A ruling in favor of awarding Anna Nicole's Smith's daughter, Dannielynn, tens of millions in court penalties is a step closer after a court hearing Monday in California.
A federal judge agreed with an argument to penalize the former Playboy model's stepson for alleged lying and cheating in court during the decade long battle over his oil tycoon father's fortune.
J. Howard Marshall died in 1994 at the age of 90, leaving behind an estimated $500 million to $1 billion.
His then 27-year-old wife of 14 months, Anna Nicole Smith, never saw a penny of his estate. Marshall's son, E. Pierce Marshall, argued that no changes were ever made to his father's will and no trust for Smith was ever put in place.
Smith died of a drug overdose in 2007.
E. Pierce Marshall died a year before Smith, but his estate may now have to pay out up to $44 million to Smith's daughter amid allegations that he destroyed evidence and lied in court, as well as deliberately depleting his father's accounts to deny the model any money.
Disrespect for authority
In 2004, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of E. Pierce Marshall claim on his father's money, but penalties for misconduct can be awarded years later.
A judge in California's Central District said Monday that he believes Marshall's estate does owe penalties as a result of "bad faith" actions. He also noted that he still had several "open questions" before any award is actually made.
Judge David Carter said in his original ruling last May that, "Pierce's bad faith conduct was too pervasive and too egregious to be ignored, despite the fact that he has since passed away."
Carter noted that acting on such misconduct is essential to the integrity of the legal system.
"It would promote disrespect for the authority of the federal courts to turn a blind eye to actions that so willfully and blatantly attempted to make a mockery of this justice system," Carter wrote.
"Tortuous conduct"
Despite his eventual win in the case, the details of the younger Marshall's misconduct have been well documented throughout the 20-year saga.
"Evidence of Pierce's tortuous conduct is legion," reads a court ruling dating back to 2002. "Acting in concert with (his lawyer), they backdated documents, altered documents, destroyed documents, suborned falsified notary statements, presented documents to J. Howard under false pretenses, and committed perjury."
California's Central District court also noted that it had been ruled that Marshall's actions were specifically designed to ensure all of his father's fortune remained in his own hands, away from his stepmother, referred to here by her real name, Vickie Lynn.
"(It was) all with the intent of denying Vickie the gift that J. Howard intended to make to her. Pierce was the primary beneficiary of these acts. Pierce had private investigators follow J. Howard when he left Texas to visit Vickie," documents continued, alluding to the fact that Marshall spent two years trying to ensure that his young stepmother got nothing.
Legacy for Dannielynn?
Lawyers for the estate of Anna Nicole Smith, to which her 7-year-old daughter Dannielynn is the sole heiress, have demanded sanctions be set at just over $44 million, the exact amount the estate had lost in a previous judgment.
On the other side, lawyers for Elaine Marshall, the widow of younger Marshall, said that amount is beyond the scope of civil penalties for misconduct and is just an attempt to recoup money they have already defended fairly.
"It is ... quite clear that Stern wishes this Court simply to re-impose the award he lost on the merits," said attorney G. Eric Brunstad in court documents, referring to Smith's former lawyer and partner, Howard K. Stern.
The question now is over just how much any sanction can be, the judge has already ruled it cannot be punitive, but civil. In other words, it must be based on real losses because of Marshall's misconduct, like extra time spent in court.
Smith's lawyers have said they don't mind the delay in any award. Philip Boesch told the National Law Journal, "He's dealing with pretty complex legal issues, and since this case has already been to the Supreme Court twice, we don't have a problem at all with him being cautious and careful."
A trial date has been tentatively set for April 29, according to the law journal.