Billionaire Leon Black Targets the Law Firm Representing His Sexual Assault Accusers

Leon Black filed a motion for sanctions against Wigdor Law, a law firm representing two alleged sexual assault victims of Black. Black and Wigdor have a history of legal battles.

Leon Black onstage giving speech
Leon Black in 2018. Getty Images for Museum of Modern Art

Leon Black is asking for sanctions against a law firm which brought two sexual assault cases against him, the latest in a legal battle between the billionaire and New York-based Wigdor Law.

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Black, 71 and the co-founder of private equity firm Apollo Global Management, was first sued in 2021 by Russian model Guzel Ganieva, who alleged Black sexually abused her during a years-long affair and forced her to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Another lawsuit was filed against Black in November, this time under the Adult Survivors Act, which went into effect on Nov. 25 and gives sexual assault victims in New York a one-year window to bring claims against abusers, regardless of the statute of limitations. Under the act, Cheri Pierson claimed Black raped her in 2002 at the Manhattan mansion of late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Black has denied both accusations. Both women are clients of Wigdor Law, which has also represented sexual assault victims in cases against Harvey Weinstein and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In court filings, Black said Wigdor “repeatedly abused the court system to launder frivolous, unsubstantiated, and damaging accusations.” In a motion for sanctions filed in New York state court, he argued the law firm didn’t perform enough due diligence regarding statements made by Ganieva and Pierson, which he claims are false, and prioritized the destruction of Black’s reputation over addressing legitimate legal grievances. The motion also claimed Pierson’s account should be called into question due to her involvement in numerous lawsuits in the past.

The motion was filed by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, Perry Guha and Estrich Goldin, law firms which represent Black.

“The purpose of sanctions is to deter frivolous conduct,” said Susan Estrich, one of his attorneys, told the Observer. “The reason we filed them at this point is because this has gone on for two lawsuits.” Black has been falsely accused repeatedly, according to Estrich, while Wigdor Law ignored evidence that its clients are unreliable.

“The motion shows how pathetically desperate Leon Black is,” said Jeanne Christensen, an attorney at Wigdor Law, in a statement.

Sanctions filed against law firms are rare, especially those claiming a lawyer filed a case without doing their due diligence, according to Wendy Murphy, a former sex crimes prosecutor and a law professor at New England Law, a university in Boston.

Black previously sued Wigdor for racketeering

“It’s unusual, to put it mildly, to see a motion for sanctions filed on that basis,” said Murphy. “It’s pretty hard to persuade a court to punish a lawyer for filing a claim based solely on the fact that the person being sued is saying it didn’t happen.”

Courts can sanction attorneys if they are not representing clients on a good faith basis, meaning they should believe their accusations are valid, said Murphy.  However, their clients accusations should also be given the presumption of validity at the beginning stages of a case.

This isn’t the first time Black has brought legal action against Wigdor Law. In October 2021, after Wigdor brought forward Ganieva’s allegations, Black sued Ganieva and the law firm for defamation and racketeering charges, although Wigdor was dropped from the case in January. One of Black’s law firms, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, also withdrew from the racketeering case, citing a potential conflict of interest.

The charges additionally named Josh Harris, Black’s fellow Apollo co-founder, as a defendant. Black claimed Harris spread Ganieva’s allegations in a scheme aiming to oust Black from Apollo and help Harris take control of the firm.

Black stepped down as CEO and chairman of Apollo in March 2021, after an internal investigation which examined his ties with Epstein. He also later stepped down as chairman of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), although he remains on the board of trustees.

The racketeering claims were dismissed in June, a decision which Black’s attorneys said they are appealing. Meanwhile, in October, Wigdor and Ganieva requested that Perry Guha, another law firm representing Black, withdraw from the case, after Joan Illuzzi-Orbon moved to the firm from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

Ganieva claimed Illuzzi-Orbon was privy to confidential information from the case while working at the DA’s office, creating a conflict of interest. However, Perry Guha maintained that Illuzzi-Orbon wasn’t involved in the firm’s representation of Black, and a judge later dismissed the request.

Another lawsuit by Black against Ganieva and Wigdor claimed that Ganieva had violated her confidentiality agreement with the billionaire, under which Black had made payments to her totaling more than $9 million over six years. The Oct. 31 complaint also alleged that Ukrainian intelligence officials and various reports identified Ganieva on a list of employees for Russia’s principal security agency, which succeeded the KGB.

“This reporting may provide context and explanation for Ganieva’s actions,” including her “ruinous public statements and lawsuits which resulted in significant disruption of Black’s personal life and career at Apollo,” reads the complaint. Christensen, one of Ganieva’s attorneys, denied the allegations.

Billionaire Leon Black Targets the Law Firm Representing His Sexual Assault Accusers