Barely Legal: The Surreal Saga of Tom Girardi and Erika Jayne

Barely Legal: The Surreal Saga of Tom Girardi and Erika Jayne

Barely Legal, Thirteen minutes later, it crashed into the Java Sea, killing the two pilots, six crew members, and all 181 passengers, including two infants, three Indonesian judges, and a former professional cyclist. It was the first of two crashes that led to the grounding of all Boeing 737 MAX passenger jets.

Hundreds of surviving family members sued Boeing, alleging that the two-month-old aircraft was “unreasonably dangerous.” The case ended up in Chicago, where Boeing is headquartered. Dozens of lawyers took up the cause of the plaintiffs. Among them was Tom Girardi.

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Girardi was about as famous as a lawyer can get in post-O. J. America. He was one of the lawyers brought in by Ed Masry and Erin Brockovich to help sue Pacific Gas & Electric on behalf of the residents of Hinkley, California. (A composite of him and another lawyer, Walter Lack, appears in the movie). He was pivotal in winning the $333 million settlement, then a record for a class-action lawsuit in California. Every lawyer in the state knew who Girardi was. So did every politician.

Jayne and then-husband Girardi in 2017. As one of L.A.'s richest trial attorneys, Girardi routinely pocketed settlement money from clients, like victims of the 2018 Lion Air disaster.
Photo by BACKGRID

But to the general public, Girardi was known for whom he was married to—Erika Jayne, the pop singer and cast member of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Since the Lion Air suit would be tried in Chicago, Girardi asked Jay Edelson, a Chicago-based attorney, to partner with him on the case. Edelson didn’t like Girardi. He thought he was egotistical, found his outward displays of wealth unbecoming of a plaintiff’s lawyer. Edelson recalls flying to L.A. to meet Girardi, who insisted on lunching at Morton’s steakhouse. As Edelson and his team sat down, they could see Girardi floating from table to table like a groom at a wedding—he had set up multiple business lunches. His guests’ tables had their own custom menus with Girardi’s name on them.

“He gave us a long story about all the money he spends at these places,” says Edelson. “We were dealing with a real tragedy. That was our focus. We weren’t terribly interested in how he got his name on a menu.”

The Lion Air lawsuits were eventually settled for undisclosed sums. But Edelson’s cocounsel fees were not forthcoming.

AP PHOTO/ACHMAD IBRAHIM, FILE

“It’s very common for attorneys not to want to pay cocounsel fees,” says Edelson. “At the beginning, we just thought we were owed a couple million dollars in fees, and they weren’t paying. It was annoying, but not that big a deal.”

But at a certain point, Edelson began to suspect that their clients hadn’t gotten their money either. Mass tort settlements are typically complex. There are liens to sort out, medical bills to pay, legal expenses to cover. Different plaintiffs get different amounts, based on the extent of their damages. Often, plaintiffs don’t even know how much they’re supposed to get, so they don’t know when to complain. Edelson demanded to see proof that his clients had been paid. Girardi responded with vague, ever-shifting excuses. Edelson grew more suspicious.

“We thought it was unthinkable that an attorney of Girardi’s stature was going to steal money from widows and orphans,” says Edelson. “It didn’t add up.”

Edelson kept after Girardi, who tried turning up the charm. He left voicemails for Edelson, promising greater riches down the road. “I wanna be in charge of all your shit,” Girardi said on one. “At the end of about nine months, I want you to say, ‘God, Tom, you made me another million.’” He signed off with a very Hollywood, “Thanks, babe.”

Edelson considered filing a lawsuit but hesitated. “We spoke to a former partner of his,” says Edelson. “He said, ‘Don’t file. It’s going to blow up on you. There’d be a spotlight on plaintiffs bar, it would lead to reforms that would hurt everyone.’ He said, ‘He’s been doing this for a long time, and he’s always gotten away with it.’ It was shocking.”

Photo by ABC NEWS

A little more than a year ago, Girardi was a paragon of success—an attorney who’d taken on giant corporations and beaten them again and again. If his displays of wealth were ostentatious; if his wife was on a reality-TV show; if she had a closet bigger than most one-bedroom apartments, filled to the brim with shoes; if they had two private jets—was that not what a person like Girardi deserved?

But in the winter of 2020, some startling revelations upended the picture. Girardi was broke. His wife was divorcing him. Dozens of lawyers, litigation lenders, and clients—victims of corporate malfeasance and negligence, to whom Girardi had once appeared as a savior—said that Girardi stole their money, lied to their faces (or into their telephones), over and over and over again. It is, perhaps, the biggest legal scandal in the state of California.

“When you think about these poor people that didn’t get the recovery they’re entitled to . . . ” says Neil Wertlieb, who chairs the ethics committee of the California Lawyers Association. “Instead, their money went to buy the stuff in Erika’s closet. It’s such a betrayal. It’s hard to imagine something worse that an attorney could do.”

Tom Girardi practiced law in California for more than half a century. In the wake of many of the state’s most famous tragedies—the Ghost Ship fire, the Northridge earthquake—there was Girardi, suing insurance companies and utilities and governments and even the Los Angeles Dodgers (over the Bryan Stow beating). He took on Lockheed, Dole, Shell, Ford, Merck, Pfizer, and most of the major Hollywood studios.

These companies all feared him for his vast network of influence, but also for his talent in the courtroom. He had a folksiness that juries lapped up. “He had really great instincts on cases,” says Graham LippSmith, a lawyer at Girardi’s firm, Girardi & Keese, for 13 years. “He could look at a couple pieces of paper and strike at the heart of what matters.”

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1997, a San Francisco lawyer said Girardi “can take a complex set of facts and reduce it to a highly understandable situation for a jury. He’s not a great reader of legal books, but in front of a jury, he is dynamite.” He was equally indomitable in mediation, where he could extract enormous settlements, as he did in the Hinkley case. “Lots of times, insurance companies would settle with him on reputation alone,” attorney Philip Sheldon says.

He socialized compulsively, on golf courses and in steakhouses. He regularly threw lavish parties for the legal community, with performers like Jay Leno and Styx. He was close with lawyers and judges alike.

“Being a good lawyer has nothing to do with knowing the case of Mapp v. Ohio,” Girardi told Modern Counsel in 2019. “Really, it has to do with relationships, and so many lawyers have lost that idea of how important relationships are with your client, the judge, the other side.”

At the heart of the Girardi saga lies a mystery: Why did he steal money from widows and orphans, from burn victims, from homeowners who lived on toxic soil, and, yes, from other lawyers? Was it premeditated? Was it a Ponzi scheme, as Edelson alleges? What possesses a lawyer of his stature to do a thing like that?

Girardi’s second divorce, filed in 1998, stretched on for four years, nearly as long as the marriage itself, thanks largely to Girardi’s stalling tactics. The case file contains more than 10,000 pages and includes snapshots of Girardi’s life at the time. He and Kathy Risner lived in the same 10,000-square-foot Pasadena mansion that Girardi lived in with Jayne.

“If anything, Tom was more extravagant in his choices for my clothing than I,” Risner wrote in a declaration. “He would think nothing of paying as much as $5,000 for a dress for me to wear to one of the many bar functions, charity balls, or client dinners that we regularly attended.” They traveled constantly on their private jets and ate out almost every night at “the finest West Side restaurants.”

A forensic accountant, Alfred Warsavsky, was hired by Risner to dig through Girardi’s finances, and they were a mess: personal expenses charged as business expenses, millions of dollars shifted from account to account without explanation. Worst of all, Warsavsky found that Girardi was dipping into his client trust account, an escrow account for settlements to pass through on the way from defendant to plaintiff. A lawyer can use the money in the account to pay for fees, including his own, but, by law, records must be kept. Withdrawing money from the trust account for personal use is grounds for disbarment and even criminal prosecution.

“The client trust accounting records maintained by Girardi & Keese have been inadequate at best and abysmal at worst,” Warsavsky wrote. “Mr. Girardi used the client trust account of Girardi & Keese to purchase personal assets during marriage . . . [Girardi] also wrote checks to himself from the client trust account.” One check was for $9 million.

“He had no conscious thought about money,” says Wally Shaw, an outside accountant who did work for Girardi & Keese throughout the 1990s. “He just spent money whenever he thought about it. He had no clue, as far as investments. Every single investment I saw him make didn’t work out.”

Shaw adds, “Back in the ’90s, he had all of these class-action lawsuits bringing in bazillions of dollars. He had unlimited income at that point, it seemed. There was just no end to it.”

Erika Jayne met Girardi at Chasen’s. He was a regular; she was a cocktail waitress. She slipped Girardi her phone number. His secretary called her the next day to schedule a date. Jayne told the secretary to have Girardi call himself. He obliged. That’s according to her book, Pretty Mess. What really happened is anyone’s guess. A few months later, Jayne moved into Girardi’s Pasadena mansion. Six months after that, he proposed. She was 27. He was 59.

“Listen,” Girardi told her after their engagement, according to Pretty Mess, “I’ll buy you anything you want. I don’t care what it is. You name it. But I’m not wearing a wedding band. I never have, I never will.” Those were the terms. There would be no prenup. They were married in January 2000.

Predictably, Jayne soon grew bored. She wrote, “I had all the things you could have in life when you’re thirty-five: a beautiful home, a black AmEx, and a Gulfstream.” It should have been enough, she writes, but it wasn’t. “I had never realized my own dream.”

Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Ketel One Botanical

The dream, of course, was to be a singer, and it was well within Girardi’s means to arrange for that. And so he did. He hired a producer who’d cowritten songs for Madonna and Britney Spears. Jayne then created the persona Erika Jayne, an archetypal sexy, foul-mouthed sugar baby. “Money makes me hard and tight, I love to bathe in cash and pearls,” she sang in her first single, “Roller Coaster.” “Collagen, yeah, collagen/Ain’t signin’ no checks,” she sang in “How Many Fucks?” In the music video for “Xxpens$ve,” she rolled around in cash singing, “It’s expensive to be me/Looking this good don’t come for free.” And so on.

“I like the fact that it is named ‘Xxpens$ve’” Girardi later said. “It kinda suits you.”

That was said in front of the cameras filming Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The Girardis joined the cast in 2015, despite the fact that they lived in Pasadena, a good 45-minute drive from the show’s titular city. But that’s television for you. The show allowed Jayne to further explore the character she’d created, deadpanning one-liners like, “I’m an enigma wrapped in a riddle . . . and cash” and “Being broke sucks, and being rich is a lot better.”

Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for NYFW

“I remember watching the first couple episodes,” says attorney Brian Kabateck. “She ends up talking about the fact they have two planes, one for short distances, one for international flights. I remember thinking, ‘Don’t flaunt your wealth. We represent people who are victimized by big business and powerful people. You want to be David fighting Goliath. You don’t want to be Goliath.’ ”

Girardi was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1939, and grew up in the L.A. neighborhood of Westchester, near LAX. Whenever anyone asked why he became a lawyer, he always said it was from watching Perry Mason every Saturday night. But Mason was a defense attorney; Girardi wanted to be a trial lawyer and started out suing people over car accidents and slip-and-falls, the only cases he could catch.

Girardi built his firm from scratch and tied its reputation to medical malpractice suits. In 1970, he won a verdict of $1.4 million, then the biggest malpractice verdict in California. He later entered the burgeoning field of “toxic torts”—lawsuits alleging damage from exposure to chemicals and pollutants. The Hinkley case helped propel him into the top tier of toxic-tort lawyers, but by then he’d already represented 640 Lockheed employees who claimed they suffered injuries and illnesses from exposure to toxic chemicals while building Stealth bombers in Burbank. The plaintiffs were separated into groups; some settled, but there were at least six trials. In one, the jury awarded $760 million to 38 plaintiffs. (It was later bargained down to $380 million.)

Photo by Justice: Ringo Chiu/Zumapress

In 1998, three of the Lockheed plaintiffs complained to the State Bar of California, which licenses and regulates attorneys, that Girardi was withholding money. Girardi denied it.

“We don’t steal any money from anybody,” he told the L.A. Daily Journal. “First of all, we don’t have to. And even if we had to, we wouldn’t.”

The workers sued Girardi, alleging “millions and millions” in missing money, and hired Peter Dion-Kindem, a lawyer who would later represent at least two other sets of plaintiffs suing Girardi, including residents of Carousel, a housing development in Carson built atop an oil dump.

“This lawyer is the lowest-end lawyer in the country,” Girardi said in 2017, referring to Dion-Kindem (who declined to comment for this story). “He runs around, door to door, trying to sue lawyers who have cases.”

By then, Girardi had acquired a certain reputation. “There were always rumors, going back to even the ’90s, about Tom not paying his referral fees to lawyers,” says Kabateck. “There was kind of a running joke in town. He’d call and say, ‘Hey, buddy, this case, we didn’t do very well, we can’t pay you a referral fee. But we get a lot of cases here—I’ll refer you something.’”

Some of them sued. One settled in 2013. Two more settled in 2016. When an attorney named Robert Simon filed a lawsuit on behalf of another Girardi cocounsel, he received a terse letter on Girardi & Keese letterhead:

Dear Simon:
You have 48 hours to dismiss this case or I will make sure you never work again in this town.
With kind regards,
Thomas V. Girardi

But Girardi’s bite didn’t match his bark. That case settled too. And the lawsuits continued to flow from stiffed lawyers and disgruntled clients. A 2016 suit alleged a clear pattern of behavior, citing three other lawsuits: “[Girardi’s] modus operandi is to conceal from their clients and joint counsel the settlement agreements and terms to help facilitate Defendants’ misallocation and misappropriation of the settlement funds.”

Through it all, the state bar remained oddly quiet on Girardi, even though, as the Los Angeles Times would later report, it had received numerous complaints against the attorney. As the Times detailed earlier this year, Girardi had spent years and millions of dollars cultivating relationships with powerful figures within the state bar itself, including its president, Howard Miller—a former Girardi & Keese lawyer—and its executive director Joe Dunn.

Perhaps his most important connection was with Tom Layton, a state bar investigator whose official salary in 1999 was less than $42,000. Girardi routinely wined and dined Layton at the Jonathan Club, gave him rides on his private jet, and employed two of Layton’s children at his firm. Girardi has also given prodigiously to Democratic politicians. The Times found $7.5 million in contributions from Girardi and his family members. He has advised the last three governors on judicial nominees.

But all the connections in the world couldn’t stop Girardi from running out of money.

All plaintiff lawyers who work on contingency are, to an extent, gamblers. Hoping for a big payday—a percentage of an award or settlement—they wager their time and often spend millions of dollars on experts and support staff. To cover these costs, attorneys sometimes borrow money from litigation finance firms, to be paid back with a chunk of the winnings in one or more cases. That is, the finance firm shares some of the risk. Girardi borrowed from numerous firms, often promising them all future proceeds of the same case. He’d borrow from one to pay back another. Eventually, he started defaulting.

“It was sad,” says William Savino, who represents California Attorney Lending. “He would say, ‘Bill, I’m a nice guy. Work with me. Just give me a break.’ It was pathetic.”

The number of people who listened to Girardi beg for more time or offer excuse after excuse is legion.

“Believe me, nobody wants the damn fees more than our firm does,” Girardi said on attorney Philip Sheldon’s voicemail. “I think we’re very close, and I think within two or three weeks we should be able to get our damn dough. I apologize. I wish it were different.”

Girardi had stiffed Sheldon out of $900,000 in cocounsel fees, enough to force his small law firm into bankruptcy. Says Sheldon, “I was a putz. I treated him like a  gentleman.”

On September 9, 2010, an underground PG&E gas line ruptured in San Bruno, a suburb just west of San Francisco International Airport. There was a massive explosion, leaving behind a 26-foot crater. Thirty-eight homes were destroyed, and eight people were killed, including 20-year-old Jessica Morales, who was sitting on the couch watching the first game of the NFL season with her boyfriend, Joseph Ruigomez, who managed to escape but suffered burns on 90 percent of his body.

His mother, Kathy Ruigomez, hired Girardi, who by then had a stellar track record extracting money from PG&E. After months of mediation, he reached a settlement—without consulting her. When Mrs. Ruigomez asked Girardi what the amount was, he was vague.

“It could potentially be hundreds of millions,” she recalls him saying. But he never told her how much they would be getting. “From the beginning, he was trying to make it unclear what we had,” Mrs. Ruigomez says. “It was definitely premeditated.”

The shell game went on for years. Payments would come at random intervals, for seemingly random amounts. Eventually, they stopped. Girardi told Mrs. Ruigomez the money was invested and that she would be getting a six percent return. But she never saw any paperwork, never even knew the full amount. She would call Girardi. Girardi wouldn’t call back. Or he’d call her ex-husband. Or he’d call back and ask, “Can you send me the calculations about what I owe?” And then he wouldn’t respond. Finally, in 2019, the family sued.

In September 2020, Girardi was deposed by the family’s lawyer, Boris Treyzon. For the first time, Girardi admitted he was broke.

“At one point,” he said, “I had about 80 million or 50 million in cash. That’s all gone. I also had a stock portfolio of about 50 million, and that’s all gone.” The deposition was private, but not for long.

Jayne filed for divorce on Election Day 2020, after 21 years of marriage. A month later, on social media, she accused Girardi of having an affair with an appellate court judge, Tricia A. Bigelow. The post was quickly deleted, but not before the tabloids picked up the story. (Bigelow, who has since retired, couldn’t be reached for comment.)

Back in Chicago, Jay Edelson read about the divorce. He told his staff. “I think this guy is out of money.” Edelson filed his complaint against Girardi a month later in Chicago, alleging that Girardi and his firm were “on the verge of financial collapse and locked in a downward spiral of mounting debts and dwindling funds.”

Unlike previous complaints against Girardi, this one was written in stark, dramatic language sure to attract the attention of the news media, which had largely ignored the many allegations leveled against him. “Tom and Erika must project a public image of obscene wealth at all times, and at whatever the cost,” the complaint read. It accused Girardi of “embezzling the proceeds of settlements that should have been directed to his clients . . . including the widows and orphans who lost loved ones in the tragic crash of Lion Air Flight 610—in order to continue funding his and Erika’s lavish Beverly Hills lifestyles.” It even accused their divorce of being “a sham attempt to fraudulently protect Tom’s and Erika’s money from those that seek to collect on debts owed by Tom and his law firm.”

Barely Legal: The Surreal Saga of Tom Girardi and Erika Jayne