In the first of 98 cases set to go to trial against MetLife and two subsidiaries, a retired woman from Simi Valley was awarded $15.6 million after losing her life savings to a fraudulent scheme. Among her winning attorneys was Santa Barbaran Tom Foley, a founding partner of Foley Bezek Behle & Curtis LLP, who acted as co-lead counsel with Richard E. Donahoo of Donahoo & Associates PC of Tustin.
The plaintiff, Christine Ramirez, had attended meetings run by Tony Russon, a managing partner for MetLife’s wholly owned subsidiary New England Life Insurance Co. and a registered principal for its New England Securities. Russon was pitching long-term care policies for assisted-living nursing care, Foley explained, and recommended a program with MetLife affiliate Diversified Lending Group (DLG), which “guaranteed” a 12 percent return that customers could use to pay insurance premiums. In 2008, Ramirez invested nearly $280,000 with DLG, a real estate fund, unaware that it was run by Bruce Friedman, convicted by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2009 for pocketing $216 million of DLG funds. The securities that Ramirez purchased were unregistered and worthless.
A civil suit for violation of securities laws and deceit was initially submitted as a class action suit with 98 plaintiffs, but the courts did not accept it. Ramirez’s case was the first to reach trial on a preferential basis as she has stage-four breast cancer.
“The evidence we presented in this case,” said Foley, “clearly showed that MetLife was aware that the branch office run by Tony Russon was not following MetLife’s own policies and procedures and that they failed to act to correct this dangerous behavior.”
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury awarded Ramirez punitive damages from the defendants all around: $10 million from MetLife, $2.5 million each from New England Securities and New England Life Insurance Co., and $330,000 from Russon. Friedman died in a French jail in 2012 after he fled the U.S. when sued by the SEC. No autopsy or death certificate exists, Foley stated, and since much of Friedman’s money is missing, some clients suspect he is living somewhere beyond the reach of U.S. extradition treaties.
“I am so grateful to the jurors for seeing through MetLife’s finger-pointing argument that they weren’t responsible for the loss of my retirement savings,” said Ramirez, whom Foley described as having four children, 11 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. She thanked the judge and her attorneys, and added, “I am looking forward to the other investors in DLG getting their justice as well.”
Foley said MetLife is likely to appeal the decision; should that occur, the appeal, too, can be expedited.