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High Court Rejects Judgment Appeal : Doris Day Wins 17-Year Battle With Ex-Attorney

Times Staff Writer

Entertainer Doris Day’s 17-year battle with her one-time attorney ended Wednesday when the state Supreme Court rejected the lawyer’s appeal of a multimillion-dollar judgment against him for legal malpractice.

The high court upheld conclusions of a trial court and a Court of Appeal that lawyer Jerome B. Rosenthal acted improperly by investing several million dollars earned by Day in ill-fated gas and oil ventures and hotels--often in companies which, unknown to the actress, were owned by Rosenthal.

In 1975, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lester E. Olson awarded Day a $26-million judgment against Rosenthal, though Day later settled with Rosenthal’s insurance companies for $6 million.

Both the trial judge and the appellate justices repeatedly used such words as greed and sham to describe the Hollywood lawyer and his dealings with Day and her late husband, Martin Melcher.

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Effort to Clear Name

Rosenthal, now in his mid-70s, appealed the case largely in an effort to clear his name, lawyers involved say.

The lawyers also agreed that the case--which “may very well be the oldest active case in the (state) court system,” according to Day’s lawyer, Peter J. Gregora--is now over.

Rosenthal dealt most closely with Melcher, who started out as Day’s agent in the 1940s when she was a cabaret singer and married her in 1951. As she became a success in a series of movies in the 1950s and ‘60s, she gave her husband almost complete control of her business affairs, the courts noted.

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Melcher in turn gave control of the money to Rosenthal, who became business and tax adviser to Day and Melcher. And under a 1956 arrangement, Rosenthal was to receive 10% of virtually everything owned or earned by Day and Melcher, the appeal court noted.

Fired by Day and Son

When Melcher died in 1968, Day and her son, Terrence, fired Rosenthal, prompting him to sue. Day filed a suit of her own, accusing the lawyer of double dealing.

The high court without a dissenting vote declined to review the lower court rulings.

Gerald Goldfarb, Rosenthal’s lawyer, had urged the high court to at least invoke a procedure called depublication to erase the Court of Appeal opinion that criticized his client from official volumes of appellate court cases. The court did not act on that request.

Goldfarb said the lower courts’ characterization of Rosenthal was a “real injustice.”

“The truth of the matter was that Rosenthal and Melcher worked to create a business empire,” Goldfarb said. “Rosenthal was trying to make everyone rich, including himself. But as things work out, the investments didn’t work. There wasn’t anything dishonest about him at all.”

The State Bar had delayed disciplinary proceedings against Rosenthal pending the outcome of the case.

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