New York's Most Obnoxious Lawyer

Do we have to pick just one? Kenny Heller won't admit it, but he could make a case for the title if he hadn't been disbarred—for obnoxious behavior.

Eventually, the Stajano case was dismissed by Justice Shirley Kornreich, earning her a spot high on Heller's conspiracy list.

"He's an Old Testament guy," says Ed Hayes. "He never forgets anything, never wants to give anything up."

One of Heller's attorneys, Steven Riker, puts it another way: "If he thinks the judge is stupid, he'll tell the judge he's stupid."

Serving a suspendered sentence: Heller raises hell as deputies try to corral him last month outside a Bronx courtroom.
photo: Kenneth Heller
Serving a suspendered sentence: Heller raises hell as deputies try to corral him last month outside a Bronx courtroom.

The case that finally grounded Kenny Heller in a city jail cell this year started with the grounding of an oil barge in December 1992. The ship, ST114, limped into the Brooklyn Navy Yard on December 16 of that year with a damaged hull.

The next morning, James Emanuel, a 47-year-old rigger, was told by his foreman to have a 50-foot-long, 6,000-pound gangway placed between the ship's deck and the dock.

As chemical engineer Thomas Gibson later testified, a crane lifted the gangway and began moving it toward the barge, with Emanuel riding on it. Gibson said that as one end of the gangway reached the barge's deck, he heard the captain, whose back was to the ship, yell out, "Tie up the gangway." But no one was on the barge to lash it off. The gangway bumped the barge's deck and shot out, sending a screaming Emanuel plummeting backward some 40 feet to the dock. Emanuel sustained massive injuries that left him a quadriplegic until his death on August 30, 1994.

After filing a lawsuit on August 1, 1995, on behalf of Emanuel's widow, Ruby, Heller turned down a $3 million settlement offer. He sued under maritime law, arguing that the barge was technically still in navigation. As such, the ship was supposed to be manned at all times by at least two crew members, which it was not. After a three-month trial in summer 1999, a jury awarded Emanuel's survivors a $25 million verdict. It was among Heller's greatest courtroom performances.

But the trial judge, Leland DeGrasse, found the amount excessive and reduced it to $7.6 million. Both sides appealed and the appellate court threw out even the reduced verdict in May 2004, ordering a new trial. The higher court ruled that the judge erred in allowing the jury to consider Heller's claim that maritime law governed the accident. After Heller was disbarred, Ruby Emanuel hired Jacoby & Meyers. "When we got the [first] verdict I was relieved and I was kind of glad it was over," she says. "I figured maybe now I can go on with my life and get some closure. That's mostly what I've been looking for. But since that time it's just delays and goes on and on and on. It's like an open wound."

Emanuel v. Sheridan Transportation Corp. et al. is heading into its third year in limbo, bouncing from judge to judge and from Manhattan to the Bronx. Everybody wants Heller to turn over the files. Any resolution of the case has also been delayed by Heller's attempt to get a judge to "fix," or guarantee, his past attorney fees and expenses at somewhere between $2 million and $12 million before he will hand over the 43 boxes of records.

Usually, a former attorney hands over his files to the new attorney and then both sign an agreement stating all attorney fees will be held in escrow until an agreement on fees is reached through either a judge or mediator.

In this case, Heller originally demanded $2 million for attorney fees and a third of any future award, plus reimbursement for $300,000 to $400,000 in expenses, even though he didn't provide receipts or other documentation. Later, Heller's fees increased sixfold to $12.1 million; he claimed he and his employees put in nine straight years of 40-hour weeks at what works out to $1,347 an hour. Michael Feldman, the Jacoby & Meyers attorney who is Heller's latest foil, says that in one instance Heller claimed to have put in for more than 24 hours in a single day. Feldman says another claim entailed Heller talking to James Emanuel on dates after the man had died. (Heller denies this and insists that he's done nothing wrong.)

In any event, says Feldman, it's impossible to fix attorney fees at this point because it's a contingency case that's worth "zero until it's retried."

The files, however, may be Heller's ace in the hole. Hill Betts & Nash, the law firm for the ship owners, had its offices in the World Trade Center, and the firm's case files were destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. Heller has the only complete set. Or does he?

Heller originally said he didn't want to give up his files because he didn't think Jacoby & Meyers was up to the task and will either lose at trial or settle for short money. "They're incompetent," Heller says. "I give them all my hard work to fuck it up?"

But in recent weeks, Heller has changed stories, claiming that the 43 boxes were destroyed when a friend's basement was flooded. A few weeks back, Jacoby & Meyers again tried to force the issue, petitioning Judge Silver for a search warrant of Heller's office. On March 20, nine deputies executed the warrant and "ripped from my office, Gestapo-style," Heller says, 12 boxes of files. But the boxes did not contain the right documents. Jacoby & Meyers came away "empty-handed," Feldman says.

« Previous Page
Next Page »