Benedict Morelli Feels Your Pain

“I for one, am a little confused,” says Benedict P. Morelli, his squared-off jaw jutting forward, his Brooklyn brogue set on purée. “I’m trying to figure out what trial I’m in. Is Mr. Davis on his deathbed – or is he playing football? What about all that time in the hospital? What about all those surgeries? They’re looking for a discount – and they deserve no discounts, because they destroyed a man’s life!

The defense has already had its chance to sum up the Case of the Elevator That Went Haywire and Took Off a Man’s Leg, and it was hardly ready for prime time. The elevator company’s lawyer mumbled Members of the jury so often that he sounded Hebraic; the insurance company’s lawyer began his summation by warning the jurors, “I don’t want to bore you too much.”

But in Benedict Morelli’s wrap-up, all the requisite trial-lawyer motifs are in play: shameless bravado, unabashed empathy, pure showmanship. As soon as the compact 53-year-old lawyer starts talking, one juror starts nodding wildly. And four days later, the Bronx jury awards Willie Davis almost $2.6 million – more than double the defense’s first settlement offer. For Morelli, it went more or less according to script, and no wonder: He had spent 30 hours at home rehearsing his summation as his wife, Arlene, took copious notes.

This is what Benedict P. Morelli does, pridefully and profitably: He connects with a jury in a way that is the envy of other plaintiffs’ lawyers. Watching him orate is like watching a Bensonhurst production of Inherit the Wind – grand gestures, flailing, a stream of tears. So hardwired is he into the heartbeat of a jury that in the past twenty years, he has lost his way with jurors only twice, he claims, and both times had the verdict reversed on appeal. After leaving his law partner of twenty years in 1998, he even hired a publicist to let the world know about his record. “You can’t beat me by trying to exhaust me,” vows Morelli, back at his office. “That’s why I work out. That’s why I have the energy of a 30-year-old.”

But somewhere along the line, while he was scoring the largest verdicts in legal history for blindness in one eye ($2.25 million), multiple fractures ($11.1 million), and the death of a pregnant woman ($41 million), Benedict Morelli made the decision to rise out of the personal-injury ghetto. Now he wants a shot at social-justice cases, white-collar-scuzzball cases, employee-discrimination cases – change-the-world cases. He believes he’s earned it. And soon enough, he believes, he’ll prove it – by championing a poor little rich boy who lost his Wall Street job after posing, penis erect, in photos that turned up in the June 1998 issue of Playguy magazine.

“He seemed to be the most aggressive,” says Curry of the lawyer he picked out of “Page Six.” “I needed a warrior. Somebody who will get dirty and deal with setups and cover-ups. Granted, I wasn’t physically injured, but damage has been done.”

“I’m not saying Christian Curry’s a perfect guy,” Morelli says of his new star client. “I’ve never had a perfect client in my life. But the fact that he made mistakes doesn’t make him deserve to have his life destroyed this way.”

Curry, of course, was the 23-year-old Wall Street whiz kid famously canned by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Company just before Easter in 1998 – ostensibly for some expense-account indiscretions but, curiously, just after some pictures of him done up as a shirtless, unzipped bike messenger appeared in Playguy. He is also the African-American Ivy League preppie from tony Chappaqua, New York, who claims that his bosses and co-workers at Morgan Stanley called him a monkey. But Christian Curry is also a young man with a credibility problem – convicted for hurling a nightclub owner through a window near Fishs Eddy on Broadway at 19th Street in 1997; investigated by the Manhattan D.A. for conspiring to plant fake racist e-mails on his firm’s computer system to build a case against the company; chastised by everyone, including himself, for sitting for risqué photo sessions on two separate occasions and signing release forms – both times.

On many weekdays since last spring, Curry, a quiet, rail-thin young man, has wandered the pale halls of Benedict P. Morelli & Associates toting piles of legal documents. He looks out of place at the Third Avenue firm – not just because of the color of his skin, which is light brown in a sea of Caucasian, but because amid all the double-breasted suits, he’s inclined to wear a T-shirt and baseball cap.

It’s just one of many cultural clashes permeating the Case of the Barely Clad Broker. There is Morgan Stanley’s white-bread, frat-house trading culture, rubbing up against the discrimination claims of a well-born black man. There’s the machismo of Wall Street, betrayed by photos of one of its own appearing in a magazine no trader would dare admit peeking at. And then there’s the fleet of corporate lawyers – reared on retainers and hourly fees and paperwork and deals – going head-to-head against a guy who never finished law school: a personal-injury wizard who knows more about traumas to the cerebral cortex than about violations of a corporate expense account.

Morelli grew up in working-class Brooklyn, dropped out of college twice, and had to clerk for the bar before first coming alive in front of a jury. Now he weekends at his fourteen-room oceanfront house in Quogue and strides through courthouses in Brioni and Armani suits, custom-made monogrammed Paul Stuart shirts, and Zegna ties. “He’s a dems-dese-and-dose kind of guy,” says Glenn Dopf, who settled a $1.5 million malpractice case with Morelli. “He comes off as folksy but dressed very slickly – kind of a folksy guy who made it big. He has a wonderful way of relating to jurors. He doesn’t speak down to them. He speaks as if he’s one of them.” He also, these days, won’t take a discrimination case worth less than $1 million.

Buoyed by the publicity generated by the Curry case, Morelli has wasted no time launching his new socially conscious career: Last week, he filed an eight-figure sexual-harassment, assault, and battery suit against former NAACP chief Ben Chavis Jr., who now goes by the name Benjamin Muhammad, for an incident that allegedly took place while he was in his current post as East Coast regional minister of the Nation of Islam. By next month, he says, he’ll announce eight-figure-plus employee racial-discrimination lawsuits against NBC, Philip Morris, and International Paper. Most of Morelli’s new clients read about him in Newsweek and USA Today after he filed the Curry lawsuit. As he pursues life as a boldfaced name, some old colleagues think he’s overreaching a little with Curry. “I can’t imagine why Ben would get involved in that,” says one lawyer who lost a medical suit to Morelli. “Ben just started his own firm. It’s always taxing to do that. And a case like this puts a tremendous drain on the gut. It takes a lot of resources. A lot of us wondered about that.”

Morelli is asking Morgan Stanley to shell out $1.78 billion in penance for giving Christian Curry the boot. “It’s the only punishment Morgan Stanley understands,” he says, with the same passion he unloaded in the Bronx trial. “Do I want to make money? That’s what Morgan Stanley does for a living, make money.”

He’s playing for the jury now – any jury. “In civil trials, the only thing we can sue for is money damages,” he says. “Why are we so afraid to tell juries that money is what we want?” He pounds his desk. “I’m not ashamed of that. That’s all we can do. That’s what I do.”

“I don’t know what you did this morning,” Benedict Morelli says on a gray winter day at his office, “but I ran 6.1 miles.”

“The reservoir?” asks Christian Curry, absentmindedly sipping a McDonald’s strawberry shake.

“No,” says Morelli with pride. “I run longer than that now. I’m working out now seven days a week. I run four to five times a week, and I weight-train Tuesdays and Fridays.”

They make an unlikely pair, the five-foot-six-inch lawyer and his six-foot-two-and-a-half-inch client. The lawyer is solid and tan but small; his thick white hairline gathers in a dark widow’s peak just above his jet-black perma-squint eyebrows – James Brolin by way of Peter Falk – and he never stops moving, asserting himself in every corner of the room. He likes to call his client “Mr. Christian” and takes pleasure in trying to get a rise out of him. The client, now 26, is baby-faced and guarded – a will-o’-the-wisp threatening to float away. After tangling with the press and coming off as a spoiled brat for it, he is clearly happy to have someone else take up his cause. In November, after more than a year of searching, Curry finally found a job as a researcher with Gardner Rich & Company, a Chicago-based brokerage with a branch office in Trump Tower. It’s a quiet, part-time gig that keeps him out of the public eye. His life as a pinup, it’s safe to say, is on permanent hold.

In the media-drenched aftermath of his firing, Curry talked with every major discrimination lawyer in the nation – even flying out to California to meet with Johnnie Cochran, who offered to take him on. But last spring, Curry says, he read in “Page Six” about this attorney who never lost a case. Let the record show that Christian Curry picked his lawyer out of the pages of the Post. “He seemed to me to be the most aggressive one,” Curry explains. “I needed, like, a warrior. Somebody who will get dirty. Someone to deal with things like setups and cover-ups.” And someone who can communicate the concept of personal injury to a jury? “Granted, I wasn’t physically injured,” Curry says, “but the damage has been done.”

Curry had to meet with associates from Morelli’s firm twice before securing an audience with the boss. “I wasn’t sure,” Morelli says. “The story was pretty unique. And indeed, I needed to judge if he was a credible person.” Morelli had a private detective on his payroll check Curry’s background, a first for one of his own clients. Then he told Curry he wouldn’t file a suit for him until the criminal charges against him were dropped – which they were, a few weeks later.

Since then, however, Morelli’s professional empathy has kicked in. Curry, he swears now, was an almost-daily victim of on-the-job racism – and of homophobia, which, he says, triggered the firing, though Curry insists he absolutely, positively isn’t gay.

“What Christian said to me when we first met, literally when my tush hit the chair, was, ‘Can you get me my reputation back?’ ” Morelli says. “I told him I’d do what I could do. The public doesn’t like big corporations and very rich people trying to crush small people. That’s not America. That’s not the right thing to do. Christian and I both agreed that maybe people would listen to me more because I’m not black. Maybe they’d think I didn’t have an ax to grind.”

Of course, even if Curry is completely innocent, he knows he has some explaining to do – those provocative pictures, the expense violations, the trips to strip clubs on the company dime, the fact that he gave an undercover cop $200 allegedly to plant phony e-mails at his old company. After months on the case, Morelli is ready to return serve on all of these questions.

The Playguy portfolio? Young, naïve Christian Curry posed for those pictures years ago, when he was pursuing a modeling career; the photographer agreed to waive his fee if he would drop trou. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The expenses? Except after one early indiscretion, Morelli says, nobody at Morgan ever complained to Curry about his expenses before he was fired. Not one warning.

The strip clubs? Morgan employees go to Scores all the time, Curry says.

The Fishs Eddy fight – which has since bloomed into a $4 million civil suit against Curry? A complete misunderstanding, swears Curry, that will be cleared up when the criminal case is appealed.

And the e-mail matter? Morelli happily refers to Morgan Stanley’s paid informant: The D.A.’s office dropped its case against Curry when it learned that Morgan had paid $10,000 to Charles Luethke, an old friend from Curry’s college days, for information about Curry and the e-mails. While Luethke reportedly told Morgan Stanley that Curry wanted to plant the e-mails, Morelli says that’s a fabrication. In fact, Curry argues, Luethke actually told Curry something quite different – that he had access to some e-mails that already existed on the company’s system.

In other words, says Morelli, Christian Curry, still young and naïve, had become the victim of a sting. Luethke himself recently swore to an affidavit detailing his role in the caper – the latest of several contradictory and befuddling statements Luethke has made on the matter. The scam has already brought down one legal head at Morgan Stanley, after the D.A.’s office caught on to the payoff.

But none of this explains why Curry fell for it. With his client sitting three feet from him, Morelli spins the arrest story as evidence of Curry’s ineptitude. “This shows what a kid Christian is – how immature he was,” Morelli says. “When they said, ‘We’ll want $1,000 for the e-mails,’ he said, ‘I’m not going to give you $1,000 – I can give you $200.’ “

“I’d get up at five or six in the morning and run five or six miles, and while I was running, I’d say, ‘Right now, my adversary is sitting and eating bacon and eggs,’ ” says Morelli. “You can’t beat me by trying to exhaust me.”

“I wanted to see if he was for real,” Curry says, looking down at his shake. Morelli waves his hand. “He’s had time to think about this. He’s in therapy about it. We’ve spent days here at the office talking about it.”

“I shouldn’t have taken those pictures,” continues Curry. “I’m sorry. I’ve apologized. But I shouldn’t have been fired for it. In the banking industry, that’s very outrageous behavior. It’s not in the modeling industry.”

“Well,” Morelli says, “they’re very holier-than-thou in the banking industry. Stuff will come out.”

Curry pulls from his wallet a photo of his fiancée, Marisa Wheeler, a pretty, dark-haired woman posing in a Columbia graduation cap and gown. “I was thinking about this in the shower this morning, talking to Snuggles about it,” he says. “She’s my angel. She saved my life emotionally, physically – and I don’t ever doubt my case – but sometimes I look back at what’s happened and say, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ Then he picks me up.” Curry glances across the desk at his lawyer. “Ben will tell me when I’m wrong. He’ll say, ‘This just doesn’t work.’ But when I walk out of his office, I feel more confident. If something bad happens, he won’t let me get down on myself. That’s what I need.”

“You know, in the year I’ve gotten to know Christian, he’s matured so much,” Morelli adds later. “I’ve really been a good influence on him.”

When Ben Morelli first walked into the law offices of Dinkes, Mandel & Dinkes in 1973, he was the same age Christian Curry is now, and about as aimless and desperate – a 26-year-old law-school dropout, in a troubled marriage, renting a morose basement apartment near his parents’ house in Brooklyn. He had made two failed stabs at college before graduating and fared even worse in law school, quitting after his first year. Finally, he decided to take one last shot at law by clerking for the bar, a rare practice that’s even rarer today. “I look back now and say, ‘How could I not have done well?’ ” Morelli says. “I don’t think that’s indicative of who I really am.”

As the assistant to William Dinkes, the son of the firm’s founder, Morelli the clerk handled the tiniest of cases, sometimes more than one a day, preparing witnesses and wrangling settlements when his peers were still trying to make the law review. “I could select a jury by lunch,” he says, “and have the case tried by the end of the day.” He passed the bar in 1977, and when he vowed – aloud and often – to become a partner at the firm one day, he remembers, one of his bosses, Leon Mandel, laughed at him. “But he didn’t laugh,” Morelli crows now, “when I bought him out.

His ambition was palpable – off-putting, even. But it worked for him. “I wanted to be the best trial lawyer there was,” he says. “And I was so difficult to deal with in court because of that. I would get up at five or six in the morning and run five or six miles, and while I was running, I’d say, ‘Right now, my adversary is sitting and eating bacon and eggs.’ “

Morelli did make partner, his partners grew older, and his ambition only grew stronger. In 1997, he went to court to break up his partnership with William Dinkes. The terms of the separation are sealed, but it generated enough bad blood to keep Dinkes from commenting on the man he once considered a brother.

Morelli separated from his first wife in 1978, the same year he met Arlene Kosarin. A petite brunette who was working as a textbook art director, the future second Mrs. Morelli was sitting in the Manhattan civil-court jury-selection pool when Morelli wandered over and they got to talking about a case he was handling. Arlene gave up her career to spend the early part of their marriage raising the couple’s two boys at home. Though Morelli is Catholic, the kids are being raised Jewish, just as his wife had been. From the start, she wasn’t shy about editing her husband’s courtroom performance; she prescreened his summations and openings and in 1982, was so nervous about one jury deliberation that she went downtown to sit with Ben to await the verdict. When Morelli won, he remembers, “I said, ‘There’s a problem. You have to come to every verdict now.’ ” So she did.

He started performing his openings and summations for her and taking comments. She never missed a verdict until February 9, 1989, the day she delivered their second son. It was also the day Morelli lost his first case – a verdict that he’s since successfully reversed. And when Morelli started his own firm in 1998, he brought his wife on to manage the office full-time. “She’s always continued to be my juror,” Morelli says.

Four years ago, Morelli brought his first-born son, then 11, to watch him sum up a trial for the very first time – the Case of the Woman Who Had Lung Surgery and Woke Up With a Useless Left Hand. He watched as his father ranted and gesticulated before the jury for an hour. When Morelli was finished, his son was aghast – “Dad, why are you acting so crazy?” he asked. When the jury delivered a $40 million verdict, the kid understood.

Most personal-injury and medical-malpractice lawyers spend more time brokering settlements in back rooms than trying cases in court. But Morelli is now one of a half-dozen or so seasoned trial lawyers in New York, hired guns brought in to try cases less-experienced lawyers can’t handle alone. When other lawyers have a case that is likely to go to trial, they may refer it to specialists like Morelli to intimidate the other side. Once Morelli is onboard, the settlement price shoots up, sometimes doubling, and becomes nonnegotiable. Even then, since starting his new firm two years ago, Morelli has tried just one case; the rest have been settled, he claims, for the price he had set.

Still, some trial lawyers, a competitive and skeptical lot by nature, take issue with Morelli’s “undefeated” claim. Even if it’s true, they wonder whether Morelli would really consider, for instance, a $1 million jury verdict in a case he could have settled for $2 million to be a victory. They say, as Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, that a lawyer who hasn’t lost a case has never really tried one. They wonder which cases Morelli is settling and for how much, and which ones he’s asking his associates to try on his behalf. And it’s a fact that many of the mammoth verdicts that juries have awarded Morelli have been whittled down during the appeals process to much smaller settlements. (The $40 million verdict his son witnessed, for instance, was eventually settled for just $3 million.)

Morelli stands by his record. “I’ve handled 300 cases,” he says. “I didn’t take 300 jury verdicts – no one in the world takes 300 verdicts. But in twenty years, I have just lost two cases. Both were reversed on appeal. And that’s the absolute truth.”

Morelli is taking curry’s case on contingency; he won’t see a penny unless he wins or Morgan Stanley settles – a tremendous cash outlay that will put pressure on Morelli for some time. Discovery will continue through the spring; a trial may not materialize until the fall. On several occasions, he’s already had to go to court to get the firm to release documents. Morelli now has a dozen lawyers working for him; Morgan Stanley has hundreds.

But if the case does make it to trial, Morelli could have the home advantage. “He’s someone used to going to court and arguing before a jury on a daily basis,” says Carl Erman, one of Morelli’s old adversaries. “He has a way of relating to a jury on a common-sense level.”

Which – publicity aside – might explain why Morelli doesn’t seem so eager to settle this one. He positions Curry v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter the same way he does all his cases – as David v. Goliath.

“I expect I’m being underestimated,” the lawyer says, chin up, eyes twinkling. “They’d love to believe I’m trying to force them into a settlement. They’ve got the wrong guy. I kid around about it at the office. I say, ‘They’re cum laude; I’m cum Brooklyn.’ “

Benedict Morelli Feels Your Pain