed by lawyers for Cohen and Sterling. The appeals stem from a February 2013 post-trial ruling by Judge William MacLaughlin. He ordered a retrial on all issues, stating in a 19-page decision that there was insufficient evidence to show that Sterling deliberately caused emotional distress to Cohen before or after the fire.

“The court finds that the post-fire conduct does not rise to the level of outrageous conduct contemplated by that element of intentional infliction of emotional distress,” the judge wrote. “As tasteless and inconsiderate as it may have been, it simply cannot be said that it rose to the level of being so outrageous as to exceed all bounds of that usually tolerated in a civilized society.”

MacLaughlin also said there was no evidence that Sterling meant to cause Cohen or any other tenant emotional distress by failing to maintain the fire system before the blaze.

After trial, the judge dismissed Cohen’s claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. He also found that that the punitive damage award of $15 million was excessive, reducing the amount to $5.8 million and the overall award from $17.3 million to $8.1 million.

MacLaughlin declined Sterling’s motion to dismiss Cohen’s claim for a breach of the implied warranty of habitability. However, his order for a new trial could be interpreted to state that a new jury will have to determine liability and any possible damages all over again, said Cohen’s appellate attorney, Mark Mosier.

Cohen is asking that the original verdict be reinstated by the Court of Appeal with a finding that the punitive damages award was not excessive, Mosier said.

Cohen is perhaps best known for her topless role in Wes Anderson’s comedy-drama “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” which starred Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Anjelica Huston.

She lived for 10 years in the 54-unit Sterling-owned building at 888 W. Knoll Drive and told jurors she stayed so long in part because it was under the city’s rent control ordinance.

Cohen maintained that her unit was among 52 units in which warning horns connected to the main alarm were not working the day of the fire. She also alleged that none of the dozen smoke detectors throughout the building were functioning.

Kim Webster, a former cast member on “The West Wing,” and several other tenants also sued Sterling in January 2010, but settled with him before trial.

The Court of Appeal has not yet set a date to hear oral arguments on the appeals by Cohen and Sterling.


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