Steve Cozen Profile: The Inside Man

Whether he’s suing big corporations in disaster cases or Saudi Arabia over 9/11, Steve Cozen has built his career siding with the underdog. Now, with his hands in both casino deals, has the ultimate outsider become the quintessential insider?

“He’s just got these delusions of grandeur,” according to a partner at a competing Philadelphia firm. “He tends to tilt at windmills on some of these cases, and then when the courts don’t agree with him, he goes into these ad hominem attacks on the judges, as if they’re delusional.”

For instance, Cozen’s suing the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. No, that’s not a typo. On behalf of insurance companies that paid out $5 billion in claims as a result of 9/11 and on behalf of families of some 9/11 victims, he’s trying to prove that the Saudi sheikhs provided material support to the terrorists. In 2008, a judge threw out the case on jurisdictional grounds, but Cozen told me he felt the judge’s reading of the case was a “perversion” of the relevant law, and now he’s lobbying the U.S. Senate to pass legislation that will allow the case to go forward. (That’s not a typo, either.) In another federal case, in 2004, Cozen sued the government on behalf of the Delaware Nation, a tribal group that was laying claim to 315 acres in the Lehigh Valley to plop down a casino. When a U.S. district judge ruled against his client, Cozen told a reporter, “It is a poorly reasoned, illogical, irrational decision and screams out for an appeal.” (He lost the appeal, too.) Such public criticism of judges by litigators is “considered very bad form,” according to the partner at the competing firm. I asked Cozen if it was bad form to ream out a judge like this, and it was the only time I ever sensed his composure cracking. “I’ve been practicing law for 40 years,” Cozen said. “How many quotes [have you found of me hammering judges]? How many?” His words, high-pitched and clipped, landed like punches. “How many? Anything else? Anything else?”  Then he gave me a list of judges I could call who would testify that he was not, in fact, arrogant.

You have to admire the passion and conviction here. Still, a lawyer as tough as Cozen is bound to flirt with the ethical lines, and one time, according to two federal judges, he crossed over.

In 1980, the MGM Grand hotel and casino in Las Vegas caught fire, killing 85 people. Cozen was hired by the fire-insurance company. Sometime afterward, Cozen got a call. It was from a lawyer representing an expert witness who was working with MGM to win its case. The expert was offering to turn against MGM and help Cozen win his case by identifying fraud in MGM’s claim — in return for $1 million, according to court records. (Cozen says he doesn’t recall a specific amount.) When MGM found out that its own guy was trying to screw the company over, all hell broke loose, and Cozen was disqualified from the case. He was subsequently cleared of all wrongdoing by the Pennsylvania disciplinary board. But in a 1986 legal opinion, a federal judge, Edward C. Reed Jr., wrote that Cozen had indeed violated Canon 9 of the lawyers’ Code of Professional Responsibility: “The impropriety of attorney Cozen’s participation in the nefarious transaction was manifest.”