Congratulations! Could you give me a little background on the case?
Sure. Back in 2002 three people – Lee, Kim, and Cho, started a partnership to develop commercial real estate, a strip shopping center. The three partners bought a vacant lot and Mr. Cho, who is a building contractor, built the building and managed it. He was never transparent about investment, construction, and management, and Cho never reported any profit to his partners even though at some point the strip center was completely full. Cho kept asking for more investment, while thwarting any other partner’s effort to manage the property or to even look at the financials. Our clients found out about the potential fraud because a portion of the property was taken by a street widening project. The city paid upwards of $360,000, but our clients did not share anywhere in that settlement. That prompted Kim and Lee to file a lawsuit. When we initially took the case, we thought maybe it was a $360,000 case. Shortly after we took it, we learned that $150,000 of that was paid to the bank to reduce the loan amount, so we thought that the case was going to be worth even less than that. There were two attorneys on the case before us. The first one was retained primarily to retrieve the documents. He was not successful for about a year so Lee and Kim retained a second attorney to file a lawsuit. That went on for three years and the lawyers dismissed the case without informing our client. Of course our client got upset and retained me and our case drug on for about two and half years before it finally came to a trial. Right up to the time of the trial, Mr. Cho was taking everything out of the business – the rental incomes, and things of that nature and he kept opening and closing bank accounts to hide his tracks. We filed the lawsuit under the breach of fiduciary duty and fraud among others things. After the trial, the jury awarded $1.2 million as the actual damage and then multiplied that amount by six to serve as the exemplary damages! The total amount awarded by the jury was in the excess of $8.25 million.
Wow! So how did you discover the story?
One of the most challenging parts of the case was understanding how it was that the partners (Kim and Lee) allowed such fraud to continue for 7 years before filing a lawsuit. Kim and Cho did not know each other before the joint business venture, so why was there so much blind trust? It all began with Cho, the younger of the two, called Mr. Kim, “Hyungnim”, which means ‘older brother’ in Korean language. At the TLC 3-week session in 2014, I did chair back exercises, opening and closing arguments on this case. It helped me to better understand how Cho was using his good manners showing respect by referring to Kim and Lee as Hyungnim to earn their love and trust. I used the skills I learned at TLC extensively back at the office with Mr. Kim and Mrs. Lee to not only understand the nuances of the cultural issues, but also to show how that was used as an instrument of fraud and continued fraud at trial. Though the judge did not permit us to spend too much time on this issue, I think the message got through to the jury.
It was difficult to discover the facts of the case, which was more or less mechanical. Locating documents and so forth. In getting the exemplary damage, which is notoriously difficult to do in Texas, we had to get into some of the things my client had experienced as a result. He had made this investment and he was cheated. He was embarrassed. He felt like a loser in front of his family. Discovering how he felt, and the things he had gone through to get these documents, and the pressure it took to go through the six year lawsuit was very, very difficult. Mr. Lee had died in the interim, so his wife took over the lawsuit. Add to this that the opposing counsel was constantly continuing the trial with the excuse that his son developed some kind of rash. While that is all understandable, a few weeks before the trial our client actually had a part of his colon removed because a cancer had developed. When I found out, I told him we need to continue this case, we can’t try this case. He said “no, I want to tell my story; it’s been too long. I don’t want to die like this. Even if it kills me I want to tell my story.” That was the clincher for me. It was very emotional in that respect. During the trial, that never really came out, but that is the background story of what we were struggling with right up to the time of the trial. Mr. Cho cheating Lee and Kim, taking money from the rental income and not paying the taxes so there was a tax lien. He was taking money even up to the day of the trial. During the litigation there were a couple of tax foreclosure lawsuits. What he would do is he would loan money securing the property to pay the real estate taxes and then he would take all the rental income and that’s why the taxes were never paid.
Was there a moment when you realized that the trial had turned in your favor?
I think the closest it may have come was when I gave a timeline of when bank accounts were closed and when they were opened to show that all those dates coincided with the dates when our client was attempting to get documents from Mr. Cho. Mr. Cho would basically close the account he was requesting documents from and open another one. In my 25 years of trial experience, I have never had jurors come to me after the verdict and thank me for picking them to be on the jury. Some of the older jurors were telling the younger jurors to watch out for stuff like that in the real world. [laughter] So they were all with us. It was all our tribe all the way, and it was a unanimous verdict. That is what is required for exemplary damages here in Texas. After the verdict was read, our client didn’t understand the verdict itself (due to their limitations in English language) but after I explained it to them, both of them were in tears, very happy, it was a gut-wrenching experience. Typically, there is not so much emotion involved in business cases but this certainly was.
What was it about your experience at Trial Lawyers College that prepared you for this case?
More than anything else, it was our voir dire. That has always been kind of a shoot from the hip thing for me. At Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College, you don’t try to take people out, you don’t try to trick them to say stuff. You work during voir dire to build a tribe. That is 180 degrees opposite to what I was doing before the College. In 2014, I went through the College and after that I had five or six jury trials. I could feel the difference from the response that I got from the jurors and the rapport that I was able to get from the jurors and the trust that they had in me all throughout the trial. Opposing counsel in this case, during the voir dire was asking questions like “What kind of bumper sticker do you guys have and what does it say?: I mean, I thought that was really funny. Here is a seasoned trial lawyer, with over 30 years experience, asking jurors that silly question! The jurors saw from my questions that I wasn’t trying to trick them or make a joke of the process. I was being genuine. I think that really came through. And of course throughout the trial, opening statement, examination and closing, cross-examination and things like that, TLC surely gave me lots of tools in my tool chest.
What kind of impact has this trial had on you personally?
It certainly made me appreciate the jury system that we have and it made me do the best I can for my client. As an attorney for so many Korean Americans, one of the things that I frequently see is once my clients get cheated, they get really, really depressed. I try to tell them that it’s not their fault, we’ll get justice. As trial lawyers, our job is to get justice for our clients, I think that’s very important work. Before going to Trial Lawyers College, the advertisement I ran for my services in the local community newspaper said things like – over 20 years of experience, all the stuff that tells the potential clients how great I am. Now I have completely changed it by saying – let’s not cheat our business partners, let’s be nice to each other. My entire outlook on practice of law after 23 years has completely changed and I wholeheartedly thank Gerry Spence and other friends at The College. That’s where it all began anew for me after 25 years. I wish it would have happened earlier.
I want to also mention something on a personal note. Mr. Kim and I go back many years in community service. In 1999, Mr. Kim was the president of the Korean-American Lions Club, and he awarded me with “Lion of the Year” award. I had planned on leaving the Lions Club, and I did not attend the meeting when it was being awarded to me. He later delivered it to me personally and asked me to stay and serve. I refused. We did not talk much after that, but I heard rumors that he was upset with me. I thought that it was because of the Lions Club issue, but I learned later that it was because one of my relatives had opened up a business near his business location. He was upset because he erroneously assumed that I had introduced her to the business location to compete with him. Actually, it was some body else. He says that it is not, but I believe that was the reason why he went with another attorney in the beginning. It was through Mrs. Lee, that Mr. Kim and Mrs. Lee came to me after being upset that the first lawyers dismissed the case without their consent. As a result, there was some degree of mistrust of me on the part of Mr. Kim. However, as the case came close to the trial, and we effectively employed the TLC techniques in client preparation and ultimately the verdict, Mr. Kim told me that you have saved ‘my honor and now I am able to proudly face my family’. Mr. Kim’s friendship that was put on shelf collecting dust had finally returned over ten years later. Mr. Kim is now on a chemotherapy with a renewed vigor and determination to fight and win his cancer, and he attribute his renewed vigor to me – I attribute it all to TLC.