A Damon Runyon Kind of Practice

Judd Burstein is mum on Fox News, but not on the mob or Don King

Published in 2014 New York Metro Super Lawyers — October 2014

When Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died in February of an apparent drug overdose, his body was found by close friend David Bar Katz. A few days later, The National Enquirer ran an article claiming that Katz and Hoffman were lovers, that Katz had often seen Hoffman using heroin, and that he witnessed Hoffman freebase cocaine the night before his death. All of this was attributed to David Bar Katz. The problem: Katz never spoke with the Enquirer.

Judd Burstein, Katz’s lawyer, quickly slapped the Enquirer with a libel suit. He insisted on a full-page apology, which the tabloid ran as a paid ad in The New York Times. The Enquirer said it had been fooled by a man named David Katz claiming to be David Bar Katz.

Burstein thinks the tabloid should have noticed some very red flags. “Here’s what we know about David Bar Katz: a very sophisticated playwright, Emmy-nominated, Tony-nominated, highly, highly regarded; Phil Hoffman’s best friend. So there are two questions we should be asking: One, why would a guy who’s of this caliber ever do something like this to his family and to Phil’s family; and two, if he was going to do it, why would he be giving it to the Enquirer?”

Besides the apology, the Enquirer agreed to fund an organization founded by Katz, the American Playwriting Foundation, and will award a $45,000 prize each year for a new, unproduced play.

“It’s the most important resolution I’ve ever had in my life,” says Burstein. “I think to myself, ‘Maybe my great-grandchildren one day will see a play that would not have been written but for this settlement.’”

Burstein’s clients have ranged from champion boxers to Broadway producers. He helped spring a touring production of the musical Chicago from China and engineered an exit strategy for embattled Pfizer CEO Jeff Kindler. He also worked out a reported $8 million settlement for fired Fox News executive Brian Lewis. He can’t talk much about that.

But he can talk about the mob.

Fresh out of law school in 1981, Burstein went to work defending Mafia members alongside famed criminal defender Gerald Shargel. His two and a half years with Shargel supplied Burstein with enough stories to write a book. His favorite? The client’s wife who phoned his office after her husband was found dead in a car trunk. “She called to find out whether or not she could collect double on the life insurance policy, because there was a provision for double payment if the person died in a car,” Burstein recalls.

Burstein thrives on jumping into a client’s world, soaking up knowledge about boxing or retirement accounts or pharmaceutical development, using it to his client’s advantage, then moving on.

“It’s my favorite aspect of this,” he says, adding that Kindler, formerly an attorney, has the best explanation for what litigators do. “He says, ‘We’re like bathtubs. We fill up with knowledge and then, when we don’t need it, it drains away.’”

Case in point: “I tried a very complex condominium-construction malpractice case for a high-end condo in downtown,” Burstein recalls. “It had to do with failures in the heating and cooling systems and all the plumbing. My wife was outraged. She said, ‘You come home, you don’t even know how to screw in a light bulb. But you’re an expert now on refrigerant systems and air conditioning systems?’” The case ended in a multimillion-dollar judgment for Burstein’s client.

Burstein has also won three cases for former world heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis and made a semi-career out of battling boxing promoter Don King. “One case I won because he had forgotten to get himself licensed in New York as a promoter,” Burstein says. “Another case I won because I found out that he had made a $100,000 contribution to a charity run by the head of the Florida State Athletic Commission. Which I then used to create such a storm, and which caused Don to get so infuriated at a public hearing that he stood up and said, ‘Everybody thinks that Judd Burstein is the man that shot Liberty Valance, but he’s just an insidious insect!’”

It got worse. Burstein says King called him a “shyster lawyer” in the New York Daily News, and he called the remark anti-Semitic on an American boxing website. “The next thing I know, I’m sued in England for defamation,” says Burstein. “It was, at the time … a landmark decision that I was subject to the jurisdiction of the British courts because the article had been downloaded in England.” He agreed to settle with King. One condition? That Burstein agree to represent King on a particular case.

“I love boxing for that reason.” Burstein says. “It’s Damon Runyon come to life.”

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