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The Trials of Chris Tigani

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By representing himself in a legal battle with his father, Chris Tigani figures he saved himself millions of dollars in attorney fees and most of his $22 million in assets. Photograph by Jared CastaldiThe room looks as if a UPS truck exploded in it. Stacks of paper, envelopes, file folders and cardboard boxes containing more paper are everywhere. They cover the desk, the bookshelves, the floor.

Christopher J. Tigani calls it his office, but it’s really his war room. This is where he mounted his court battle against his father, Robert Tigani, for control of N.K.S. Distributors, a 61-year-old, third-generation family business that has dominated Delaware’s liquor distribution industry. This is where he created 1,500 exhibits, only a fraction of which were ever introduced into evidence. This is where he set about trying to disprove a hoary maxim sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “A man who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

The room is on the second floor of Tigani’s home at 1111 Berkeley Road in Westover Hills, Wilmington. The 24,000-square-foot house sits on 4.5 acres that boast a tennis court, two gazebos, a greenhouse, a caterer’s prep building, a three-bedroom carriage house and a car barn. He lives here with his two young sons, of whom he shares custody with his ex-wife, Candice, who lives down the street.

Tigani has testified in court that his purchase of this mansion—the former home of MBNA founder Charles M. Cawley—set off the blood feud with his father, a feud that captivated much of Wilmington’s business and legal communities even before it played out over 12 days last spring in Delaware’s Court of Chancery.

For more than a year, Robert and Christopher traded charges of disloyalty, scheming and mismanagement. On May 3, 2009, Robert removed Chris, who ran the day-to-day operations of the business for more than five years, from all positions with the company. N.K.S. and Robert, who controls the majority of N.K.S. stock, brought the suit against Chris, alleging in court papers that his mismanagement led to a financial crisis at the firm. Chris countered, seeking reinstatement as head of the company and contending that his father, having become envious of his son’s financial success, “began [a] scheme to wrongfully usurp control of the Company from Chris—control which Bob had relinquished in 2006—and bludgeon his son out of the family business.” A tsunami of filings and complaints from both sides ensued, and by the time the trial began in late April, more than a dozen parties had been named.

Conducted before Vice Chancellor Donald Parsons, the dispute rose “to the level of a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy,” according to one participant. Both father and son shed tears on the stand while ugly testimony flew back and forth.

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Ratcheting up the drama was Chris’ decision to try the case pro se—to represent himself—a rare move in such high-stakes litigation. He thus not only called and examined his own witnesses, he also cross-examined witnesses for the other side, including his 66-year-old father. Because he was his own lawyer, during direct testimony he simply talked to the judge for more than an hour after taking the witness box.

While receiving generally good reviews, especially for his preparation, Tigani’s performance provides an object lesson in the advantages and pitfalls of acting as your own lawyer.

As with most pro se litigants, his decision was motivated by finances. Already dealing with what he says were legal fees of $100,000 per month nine months before the court proceedings began, Tigani was hoping for a quick trial and resolution. His lawyer, Tony Clark, of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, requested a court date in three months. N.K.S. and Robert Tigani asked for a year. Parsons sided with N.K.S.

That was in October 2009. Tigani immediately released Clark, whom he calls “an absolutely honorable man,” and elected to go solo against four law firms and a phalanx of attorneys. “Having been fired from the only job I had ever known,” he says, “the law became my job” for the next six months.

The 39-year-old Tigani had an advantage over most pro se litigants: He was no courtroom neophyte. He has been either a party or a primary litigant in a couple of other cases, the most high-profile of which is a suit and countersuit involving multimillionaire car dealer John Hynansky over a failed deal to buy Hynansky’s Greenville estate.

Fueled by his favorite beverage—Coke Zero—Tigani hunkered down in his war room for 40-plus weeks of writing pleadings, responding to pleadings, preparing myriad exhibits and preparing to depose 12 witnesses. He credits his two former assistants at N.K.S., Paul DiConsiglio and Darlene Wunner, for their help, but basically it was the Chris Tigani Show.

On the advice of attorney friends, one of his first moves was to gird himself with the $332 “Corporate and Commercial Practice in the Delaware Court of Chancery,” a 1,450-page tome that is the bible for litigators in Delaware’s nationally known Chancery Court. He also haunted the stacks at the Widener Law School library.

He soon found that he liked doing the research, writing motions, preparing exhibits—so much so, he says, that he plans to take the Law School Admission Test in October and “will absolutely” enroll at Widener.

Tigani’s legal aptitude first surfaced when he took a business law course at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. “It was the only A-plus I ever got,” he says.

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It was as a freshman at Guilford in 1988 that Tigani met Elizabeth Tate, a junior in pre-law. They began dating and soon became sweethearts. The romance continued when Tate enrolled in law school at Wake Forest, some 20 minutes away in Winston-Salem. Tigani frequently visited the Tate home in High Point, where he had many discussions with Elizabeth’s father, Richard Tate, a prominent local attorney.

Elizabeth Tate is now Elizabeth Hondros, an attorney in Charlotte who recently returned from maternity leave. “Chris was always interested in the law,” she recalls, “and I encouraged him to go to law school.” But she says there was never any doubt about where his future lay. “He was extremely proud of his family business and extremely passionate about it. Every summer when we were dating, he went home and worked in some capacity in the business. He was really close with his grandfather, who had built the business, and he had tremendous respect for him.”

By the time Hondros finished law school, Tigani was working full time at N.K.S. The romance “had run its course and couldn’t really survive the distance,” Hondros says. But they have remained friends, and he reached out to her early in his pro se efforts. She provided advice and reviewed many of his documents.

Hondros was impressed, to say the least, calling her former boyfriend “certainly the most capable pro se litigant I’ve ever seen.

“I was really surprised at how well he had targeted the issues,” she says. “His deposition transcripts were very good for a pro se person, very detailed, and better than some lawyers I know. He did a great job of building his case point by point.” His efforts were especially impressive, she says, “given the caliber of attorneys and the resources he’s been up against.”

But pro se litigation is not something Hondros recommends except as a last resort. “They face serious disadvantages,” she says. “They’re just not on equal footing when it comes to understanding procedural rules, substantive law, being able to research points of law. For a lot of pro se litigants, even if they try to study the rules, it’s like learning a different language for them.”

Leo Ramunno is a Wilmington attorney who was able to observe Tigani in court. Ramunno represented MyPal, MyPal II and World Class Wholesale, limited liability partnerships that Chris Tigani was involved in. “There is no real comparison to other typical pro se litigants, who really don’t have a clue as to what’s going on,” says Ramunno. “He was very well prepared—obviously not as well as trained attorneys, but he had done his research, and he was very articulate. Most people, when they get in a pro se situation, they fumble, they get scared, confused. It’s a very tense situation.”
 

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Ramunno suggests that Tigani’s attention to detail was a double-edged sword, especially when it came to exhibits and questioning witnesses.

“He over-exhibited,” says Ramunno. “This comes with experience, knowing where to stop or how to stop. Only a small percentage [of the exhibits] got into evidence. So there were books and books of wasted paper that were never admitted into evidence.”

Another skill that comes with experience, Ramunno says, is dealing with witnesses. “Again, you have to know when to stop, and once you’re there, you sit down and that’s the end of it. But Chris kept on asking questions, sometimes several times.”

As a result, Tigani overran the time Parsons gave him to present his case. “At the end he was given a couple of more hours, and he still couldn’t finish what he wanted to finish,” says Ramunno. “He kept people on the stand too long. Everything was important to him because he could not stand back and look at it objectively. But that’s typical of a pro se litigant.”

Like Hondros, Ramunno endorses the adage attributed to Lincoln. “Chris was forced to represent himself because of money, but he would be the first to tell you that if he had the financial ability to hire an attorney, he would have. Remember, N.K.S. spent $2 million to $3 million, so it was not a cheap trial. If you’re going against an attorney, you’re at a disadvantage. Because of a whole slew of things, you’re just behind the eight ball.”

His advice for pro se wannabes: “Don’t over-try the case. Go for the important parts. If you have 10 issues and one is important, the important issue can get lost among the other ones.”

Pro se litigants may wind up forfeiting some of their rights, according to Louise Lark Hill, professor of law at Widener for the past 20 years. “Not understanding the process can cost them,” she says. “For instance, there might be something said by the other side that a skilled advocate might pick up on as a point in their favor, but it might go unnoticed by the pro se litigant. In terms of discovery, they might not pursue their right for more information. They could end up having a case dismissed if they don’t adhere to whatever time restraints are imposed.”

Elizabeth Dunn, director of Public Service Careers and Pro Bono Programs at Villanova University School of Law, says a recent survey of state judges shows that one of the biggest issues for pro se litigants is that they “don’t know what evidence is admissible in order to make their cases. Procedural issues also can be complicated for them, starting with the basic question of when things should be filed and how to file.”

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Like Hill, Dunn says that judges will try to work with those representing themselves, but they must balance that with their duty to remain impartial.

Attorneys generally agree that the personal nature of lawsuits is a hindrance to pro se litigants. All aspects of their cases are important to them, so, as Ramunno suggests, key points get lost.

Unless there is an out-of-court settlement, a decision on the N.K.S. case is expected early this year. (Attorneys for N.K.S. and Robert Tigani declined to comment for this story, citing the pending ruling.) Parsons has cautioned both sides that neither will be totally happy with his ruling.

For his part, Tigani says he received a fair trial, and he has praise for almost everyone who opposed him, as well as Vice Chancellor Parsons. And while he’s proud of what he accomplished, he is under no illusion that he’s the next Clarence Darrow. Opposing lawyers, he says, “were not scared of my legal prowess.”

“I have an incredible appreciation for what lawyers do now, and Leo is correct in saying that I would have had a lawyer if I could have afforded one. Tony Clark is light years a better lawyer than I am. But I didn’t have the $2 million or $3 million Skadden would have cost me. So, in total, I saved millions in fees, saved the bulk of my $22 million of assets, all by representing myself. That’s a big win any way you look at it.”
 

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