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Aug 19 2011

Lawsuit Against Celebrity Chef Lidia Bastianich Will be Uphill Battle

The NY Post and other media outlets today posted that an Italian woman has filed a $5 Million lawsuit against celebrity Chef Lidia Bastianich claiming that Lidia “tricked” her into serving as a slave for Lidia’s next door neighbor. To summarize the allegations quickly, it seems Lidia’s neighbor asked Lidia to take care of his wife when he learned he had a terminal illness. In exchange, he signed over the deed to his house. After caring for her for about ten years, when the woman became very ill and needed full time attention, Lidia brought over the plaintiff, Maria Carmela Farina, from Italy to do the rough work for picking up the woman, bating her, and essentially attending to her daily needs. The plaintiff alleges Lidia promised her $600 per week plus gave her assurances that she would become Lidia’s TV sidekick, and help create recipes etc. The plaintiff also claims that she got exactly NOTHING. Not one penny, not one job as an assistant chef. She claims that when she complained, she was told that the money was being deposited into an account with her name on it. She only found out she was paid zero when the woman died in December 2010 and Lidia sought to evict her from the house. How long did this go on? SIX YEARS according to the complaint.

Will any jury in NY believe that a person would work for 6 years without seeing one dime and never complain in court (or to the police for that matter)? Did her lawyer consider that the statute of limitations is at most 6 years? When asked in the Post why the woman did not just get up and leave, her lawyer Paul Catsandonis replied:

[She] became bonded with this old lady, and didn’t want to leave her like that,” the lawyer said. “And she really believed that Lidia some day was going to make good on her promises.”

OK, so this shows why not everyone should be talking to the press about their pending cases. If the plaintiff on her own decided to continue doing this slave labor because she had “bonded” with the woman, then she was doing the work of her own free will and not because of any alleged promise made by Lidia. In his second sentence, he tries to make out a necessary allegation for a fraud claim -that the victim of the fraud relied on the promises of the defrauder. But his statement that she did this out of concern for the woman means she was not relying on those promises. Also, the reliance has to be justifiable. No reasonable person would rely on a promise of payment for 6 years while performing hard labor.

The plaintiff’s lawyer’s website does not say much about him, in fact the site is just one page topped by the double-headed eagle symbol of the Byzantine Empire (presumably to declare the attorney’s Greek roots I am guessing) and containing only the following paragraphs:

I am a founding member of Katsandonis, P.C. a full service law firm specializing in litigation. With over 8 years of trial experience, I have the know-how to vigilantly defend a particular matter without compromising the client ’s resources. I have litigated complex civil, matrimonial and custody cases at trial. I am currently involved in two high-profile matters that have received media attention. My motto is that the best defense is offense.

It would be a pleasure to have the opportunity to handle matters on your behalf. Should we have the opportunity to meet and discuss your matter, I am sure you will see that my unwavering tenacity in defending and prosecuting matters is unmatched.

I don’t mean to poke fun at a fellow member of the Bar,(well ok yes I do) but this is not a great endorsement. Having practiced for 8years is not something to crow about, that’s still an inexperienced trial attorney. In fact, most Bar Associations still charge a “young Lawyer” rate for anyone practicing less than ten years. But this is the new internet age, when you can declare yourself an expert instead of proving yourself one, so we will let that slide. But I don’t know what it means to have the “know-how” to vigilantly defend a matter without “compromising the client’s resources”? Does he mean he will work cheaply? If that’s the case every lawyer has that “know-how” – you just don’t charge a lot of money. He seems to be saying that his experience is mostly in family law as well. But there are two things I really love: (1) His motto is “The best defense is offense.” Of course, he meant the old adage “The best defense is a good offense” but with such sparse text, he really should have gotten his motto right, after all it is his motto. (2) And he should have proof-read his name. The law firm is called “Katsodonis, PC” but his last name is Catsodonis. The name is spelled with a K in two places and with a C in two places. Maybe you think I am nitpicking and being childish but it says alot about a lawyer to have this kind of sloppiness on his website, especially when his website only consists of precisely seven (7) sentences.

I get taking a case for just its publicity value when you are young and starting out like Mr. Catsodonis. But you should be prepared for the attention when you do and have your ducks in order. Meanwhile, Lidia must face headlines like “Celebrity Chef Lidia Bastianich Enslaved Employee, Lawsuit Charges” (NY post) and “Lawsuit:Celebrity Chef Lidia Bastianich Forced Itlaian Chef to Work Without Pay”(NY Daily News). No one pays attention to the part of the headline that avoids defamation charges by saying “Lawsuit charges” or “Lawsuit:” Around water coolers everywhere all anyone will remember is “Lidia Enslaved A Chef” The headline should have read “Woman Claims She Worked for 6 Years With No Pay and No Complaints” or “Celebrity Chef Forced to Defend Lawsuit that Makes No Sense.” But those are as attention-grabbing as the ones chosen by the papers.

I expect Lidia’s legal team to vigorously defend the lawsuit but would not be surprised if after the dust clears, the case goes away for some “nuisance value.” Lidia is likely to hire some mega-NY law firm who will bill her $1,200 per hour and attack the case as if she was accused of plotting the assassination of the President. They will assign 6 lawyers to the case, paper the plaintiff to death with discovery, dismissal motions until Lidia, after seeing the mounting legal bills throws her hands in the air and says “Basta! Enough! What will it take to make this go away?” I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it. I’ve seen it happen too many times before. Besides everyone knows that the best defense is offense.

13 comments

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  1. Martha Waltien

    I’m not even a lawyer, but I thought along the same lines as you that this plaintiff kept working…and working…and working..for no money? Why? She didn’t have to do that.

    Something is very fishy about the lawsuit.

    I don’t believe the plaintiff’s story.

  2. Oscar Michelen

    Martha: It sounded odd, which is why I wrote the post about it. I will keep an open mind and see what evidence surfaces as the case progresses and update the post as it happens. Thanks for posting

  3. Martha Waltien

    Yes, of course…we don’t have the evidence. (You are welcome.)

    Imagine, though, if the basis is groundless. I would feel very sorry for Lidia if that were the case. She has a lot at stake.

  4. Oscar Michelen

    Indeed. Thats why it can be a blessing and a curse to be famous – you get many benefits and preferential treatment, but you can also be a target for frivolous litigation and claims.

  5. Hazel

    You left out the part about the woman’s visa. Bastianich lied on the visa papers that the woman was being brought over to be a chef. So there’s that.

  6. Oscar Michelen

    I don’t doubt that there will be interesting testimony and evidence on both sides of the trial. All the more reason that one or both of the parties would likely prefer to avoid a public trial.

  7. Adora Infantino

    The real question is why would Lidia even bother getting herself involved in something like this? Her greed is seeping through; why bother using someone from Italy when she could have used an “In-Home Agency” in her State? She had no need to use her money.

  8. Oscar Michelen

    A worthy point!

  9. Antonico Tunana

    The thing here is: Lidia went to Italy to find someone to make an slave, because agencies will take care of people, but no for free..that the point, she wanted to save money for her, because she knew what she had in her mind. Of course, she knew that the Lady from Italy will be tided to the situation, no money to go back, etc, plus their lie to her saying were putting money in a checking account, when that was no true. I believe that lady is telling the truth. People from with money want more money. Lidia have a Tv program , selling things, but also wanted the house of that person, and wanted to mantain in secret how much she could, but didn’t happened…why? she lie from the begining, telling to that poor lady that will be her assistant at the Tv show? She did something wrong, now need to pay with hight interes..period…Slavery is not accepted, specially here in this country, where people talk about freedom !!!

  10. Oscar Michelen

    Antonico: OF course, if the allegations are true, then Ms. Bastianich will have to pay. All I am saying is that from what I can read from the information that is public, is that Ms. Farina could have a hard time proving this claim without hard evidence, like a writing or a recording of some kind.

  11. Giuditta

    Add into your mix that in Italy deals like this are common. Many fashion magazines would go under without the dozens of people working for free with a promised job on the horizon. Any media job may be done for free for some period of time or may turn out to be something other than what was promised. It just isn’t odd in Italy. We have no idea, for example, how many nightclub hostesses thought they were going to be decorative girls on TV programs. A tiny percentage do get there .. Clooney’s ex for example, but most end up turning tricks or close to it.

  12. Oscar Michelen

    Thanks for sharing that insight with us Giuditta – even in the US lots of folks do things for free for media companies in the hope that it would turn in to something permanent and paid, but normally for much shorter periods of time than is involved in this case. But if the plaintiff could prove that these types of arrangements are common in her home country, it might make it easier for an American jury to believe her story.

  13. slave.of.mom.n.em.

    It seems that many people promise great things to those that will work “on the come” for future fortune, enrichment, and/or status; however, these poor but well-meaning folk are “taken” for a ride. Pay up .

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