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Below the Beltway

Suit Yourself

Any questions, counselor?

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page W32

Everyone has his personal heroes, and I just found me a new one. When I read about what he had allegedly done, I called him at his law office in Alton, Ill., to inform him that I worship him.

Me: I suppose you know why I am calling.

(Eric Shansby)

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com. Here is an archive of columns.

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Emert Wyss, Esq.: Yes, but it is not the way it was reported, exactly. There was a third-party action against me. You see, when a defendant turns around and counterclaims, there is no way for . . .

Me: You accidentally sued yourself, right?

Emert Wyss, Esq.: Well, I really can't comment on this because I am involved in the litigation.

I tried to schmooze him. I told him that, really, he didn't have to feel so bad, that something like this was bound to happen eventually. I told him that he would forever be a hero to humor writers nationwide. I told him that as far as I was concerned he is a giant of American irony, and that he owed it to history to talk to me. Sadly, he didn't fall for it. He did what any great lawyer would do, under similar circumstances. He referred me to his lawyer.

I fully expected his lawyer to refer me to his lawyer, but that didn't happen. Mr. Wyss's lawyer, A.J. Bronsky, lamented that the publicity has "taken a circumstance and made more of it than it is" and added that he expected his client to emerge a winner. But he, too, said he didn't want Wyss being interviewed. So all I was left with was the public record, which was plenty entertaining.

Here is what apparently happened, as first gleefully reported by the Madison County Record, an Illinois legal journal. Published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Record writes often about what it contends are frivolous lawsuits. (I also spoke to a party to the litigation, who confirmed the basic facts.)

Wyss, a real estate lawyer, represented a client in the refinancing of her house. He also owned the title company that helped close the deal. When he became suspicious of two $30 fax fees being charged by the mortgage holder, he persuaded his client to file a class action suit against the mortgage company. The suit was officially filed by three other lawyers whom Wyss recruited, but Wyss considered himself an attorney in the action, too, and stood to make a fee. (This wasn't about a measly $60, at least for the lawyers. Class action suits, which seek damages for hundreds of unnamed other plaintiffs, typically have a potential for humongous payouts.)

Unfortunately for Wyss, during pretrial depositions it became clear that, although the $60 in fax fees went to the mortgage company, the transaction had been handled by the title company Wyss owned. That made the title company potentially liable, too. So the judge permitted the defense lawyers to add Wyss and his company as defendants. At that point, you could say, Wyss was suing himself. As I write this, the case is still pending.

I had intended to ask Wyss a bunch of enlightening questions about the case, questions designed to clarify the matter, build his legacy in the annals of American jurisprudence, and, you know, make him squirm like a maggot in hot oil. I consider that my responsibility, as a journalist.

Here were my questions:

(1) Would you rather win or lose the case, knowing that if you win you lose, and if you lose, you win? Please explain your answer, in 6,000 words or fewer, using a minimum of 13 "whereases."

(2) Which would you say would be a better analogy to what happened here -- a used-car salesman accidentally selling himself a lemon, or the Una-bomber accidentally having his package returned to sender for insufficient postage?


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