After nearly six years of fighting over everything from a trial date to whether a Nobel Prize-winning economist could testify as his own damages expert, the legal malpractice trial against local matrimonial law veteran Rita Bank is underway.
Bank's former client, award-winning economist and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz, is suing Bank for more than $1 million in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Stiglitz has accused Bank of giving him bad legal advice, causing him to pay far more money in his divorce settlement than he believes he should have.
Following jury selection Thursday morning, Stiglitz's attorney, Crofton, Md.-based David Whitworth, began his opening statement with a rundown of Stiglitz’s “stellar career,” which included stints as head of the World Bank and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under former President Bill Clinton. Whitworth said he plans to show that Stiglitz had every right to believe that he was entitled to keep the bulk of his financial gains over the years, including the $300,000 he received from winning the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics.
Stiglitz’s case is centered on whether Bank delayed in filing Stiglitz’s divorce papers against his wishes, and also whether she gave him bad advice on everything from which assets would be considered part of the marital estate to differences in divorce laws between Washington and other jurisdictions. Stiglitz has also accused Bank of failing to tell him right away that she was in talks with his ex-wife’s attorney at the time, Sandy Ain, about a possible business relationship.
“That created the ultimate conflict situation,” Whitworth told the jury.
Bank’s attorney, Richard Simpson of Washington’s Wiley Rein, put the blame for any of Stiglitz’s monetary losses in the final divorce settlement squarely on Stiglitz’s desire to have the divorce play out on his terms.
“This is a case of a man who could not make up his mind,” Simpson said, alleging that Stiglitz wanted to keep as much of his assets as possible while still having the divorce proceed amicably and quickly.
In filings, Bank has claimed that she followed Stiglitz’s instructions at all times, and also that she notified Stiglitz of her discussions with Ain as soon as she could.
Stiglitz took the stand yesterday afternoon and this morning. There had been controversy over the trial date, which was originally scheduled for July 5, since Stiglitz is scheduled to fly to Beijing next week to be sworn in as the head of the International Economic Association.
He told the jury about conversations he had with Bank when he first hired her to handle his divorce in 2000. He claims he asked her whether it would matter if he moved from Washington to New York, or any other location, and that she said it would not in any meaningful way. Stiglitz’s attorneys plan to argue that after Stiglitz moved to New York to take a position at Columbia University, he opened himself up to additional monetary claims in the divorce proceedings due to his “celebrity status.”
“It wasn’t until after I was sued in New York that she really mentioned the problem that New York has,” Stiglitz told the jury.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon is presiding.