There are lawyers and clients who disagree. And then there are Nathan Lewin and Elena Sturdza, who have been battling over her competency to fire him for nearly seven years.
Sturdza, an architect, says that Lewin sabotaged her case, she fired him, and now she’s proceeding pro se. But Lewin of Washington’s Lewin & Lewin isn’t ready to walk away from a lawsuit that he believes could produce a substantial award — if his client will listen to him.
Lewin wants a guardian ad litem named for Sturdza, who he says can’t make rational decisions about the case. Sturdza is suing a rival architect she accuses of copying her design for the United Arab Emirates embassy in Washington.
She is seeking millions of dollars in damages and reportedly rejected a $500,000 settlement years ago. Lewin is working for a 33% contingent fee.
“Of course, I’ve got a financial interest,” Lewin said after a May 13 hearing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “She’s going to lose this case if she goes alone, and all my work goes out the window. That’s not fair.”
Lewin has spent more years fighting his client than litigating the merits of her suit. And there is no end in sight. At the hearing this month, U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. ordered Sturdza to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. He did not rule on whether to appoint a guardian.
Sturdza’s suit, filed in 1998 against the architectural firm Angelos Demetriou & Associates and the United Arab Embassy embassy, has languished since she first sought to fire Lewin in 2002, the year after he was hired as appellate counsel.
As Lewin tells it, he revived a dead case. A federal judge had earlier ruled against Sturdza’s claims. Even though Lewin persuaded the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to reinstate the majority of those claims, Sturdza wasn’t happy.
She accuses Lewin of trying to destroy her case by refusing to follow her direction. Against his wishes, she filed for certiorari at the U.S. Supreme Court. The petition was denied.
Also in 2002, Lewin sought a guardian for Sturdza. D.C. Magistrate Judge John Facciola found her competent, but Kennedy declined to adopt Facciola’s recommendation. In 2005, Kennedy appointed a guardian, based on, among other things, Sturdza’s behavior before him and her pro se filings. He wrote she is “prone to paranoid outbursts and has expressed irrational hostility” toward Lewin. Sturdza appealed.
This year, on April 10, a D.C. Circuit panel ruled per curiam in Sturdza’s favor on the narrow point that she should have a chance to challenge the motion for a guardian and a psychiatric evaluation, thereby requiring last week’s hearing.
Sturdza was in court on May 13. Demetriou, the rival architect, died in April, but his lawyer, John King of Rockville, Md.’s King & Attridge, was in court. Lewin participated by phone from New York.
Sturdza spoke for nearly an hour. Armed with an eight-page pleading to guide her, she accused Lewin of putting his interests before hers. “Mr. Lewin has an ego, and he probably thinks that only a deranged client can fire him,” she said.
Kennedy gave her the opportunity to move to dismiss the case without prejudice to get around the psychiatric evaluation. She declined with an emphatic “no.”
Sturdza has had a rough time keeping lawyers. In court, she recited the names of at least five who have represented her. (Last September, she sued Lewin and the other attorneys for intentional infliction of emotional distress.)
She also suggested her suit is in trouble because the United States doesn’t want to “sour” relations with the United Arab Emirates. “What does that have to do with anything, actually?” Kennedy asked.
Outside the courthouse, Sturdza spoke highly of the lawyer she’s trying to fire. “He is a great lawyer,” she said. And she vowed to appeal Kennedy’s order to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
His client’s case is still viable, Lewin said, if it ever gets back on track.
“I’m just asking for a guardian,” he said. “If the guardian fires me, I’m finished. That’s it. It’s over.”
By “over,” however, he does not mean he renounces his financial stake. “If some other lawyer takes it over and wins a multimillion-dollar judgment,” Lewin said, “I’m entitled to something for having rescued the case.”
Mike Scarcella can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.