The busiest three-week stretch of Jeff Tillotson’s career recently ended with favorable results in three separate jury trials and featured two firsts — a head-to-head matchup against a longtime, close friend and a directed verdict win for his plaintiff client.
At one point, the confluence of cases had Tillotson darting between courtrooms in the Dallas County courthouse, helping with jury selection in one case while a videotape deposition was being played in another.
“I’ve done back-to-back trials once before and it damn near killed me,” said Tillotson, founder of Tillotson Johnson & Patton. “But this was insane. We have a saying here: ‘Things always work out.’ But this was the first time where everything collided, and we said ‘Let’s do it. Let’s make it work.”
He came away with a few words of wisdom for other trial attorneys.
“Do not try this at home: It only works with a team,” he said. “And I was surrounded by a great team.”
CADG Mercer et al. v. Megatel Homes III
The fight between Dallas developer Mehrdad Moayedi and homebuilder Megatel stretches beyond this case, with nine other lawsuits over busted deals still pending in state and federal courts, some of which include competing claims for violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
But the outcome in this promissory note dispute, where a jury found Megatel owed the developer’s companies zero damages instead of the roughly $2.5 million being sought, may resonate, Tillotson said.
“I had in voir dire asked the jurors ‘Could you write in a zero or do you feel like you have to write a number?’” Tillotson said. “So, we suggested that very early on and in closings said ‘Zero is a number.’”
The lawsuit was filed in November 2019. Trial began in the case April 17 and lasted three days. Jurors deliberated for less than three hours.
The jury found in an 11-1 decision that Megatel failed to comply with its obligations under the promissory note but awarded no damages.
“Lawyers think they win cases. They don’t,” Tillotson said. “Lawyers help witnesses win those cases. They put on a witness who claimed he’d seen a check which they claimed was their out-of-pocket losses, but he could not produce a copy nor explain his calculations for the number.”
The case was tried before Judge Aiesha Redmond.
Lead counsel for the Moayedi entities, Gregory Shamoun of Shamoun & Norman, did not respond to a message seeking comment Tuesday.
Tillotson called Shamoun a “fantastic trial lawyer.”
“And you underestimate him at your own peril,” he said.
The companies were also represented by Brian Norman, Stephen Tittle and Nick Burns of Shamoun & Norman.
Megatel was also represented by Tillotson Johnson & Patton associate Enrique Ramirez.
The case number is DC-19-18033.
PlainsCapital Bank v. Stephen R. Herbel et al.
Two heavyweights of the Dallas trial bar — Tillotson and Tom Melsheimer of Winston & Strawn — faced off against each other for the first time in this case that involves a Ponzi scheme, a $29.5 million loan and a guaranty, and both litigators claimed victory in interviews with The Lawbook.
PlainsCapital filed suit in 2017 against Louisiana businessmen Jerry Webb, Craig Webb and Stephen Herbel and a Dallas lawyer who died during the pendency of litigation, Patrick Mulligan. Tillotson’s clients, he said, were duped into a Ponzi scheme by David DeBerardinis, a Shreveport businessman currently serving time in prison for wire fraud, and introduced him to PlainsCapital bankers.
PlainsCapital gave DeBerardinis a $29.5 million loan that Tillotson’s clients guaranteed. When the scheme unraveled, those individuals were named as defendants in PlainsCapital’s bid to recoup its loss.
The jury was told that it was the fault of a PlainsCapital banker who approved the loan without due diligence and who was also “compromised” by the fraudster with promises of future employment.
Tillotson also presented the jury with five legal reasons why his clients shouldn’t be on the hook for the guaranty — mutual mistake, estoppel by fraud, estoppel by silence, prior material breach and material alteration — and the jury agreed with four out of five (rejecting material alteration), finding the failure to comply with the guaranty was excused.
Melsheimer, who only recently got involved in the case, said there’s more fight to come.
“We’re the only side that left the courtroom with money,” he said of the $2.5 million in attorney fees and costs the jury awarded PlainsCapital. “It’s just a downpayment on what we think we’re entitled to. The jury found liability and breach … [Tillotson’s] clients were victims of a Ponzi scheme. But we also were victims of a Ponzi scheme.”
PlainsCapital was seeking about $52 million in damages for the loan and for the legal work trying to recoup the funds.
Trial lasted two weeks, and the jury returned its mixed-bag verdict May 4.
“What they owe us is not in dispute. The jury found they breached the agreement — that’s not in dispute,” Melsheimer said. “The legal side of this case is just going to continue to work its way through the 134th [District Court] and potentially the Dallas Court of Appeals.”
Tillotson said the case was one of the more emotionally burdensome of his career: Had PlainsCapital gotten the award they were seeking, it would have “obliterated this family.”
“Not just the people who guaranteed it, but their children and grandchildren,” he said. “I’ve never had a client openly sob as much as I did with these folks when this verdict was read.”
Melsheimer said trying the case against Tillotson was “a blast.”
“Jeff and I have known each other since we were teenagers. In high school we were debate partners,” he said. “This trial was just a good old-fashioned state court, no-holds-barred but totally professional case. We didn’t have any disagreements about anything except in front of the jury.”
Tillotson seemingly agreed.
“No one pulled any punches, but there were no low blows,” he said.
The case was tried before Judge Dale Tillery.
PlainsCapital was also represented by Geoff Harper, Jervonne Newsome, John Sullivan, Alex Wolens and Steve Stodghill of Winston & Strawn.
The defendants were also represented by Jon Patton, Austin Irrobali, Nathan Buchheit, Charles Rice, Ben Nabors, Mollie Mallory and Enrique Ramirez of Tillotson Johnson & Patton.
The case number is DC-16-07601.
Trinity Industries Leasing Co. v. Sunoco Partners Marketing & Terminals
The third trial — a dispute over who should foot the bill for safety modifications made to railcars that transport oil and gas — never actually made it to the jury.
The case was tried before Judge Sally Montgomery, who at the close of Sunoco’s case granted Trinity a directed verdict, agreeing there was only one way to construe the contract and therefore nothing for the jury to decide.
The lawsuit was filed in July 2019, with Trinity alleging under the terms of an earlier agreement with Sunoco that if the Obama administration implemented certain safety regulations requiring the modifications, Sunoco would have to retrofit the railcars it was leasing from Trinity or buy them outright.
Tillotson said Sunoco tried to avoid making the modifications by deciding not to use the leased railcars anymore.
“We said it doesn’t work that way, because you’d still be giving us back railcars that aren’t modified,” Tillotson said.
Sunoco stipulated to about $15 million in damages, plus attorney fees.
The trial began May 1 and ended May 5.
Lynn Pinker Hurst & Schwegmann partner Andrés Correa, who tried the case alongside Barira Munshi, issued a statement to The Lawbook that he “presented a strong case to the jury.”
“We believe in the case and our chances of overturning the directed verdict at the appellate level,” Correa said.
The case featured another first for Tillotson: He exercised no peremptory strikes during jury selection. After the panel of 40 potential jurors was whittled down to just 11 after for-cause excuses, the only way to avoid a mistrial was forego the strikes.
“We went through each of the jurors with our consultant and decided this was about as good as we could get,” he said of the jury pool.
Sunoco Partners also lists Mike Lynn, a former law partner of Tillotson’s, as a lawyer in the case.
Trinity was also represented by Christopher D. Landgraff, Tulsi Gaonkar, Ignacio Sofo and Mac LeBuhn of Bartlit Beck.
The case number is CC-19-03865-C.