Updated at 6:09 p.m.
A Washington federal court jury has found that local matrimonial law heavyweight Rita Bank did not violate the standards of professional care in her handling of a former client’s divorce.
Joseph Stiglitz, a Columbia University economics professor and Nobel Prize winner, sued Bank in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2005, accusing her of botching his divorce in the early 2000s and exposing him to larger claims in the settlement negotiations.
After about a day of deliberation that began Tuesday afternoon, the jury returned the verdict to U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon just after 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. The trial began on June 30.
Bank referred questions to her attorney, Wiley Rein’s Richard Simpson, but did say that she thought it was the right outcome.
“It’s the right result. It was a meritless suit,” Simpson said. Referring to the fact that they made Bank’s file on the Stiglitz case available to the jury, he added, “We put in the entire file because we were proud of the way it was handled.”
Stiglitz was not present for the verdict. His attorney, Crofton, Md.-based David Whitworth, declined to comment on the verdict, except to say his client would be disappointed.
“I will be consulting with appellate counsel regarding whether it would be appropriate to file an appeal,” he said.
In a statement, Stiglitz said he believed that "the judge circumscribed the evidence and the jury did not have the full facts before them so it was not a fair trial."
The jury heard closing arguments on Tuesday. Whitworth argued Bank mishandled the case from the get-go by failing to file Stiglitz’s suit for divorce right away. As a result, he said, his client couldn’t conduct discovery and gather information he needed for leverage in the settlement negotiations.
Quoting testimony from the trial, Whitworth said, “It’s the attorney’s duty to communicate with the client. The client doesn’t know what needs to be mustered.”
Simpson pointed to e-mails and other evidence introduced during trial to show that Bank gave counsel that met and exceeded her professional responsibilities. He noted that Stiglitz came in with what he characterized as unreasonable demands, from wanting to hold on to all of his Nobel Prize money – which he received while he was still married – to insisting on using his own mathematical formulas to determine the value of pre-marital assets.
“This case was long and expensive because of the way Joseph Stiglitz [and his ex-wife] handled it,” Simpson said.
Stiglitz first sued Bank in 2005, alleging she failed to follow his requests to file for divorce from his wife in Washington as soon as possible. He claimed that Bank gave him bad legal advice on how to proceed, especially on whether his status as a Nobel Prize-winning economist and author would expose him to an “enhanced earnings” claim in the divorce.
He also accused Bank of failing to tell him immediately that she was in talks with his ex-wife’s attorney at the time, Sandy Ain, about joining forces to create a new firm. The two would eventually go on to start Washington-based Ain & Bank.
Stiglitz’s ex-wife finally sued him for divorce in New York in 2002. He originally sued Bank for $5 million, based in part on differences between the settlement amount he agreed to in New York and what he believed he would have paid to settle in D.C. Leon later lowered the allowable damages claim to $1 million for the legal fees Stiglitz claims he ended up paying by having to litigate the divorce in New York.
Bank denied any wrongdoing, saying that she told Stiglitz as soon as possible about her conversations with Ain. She placed any blame for the outcome of the divorce proceedings on Stiglitz, saying that Stiglitz dragged his feet in the hopes of getting what he wanted from the settlement.