On a summer day last year, Martin Garbus, a veteran attorney from New York, went to a beachside cafe in Santa Monica to meet a young woman looking for a lawyer.
Impressing prospective clients was not difficult for Garbus, whose resume reads like a history of the late 20th century. From Lenny Bruce's pornography trial to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the septuagenarian could boast a hand in some of the biggest civil liberties cases in the last five decades. He has dodged segregationists' bullets in Mississippi, organized migrant workers with Cesar Chavez and helped craft the Czech Republic's Constitution.
The woman sitting across from him that day was Samantha Ronson, a professional DJ recently thrust into the gossip blogosphere for her rumored romance with actress Lindsay Lohan. Ronson, 31, was enraged by some particularly nasty stories posted online about her relationship with Lohan and wanted to sue.
Despite the 40-year age difference, Ronson and the lawyer got along well.
"She was very bright. She understood things," Garbus recalled.
Ronson agreed to hire him at the rate of $750 an hour.
The goodwill of that first meeting is a distant memory. The defamation suit meant to discourage scandal-mongering blogs turned into a costly, humiliating fiasco that provided more gossip fodder. For months now, Ronson and Garbus have been locked in their own ugly legal battle: She is suing him for malpractice; he is countersuing to recover his fees.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, December 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Celebrity lawsuits: A story in Thursday's Section A about a court battle involving lawyer Martin Garbus and his former client, disc jockey Samantha Ronson, incorrectly stated that the attorney once represented Lenny Bruce in a pornography trial. In fact, he represented the comedian in an obscenity case.
Ronson did not respond to requests for an interview, but in her malpractice suit, she alleged that Garbus, despite his renown, bungled her case with sloppy work and then abandoned her when she wouldn't pay a bill she found excessive.
"It is about his work product in this case," said her new lawyer, David Bass, referring to the libel suit. "It has nothing to do with what he did in other states in other cases years ago."
Meanwhile, Garbus lays the blame at Ronson's feet, saying her insistence on getting a retraction from tart-tongued blogger Perez Hilton -- he had ridiculed her as a "lezbot" -- scuttled a sensible settlement.
"She just really had it out for him," Garbus said.
Now the fight between this solicitor and this celebrity -- he's appeared before the Supreme Court; she appears in Us Weekly -- threatens to expose information about Lohan and Ronson that Perez Hilton could only dream about.
Garbus' attorneys have identified Lohan as the most critical witness in the case besides the two litigants and have requested information concerning their relationship, finances, possible drug use and alleged rehab stays. In one measure of how far his defense plans to go, they have asked for copies of every text message and e-mail between the women over the last two years.
A trial is scheduled for May in Los Angeles. The parties spent the last few months squabbling over procedures for deposing Lohan and Ronson after lawyers for the women raised concerns that videotapes of the pretrial Q & As would be leaked to the media.
"Totally acceptable worry. It'll likely happen," Hilton squealed on his blog.
A judge issued a protective order for Ronson, making confidential the time and place of her deposition, and limiting the number of video recordings and transcripts. Attorneys told the judge they were negotiating a similar arrangement with Lohan.
At the bottom of the failed libel suit and the pending malpractice action is a one-car crash: Lohan's Mercedes-Benz versus some shrubs in Beverly Hills on May 26, 2007. Police reported finding a small amount of cocaine in her car. The actress eventually entered rehab and pleaded guilty to driving under the influence.
About a week later, according to the libel suit, Hilton, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira, posted an item on his blog linking to a juicy story on an another blog called Celebrity Babylon. Citing unnamed sources, Celebrity Babylon reported the cocaine belonged to Ronson. Additionally, according to the suit, the story said Ronson "has accumulated a substantial side income taking her pal in front of paparazzi cameras for money."
"With friends like Samantha Ronson, Lindsay doesn't need enemies," Hilton blogged. Two weeks later, he posted a picture of himself on perezhilton.com wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with "Blame Samantha" and referred to her as a "lezbot dj", according to the libel suit.
Ronson was irate, and on the recommendation of a friend, turned to Garbus. Then 72, he had a vaunted reputation -- Fortune called him "one of the country's most able 1st Amendment lawyers" last year -- and a practice that included high-profile clients. At the time he met Ronson, he was representing Don Imus in a suit against CBS.