Since movie mogul Harvey Weinstein fell from grace in 2017, taken down after credible stories of outrageous sexual misconduct, others have been accused of unseemly behavior. Some may not think of themselves as sinners, but almost everyone accused of bad behavior has had to figure out exactly what to do, how to respond, or whether to just shut up.
Charlie Walk, a former top executive at Universal Music Group, was one of them. In 2018, Walk came to a settlement agreement with UMG, but he’s now seeking to clear his name by launching a high-stakes legal malpractice suit against his former attorney, Marc Kasowitz. The outcome of this litigation could influence how attorneys advise clients facing sexual misconduct claims, but equally provocative is whether a case that focuses on whether a lawyer fulfilled his duties becomes a tool for puncturing secrecy. If so, what sort of skeletons come out of the closet?
Kasowitz is a pretty famous name in legal circles. He’s got a top firm that focuses on white-collar defense and corporate investigations, although his reputation has taken a hit partly from a 2017 ProPublica article. At the time, he was representing Donald Trump in the Russian investigation, and ProPublica published a piece reporting his colleagues’ concerns over alcohol abuse. The information in that article elicited threats from Kasowitz and his later apology. While he was soon off the Trump-Russia ordeal, he continues to represent Trump in the ongoing defamation suit from season five Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos over the ex-president’s denials of sexually attacking her in a hotel room.
In contrast to how the Trump-Kasowitz team has been fighting Zervos for years now, Walk quickly took a deal after UMG began to investigate an accusation of sexual harassment. He now presents that settlement as a “one-sided” agreement that wouldn’t have happened had Kasowitz put in the effort to refute “baseless, 15-year-old allegations.”
“As is all too often the case with celebrity lawyers, Kasowitz could not be bothered to actually represent his client,” states Walk’s scathing March 25 complaint. “Kasowitz — who was hired to be Mr. Walk’s heroic defender — passively cooperated with UMG, leaving Mr. Walk defenseless.”
Walk’s lawsuit against Kasowitz, first reported by The Hollywood Reporter, was notably filed under seal. A redacted complaint soon became public, but Walk has sought to keep certain information under wraps.
In response, Kasowitz has filed legal papers characterizing the legal malpractice claim as “contradicted by the facts,” including how Walk a few years ago “consulted numerous other independent lawyers regarding whether to enter into the Settlement Agreement.”
Kasowitz is also opposing a partial sealing now that his own reputation is on the line.
“Walk cannot have it both ways,” states an April 23 memorandum. “Walk placed the Settlement Agreement and the facts giving rise to the agreement directly at issue by alleging that Kasowitz engaged in malpractice by ‘forcefully insisting’ he sign the Agreement. As a result, Kasowitz is entitled to use all of facts concerning the Agreement that demonstrate that Kasowitz negotiated a favorable settlement for Walk despite the numerous allegations of sexual harassment raised against him.”
Here’s where this all becomes nuanced.
Walk might care about keeping secrets. Or perhaps he doesn’t. A standard provision in these kinds of settlement agreements is a confidentiality provision that obligates parties to do their best to maintain secrecy. Meaning, Walk could be walking through the motion of tightening his lips for the benefit of UMG, which quietly has filed its own papers in this case already. The music giant, eyeing an IPO later this year, is represented by an attorney at Proskauer Rose, although UMG’s court filings are (mostly) under seal too.
On May 7, a New York judge will hold a hearing on the matter of sealing and entertain a plaintiff who wants to rehabilitate his image and a defendant who says he deserves to do likewise.
It’ll likely set the tone for a litigation that holds the possibility of going places — not merely shedding light on what Walk got in his settlement, but also other context — UMG’s investigation, it’s business situation, the handling of other #MeToo claims, even Kasowitz’ other work. In short, this could get messy.
Reached for comment, Walk attorney Bryan Freedman says, “Attempts to bully and intimidate his team will not stop Charlie Walk from having his day in court this time.”