APR | 2013
Bankruptcy Clouds Collection on $5.8 Million 'Girls Gone Wild' Lawsuit
Two “Girls Gone Wild” entities on the hook for a $5.8 million judgment here have filed for bankruptcy, as the legal thicket surrounding franchise founder Joe Francis grows denser.
An attorney for Tamara Favazza, who won the money on a claim the adult video franchise showed her bare chest without permission, said Wednesday the filings by Mantra Films and MRA Holdings will halt debtor’s exam proceedings in St. Louis Circuit Court. That process has been trying to learn what happened to millions once held by the companies.
The attorney, John Medler, said the Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings should not hamper the overall effort to collect, because of a federal suit that names Francis personally, along with a number of Girls Gone Wild entities that have not yet filed for bankruptcy. In that suit, Medler is trying to show that the companies are equally responsible for the judgment.
A lawyer representing Mantra Films and MRA Holdings did not respond to a request for comment.
Trying to chase down Girls Gone Wild money has proved difficult, as evidenced by an array of lawsuits across the country. And that’s where Francis has demonstrated his own wild approach to his various holdings.
In a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case, involving the government’s seizure of $21 million for back taxes owed by Francis, emails have been produced that show him threatening a longtime family friend and attorney who helped him set up Mantra Films.
The seized money traces back to a company established in the Turks and Caicos Islands and owned by a Francis family trust, Rothwell Ltd. The Internal Revenue Service claimed Francis exercised control over the account; Francis is disputing that. In trying to prove its case, the IRS produced voluminous emails in which Francis accuses his father and the lawyer of trying to steal money.
The emails from Francis, laden with exclamation points and capital letters, grow increasingly animated between February and April 2011. Francis threatens to reveal something criminal about the lawyer to his family, then reaches out to those family members and repeats his threat.
“I don’t think you realize how (expletive) serious this is!!!!!!” one reads. “Your family WILL pay for your actions!!!!! I PROMISE!!! YOU (expletive) CROOK!!!”
In another: “Did your daughter get beaten and raped yet? That’s the word.”
And in a text: “I don’t think you get it. This is not litigation to me, this is personal. I want your head on a stick. I’m comming!”
The court filing also includes a draft copy of a lawsuit Francis filed against that same lawyer in one of California’s state courts in March 2011, in which he acknowledges being the principal shareholder of Mantra Films. Medler said that contradicted Francis’ statements in the St. Louis debtor’s exam, in which he claimed he ended all involvement with Mantra about 2009.
“When we examined him, he had stock in a $10 million company that went poop and he denies knowing where it went, and suddenly here he’s found his stock!” Medler exclaimed, reacting to the court filing.
Repeatedly during the November 2012 debtor’s exam, Circuit Court Judge John Garvey had to warn Francis that he was close to being arrested for contempt of court for dodging questions and failing to produce financial records. The judge most recently issued an order demanding that Francis appear in court with company representatives Thursday; that will now be moot because of the bankruptcy filings.
An apparently related company, GGW Brands LLC, and several subsidiaries filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition earlier in Los Angeles, listing more than $16 million in disputed claims. The largest was won by Wynn Resorts Limited over a gambling debt and statements Francis made about a casino in Las Vegas and its founder, Steve Wynn. Favazza had the second-largest of those claims.
Favazza sued in 2008, claiming an independent contractor for the video company lifted her tank top in front of a camera at Rum Jungle, on Laclede’s Landing, in 2004. A jury ruled against her, but a judge granted a new trial and she won a default judgment when nobody showed up for the defense.
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OCT | 2002
Up and Coming Lawyers: John F. Medler, Jr.
John F. Medler, Jr.
Age: 39Education: Brown University, B.S., 1985; Washington University, J.D., 1988Experience: Coburn Croft, 1988 – 1993; SBC Corporation, 1993 to present
Many a lawyer hesitates before entering the legal profession, tempted at a fork in the road by another beckoning path. But not many lawyers are driven into the law by an encounter with the guillotine.
John F. Medler Jr., a defense attorney from St. Louis, is perhaps alone with that distinction.
Medler reports that he felt for a time the call of medicine while he was an undergraduate at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
But a neurology laboratory class, which featured a guillotine in a prominent role, cured him of his designs on a career in medicine, and sent him, ultimately, in the direction of the law.
The goal of the class, Medler relates, was to study the brains of mice, a goal which required, he soon found, that the brains of the mice be somehow detached from the rest of their bodies.
“I went into the lab, and there they were cutting off the heads of the mice with little guillotines,” he said. “And I just lost it, just broke down and started crying.”
Medler’s classroom mentor intervened with an important suggestion. “He took me aside and suggested that maybe I wasn’t the kind of person who is cut out for medicine. And I couldn’t disagree.”
Such lurches in the road on the path to a career are not usually greeted with glee by parents, but Medler was fortunate in his choice of a mother.
Her response to the then imminent end of her first career — that of a full-time mother to four boys who were soon to be out of the nest — had been to enter law school. And she was having such a good time there, she decided to encourage her son to consider the profession, too.
“She was telling me how much fun law school was, and thought I might be well-suited to it as well, considering how outspoken I had always been,” he said. “So I decided to take a look at Brown’s pre-law program.”
Brown had a well-developed program, it turns out, and Medler plunged in with enthusiasm. One course he remembers well was a course in products liability taught by an engineer, an expert in products liability cases.
Another course that left an impression on Medler was a course in constitutional law tracing how the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Commerce Clause over the years.
“I had always liked debate, public speaking and drama in high school— and the law, especially the courtroom, just seemed to fit in with that,” he said.
Later, as a student at Washington University School of Law, Medler became heavily involved in the mock trial competition, which only strengthened his conviction that he wanted to spend his career in the courtroom.
“That was one of my favorite experiences in law school, especially when our team went on to nationals,” he says. “I knew that courtroom work was what I wanted to do.”
Medler also attended Washington University with his wife, now a plaintiffs’ lawyer. They have a family of five children, three boys and two girls, and plan to add a third girl through adoption shortly.
“We just love kids,” he says. “We knew that there are a lot of kids out there who need families, and we decided we could do one more.”
After graduating from law school in 1988, Medler took a job with a large firm, Coburn Croft, a predecessor of Thompson Coburn, a hard-headed decision dictated largely by his debt load.
“In the beginning, I felt like I had to go where the money was,” he said. But Medler, who was bent on career as a litigator, quickly became frustrated at the amount of time he was spending in the courtroom.
He started looking around, and found out about an opening at Southwestern Bell, a corporation that handles most of its litigation in-house. “I got the impression looking into it that I’d spend more time in court there, which has definitely turned out to be the case,” he says.
“But I also found that the pay was better, the hours were better and the benefits were better, so I took the job.”
Medler likens the legal office at SBC, which is responsible for the company’s litigation in the state of Missouri, to a small firm.
The size of the office has varied a bit over the years. At times, there have been as many as five lawyers in the office, while as recently as a year ago, Medler was working alone.
Currently, he has one other colleague in the office. “We have a very small staff, and no paralegals,” he says. “I’m chief and little Indian all at once, and there’s no one to dump the legal research projects on. If I want it done, I have to do it myself.”
When cases get too big — such as large class-action lawsuits — Medler brings in outside counsel to help, but he still retains control.
“We work with outside lawyers as full trial co-counsel,” he says. “We split the work just as if we were two partners in a firm.”
Medler thus handles the full gamut of cases, from multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuits to $300 cases in small-claims court.
Among his most successful efforts was his defense of SBC in a case that arose after a young man, the alleged assailant in a robbery of an SBC employee who was collecting coins from a pay phone, was shot in the neck and rendered a paraplegic by an armed security guard accompanying the collector.
“The guard said he came up behind the kid, disarmed him, laid him on the ground to handcuff him, and then accidentally shot him in the neck,” Medler said. “But the plaintiff, who the guard said was armed, claimed he wasn’t even the guy who had robbed the collector, and the police weren’t able to find a gun.
“It was hard to figure out what had happened.” The plaintiff sued both SBC and the security company, and asked the jury to award a verdict of $30 million. The jury came back with a verdict of $5.5 million — entirely against the security company. We got out completely on a defense verdict,” he says.
The case illustrates how timing and luck can play a role in producing a big win for a lawyer. If the jury had come back just minutes later, Medler says, the outcome may have been very different.
“The plaintiffs’ attorneys had tossed out the idea of doing a high-low agreement while the jury was deliberating,” he says. “And there I was, wrestling with the idea when the jury came back. I never even had a chance to decide, when suddenly the jury was giving us a big win.”
The case also produced the kind of result that Medler, a somewhat reluctant defense lawyer, finds easy to reconcile with his conscience.
“I might struggle with guilt just a bit more than most defense lawyers when there’s a plaintiff who’s suffered a really bad injury,” he says.
Medler finds it easy to empathize with injured plaintiffs because he and his family have been on the receiving end of the lash when it comes to life’s cruelties. One of Medler’s sons almost died of cancer at the age of four.
As a result, sometimes his sympathies for the plaintiff are felt more deeply than those for co-defendants in a case.
“I do feel for people on the other side of the equation,” he says. “But in our bigger cases, there’s usually three or four co-defendants, and usually one of them will offer a settlement. In those cases, I find I don’t feel so bad.”
Another big case that Medler helped usher to a successful conclusion was a large class-action lawsuit against SBC over the company’s billing practices in connection with its inside-wiring insurance plan. The plaintiffs claimed that SBC had billed customers for the insurance plan without their permission. Eventually, a total of nine cases were filed against the company.
Faced with a gaggle of plaintiffs’ attorneys and demands totaling more than $100 million, Medler proposed a coupon settlement which involved offering plaintiffs free services for a limited period of time. “That was a very good settlement,” he says.
Those cases were important for Medler’s career. But he’d much rather talk about the case of the 300-pound country-western singer. This cowboy-hat wearing woman came to grief when she tripped on an SBC-owned cable and ended up learning the hard way that a concrete bird bath is considerably harder than human flesh, even 300 pounds of it.
She recovered from the injuries she suffered in the fall, Medler said, but claimed in a subsequent lawsuit that the fall had somehow brought to an end her aspirations towards a career as a singer.
Her lawsuit gained something in plausibility from her parentage — her father was the author of a well-known song, “The Old Gray Mule He Ain’t What He Used to Be.” But her deposition provided Medler with a crucial piece of information that allowed him to test her self-appraisal in full.
To prove that her career had been just about to take off when the accident happened, the woman recounted the story of what she said was a triumphant evening, in which she had participated in an open-mike night which had been sponsored by a local radio station. So Medler called the station to see if any record existed of the performance.
“I wasn’t too hopeful that they’d keep a record of an open-mike night, but I called on the off-chance, and sure enough they had a copy which they were happy to give me.”
After taking a listen to the rare piece of caterwauling it contained, Medler decided it was something that the woman’s attorney would profit from hearing.
“I sent the tape over to her lawyer, and after he listened to it, he agreed that maybe this was a case it would be a good idea for his client to settle.”