Change of heart: Tom Mars drops Curtis Blackwell case over concerns about lawyer's conduct

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Upon further review, the call has been overturned.

High-profile attorney Tom Mars has left the legal team representing former Michigan State staffer Curtis Blackwell, citing a disagreement with one of Blackwell's lawyers over the "standards" of practicing law.

Former Michigan State staffer Curtis Blackwell is suing the university, then-football coach Mark Dantonio, former athletic director Mark Hollis and former president Lou Anna K. Simon for wrongful termination.

One of Blackwell's lawyers, Drew Paterson, already has been sanctioned by a federal judge in this case, and now has to answer the defense team's motion to have him sanctioned again, as well as a move to have the case thrown out and Paterson disbarred.

Mars, known for his work on NCAA transfer-waiver cases including the one that earned Michigan quarterback Shea Paterson immediate eligibility last season, confirmed his departure to The News, less than one week after news of him joining the case was made public.

"It's become clear in the past week that one of Curtis Blackwell's Michigan lawyers and I have very different views about the standards governing the conduct of lawyers who practice in state and federal courts," Mars told The News late Wednesday night. "After a number of failed attempts to reach alignment on these issues, I notified Mr. Blackwell, his Michigan lawyers, and defense counsel this morning that I was terminating my professional relationship with Mr. Blackwell, effective immediately.

"This decision has nothing to do with the merits of Mr. Blackwell's case, the strength of evidence supporting his position, or any decisions he has made in connection with this litigation."

Mars said he stands by everything he told The News last week, when he confirmed joining Blackwell's legal team for his suits against MSU, then-football coach Mark Dantonio, former athletic director Mark Hollis and former president Lou Anna K. Simon for wrongful termination, and against MSU Police for wrongful arrest.

Mars, 62, who is based out of Atlanta and northwest Arkansas, has the issue with Paterson, one of Blackwell's two attorneys who joined the case in October.

The lead attorney is Thomas Warnicke, who joined the team in January 2019.

"Tom Mars has previously expressed that he been following Mr. Blackwell's case to the beginning, which dates back to November 2018. Mr. Mars also said that he reviewed sworn deposition testimony and other key evidence from the case," Warnicke told The News on Thursday. "Based upon his objective assessment of the merits of Mr. Blackwell's claims, Mr. Mars agreed to join Mr. Blackwell's legal team.

"However, Mr. Mars has recently expressed a difference of opinion with one member of Mr. Blackwell's legal team and has decided to remove himself from the case. We respect his decision and will move forward zealously to litigate Mr. Blackwell's claims.

"We look forward to Mr. Blackwell having his day in court and obtaining the justice that he so rightfully deserves."

Paterson earlier in the Blackwell case was fined $10,000 by a federal judge for publicly filing the deposition transcript of MSU Police Det. Chad Davis, despite both counsels agreeing to keep that sealed. Paterson claimed that was an innocent mistake, saying he wasn't privy to the conversations between counsel. He called it an "expensive lesson."

Now, lawyers for the MSU defendants have claimed Paterson is at again, specifically in the recent filing alleging NCAA violations by Dantonio. Dantonio's lawyers called the claims, before they were detailed in a later filing, "false, scandalous, and wholly unsupported accusations," and called the move "continued, ongoing misconduct by Blackwell and his counsel." They also claim Blackwell's team has filed frivolous motions, among them an objection to an additional deposition of Blackwell — when Dantonio's attorneys have said nobody's seeking an additional deposition of Blackwell.

"This sham should not be allowed to continue," Dantonio's lawyers continued, who also have accused Blackwell's team of unnecessarily drawing out the discovery period — which is still ongoing for a suit that was filed in November 2018. They claim Blackwell's team seeks documents and depositions that aren't relative to the case, and are unnecessarily trying to secure another hour of Dantonio's time for additional deposition.

Paterson and Blackwell's team have until Tuesday to respond to a judge's show-cause order. Essentially, they have to make the case why Dantonio's attorneys are wrong and why the judges shouldn't dismiss the case and sanction the legal team.

This isn't the first case during which Paterson has been sanctioned. He's been sanctioned at least five prior times by federal and state judges, including his work on the high-profile local case, Carmack vs. City of Detroit, in which he represented Robert Carmack in his suit against the city and Mayor Mike Duggan.

Blackwell, a Michigan State staffer from 2013-17, said he was unfairly dismissed by Dantonio and the MSU in the wake of a 2017 on-campus party at which three players allegedly sexually assaulted a woman. Blackwell claims he was the scapegoat; Dantonio said it was over "philosophical differences" among other issues, none of which pertained to the sexual-assault investigation.

What started out as a wrongful-termination case has exploded into a series of accusations by Blackwell against the football program, most recently claims that Dantonio committed NCAA violations in a) allowing Blackwell to recruit off-campus, and b) securing jobs for the parents of high-profile recruits. Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman, whose tenure post-dates Blackwell's employment at MSU, called those claims "false" last week at Dantonio's sudden retirement announcement.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984