How Kent Wicker helped three Kentucky sisters land their rightful inheritance
Published in 2020 Ohio Super Lawyers Magazine on December 4, 2019
Updated on January 14, 2020
In a drama set against a backdrop of fraud and betrayal—pitting sisters against brothers in a wealthy Kentucky family—three women ended up winning a $572 million judgment.
Kent Wicker led the team representing Linda Holt, Judith Prewitt and Cynthia Roeder at district and appellate courts. The judgment, which Wickers says was the largest single-damages verdict in the state’s history, was a high point in a career that began with legal aid at Harvard Law School. One of his classmates there was Michelle Robinson, the future First Lady, and another was Karen Quinn, Wick’s future wife. He went on to handle fraud cases for eight years in the public sector, serving as first assistant U.S. attorney and criminal division chief for the Western District of Kentucky, and 17 years in the private sector.
When the Griffin case landed on his desk in late 2012, it was cold. “We had a lot of difficulty getting old documents, finding witnesses, bringing back all the information and facts that we needed to prove the case,” he says. There were “all sorts of issues about statute of limitations, the law, and breach of fiduciary duty, about restitution and damages, a lot of very complicated legal issues as well as the factual issues. Our brief in the court of appeals was 100 pages long. The judge’s district court findings were 104 pages long.”
The saga began with John L. Griffin, who dropped out of Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High School and built an empire repurposing stockyard and farm-animal carcasses. Founded in 1943, Griffin Industries grew into a multimillion-dollar, multistate rendering enterprise sourcing fats and protein for such things as soap and dog food.
John and his wife, Rosellen, had 11 children who lived to adulthood. The six boys and five girls spent much of their childhood in a modest house in Greenwood, Kentucky, mostly unaware of the extent of their wealth. In 1983, John suffered an incapacitating stroke; two years later, his wife died. The eldest sons, Dennis and Griffy (John Jr.), convinced the court they should become executors to their mother’s estate; they also became trustees of their dad’s trusts and had power of attorney over his assets. Dennis claimed that the business was in trouble and could be saved only by arranging for four of the brothers to become majority stock owners. He told his siblings this was in line with their parents’ wishes. As a result, brothers Dennis, Griffy, Robert and James walked away with 87% of the company’s stock in 1985. The younger brothers received smaller shares of stock. The sisters were given relatively small cash payouts.
But the sisters were misled. “The parents,” says Wicker, “loved all the children the same and they left their estates so that all the family company was going to be divided equally between them.”
One sister, Betsy Osborn, eventually saw a copy of her mother’s will and sued Dennis and Griffy in 1991, ending up with about 1,500 shares of stock and $10,000 cash; as part of this deal, the other sisters each received $10,000 cash. Betsy’s sisters were told that she was being greedy, but 20 years later, they were in for a shock when the company was merging with Darling International and the extent of the inequity became clear. Each sister had inherited about $1.5 million from their father, plus $200,000 from their mother’s estate. Wicker says the stock owned by the brothers paid distributions of hundreds of millions of dollars from 1985 until the Darling merger in 2010, when the company sold for $840 million. According to a Louisville accountant whose report was submitted to the court when the company merged with Darling International, Dennis, Griffy and Robert each received over $200 million from that deal.
By the time Cyndi, Linda and Judy hired Wicker’s firm, the statute of limitations had passed for criminal liability, so it was brought to civil U.S. District Court, where the judge ruled against Dennis (who passed away in 2015) and Griffy.
The appeals court agreed the sisters were cheated. “Plaintiffs lost millions of dollars in economic value because of Defendants’ inexplicable desire to exclude their sisters from the siblings’ inheritance,” the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opined in its 2017 ruling.
“When you combine the amount of what was taken from the victims and who took it, meaning their brothers that they trusted all their lives, I think this is the most egregious fraud or breach of fiduciary duty I’ve ever seen,” Wicker says. “Misogyny and greed—put those two together and it’s a deadly combination.”