As a top-of-his-class, law review graduate of Emory University School of Law in the early 1990s, Paul J. Geller was offered jobs at each of the firms that interviewed him. “Looking back, the interesting thing is, they were all corporate defense firms,” Geller recalls. “We were all clamoring to interview with top defense firms; the thought of a plaintiffs’ practice never crossed our mind.”
He settled upon Steel Hector & Davis, then a venerable firm widely regarded as the best in Florida. At Steel Hector, Geller represented blue chip defendants in high-stakes litigation, walking the halls with heavy hitters like current U.S. District Court Judges Donald Middle-brooks and Patricia Seitz, as well as 11th Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan.
As a young associate learning his trade, Geller defended companies in large and complex class actions, including Dow Corning over its silicone breast implants, A.H. Robbins over its Dalkon Shield IUD, and several pharmaceutical companies in cases brought by hemophiliacs who had received HIV-tainted blood transfusions.
“I learned a great deal from some great trial lawyers, but from day one I felt I was on the wrong side of the v.,” Geller explains. “The companies I defended almost always did what they were accused of doing.”
Geller left Steel Hector to join the Boca Raton office of New York’s Proskauer Rose, also representing defendants in bet-the-company litigation. Geller worked closely with Howard K. Coates Jr., now a circuit court judge in Palm Beach County, and the late Ed Brodsky, a noted authority on securities litigation. One of the companies Geller defended in a massive securities fraud class action while at Proskauer, Boca Raton’s Brothers Gourmet Coffees, was brought by a pair of plaintiffs’ lawyers named Darren Robbins and Sam Rudman. Twenty years later, Robbins and Rudman are not only Geller’s longtime partners at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, but two of his closest friends.
In 1996, Geller finally followed his heart and devoted his practice to representing investors and consumers rather than corporate defendants. Leaving a secure and comfortable position at Proskauer to pursue plaintiffs’ work might have been a difficult decision for some, but it was an easy choice for Geller.
“Two people were fully convinced that I’d succeed – me and my wife Leslie. That was really all that mattered,” Geller says.
His old mentor at Proskauer, Howard Coates, on the other hand, thought he was crazy. “Howard and I were very close and had just finished trying an important case together, which we won, when I told him my plans. He was surprised and I think a bit hurt by my decision,” says Geller. Years later, Coates himself actually left Proskauer to work alongside Geller at what had by then become a thriving firm.
“How cool is that?” Geller asks.
Fighting Corporations, Pit Bulls & People
Geller is now a named partner and head of the Boca Raton office of Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, the largest plaintiffs’ class action firm in the world with over 200 lawyers in 10 offices. The firm takes pride in protecting investors and consumers from corporate fraud. And because corporate excess seems to have no bounds, Geller and his colleagues are as busy as ever. “A huge part of my job is evaluating cases. What most people don’t realize is that we turn down far more cases than we file.”
Now firmly a plaintiffs’ lawyer through and through, Geller has no regrets. “Having done both, I’d choose to represent David over Goliath every time,” Geller says. “I like representing underdogs. I like standing up to bullies.”
And for Geller, that isn’t mere tough talk. The Wall St. Journal and Palm Beach Post once reported on an incident in which Geller literally risked life and limb when he intervened to save a pregnant woman and her schnauzer from two attacking pit bulls. Geller, a self-described dog lover who brings his rescue dog, a weimaraner named Bob, to the office most days, physically punched and kicked the two pit bulls (breaking one of their ribs) until they released their victims. The woman and her schnauzer both required emergency surgery and hospital stays, but each made full recoveries. Geller was called as a witness in the woman’s lawsuit against the dogs’ owner and the city of Delray Beach. “It was a different view of the courtroom,” Geller notes.
Geller’s decision to spring into action was spurred by the confidence developed over a lifetime of martial arts training. Aft er studying various martial arts since childhood, Geller discovered the art of Brazilian jiujitsu early in his career and hasn’t looked back. In fact, a spare office of Robbins Geller has been fitted with grappling mats and serves as an early morning or aft er-hours private dojo. There, Geller and various training partners twist each other into pretzels, looking to use joint locks and chokes to force their opponent to submit. Among them is a lawyer at the firm, Christopher Gold, who Geller originally met in jiujitsu class some 15 years ago. The two often trade in their Brioni suits for jiujitsu gis and spar, or “roll” in jiujitsu parlance.
With cauliflower ears, herniated discs, a cadaver ACL and countless other injuries, it’s clear that Geller takes his fighting as seriously as he does his litigating. We spoke to Rodrigo Mendes, a Rio De Janeiro born jiujitsu world champion who once coached Geller in an International Brazilian jiujitsu sponsored tournament. “Man, it was many years ago, but I remember like it was yesterday,” Mendes says with a smile. “Paul took the gold medal in a packed division, winning four or five fights in a row by submission. But he didn’t just win. I was concerned he might kill someone. He almost ripped some guy’s arm off.”
Even professional mixed martial arts fighter Forrest Griffin, the former light heavyweight champion of the UFC and a household name among fight fans, says Geller’s fighting skills are legit. “I’ve known Paul a long time and the guy is tough as nails. I’m not saying he is tough for a lawyer. I’m saying he is tough, period.”
Putting Corporate Fraud on Trial
The accolades for Geller come not only from champions of the octagon, but champions of the bar as well. David Boies, the chairman of Boies Schiller & Flexner is widely regarded as one of the most prominent lawyers in the world. He has been Geller’s opposing counsel in some cases and his co-counsel in others. According to Boies, “Paul is both a great co-counsel and a formidable adversary.” The respect is mutual, and Geller doesn’t mince words when it comes to Boies. “David is the finest lawyer I know.”
Over the past year, Geller has spent a lot of time with Boies in San Francisco, the epicenter of a massive consolidated class action on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche “Clean Diesel” owners. Geller and Boies are both members of a plaintiffs’ steering committee litigating the case, a group that San Francisco newspaper, The Recorder, the “class action dream team.”
Among the Robbins Geller lawyers assisting Geller on the case is Jason Alperstein, who joined the firm as an associate in December 2015 and rose to the rank of partner a year later. Alperstein’s first assignment at the firm was to assist Geller in making an application to help lead the Volkswagen case.
“I was excited to be joining the largest class action firm in the country, but at the time I didn’t know I’d also be working on the largest class action in history,” Alperstein says.
After considering over 150 applications, including a dozen from Florida, the Honorable Charles Breyer appointed Geller to a coveted slot on the leadership team, the only Florida lawyer to make the cut. The case was recently preliminarily resolved in a manner that ensures significant restitution payments to class members, requires the buyback of certain vehicles by Volkswagen at pre-scandal prices, and includes environmental reparation as well. The value of the settlement, over $16 billion, makes it the largest class action settlement in history.
“Largest” and “billion” are words that are often used in describing Robbins Geller’s results. Late last year, a federal judge in Chicago granted final approval to a securities class action against Household International, the former mortgage servicing arm of HSBC, the British multinational banking institution. After litigating the case for 14 years, including a six-week jury trial resulting in a verdict for investors and subsequent appeals, the case settled for $1.57 billion. That ranks among the largest securities settlements ever (the largest, $7.2 billion against Enron Corp., was also achieved by Geller’s firm).
“The Household case is an example of our firm’s dogged determination to maximize results for our clients,” says Maureen Mueller, another partner in Geller’s Boca Raton office who had moved from Florida to Chicago as part of the Household trial team.
According to Geller, taking cases to trial is one of the factors that distinguishes Robbins Geller from many other class action firms. “I’m convinced that our willingness and ability to try cases helps us maximize results in every case,” says Geller.
While class action trials are relatively rare, Geller recalls a period last year when a half dozen or so cases were set to start trial within a one-month period. “It was an exciting time,” Geller says. “We had trial teams ready to go in each case, and before jury selection, we resolved class cases against Pfizer in New York for $400 million, Psychiatric Solutions in Tennessee for $65 million, St. Jude in Minnesota for $50 million, and we went to trial and won $148 million in a case against Dole in Delaware.”
An Interesting Mix of Cases
While many Robbins Geller cases entail securities and accounting fraud, Geller particularly relishes the opportunity to take on challenging class actions involving novel issues. For example, he and his Boca Raton partners Mark Dearman (Geller’s college roommate) and Stuart Davidson are leading a case against the NHL on behalf of players who suffered repeated concussions. The class’s expert witness is Dr. Bennet Omalu, who gained fame for shining light on the debilitating impact of concussions in the NFL and was played by Will Smith in the movie “Concussion.”
Geller and Davidson are also involved in a cutting-edge case against Facebook over its use of facial recognition software, and a privacy related case against Yahoo! over what is alleged to be the largest ever data breach, impacting nearly a billion consumers. Robbins Geller was also lead counsel in the widely publicized class action against Trump University, which settled for $25 million shortly before the new president’s inauguration. He received death threats after Trump attacked the firm (and the presiding judge) during the campaign.
“That was unfortunate. My kids saw the email threatening me, which was tough for them,” Geller says. “The reality is that case was never about politics. It was filed long before Trump was running for office.”
Despite recovering $25 million for the consumers who brought the case, a remarkable result, Robbins Geller decided to forego collecting a fee for its work, a move Geller is proud of. “The case was about vulnerable consumers, many elderly, who we allege were defrauded. The timing of the election injected politics into a straightforward consumer fraud lawsuit. At the end, we felt that maximizing the class’s recovery and letting the defendant move on to Pennsylvania Avenue was more important than our fee. It was best for the class and the country.”
“Busy” would be an understatement in describing Geller’s practice. But no matter how many trials or how much travel, Geller says his first priority is and always will be his family.
“I want to be the best lawyer and partner I can be, but not at the expense of failing to be the best husband and father I can be,” says Geller.
Geller has been married to his wife, Leslie, for over 23 years. They met as undergrads at the University of Florida in 1988 and have been largely inseparable since. Geller’s two boys, Jared and Dylan, are in their senior and sophomore years of high school.
“It’s tough to come to grips with the fact that that the boys will be off to college soon,” Geller says. “I’ve always known that family time is the most important part of any day, but now I feel that more than ever.”