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Fieger v. Morse: Lawsuits spark battle of TV lawyers

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Southfield — Ladies and gents of the jury, welcome to the Case of the Squabbling TV Lawyers.

Attorney Mike Morse, left, is trying to fend off a series of lawsuits from Geoffrey Fieger.

In one corner is Mike Morse, a well-coiffed, business-savvy attorney who has built the biggest personal injury law firm in Michigan.

In the other is Geoffrey Fieger, the longtime enfant terrible of legal circles who has built a national reputation wrangling with prosecutors and politicians.

In lawsuits, four women Fieger represents say Morse groped them in the past two years at work, parties, in a car and at a restaurant. Morse denies the claims.

The legal filings are still fresh, but they are reverberating with at least one jury, the one in the court of public opinion. The two well-known lawyers are waging a public relations fight as much as a legal one.

By the time it’s done, the fracas will likely produce no winners and at least one loser, the legal profession, according to lawyers not involved in the case.

“My God, it’s terrible for us,” said Sheldon Miller, a Farmington Hills attorney and past president of the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association. “There are no winners in that case.”

The person leading the charge against Morse is a master of the law and public relations, several attorneys interviewed by The Detroit News said.

If the salacious details weren’t enough to draw interest, Fieger spiced them up with exorbitant financial demands, $25 million in one case, the attorneys said.

He spread the lawsuits over two weeks, giving interviews, press conferences, even appearing on the inaugural podcast of the Detroit Bar Association in May.

“You do get the sense this is about more than remedying a wrong,” said Birmingham lawyer Thomas Kienbaum, a past president of the State Bar of Michigan. “By all appearances, it sounds more like a war between two attorneys that has turned into a public spectacle.”

Morse’s supporters said Fieger is using the case to generate more attention for his legal firm and to make one of his leading competitors look bad.

Fieger scoffed at the notion, saying he’s plenty famous already. As for Morse, Fieger said he hardly considers him a competitor, dismissing him as someone who appears in commercials but rarely in a courtroom.

“It’d be like saying a midget could fight Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world,” Fieger said about Morse. “How is he competition? He doesn’t really practice law. He doesn’t even do what I do.”

For Morse, the sordid spectacle is a cruel twist. A man who used publicity to build his law firm over 20 years could see it damaged by public attention over the accusations.

Besides the lawsuits, a prosecutor is considering criminal charges. If the allegations are proven in civil court, he could be disbarred.

Morse, who does most of the talking in his commercials, declined comment for this story.

Roots in Oak Park

Morse, 49, and Fieger, 66, share origins.

They were born in Detroit and raised in Oak Park, working as busboys. Their fathers were lawyers and mothers teachers. They followed their dads into law and were determined to leave a mark.

Their offices are a third of a mile apart in Southfield. The phone number for Morse, whose website lists 33 lawyers, is 855-MIKE-WINS. Fieger, with 22 attorneys, can be reached at 1-800-A-WINNER.

“America’s most famous trial lawyer,” proclaims Fieger’s website.

A master of the law and public relations, Geoffrey Fieger spread the lawsuits against Mike Morse over two weeks, giving interviews and press conferences.

Both have built thriving law practices, but in different ways.

Morse has flooded daytime television with commercials as ubiquitous as soap operas. To handle all the incoming cases, he employs a chief operations officer. Fieger advertises to a lesser extent but has a much broader portfolio, local attorneys said.

He has handled a bevy of prominent cases, is frequently mentioned in the news and has worked as a national legal commentator. In his most famous case, he single-handedly kept Dr. Jack Kevorkian out of prison for almost all of the 1990s.

For all his bombastic bravado outside court, he is a first-rate litigator inside, attorneys said. He is a lawyer’s lawyer with an agile legal mind and a manner that captivates jurors.

“It’s night and day, the difference between those two (Morse and Fieger),” said Jon Marko, a personal injury lawyer from Detroit. “Regardless what you think about Geoffrey, he will fight tooth and nail for his clients, including unpopular causes and impossible odds.”

In his commercials, Morse comes across as a likable bloke who talks about treating clients as family. His mother sometimes appears in the ads and accompanies him to events like the Detroit auto show charity preview.

Fieger seems to give nary a whit whether you like him or not, acquaintances said. The Motown Motormouth, one of his printable nicknames, will say anything about anyone.

Running for governor in 1998, he said incumbent John Engler was dumber than former Vice President Dan Quayle and twice as ugly. When a group of Orthodox rabbis criticized Kevorkian in 1996, Fieger wrote a letter comparing them to Nazis.

Not even Engler’s 3-year-old triplets were safe from the loquacious one, who said that, unless they had curly tails, they couldn’t possibly have descended from the governor.

Roots of case

The case of Morse v. Fieger began in April at an upscale Farmington Hills restaurant, Steven Lelli’s Inn on the Green.

After restaurant owner Mark Zarkin introduced Morse to a group of people, a woman at the table later posed for a photo with Morse at the entrance to a private room, according to legal filings.

Renee Swain, 47, a former beautician from Novi, said she was holding her phone out for the picture when Morse grabbed her breast, jokingly asking if it would make a good photo, according to her lawsuit.

Swain made a complaint to Farmington Hills police and was later contacted by Zarkin, who asked her to meet him and Morse at the restaurant.

At the May 7 meeting, one month after the April 6 incident, the men asked Swain to leave her phone and purse out of the room, apparently worried about being recorded, the lawsuit says.

Mike Morse, a man who used publicity to build his law firm over 20 years, could see it damaged by public attention over the accusations.

What the men didn’t know was that Swain was wearing a wire, recording the meeting at the behest of the police.

Morse told her he would be hurt personally and professionally by publicity over the incident, according to the lawsuit. He said he wouldn’t be able to continue doing charitable work for disadvantaged kids.

The police have submitted the tape and a warrant request to Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton. He was assigned the case after Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, for whom Morse had held a campaign fundraiser last year, said she had a conflict of interest.

Leyton said he has asked the state police to gather additional information before he decides whether to file criminal charges.

“Once we receive everything we need, we’ll make a decision,” he said.

In a legal response to Swain’s lawsuit, Morse’s attorney Deborah Gordon included a photo of a smiling Morse and Swain on the night of the alleged incident. The picture shows Swain leaning into Morse with her hand on his chest.

Gordon said in the filing Swain had set up Morse and may have a history of doing so with other men. But Gordon declined to elaborate during an interview.

After Fieger filed the Swain lawsuit in May, other women began contacting his law office, he said.

A 26-year-old receptionist at Morse’s law firm said he fondled her at work after she started in September 2015. A paralegal, 27, said he fondled her at a work Christmas party that year.

A bartender from Taylor said he fondled her at a work Christmas party in December 2016. A graduate student from Orchard Lake said he fondled her in the back seat of an Uber car in Miami in December 2016.

‘THAT’s entertainment’

Morse, a father of three, has been divorced since 2014, according to court records.

“Mr. Morse is a dead man walking,” Fieger said about all the complaints.

Fieger filed four more lawsuits, all on different days, each seeking more money than the last.

The graduate student later dropped her legal action after a judge said she couldn’t remain anonymous. Fieger said the suit will be refiled but not when.

On Wednesday a state judge sent the receptionist’s lawsuit to private arbitration, saying she had signed an employment agreement to resolve all job-related complaints through an arbitrator.

The longer the cases drag out, the bigger the hit to Morse’s carefully constructed TV image, said Michael Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.

“Time is not on Morse’s side,” he said. “It’s harder to turn the page when the page has been folded back and repeatedly dog-eared and looked at for such a long time.”

Morse has come out swinging as he tries to defend his reputation. He hired Gordon, a top-notch employment attorney from Bloomfield Hills, and Truscott Rossman, a prominent public relations firm with offices in Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids.

Fieger is handling the legal and public relations duties himself.

In the legal filings, Gordon has shown she can be just as acerbic as Fieger. In a 134-page brief to dismiss one of the lawsuits, she chided him for his hastiness in filing the lawsuits.

If Fieger had paused for a breath, he would have learned Morse’s two workers had employment agreements that require them to resolve job-related claims in private arbitration, Gordon wrote.

Fieger either didn’t know about the agreements or didn’t care, filing the lawsuits to garner publicity, she said.

“None of these suits are worth a press rollout. None of them are worth $25 million,” she told The News. “It’s all about Geoffrey Fieger obtaining publicity.”

Morse and Fieger both like to tout themselves as winners in their commercials, but that’s not how they’re being viewed by people watching the legal saga.

Social media has already rendered a verdict. Observers have even criticized things unrelated to the fight: Morse for using his mom in commercials, Fieger for his haircut.

“Two loud-mouthed ambulance-chasers locking horns in an ugly and embarrassing lawsuit — THAT’S entertainment,” John Schneider of Belleville wrote on Facebook in May.


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Twitter: @francisXdonnell