As the Perelmans Turn

The latest chapter in the ongoing legal feud of Philadelphia’s richest family

“Avoid lawsuits beyond all things; they pervert your conscience, impair your health, and dissipate your property,” the French moralist Jean de la Bruyere wrote in the 17th Century.

Some 400 or so years later, it seems like the Perelmans need a history lesson. You know the Perelmans: father Ray, noted hard-assed billionaire; his wife, frail, long-suffering matriarch Ruth; son Ron, of Revlon fame and tabloid celebrity infamy; and son Jeffrey and formidable wife Marsha, staples of the Main Line charity circuit and doting parents of lovely Penn Ph.D. student — and unwitting family lightning rod — Alison. [SIGNUP]

Quick rewind: For the past six months, the Perelmans have been engaged in an intra-family legal battle over a trust created for Alison 20 years ago. [Read “Perelmans At War” from Philly Mag’s March issue.] There were two suits: a preemptive one from Jeffrey (arguing Raymond shouldn’t be allowed to sue), and a claim of fraud by Raymond (arguing Jeffrey and Marsha duped him by setting up the trust under different parameters than he’d agreed to). Then came a flurry of responses and counter-claims.

On March 25th, no-nonsense Common Pleas judge Albert W. Sheppard (a jurist we adore for no other reason than he answers his own phone at City Hall) threw out Raymond’s case against Jeffrey in state court, and did so “with prejudice” — meaning Raymond can’t refile the same claim. Cheerleading the decision, Jeffrey and Marsha ally and former Inky managing editor Anne Gordon released a statement on the couple’s behalf last week, applauding the fact Sheppard “has seen fit to dismiss this totally frivolous lawsuit.”

So is all headed toward a fragile peace, if not in the Middle East, at least on Rittenhouse Square? Not so fast. What made the Perelman squabble in part so astounding was that basically the same claim — Raymond’s, that he was misled by Jeffrey and Marsha, and that Alison has been cheated of money in her trust — was being litigated simultaneously in state court (where Raymond filed) and federal court (where Jeffrey first filed). Having whiffed in the state, Raymond remains alive (at 92, an achievement in itself) in the federal court, where a week before the Sheppard action he filed a counter-claim against Jeffrey, basically asserting all of the charges he’d leveled in the state case. And Jeffrey isn’t done yet, either: Now that he’s won the state case, he’s asking the court for sanctions (read: reimbursement of legal fees and court costs) from Raymond.

Perhaps feeling he may be losing the public relations war, Raymond has taken pains in his federal filings to represent the, ahem, softer side of his legendarily brusque personality. “Raymond is a successful businessman who, reluctantly and with sadness, brings these Counterclaims to achieve that which he sought to accomplish through a transaction that gives rise to the entire controversy,” his latest salvo declares. In once again summing up his case, Raymond relays that it all stems from “his desire to ensure the wealth that he worked so diligently to accumulate stayed within the Perelman bloodlines.” (In case you missed it: Marsha = not of the Perelman bloodline.) Raymond, the counter-claim goes on, “has been sorely distressed to find out that the parties he relied upon did not follow through with their promises.” Finally, he says the main motivation for establishing the trust — which came about when Raymond sold several of his companies to Jeffrey in 1990 — was to benefit Alison, who now “has only a remote contingent interest.” (Alison has remained squarely in Camp Mom and Dad throughout the ordeal.)

In the wake of the state case going belly up and the federal one creaking along, what’s also come to light in the saga is an interesting game of musical chairs among Philly’s high-profile law firms. The formidable Steven Cozen (see “The Inside Man”), who repped Raymond from the get-go, suddenly parted ways with his grizzled client on February 24th, replaced by a team at Dilworth Paxson led by Lawrence McMichael.

That’s notable because Dilworth is the same firm Ruth Perelman hired to represent her interests — separate from Raymond’s — when the whole mess initially hit the fan last fall. (She’s been represented by Joe Jacovini.) It’s also a tad perplexing, since Camp Jeffrey and Marsha has contended from the get-go that Ruth didn’t — and doesn’t — want any part of Raymond’s suit. In her statement last week, Gordon mentioned that part of Jeffrey’s quest for sanctions comes not only from his anger that Raymond and Cozen O’Connor brought a “baseless” suit, but that they were also guilty of “dragging Ruth Perelman into this lawsuit without her permission.”

Which begs the question: If poor Ruth (and really, despite her hefty checkbook, she truly is poor Ruth) was “dragged” into the original mess and retained Dilworth to keep her out, as has been implied by Jeffrey and Marsha, then why is Raymond now being represented by that very same firm? (A call from Philly Mag to Lawrence McMichael was not immediately returned.)

Given that the issues in the state case and the federal case are identical —and that the unpredictable Ron, who is still repped by Cozen in this case, appears to be basically laying low — it seems quite possible that the federal case will also be tossed. But that will hardly be the end. Jeffrey will still be pursuing those sanctions. Which means that the only thing for certain in the continuing saga of Perelman v. Perelman is that the lawyers will keep getting rich.

MICHAEL CALLAHAN is Philly Mag’s articles editor.