Morgan Stanley Legal Strategy: Paint Christian Curry as a Liar

On Nov. 16, 1997, a couple of plainclothes detectives arrived at the Times Square offices of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Company, asking to see one of the firm’s young investment banking analysts. Earlier that morning, a member of the 37th floor’s real estate group had attacked a man in the Flatiron district, throwing him through a store’s plate-glass window and then fleeing the scene. Some hours after the incident, members of the Police Department arrived to arrest the suspected 22-year-old analyst, whose name was Christian Curry.

Long before he was arrested in August 1998 for allegedly attempting to hack into Morgan Stanley’s computer system and plant racist e-mails, Mr. Curry had other legal troubles-foremost among them his 1997 assault upon a fellow Columbia University graduate, for which he was convicted after trial. But according to court documents, the former banker has also tussled legally with a Boston medical insurance company and even his alma mater, Columbia, over unpaid college tuition fees.

All this could give Morgan Stanley ample fodder to attack Mr. Curry’s credibility and character in their defense of his $1.35 billion wrongful-termination suit against the firm. But sources with knowledge of Morgan Stanley’s defense tactics claim that won’t be their strategy.

Instead, the sources said, the firm will stick to the theme articulated again and again in both its press statements and its legal answer to Mr. Curry’s suit, filed June 7: that the erstwhile banker went wild with his expense card and then filed fraudulent expense claims for items as frivolous as Cole-Haan shoes and car washes, far beyond the purview of the Chinese-food takeout orders and livery-vehicle rides home that typify the expense report of a young securities analyst.

“This isn’t just a kid who boosted some tips on a taxi ride,” said a source familiar with the firm’s legal strategy. “This guy seriously fabricated events.” Given that belief, the source said he expects to see Mr. Curry squirming on the witness stand: “Christian Curry is going to spend a lot of time trying to explain things that are inexplicable.”

The suit is now in pretrial discovery at Federal District Court in Manhattan. On June 16, Judge Denny Chin met both with Mr. Curry’s civil lawyer, Benedict Morelli, and Martin London, the attorney handling Morgan Stanley’s defense, in his chambers at 500 Pearl Street. The parties have until their next judge’s conference-on Jan. 21-to take depositions to support their various claims. Barring a settlement, a trial date will be set.

Sources privy to Morgan Stanley’s plans said they are aiming for trial-that is, if they can’t have the case thrown out by summary judgment. “Morgan Stanley is going to see it through to the end-whether it’s summary judgment or trial,” said one source, “and they’re confident in the result.”

Speculation has it that the firm executives who ferociously guard Morgan Stanley’s image-like president John Mack, who personally called banking associate Phil Potter, fired in 1997 for speaking to the press, to inveigh against his poor judgment-would never allow Morgan Stanley’s inner workings to be exposed in a hail of depositions taken by the Curry camp. But as the firm enters into its sixth week of public relations hell, proving its point about Mr. Curry may be worth the hassle of a court trial.

Such prospects have Mr. Morelli’s spirits singing. “A trial is going to be good for us,” he told The Observer , “because it’s going to bring out really what happened, what transpired during the employment, what was really the impetus for his being fired, and what was the impetus to have him arrested.”

He added that he plans to file an amended complaint June 23, and proceed with taking depositions as soon as possible.

Asked whether Mr. Curry’s legal history could prove problematic, Mr. Morelli seemed unconcerned. “I understand that there are certain issues to be dealt with, but I’m going to tell you that I firmly believe that our case is meritorious, or I would have never brought it,” he told The Observer .

Mr. Curry’s earliest brush with the New York court system appears to be a pair of suits filed in 1997 by Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, a Boston-based company that provided health care coverage to Mr. Curry’s father, Dr. William Curry, in 1994, according to the suits. After an alleged taxicab hit-and-run accident in 1994, Christian Curry asked Liberty Mutual to pay his doctor’s bills, claiming that he had experienced “musculoskeletal pain” after banging his head against a cab partition. But the company balked at the request, asserting that Mr. Curry was not covered under his father’s plan, and requested stronger evidence of his injuries. The case was settled; the terms could not immediately be determined.

Scuffling with one’s insurance carrier, even in court, is a common enough occurrence. But in March 1998, nearly a year after his graduation from Columbia University, Mr. Curry was faced with a more unusual legal conundrum when the trustees of the school sued him for $14,000 in unpaid tuition and interest. Several months later in June of the same year, the County Civil Court in Manhattan ruled in favor of Columbia.

By that time, Mr. Curry was in the midst of the District Attorney’s investigation into his 1997 attack on Scott Sartiano, a fellow Columbia graduate. According to a police deposition, the assault occurred around 4:30 A.M. on Nov. 16, 1997, in front of Fishs Eddy, a cookware shop on Broadway and 19th Street. The deposition states that Mr. Curry punched Mr. Sartiano “repeatedly about the face, chest and stomach with a closed fist,” and kicked Mr. Sartiano “repeatedly in the stomach … and shove[d] Mr. Sartiano against a glass door of a store … causing the door to shatter.”

Mr. Sartiano, who graduated from Columbia College in 1996, could not be reached for comment. But according to Jon Norinsberg, the Manhattan-based civil litigator who represents him, the case centered on a romantic dispute over Marisa Wheeler, then a Columbia junior, who in recent months has become engaged to marry Mr. Curry. “[Mr. Curry] was in some type of jealous rage over her,” said Mr. Norinsberg. “He basically threatened my client with his life and then followed through on it afterwards.”

Mr. Norinsberg added that Mr. Curry had hassled Mr. Sartiano at a club near Fishs Eddy where Mr. Sartiano worked as a part-time promoter, then waited outside the club for hours after being thrown out. (He declined to name the club.) It was then, asserted Mr. Norinsberg, that Mr. Curry attacked Mr. Sartiano.

Mr. Norinsberg described his client as being “still in the process of getting a medical examination”; he said the attack caused “permanent damage to his knee” and “a permanent scar on his forehead, [both of which] are still bothering him in terms of pain.”

Hours after the incident, Mr. Curry was escorted from the offices of Morgan Stanley at 1585 Broadway and arrested at a nearby police precinct on a misdemeanor assault charge. Over a year later, in early February 1999, he took the stand in his own misdemeanor trial at Manhattan Criminal Court. He was convicted by Judge Robert Sackett of the assault charge on Feb. 4, and sentenced to three years’ probation, plus a restitution fee of $1,464. An order of protection was also granted to Mr. Sartiano.

Sources with knowledge of Mr. Curry’s testimony said his accounts of the nightclub incident were barely believable. “The upshot of it was, he testified to things in court that I believe were patently false,” said Mr. Norinsberg. He said that Mr. Sartiano is “contemplating civil litigation.”

“It was a misunderstanding over Curry’s fiancée, and it will be overturned very soon on appeal,” said a source close to Mr. Curry, who added that he had an alibi witness who was not permitted to testify during the trial.

Mr. Morelli referred specific questions about his client’s assault conviction to Earl Rawlins, Mr. Curry’s criminal attorney. However, he said that Mr. Curry plans to appeal the misdemeanor conviction, which he believes to be in error. “He says at the time, it was not him,” said Mr. Morelli. “And that was the position they took during the trial, and it was only a problem of not being able to use … one or two witnesses.” He added that Mr. Curry had informed him of the conviction before Mr. Morelli took the case. Mr. Rawlins could not be reached for comment by press time.