SAN FRANCISCO — Tech entrepreneur Nirav Tolia has relied on a small army of lawyers to get him out of jams over the last decade.
The latest to enlist is Palo Alto criminal defense lawyer Daniel Barton, of Nolan, Armstrong & Barton, who said he will defend the Nextdoor.com cofounder and CEO on a felony hit-and-run charge filed earlier this month. Tolia will also need to contend with a civil suit filed by the alleged victim, whose lawyer hopes to use Tolia’s position, and litigation history, against him.
He has been sued a lot. Just this month, with help from Fenwick & West, he emerged the victor in a suit over the rights to use the Nextdoor moniker for his startup social network based on neighborhoods.
But he’s also had to settle a few securities suits filed in connection with his role in earlier companies. In 2005, Durie Tangri partner Ragesh Tangri, then at Keker & Van Nest, negotiated a settlement in a case alleging Tolia and other Epinions Inc. executives cheated others in the company out of tens of millions in stock options following the company’s merger. Three years later, Cooley partner Michael Rhodes settled a similar case on Tolia’s behalf.
Now Tolia is fighting what appears to be his first criminal charge.
“He’s got himself a good lawyer,” San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said of Barton. “They’re one of the leading criminal defense firms on the peninsula.”
Wagstaffe’s office charged Tolia May 14 with felony hit-and-run, alleging that Tolia caused a crash on Northbound Highway 101 in San Mateo County last August and drove away. San Francisco law firm Brent, Fiol & Nolan filed a personal injury suit against Tolia on behalf of Patrice Motley, who was driving the car that crashed.
An attorney has not yet entered an appearance on Tolia’s behalf in the civil case, and Tolia didn’t respond to messages.
Tolia swerved into oncoming traffic in an attempt to pass a vehicle in front of him, according to the personal injury complaint. Motley, who was in the car with a passenger and her Bichon Frise dog, contends that caused her to spin out of control and crash into a highway median.
In a statement last August, Tolia said at the time he had not realized his attempted lane change caused another car to crash. Barton, whose specialties include DUI cases, emphasized in an interview that his client was not drinking, and did not collide with Motley.
“Mr. Tolia was driving carefully. He has a fine driving record—he wasn’t speeding,” he said. “And I think when you evaluate what actually happened, this is not going to be perceived as the event that is being portrayed.”
Joseph Brent, representing Motley in the personal injury case, said he views Tolia’s extensive legal history as a potential gold mine.
“We’re very interested in all of that,” Brent said of the long history of suits involving Tolia. “We would probably end up doing discovery to find out what information we could as it relates to his credibility.”
Among the cases he is examining is a messy trade secrets and trademark dispute with lawyer-entrepreneur Raj Abhyanker.
Almost since its launch in October 2011, Nextdoor has been embroiled in litigation with Abhyanker and his company Fatdoor, also envisioned as a neighborhood-based social network.
Abhyanker, who runs Silicon Valley patent firm LegalForce RAPC and also the trademarkia.com website, claimed that Tolia stole his concept and the name Nextdoor, and was able to beat him to the punch with his website launch. Abhyanker had disclosed the idea to investment firm Benchmark Capital, which, according to Abhyanker, passed the idea to Tolia. Abhyanker also pointed a finger at Fenwick & West, alleging that the firm had been involved in stealing his idea and should be disqualified as Nextdoor’s counsel. The motion failed.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen affirmed Tolia’s ownership of the Nextdoor mark and banned Abhyanker from using the name, or any confusingly similar term.
“The court issued an injunction granting us exactly what we asked for,” said Fenwick partner Laurence Pulgram.
Abhyanker fired back on May 20 with a patent infringement complaint in the Northern District of California. Pulgram didn’t say whether his firm will represent Nextdoor in that litigation.
Brent has already found one piece of information in Nextdoor v. Abhyanker, 12-05667, that he described as a “gold nugget.”
In January, Abhyanker submitted a transcript from a recorded conversation he had with Tolia at a meeting to hash out their dispute. The two discussed how requiring Nextdoor users to post under their real names led to more polite discourse.
Tolia volunteered that his wife frequently called him an “angry driver,” and that he tends to “glare at people all the time if they cut you off or if they’re driving slow.” He said that if his name were on his license plate, he wouldn’t be able to drive like that.
Brent also hopes to use information brought up in a suit filed against Tolia in San Francisco Superior Court, which has since settled.
In 2005, Naval Ravikant accused Tolia and fellow executives of scamming employees and early investors out of tens of millions in stock options during the merger of consumer review site Epinions, which Ravikant and Tolia cofounded. It went public in 2004 as Shopping.com Ltd., and was purchased by eBay Inc. in 2005 for $620 million. Tolia and other executives cleared $250 million as a result of those deals, but Ravikant and others who had been persuaded to surrender their shares got nothing, according to the complaint.
Google had been interested in bidding for Epinions, but stepped aside when it came out that Tolia had lied about his Stanford University education and prior work experience at McKinsey & Co., according to the complaint.
“It goes to his credibility,” Brent said. The lawyer also hopes to make Nextdoor part of the atmospherics of the personal injury case, focusing on the gap between what Tolia is accused of doing and the mission of his company to help neighbors get together.
“When you have someone like Mr. Tolia, who’s the CEO of a company that’s holding itself out to be a forum for good citizenship, for promoting civility between people … for him to just flee the scene like this is outrageous,” Brent said.
Barton said that won’t fly. “I think Mr. Tolia should be judged based on what he did,” Barton said. “And I want this case to be litigated based on the facts, not based on anything about Mr. Tolia’s company.”
An initial appearance is scheduled for May 28 in Redwood City.
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