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Birkhead gets tentative ruling against ex-attorney

Judge freezes nearly $600,000 in trust fund and denies lawyer's arbitration request.

July 13, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

Round one goes to the towhead photographer Larry Birkhead in the ongoing legal battle with his former attorney, Debra Opri.

In a tentative ruling issued Thursday, Judge Charles C. Lee denied Opri's request to take the matter to arbitration and granted Birkhead's request for a preliminary injunction, which would require Opri to return $591,250 of Birkhead's money, which now sits in her attorney-client trust fund. From the bench, he ordered an immediate freeze on the money, meaning it cannot be disturbed.

Until March, Birkhead and Opri had appeared inseparable, as the combative lawyer led Birkhead's legal quest to establish paternity and ultimately custody of his baby daughter with the now deceased Anna Nicole Smith. But they acrimoniously parted ways after Opri had $866,250 of Birkhead's money wired into her attorney-client trust fund. The money was being paid to Birkhead as compensation for a media deal the photographer signed with NBC/Universal.

In June, Birkhead sued Opri for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and legal malpractice. Opri denies all the allegations.

In his legal papers, Birkhead claimed he never gave her authorization for the transfer, and Opri's side countered that she had his verbal authorization.

Opri gave Birkhead $200,000 of the sum in the account and sent his Bahamian lawyer $75,000 but refused to give him the remainder of the money.

What's more, at the end of March, she sent him a bill for more than $600,000 for her work on the case.

In his tentative ruling, Lee stated that it wasn't "proper" for Opri to hold Birkhead's media deal money "subject to an 'attorney lien.' "

In her legal papers, Opri asserted that "Birkhead never intended to pay her " and outlined the "600 plus" hours she spent on the case and alleged that her relationship with Birkhead deteriorated as he became increasingly under the influence of his former nemesis Howard K. Stern, Smith's boyfriend, with whom he had a "secret" meeting in Florida not long after Smith died.

A final ruling on the motion to compel arbitration and Birkhead's request for preliminary injunction will be issued in a few days. Birkhead is represented by M.L. Trope, Opri by attorney David Owen.

Rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

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