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NEW YORK � Greenberg Traurig has become enmeshed in a bitter family feud between two sisters, one of whom is married to a senior partner at the law firm. The estranged sisters, Linda J. Spector and Barbara Berlin, had both been named beneficiaries of a trust created in November 2003 by their mother, Eleanor Spector. Eleanor and Linda served as co-trustees until Eleanor’s death in January 2004. Shortly after her mother’s death, Linda sought to have her then-fiance, Albert Jacobs, the senior chair of Greenberg Traurig’s national intellectual property practice, appointed co-trustee, arguing that the successor designated in trust, attorney Joel Sankel, had told her over dinner he would step aside. But in a decision issued last week, a Manhattan appellate court sided with Sankel, who had argued in a petition that Linda Spector and Jacobs might be seeking to control the trust in order to effectively disinherit Berlin. The court found that Sankel had not unequivocally declined the trusteeship and that Jacob’s appointment raised ethical questions. “We can perceive of no view of Jacob’s appointment, nor are we presented with one, that would honor Eleanor’s intent, or fulfill the obligation of a trustee to avoid placing himself in a position where not even the appearance of a conflict with his duty to the trust should exist,” Justice Eugene Nardelli wrote for a unanimous panel of the Appellate Division, First Department. “Indeed, Linda’s rush to have her fiance appointed as a trustee also is disquieting,” he continued in Sankel v. Spector, 108308/04. The panel said Sankel’s later actions, including his court petition, had shown his “unequivocal acceptance” of his appointment as co-trustee. The court also said there could be no objection to his firm, New York’s Sankel, Skurman & McCurtin, representing the trust. Linda Spector had retained Greenberg Traurig to represent the trust, a fact the court said rendered “disingenuous” her claim that Sankel’s firm was too conflicted to serve as counsel to the trust. Greenberg Traurig billed the estate almost $130,000, which is now at issue in a pending contempt motion. Sankel claims the amount should be repaid to the trust since Greenberg Traurig’s services were retained for the personal benefit of Linda Spector and Jacobs, whom she eventually married. In the contempt motion, Sankel also noted the disparity between the fees paid to Greenberg Traurig and his own firm in the course of the dispute. He noted that his firm had billed the trust $22,000 in the same time period. He is requesting invoices from Greenberg Traurig to back up charges, some of which he claims were “wholly frivolous.” Linda Spector’s basis for claiming Sankel declined the appointment were statements he allegedly made at a dinner at her apartment during which she also informed him of her impending marriage to Jacobs. In his petition, Sankel, who had previously represented Linda Spector in a divorce, claimed he had not been previously aware of his designation and told her he needed more time to think about whether to accept or not. He said he became concerned when reading in the trust document that trustees other than the two sisters had the authority to distribute the principal of the trust unequally. He said he feared that, if appointed, Jacobs would heavily favor Linda Spector over her sister. Sankel said he later contacted Berlin, who asked him to stay on as co-trustee to protect her interests.” The sole assets of the trust were two income-producing commercial properties in Brooklyn, one a square block of stores and apartments on King’s Highway and the other a smaller property in Sheepshead’s Bay. The sisters were to have received equal income distributions from the trustees during their lives, with the entire estate going to Berlin’s son after both sisters died. Sankel claimed Linda became extremely angry when he expressed reservations about stepping aside from the trusteeship. He said Jacobs also yelled at him over the phone and, according to the appellate court’s decision, threatened “to use the resources of his large law firm, if necessary, to remove Sankel as co-trustee.” Miami-based Greenberg Traurig is one of the nation’s largest firms, with almost 1,500 lawyers worldwide and close to 300 in New York. Reached at his office Friday, Jacobs disputed the accuracy of Sankel’s allegations but declined further comment on the matter. Sankel also declined comment. Anthony Lin is a reporter with the New York Law Journal.

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