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Elena Sturdza says that every time she passes the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Northwest Washington, she has trouble sleeping for a week. The chancellery — an enormous structure tucked among several embassies between Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues — represents to Sturdza what should have been. The building was supposed to stand as a trophy of her fame and fortune. Instead, in Sturdza’s eyes it is a symbol of all that is wrong with America and its judicial system. When the Romanian-born Sturdza sees the protruding dome and windowed towers framing the Islam-inspired edifice, all she thinks about are liars, cheats, and lawyers. For the past five years, the D.C.-area architect has been trying to convince judges that officials of the United Arab Emirates conspired with another designer to steal her work and block her from a contract that could have netted her nearly $10 million. Sturdza, 56, has gone through a half-dozen lawyers, two federal judges, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. At every step, Sturdza claims, she has been stopped or compromised, sometimes by her own lawyers. Now Sturdza wants to continue pro se, but there remains an obstacle to even that rudimentary avenue: Her appellate lawyer, Nathan Lewin, won’t let her and has filed a motion asking the federal court to prevent Sturdza from firing him. According to Lewin, Sturdza is so consumed by her lawsuit that she cannot make rational decisions concerning how her case should proceed. Among Sturdza’s missteps, Lewin claims, was her June 2002 decision to fire him as her lawyer. “Mr. Lewin is doing more harm to me at this point than the Arabs did,” Sturdza says. “I hired him and gave him all the information. and he promised to do all the law lets him do to punish these thieves, and he didn’t.” Lewin, who was hired on a contingency basis, resuscitated a dead case at the appellate level and now argues that he has a financial stake in its outcome. He also says that he has an ethical duty to inform the court when a client “cannot adequately act in the client’s own interest.” In particular, Lewin says Sturdza forbade him from discussing a possible settlement when approached by defendants last year, and refused to let him transfer the case files from a former law firm to his current office. “I am 100 percent convinced that Ms. Sturdza, if she handles this case pro se and files papers and proceeds as she is doing, will lose the case totally,” Lewin said at a July 2002 hearing in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, according to a transcript. Last year, Lewin filed a motion asking that a guardian ad litem be appointed to decide how the case should proceed. On Jan. 9, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola denied Lewin’s request, stating that litigants have a fundamental right to proceed pro se. Lewin has challenged Facciola’s recommendation, arguing that in contingent-fee cases the lawyer has “a legal right to have the case prosecuted properly.” Furthermore, Lewin says, he became “an effective partner” in the case when a majority of Sturdza’s claims were reinstated by the D.C. Circuit. Until Lewin’s motion is resolved, Sturdza’s entire case has been put on hold. Lewin is still considered by the court to be the attorney of record and thus far has been allowed to hold onto Sturdza’s case file. The matter is now before U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy. Some legal ethics experts say that Lewin’s motion is a novel approach to a difficult situation-and unlikely to prevail. Before appointing a guardian, the court would have to declare Sturdza mentally impaired. But Sturdza has refused to submit to any evaluation, and her husband has not requested a guardian. Without an exam, Lewin cannot get a mental health expert to testify about Sturdza. Without a court finding that Sturdza is impaired, ethics lawyers say, a judge must uphold a litigant’s wishes on how to proceed no matter how destructive the course. “Courts are generally not going to protect someone from their own stupidity,” says Hamilton Fox III, a partner at D.C.’s Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan. “Generally, a client’s got a right to be stupid.” AMERICAN DREAM In 1993, the United Arab Emirates — a federation of seven Middle Eastern states — held a public competition for architects to design a new embassy. Sturdza, an architect licensed in Maryland and Texas, says she spent six months preparing her entry. Much of that time was spent studying Arabic Islamic architecture and assembling experts to work with. A jury of UAE government officials, including engineers and architects, judged the 15 entries. In the spring of 1994, Sturdza’s design was selected the winner and she was asked to submit a set of plans. For Sturdza, getting the chance to design the Arab Embassy was a major achievement. While she had designed hotels and office buildings, Sturdza had yet to land such a coveted project. And the job would not only net her millions of dollars, but would allow her to make a name for herself internationally. Over the next two and a half years, Sturdza negotiated a contract with UAE officials and their lawyers. Sturdza says her fee was to be 11.5 percent of the actual construction cost, which at the time was estimated at approximately $30 million. (Lewin estimates the final project to have cost about $100 million.) During this time, Sturdza says, she spent several thousand dollars in preparation costs, which UAE lawyers said would be paid once a contract was signed. In November 1996, Sturdza was told by the embassy’s legal adviser that a contract would be signed on Dec. 2, 1996, according to a deposition by UAE’s former public relations director Adham Hamdan. A contract was never signed, and the UAE cut off all communication with Sturdza. In late 1997, Sturdza learned the United Arab Emirates had begun to build its embassy. The firm it was using was Angelos Demetriou & Associates, a company with offices in the District and Greece. Demetriou had entered the 1993 competition, but his design came in third, according to Hamdan. Sturdza examined the embassy plans filed with the National Parks and Planning Commission and noticed that Demetriou’s new design differed substantially from the one he submitted in the contest. In fact, Sturdza says, she thought it looked remarkably like the one she had created. BREACH OF TRUST Sturdza filed suit against the UAE and Demetriou’s company in U.S. District Court in 1998. At the time, her legal team consisted of Mark Lane, who is known for his 1966 book on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; noted copyright attorney John LaPrade; and two younger lawyers, Frazer Walton Jr. and Steven Teppler. The complaint comprised nine counts, including copyright infringement, breach of contract, and several torts. The defendants countered that there was no contract and even if there were one, Sturdza had no action because she was not licensed to practice architecture in the District. They argued that without a D.C. license, Sturdza could not even recoup any costs associated with her embassy work. Over the next year, each of Sturdza’s claims would be dismissed by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. By the end of 1999, when only the copyright claim remained, Sturdza’s counsel had withdrawn from the case. “If in fact she had a license to be an architect in D.C. or was associated with an architect who did have a license, then this would have been a very good case,” says Lane, who says he withdrew because of “issues” between him and his client. One lawyer, who worked on her case but asked not to be named, says Sturdza was not upfront about the D.C. license issue. Sturdza says this is untrue and that her lawyers knew she was working with a D.C.-licensed architect. Additionally, this lawyer says Sturdza rejected an early settlement offer that was in the range of $500,000. “What Ms. Sturdza was seeking was greater than any amount she would have received as maximum recovery under the law,” says this lawyer, who adds that Sturdza was looking for $25 million to $50 million. Sturdza spent the next several months scrambling to find a lawyer while her claim languished. She a hired a team from Covington & Burling led by partner Anthony Herman, who pushed the copyright action at the trial court, but lost. Sturdza says Covington refused to appeal the entire case. ENTER LEWIN Nathan Lewin first met Sturdza when she showed up three years ago at his home with boxes full of papers. At the time, Sturdza’s case was still alive in the trial court. She says she sought him out after seeing his name in Washingtonian as one of the city’s best appellate lawyers. Lewin, known for his litigation against terrorists and Nazis, says he thought it was a good case, one that held a novel claim of copyright protections in architectural design. Lewin says his firm at the time — Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin — discussed the matter, but rejected it as being too risky. When Sturdza’s case was up for an appeal, Miller, Cassidy had broken up, and Lewin, who had not yet joined another firm, agreed to take the case on a contingent-fee basis. Lewin says he decided to pursue just seven of the nine rejected claims. But Lewin’s approach to the appeal was rejected by his client. In particular, Sturdza was upset that Lewin wanted the D.C. Circuit to certify the question surrounding the D.C. license to the D.C. Court of Appeals, meaning the entire breach of contract claim would be sent to the local court. Sturdza argued that since the embassy was to be built on land that was designated federal property, federal law did not require her to hold a D.C. license. Sturdza also wanted Lewin to file allegations that her former lawyers and Judge Kollar-Kotelly conspired against her. Lewin rejected his client’s demands and filed the brief as he originally designed it. Sturdza, meanwhile, began filing her own pro se briefs with the court, claiming that Lewin’s submission was full of lies and errors. Lewin says his client even accused the federal appeals court of being part of the alleged conspiracy when she learned that Judge David Tatel, who is blind, would be on the panel. Lewin filed an additional brief with the appeals court outlining his dispute with Sturdza and included as an appendix all the letters she had written him about the appeal. In March 2002, the three-judge panel — Judges Tatel and Karen Henderson, and Senior Judge Laurence Silberman — handed down a decision reinstating all but one of Sturdza’s claims. The question of licensing — the root of the breach of contract claim — was certified to the D.C. appeals court. “Demetriou’s design, though different in some ways from Sturdza’s . . . is sufficiently similar with respect to both individual elements and overall look and feel for a reasonable jury to conclude that the two are substantially similar,” Tatel wrote for the court. Soon thereafter, Lewin says, Rockville, Md., lawyer John King, who represents Demetriou, made a request to discuss a settlement. Sturdza, however, forbade Lewin from any settlement talks, Lewin says. King declines comment, except to say, “Our position is and always will be that her underlying claim is totally without merit.” SEEKING A GUARDIAN Meanwhile, Sturdza, who views the D.C. Circuit opinion as a loss because it did not address the legal arguments that she wanted to make, began preparing a petition for the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition, Sturdza has filed a civil suit against the law firm Szymkowicz & Associates, which represented the UAE during her contract negotiations, claiming that her civil rights were violated. U.S. District Court Judge John Bates dismissed that case last year. When Lewin was leaving his former firm last spring, he needed Sturdza’s written authorization to transfer her files to his new office. Sturdza refused, Lewin says. At that point, Lewin says, he had no choice but to file his request for a guardian ad litem. “Suddenly, I’m a bad guy. I’m part of the conspiracy,” says Lewin, adding that the dispute has been disappointing and frustrating. The only case Lewin found to support his request for a guardian is a 1999 decision by the Supreme Court of Alaska to appoint a “conservator” to represent a client who had become unstable during settlement negotiations. The conservator recommended the client accept the settlement offer. Sturdza, who says she has $1 million worth of debt and a failing business because of the embassy fiasco, vows to fight on until her case can be heard by a jury. “I am determined to go all the way no matter where that way takes me,” Sturdza says. She says monetary damages in this case exceed $200 million. Sturdza comes to that amount by totaling the project’s cost and her preparation expenses. She also includes the time she spent litigating the civil case. Sturdza points to an architect whose career started with a public competition. Daniel Libeskind won a 1989 contest to design the Holocaust Museum in Berlin. That project was completed in 2001, and he was later invited to submit designs for the World Trade Center site. She says he was paid $50,000 just for his entry. Sturdza says Libeskind was recently a guest on Charlie Rose’s public television show. “If I had built this embassy, I now would have been invited to submit designs for the World Trade Center site and been invited to Charlie Rose and everyone would know about me,” Sturdza says. “Instead I am learning how to file papers in court.”

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