By BRIAN BAKST, Associated Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf has appealed a court ruling requiring him and his family to pay $100 million in damages and legal fees over a broken deal to develop an apartment complex in his home state of New Jersey.
Wilf, his brother Mark Wilf and cousin Leonard Wilf filed their appeal Wednesday in New Jersey Superior Court’s Appellate Division, likely extending for years a civil case that has already spent 21 years working its way through the courts. They are seeking to overturn a ruling in which the court found that the real estate developers committed fraud, violated civil racketeering laws and deprived a former business partner of contractual payments.
While the case involves a long-ago deal on the East Coast, it has piqued immense interest in Minnesota because the Wilfs own the Vikings and won a large public subsidy toward a new $1 billion stadium about to be built. Zygi Wilf is the team’s general partner, but both Mark and Leonard Wilf own stakes in the team.
As part of their appeal, the Wilfs are seeking to strike an order requiring them to publicly disclose their net worth. The release of that information could give ammunition to critics of the stadium deal who questioned why taxpayers were assisting a wealthy sports franchise owner.
The Wilfs and their legal team have made few public comments about the case since Superior Court Judge Deanne Wilson ruled last summer and assessed the penalties. Their attorney, Peter Harvey, told The Associated Press by phone Thursday that Wilson made multiple errors of law, improperly expanded the scope of the case and failed to adequately wall off conflicts of interest.
“This case was badly mismanaged,” said Harvey, a former New Jersey attorney general. “The case is an example of trial proceedings out of control.”
In a 17-page statement accompanying the appeal, the Wilfs’ lawyers include 19 arguments they’ll make about why they believe Wilson’s ruling is flawed and should be tossed. Given the amount of time and effort that went into that phase of the case – the trial transcript is 26,000 pages long and there were more than 200 courtroom days – Harvey said he expects the appeal to drag out for years.
Harvey said the $85 million judgment – the damages amount, which doesn’t include the legal fees the Wilfs were also ordered to pay – stems from claims that shouldn’t have been allowed to proceed because the time for bringing them had run out.
Jarwick Developments and some associates initially sued in 1992, saying the Wilfs owed them money from the 764-unit apartment complex in Montville, N.J. An original trial and appeal awarded plaintiffs limited interest and set in motion a trial to determine how much. At that point, the case began to balloon to include the fraud and racketeering claims.
Wilson ruled that the Wilfs acted with “bad faith and evil motive” by cutting partners out of what started as a 50-50 business proposition to develop the apartment complex. The Wilfs ended up shouldering a larger share of the investment, but more than one judge said the partners still were entitled to a share of resulting profits. By invoking the state’s racketeering law, which Wilson determined had been violated, the plaintiffs became eligible for bigger damages.
Michael Himmel, an attorney for a key plaintiff in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the latest development. Two other attorneys representing plaintiffs didn’t return messages seeking comment. Their side has until later this month to formally file initial responses with the appellate court, and briefs from both sides will trickle in throughout the spring.
Harvey said the Wilfs aren’t arguing that no money should change hands in the case, but they disagree with the assessment of some compensatory and punitive damages. Those damages grew with the racketeering finding, which Harvey said was misplaced. “It was designed to go after mobsters,” he said.
A standard form requires the defendants to assess the potential for resolving the case on their own, to which Harvey wrote simply: “No prospect of settlement.”