After spending the summer bogged down in a conflict-of-interest dispute between two of Seattle’s power law firms, a federal lawsuit seeking $21 million from artist Dale Chihuly is now moving forward without Anne Bremner, the well-known attorney who was representing ex-employee Michael Moi.
Chihuly’s attorneys from Perkins Coie, the Northwest’s oldest and largest law firm, accused Bremner—Moi’s counsel and a TV legal analyst who specializes in high-profile court cases—of wrongly using privileged and confidential information about Chihuly.
The information came from the files of other clients of Bremner and her firm, Frey Buck P.S, who also had legal disputes with Chihuly. The details would not otherwise be available for Moi’s lawsuit, said Chihuly counsel Harry Schneider. “Nothing short of disqualifying [Bremner] will ensure the integrity of the judicial process.”
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik agreed and effectively ordered Moi, who filed the suit in June, to start over with new counsel. Bremner, in court files, denied the accusations. Neither she nor Schneider would comment further.
Late last week, Lincoln C. Beauregard and Evan T. Fuller notified the court they were the new attorneys for Moi. Beauregard, an aggressive, high-profile attorney, is also representing an alleged victim of former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. The mayor left office in September when a family member became the fifth person to claim he was sexually molested by Murray in the 1970s.
In his Oct. 25 ruling, Lasnik said the basic facts leading to Bremner’s dismissal “are uncontested and an evidentiary hearing in open court would serve no purpose other than to further disclose confidential and privileged information.”
There was no dispute that Bremner and her firm “knowingly used confidential information obtained through prior litigation to argue Moi’s case in the media or that they intend to use the information they obtained to benefit Moi in this litigation,” he said.
But it would be insufficient to simply order that the privileged documents be returned to Chihuly and their contents not be disclosed or used in trial, Lasnik said, since Bremner and her firm are “privy” to the contents and could use the info “in an attempt to elicit the same information from admissible sources.”
So he ordered that the documents be returned and that Bremner and her firm drop their representation.
The contents of the documents were not directly revealed. Schneider does describe them as “legal documents, medical records, and highly personal documents related to Mr. Chihuly’s personal life and his family affairs.”
But, like many of the lawsuit filings, they were sealed by the court at the request of both sides. Lasnik touched on that in his ruling:
“Because this order will be publicly available, it will be brief and, to the greatest extent possible, in keeping with the existing confidentiality agreements and the expectations of the parties.
“To be clear, there is no indication that their acquisition or prior use of this information was wrongful. … At this point, however, counsel is attempting to use that privileged information to benefit Moi … to the detriment of defendants.”
Chihuly, who is countersuing Moi, claims the ex-employee attempted to extort millions from him by threatening to reveal candid details about the artist’s mental health—which, as part of his legal strategy, Chihuly has himself disclosed.
In court documents, he states he “has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.”
Chihuly’s disorder is an issue rarely discussed publicly. “His family, friends, and colleagues work to protect him both from the effects of the disease and the often cruel and judgmental glare of public scrutiny,” attorney Schneider wrote. “Yet this desire to protect Dale has also led to his most significant vulnerability: The threat of public disclosure.
“For this reason, Dale and his family have now decided to publicly discuss his battle with mental illness. While they hope that Dale’s diagnosis might comfort and inspire others who also grapple with mental illness, they also hope to disarm those who might seek to exploit Dale’s illness and his interest in maintaining his privacy for their personal gain–such as Mr. Moi.”
The 75-year-old artist, who sports a signature eye patch, had spoken in the past about his disorder, but not in the expansive manner made necessary in this lawsuit. The legal action, argued Schneider, “is not about [Moi’s] entitlement to rightful compensation. Rather, it is about plaintiff [initially] threatening to go public with information he considers embarrassing, sensational, and harmful to defendants unless his demand for $21 million is accepted in return for his silence.”
Schneider describes Moi as a “former contractor and handyman” for Chihuly, the Tacoma-born painter and glass artist whose works are on display from the rafters at the Bellagio in Las Vegas to the decorated streets of Jerusalem. His work can be seen in more than 200 museums worldwide, including the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum at Seattle Center and the Museum (and Bridge) of Glass in Tacoma.
Moi claims that Chihuly promised him 17 years ago he’d eventually be rewarded for his work as an anonymous assistant and designer. Schneider called that “an alleged promise that [Moi] knowingly obtained from a person who at the time was suffering from mental illness.”
Chihuly, the attorney added, “is well-known for his collaborative approach to art, pioneering the adoption of the studio glass movement in the United States and ultimately Team Chihuly.
“Dale’s collaborative approach began in part due to necessity: In 1976 an automobile accident left him with 258 stitches to his face, permanent damage to his right foot and leg, and blinded in his left eye. A 1979 accident severely dislocated his right shoulder and left him unable to carry the weight of the glass blow pipe.
“These physical disabilities forced him to rely more heavily on others, often using his drawings as a way of communicating with a team. The team approach became more of a necessity as the glass art installations (up to 150 lbs for an individual element and thousands of pounds for installations) and drawings (up to 6’ by 8’ with some series painted on heavy plexiglass) became larger.”
While Chihuly’s physical challenges are publicly known, less well known is his private struggle with mental illness, said the attorney.
Chihuly’s symptoms “include depression, hyperactivity and/or mania, paranoia, impaired judgment and irrational behavior. The disease and, more recently, Dale’s advancing years have made him more vulnerable to those who might take advantage of him.”
But Bremner, in earlier filings, argued that Moi was seeking only what is due. He was one of a “clandestine” group of artists who aided Chihuly, she argued.
“This small group, which has never been publicly acknowledged, had two objectives: secrecy and unwavering loyalty,” she said in a court brief. At no point, she added, “did Moi ever get paid for his effort … or sign an assignment of copyright. … [But] Chihuly repeatedly and consistently promised Moi future compensation.”
The two were friends, drank together, and swapped intimate secrets, she said. Chihuly often limited himself to merely signing the completed works done by others, the suit alleges.
Moi seeks an accounting and payment of proceeds rightly due to him under the Copyright Act, the suit declares. No trial date has been set.