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A celebrity artist who tried to avoid almost $2 million in legal fees by claiming that his law firm’s bills were unethically high will have to pay up, a Manhattan judge has ruled. Noting that artist Jeffrey L. Koons asked Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison to “leave no stone unturned” in litigating a custody dispute with his former wife, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Rolando T. Acosta said the big bills resulted from the client’s own extravagance. Koons “is asking this Court to make a policy determination that the amount incurred as a result of this litigation was unethical as a matter of law,” Acosta wrote in an opinion released Wednesday. “This Court, however, will not police the conduct of wealthy litigants who choose to share their wealth with counsel through extravagant litigation,” the judge concluded in Paul Weiss v. Koons, 602260/00. Koons’ stainless steel sculpture “Rabbit” remains one of the iconic works of the 1980s art scene, and his sculpture of singer Michael Jackson and a chimpanzee sold for $5.6 million in 2001. He hired Paul Weiss in 1993 to represent him in a bitter divorce from Ilona Staller, an Italian pornography star turned politician. Staller made adult films under the name La Cicciolina. She was elected in 1987 to the Italian parliament, where she famously offered to have sex with Saddam Hussein in the interests of world peace. Koons, who posed nude with Staller for some of his own work, had argued that his ex-wife’s career in the porn industry threatened the welfare of their son, Ludwig. In violation of a New York court order, Staller removed the boy from New York to Italy in 1994, spurring a transatlantic custody dispute. Five years later an Italian court granted custody to her. Between 1993 and 1999, Paul Weiss, whose representation was led by partner Mark H. Alcott, billed Koons almost $4 million. He paid around $2 million. The firm sued Koons in 2000 for the remaining $1.9 million. Koons countered that the size of Paul Weiss’ legal fees made them unethical under New York’s rules of professional conduct, specifically Disciplinary Rule 2-106, which states that lawyers shall not charge illegal or excessive fees. In support of his position, Koons presented affidavits from two prominent matrimonial lawyers, former Family Court Judge Marjory Fields of Beldock Levine & Hoffman and Eric Seiff of Seiff Kretz & Abercrombie, who both said Paul Weiss’ bills were so excessive as to be in violation of DR 2-106. Acosta said the bills were not excessive in light of the effort the firm put forward at Koons’ insistence. The judge noted that Koons asked Paul Weiss to use every means at its disposal to regain custody of Ludwig, including seeking the assistance of then-President Bill Clinton. On Koons’ behalf, the firm did make contact with various officials at the U.S. Department of State and some members of Congress. “The underlying litigation, albeit with the noble intent of protecting his child, was nevertheless an extravagant effort of defendant through a top-notch law firm to control and dictate the terms of the dispute with defendant’s former wife,” Acosta wrote. “Such extravagance is costly.” The judge said that Koons had not alleged specific instances of unreasonable billing. Noting that the litigation had required Paul Weiss associates to watch Staller’s pornographic videos, the judge said Koons had not raised an issue about the hourly rate charged for this activity. “While Monday-morning quarterbacking may lead to questions of tactics and utilization of staff by plaintiff, the fact is that defendant never objected to the bills or tactics which generated such hefty bills,” Acosta concluded. “Indeed, defendant encouraged such tactics.” Paul Weiss was represented by Howard Veisz of Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard. Koons was represented by Hal R. Lieberman and Ira Greenberg of Edwards & Angell.

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