Lawyer, Scunci Queen Tangle Over Legal Fees

Rommy Revson can see her handiwork anywhere she looks. In 1986, she invented and patented the $1 hair scrunchy that

Rommy Revson can see her handiwork anywhere she looks. In 1986, she invented and patented the $1 hair scrunchy that can now be spotted on just about every ponytail around. The original, brightly colored terry-cloth ornamental hairband isn’t the only one that’s hers. Ms. Revson later devised the ruffled-fabric one, and ultimately a less-familiar tapered one that allows the ponytail to lie flat against the back rather than jut out. She gave comfort to women who don’t like hats, as well as a new way to color-coordinate the wardrobe above the shoulders.

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Alas, anywhere Ms. Revson looks in this world, she also can spot a rip-off. Most every scrunchy lying on a dresser top costs all of 10 cents to make, so it’s no surprise that even today plenty of them are made without her permission. For most of the last 13 years, Ms. Revson has had to fight with the people who run the hair accessories business to win some of the profits she deserves. With an estimated $100 million a year in U.S. sales at stake, she needed a good, trustworthy lawyer. For five years, Bob Cinque was the man.

Mr. Cinque is a veteran entertainment litigator who has represented in court the estates of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe; rapper Biz Markie; Frankie Lymon’s co-writers of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” and, on April 6, the two original members of Blondie that the band didn’t invite on its current reunion tour. He and Ms. Revson grew close after they started in 1993 working together in the scrunchy battles. The attorney asserted recently that he put her, of all his clients, into a special category: “I would say she was one of the most generous, if not too generous, clients I ever had.”

She, in turn, regarded her lawyer as a trusted friend. “You are our favorite house guests,” she wrote in a handwritten note addressed to him and his companion, Jane Klein (the ex of couturier Calvin), “except that we don’t consider you house guests, but rather, fun and a very natural addition to our lives.”

The businesswoman also wrote in the same note, “I know you won’t let me down like all the others.” She had been through fee disputes with at least five other lawyers.

Whether Mr. Cinque eventually did let Ms. Revson down will be decided at trial on May 17 in Manhattan’s U.S. District Court. Ms. Revson has asked Judge Denny Chin to declare the bulk of Mr. Cinque’s bills fraudulent or unjustified, and to determine her remaining debt to him.

The case epitomizes the conflict that can occur between clients who vest a business relationship with emotions and trust, and lawyers who by profession keep their sights on the bottom line. It’s also about the slap of reality clients face when their legal bill comes due.

Ms. Revson, 50, lives in Wellington, Fla., near Palm Beach. A former singer-songwriter who once had a contract with Motown, Ms. Revson had confabulated her first

Scunci–named after her ailing toy poodle–while forlornly house-sitting in Southampton, L.I., during the breakup of her marriage to Revlon heir John Revson. In short, she was an accidental entrepreneur–one who grew focused enough to be crowned Clairol’s Woman of the Year in 1994.

She brought Mr. Cinque in to help her with the business end of things in 1993. As gentle as she was, he was the “tough son-of-a-gun who fought the sharks,” as she put it.

The events leading up to the lawsuit began in December 1997. After Mr. Cinque won Ms. Revson a $2.4 million payday from a company that had been shorting her on scrunchy royalties, lawyer and client argued over fees. Ms. Revson had been doubting Mr. Cinque’s commitment to solving her business problems for months and wondering about the value of the $398,099.60 she had already paid him. Yet he was asking for $500,000 more.

Within a week, whatever psychological bond she had with her longtime legal watchdog melted, and she fired him. Immediately, she filed suit for breach of fiduciary duty–for specifically disobeying her instructions, for overstating his bills, and for refusing to continue to work for her unless she pay him a bonus that she hadn’t explicitly agreed to.

Mr. Cinque might have avoided the suit if he had not refused to turn over Ms. Revson’s records after their money dispute. His timing didn’t help: She had a major, multimillion-dollar hostile arbitration of a royalty dispute a month away, where she was potentially on the hook for millions. Infuriating her was that she had already promised–on paper–to give him 10 percent of whatever money he won for her in that case.

Her sense of betrayal was formidable. “I believed that he was my protector. I believed that he was the brother I never had. You know, he’s Italian, I’m Italian.”

Her new lawyer, Judd Burstein, who has represented Carl Icahn, Donald Trump and Bernard Nussbaum’s family and is a former partner of Gerald Shargel, expressed his disappointment a different way. “I am writing to you in one last effort to avoid litigation that will inevitably tarnish your reputation and, perhaps, reduce the size of your wallet,” he opened a letter to Mr. Cinque, written two days after the two firms’ first communication. “I apologize in advance for the harshness of this letter. I have no desire to fan the flames of an emotional dispute. Nor do I have the desire to conduct the legal equivalent of a proctology exam on your finances and billing practices. Yet I will not hesitate to do so unless you begin to act in a responsible manner.”

Mr. Burstein closed his missive on a slightly more clubby acknowledgment of just how ugly it can be for one lawyer to sue another: “I promise you that you will be paid what you deserve–even in the absence of contemporaneous time records–because I am a great believer in clients paying their bills.”

Mr. Cinque is representing himself and declined to discuss details of the case with The Observer . “It’s inappropriate for anyone involved in the suit to comment about the case before the proceeding,” he said. He relented for a minute to note that he didn’t see a last-minute settlement as likely. “We had a disagreement over fees, which reasonable people can do. But she’s turned this into something more; it’s about certain ethical issues and my reputation, beyond dollars and cents. This has become a very personal thing for her.”

In February 1997, Ms. Revson was feeling good about Mr. Cinque, but scared about her enterprise. She was deep in a dispute with the company that exclusively supplied and licensed her scrunchies to Kmart, Target, Wal-Mart and other national discount stores. It had never been an easy relationship with New L&N Sales & Marketing Inc.; each had sued the other a number of times. Now, as she fought to prevent them from undercutting her patent, they countersued for millions, accusing her of defrauding and conspiring with other outfits to undercut their exclusive contract. “It was all blood money,” she told The Observer . “I’ve had lots of sleepless nights the last 10 years.”

So Mr. Cinque and Ms. Klein traveled down to her Florida home for a few days of work to prepare for the L&N case. When Mr. Cinque got back to New York, he must have thought it was a productive visit. Ms. Revson wrote in an effusive note: “A strong sense of friendship and family fill my heart.… Time flies when we are together!” She promised he would get 10 percent of the recovery from L&N because “you stood by me and deserve it.”

After he left, though, she grew bitter. She said she had rising fears he wasn’t doing the homework to win the case.

On a Friday in October, she decided to light a fire under him: She surprised him at his house in East Hampton with a Mercedes 500 SL, complete with a red bow around it. On Monday, Mr. Cinque returned the gift to the dealership. She said, in court papers, that she suspects he was gearing up to ask for an even bigger reward.

Good news came around Thanksgiving. A deal with the Riviera Trading Corporation came together; the licensee, which supplied Scuncis to Bloomingdale’s and other companies, agreed to make up a $2.4 million royalty shortfall. The night of the closing at the Carlyle Hotel, Dec. 3, she handed out commemorative presents to the attorneys. Bob Cinque said to Riviera’s attorney, “You have no idea how generous she is; she’s generous to a fault. I always tell her, she’s too generous.”

Twelve hours after the closing, at 8:30 A.M., Ms. Revson was sleeping in her room at the Carlyle with the checks next to her bed. She told The Observer the phone rang and it was Bob Cinque. “So, do you feel rich today?” she said he asked her.

“No, I have a terrible headache, I’m terribly upset about what’s happened over the past week,” she said she told him. They had been bickering about contractual changes all week.

“Maybe this isn’t a good time to talk about my fees.”

“What fees?”

“My bonus.”

“Bonus?” He asked for what amounted to 14 percent of the deal, she contends.

“We didn’t have a contingency. I paid you full price,” she said she told him.

A few days later, she told him she didn’t think she was going to pay him a bonus. “He called me a greedy bitch and went off on me,” she said.

Mr. Cinque said he would not confirm or deny her account of the discussion. “It may become an issue in court how well we remember things,” he said.

Mr. Cinque will argue next month that he is still entitled to “fair and reasonable” compensation for his services in the Riviera transaction. As he sees it, he was only asking to be compensated in line with the success that he had helped her achieve. He kept up his end of the bargain: Ms. Revson called him at all hours for help with her many legal and business needs. And the bonus concept had not only been introduced by her for the L&N litigation, but he had also broached the subject in his initial retention letter: “If we [the firm] are able to achieve an outstanding result or substantial benefit for you, then our billing would be adjusted accordingly following consultation with you.”

He insists he wasn’t being greedy. “Had R. Cinque been the rapacious attorney that Ms. Revson and her newly acquired counsel Mr. Burstein claim that he is, would R. Cinque have declined the luxury Mercedes as he did?” he asked the court.

Ms. Revson had other legal fee disputes–often egged on by Mr. Cinque, she claims. Six years after parting ways with Ms. Revson, solo practitioner Gerard Dunne is still in court waiting for nearly $200,000 for work done when he was her chief counsel. She’s blaming him for negotiating a bad deal that left her poorer to the tune of $1.5 million a year–an allegation that Mr. Dunne calls “fantasy, and she knows it.” Mr. Cinque confirms telling Ms. Revson: “If you pay him a dime, I’ll never speak to you again.”

Mr. Cinque also helped her beat the fee claim of another firm, Whitman, Breed, Abbott & Morgan. In a third dispute, she overruled Mr. Cinque and settled. There were at least two other times she fought her lawyers over bills, Mr. Cinque said.

Mr. Cinque has had a falling out or two over money himself–and his fight with Ms. Revson isn’t the first time it’s over a bonus demand. Peter Brant, the real estate developer and polo player, turned down his request for a reward for winning a case involving Brant Publications Inc.’s purchase of Interview magazine. “He was a little huffy under the collar,” said Mr. Brant.

“We got a phenomenal result for him,” said Mr. Cinque, who didn’t remember how he expressed his disappointment.

Michael Stout, the executor of the Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe estates, stopped working with Mr. Cinque three years ago after a 20-year relationship. “We were very unhappy about certain things about Mr. Cinque’s attitude towards the financial aspects of representing our clients,” Mr. Stout said.

Mr. Cinque is a good advocate, said Mr. Brant and Mr. Stout. And, of course, Ms. Revson gives him credit for his hardball tactics.

But Ms. Revson said her current counsel is a better fit. Of course, said Ms. Revson, Mr. Burstein benefits from having a capable female partner, Laurie McPherson, Ms. Revson said. “I don’t know if I could have continued to work with Judd if I didn’t have Laurie, because she brings something else to the table that’s very comforting.”

Should Mr. Burstein and Ms. McPherson worry about getting paid? Maybe, but after the L&N case was finally resolved, resulting in “many, many millions” for Ms. Revson, the mother of the Scunci paid them a $600,000 bonus.

Lawyer, Scunci Queen Tangle Over Legal Fees