Valley Man Becomes Legal Legend as Prolific Plaintiff
David Marc Greenstein sued UPS for ruining his rare Star Trek posters.
He sued Slim Fast for putting diet bars in packages he thought were misleadingly big. He sued a Van Nuys store he accused of saying it had a certain tile in stock when it didn’t. He sued a dog-training service that he said failed to train his German shepherd and his poodle.
He sued his ex-wife. He got his current wife to sue her hairdresser for cutting her tresses too short before the wedding. He sued the wedding photographer, four times.
And when the businessmen he sued grumbled about him, he sued them again for slander.
Greenstein, 57, of Woodland Hills, has filed more than 100 lawsuits. It may be 200, he says, but in any case so many lawsuits that he can’t remember just what his total is. He is becoming a sort of legend in the San Fernando Valley legal system and to his opponents a prime example of the need for a little known law to restrain what are called “vexatious litigators.”
A disbarred attorney and author of the book “Sue and Grow Rich,” Greenstein said in an interview he sues out of a passion for justice rather than wealth, making about $1 an hour on his low-sum lawsuits. He expects the public to view him, he said, as “a cross between Don Quixote, Ralph Nader and Charles Keating,” referring to the impractically visionary knight-errant, the consumer champion and the convicted swindler.
Many he’s sued have harsher assessments. In counter suits, at least six San Fernando Valley businesses accuse Greenstein of taking their merchandise or services and refusing to pay them.
Some legal experts say Greenstein--whose license to practice law was revoked after he pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit grand theft auto--shows the damage a skilled litigator can inflict if he carefully chooses his targets.
“A little bit of knowledge can be very dangerous,” said Chris Cameron, a professor at Southwestern School of Law and an expert on civil procedure. “If it’s an attorney, it just takes it up a notch because they know even more levers to pull.”
“For him to file costs $40, $50. For me to defend myself will cost thousands,” said Art Davis, a businessman enmeshed in a three-year legal battle with Greenstein. “We have no protection against people like this.”
There is however a little-known state law restraining chronic filers of frivolous lawsuits, if they qualify under the statute for classification as “vexatious litigants.”
Greenstein has filed more lawsuits than most of the 79 persons classed by Los Angeles County courts as vexatious litigants, most of whose lawsuits are numbered by the dozen.
To be classed vexatious, litigants must lose five cases in seven years, and a judge must rule that their cases are frivolous, barring them from filing any more without court permission.
Greenstein does not fall under the statute because he wins most of his cases, often settling before trial. Four cases have gone against him, but he disputes they would all be considered “losses” under the statute.
“People look and say 200 cases, it’s gotta be a scam,” Greenstein said. “But if you go and look at each case, if you look at the outcome,” they are all merited, he said.
Some who’ve settled with Greenstein say they felt bullied into it. “When you’re looking at your children and your house and everything you own, and somebody is saying ‘I’m going to take this away from you unless you do exactly what I say,’ you get scared,” said one 37-year-old mother of four who settled one of Greenstein’s suits.
Greenstein has a lighter side--he is a passionate “Star Trek” fan who once showed up for a conference at a rival attorney’s office in full Star Fleet officer costume. He built and is now managing director of the Enterprise Bed and Breakfast, an inn in the Cayman Islands with a “Star Trek” theme, adorned with flags of allied planets.
He says he was expelled from Van Nuys High School because he made too many speeches in the courtyard and he had an early encounter with the law when, as a teenager, he shot his father to death to protect his mother.
One day when he was 18, Greenstein’s estranged father--who Greenstein describes as an abusive alcoholic trucker--arrived at the home of Greenstein’s mother in a rage. Greenstein pointed a pistol at him and his father grabbed it, and crying, “I’m going to kill you all,” shot Greenstein in the arm, he said.
Father and son struggled over the pistol, and it went off three more times, killing the father. His death was ruled a justifiable homicide by a coroner’s inquest.
“This is a recollection that is indelibly etched on my mind,” Greenstein said recently. “I’ve never regretted the situation, because . . . we lived.”
Even before his first brush with the criminal justice system, Greenstein had been fascinated with the law. Following the shooting, he spent his spare time sitting in Valley courtrooms, watching the wheels of justice turn. After several years of working odd jobs, he enrolled in night school at the University of San Fernando College of Law, earning his law degree in 1968 and opening an office in Encino in 1969.
A year later, the law practice landed him in jail.
According to a report from the State Bar of California on his disbarment, Greenstein backdated records to aid a client who was arrested while dismantling Greenstein’s own Porsche. Both men were charged with conspiracy to commit grand theft auto, for purposes of insurance fraud, and two counts of grand theft. Greenstein was initially released on bail, but sent back to jail after he was charged with soliciting one client to kill another.
Greenstein pleaded guilty to the conspiracy to commit grand theft auto, and was released on bail after the other charges were dropped.
Weeks later, he tried to withdraw his plea, saying he made it only to escape County Jail, where he had been “homosexually assaulted,” according to the bar report. The assaults, the report said, were never reported.
Although he said he was willing to go to trial on the far more severe charge of solicitation to commit murder if his plea to the conspiracy charge was withdrawn, a Superior Court judge denied his request. He served four more months in jail and was disbarred in 1974. At his request, the conviction was stricken from his record in 1976.
Greenstein now says he was guilty only of doing what an attorney is supposed to do--protect his client’s rights--and his actions were ethical under the principle of attorney-client confidentiality. The charges against him, he contends, were manufactured by vengeful authorities eager to topple a newly minted attorney.
A psychiatrist who examined Greenstein in jail concluded his “identity and ego were completely involved in his legal career,” the bar association report said. Even after he was disbarred, Greenstein continued to work in the law, doing freelance paralegal work and writing his book, the full title of which is “Sue and Grow Rich: How to Handle Your Own Personal Injury Claim Without an Attorney.”
Greenstein calls the title “gimmicky,” and says that the book does not advocate fraud. In it he advises against exaggerating injuries, while also instructing would-be litigants how to find “hidden defendants” and trick attorneys into giving free legal advice.
By the time he wrote his book--dedicated to, among others, the Greek philosopher Diogenes who searched in vain for an honest man--Greenstein says he was disgusted with the legal profession.
He declined to apply for readmission to the bar and flaunted his status. He drove a car with a “DISBARD” vanity plate and wore a small red “D” patch, which he pointed to as his “scarlet letter” if his disbarment was brought up by opponents in court proceedings.
But he remained a regular in the courts, filing so many lawsuits that some court officials recognize his name with a scowl.
“If something is wrong, I have the ability . . . to do something about it,” Greenstein said, adding later: “To me it’s a matter of course. If somebody gives me what I’ve paid for, I pay it, it’s not a problem. It’s when somebody figures they can beat me, or beat the system, or [think that] I don’t know what I’m doing, that there’s trouble.”
This trouble has been manifested as lawsuits against a cross-section of American society, from the couple he sued for backing out of an agreement to buy a piano from him, to big corporations like American Express and Continental Airlines. Slim Fast shrunk the size of its diet bar packaging after Greenstein’s suit and wrote a $1,000 check to the American Red Cross as part of a settlement.
Greenstein says he received no money for the Slim Fast case, which he says is one of the cases of which he is proudest.
Others leave a bitter taste in his mouth, like his wife’s $250,000 suit that alleged that a hairdresser at Pini Salon in Tarzana lopped off two feet of Laurel Belkin’s calf-length hair weeks before her marriage to Greenstein--charges denied by the salon. Belkin was traumatized by the loss of much of her hair, which was a defining characteristic she had grown out since her childhood, according to the suit.
The couple dropped the case during a bitter trial. Greenstein wrote angry letters to the opposing attorney and judge on the case, which led to them securing two restraining orders against him.
Greenstein says many of his claims begin in incidents similar to the one that set off his suit against the Mintz Concrete Co. Greenstein says that Mintz was hired to dig footings for cement work at his hillside Woodland Hills home, but that when he complained the job was not done correctly, owner Barry Mintz fired back the classic retort: “Pay me or sue me.”
“Wrong one to say it to,” Greenstein said with a smile, although Mintz says he never made such a challenge.
Greenstein slapped the company with a $3,500 breach of contract suit, and, as he remembers it, settled a year later for $500 after the company admitted not digging the footing. But Mintz tells a different story, saying Greenstein refused to pay for $2,400 of work and that he settled only because his insurance company said the case was too costly to fight.
Many of those who have settled or consider settling with Greenstein say it is an economic decision.
“It’s just cost prohibitive for a small business to fight these cases,” said Robert A. Schwartz, an attorney for Keyboard Galleria in Woodland Hills, which settled one of Greenstein’s suits. “Whether he’s right or wrong, you just can’t fight a $10,000 suit over a $300 piano.”
Attorneys say the suits and Greenstein’s use of the discovery process emotionally wear down his opponents. “It can really take a toll on a person’s health,” said Greg Stone, who’s defending a Woodland Hills computer company against Greenstein. Greenstein dismisses this as an excuse made by people who have done wrong. He says that since he has not been declared a vexatious litigant, he has a right to sue when injured.
Some merchants report positive dealings with Greenstein. “He’s been very, very good,” said LuAnn Parks of Warehouse Discount in Agoura Hills, where Greenstein bought an $800 faucet only to find it was defective. The faucet is being reordered from Germany, and Greenstein said no lawsuit is in the works.
But there are others like Mastercraft Door and Window Center in Canoga Park, which has swapped lawsuits with Greenstein. He alleges that much of the $10,000 worth of equipment he bought from Mastercraft was defective, and Mastercraft claims Greenstein owes the company money.
As he has done in other disputes, Greenstein picketed Mastercraft offices and its booths at home shows, distributing leaflets accusing Mastercraft of fraud. Greenstein said he sent a friend (whom he had once sued in small claims court) to the Mastercraft booth. Greenstein’s friend asked Mastercraft employees about Greenstein and captured their replies on tape, Greenstein said.
The alleged replies were cited in a $25,000 defamation suit against employee Mike Davis.
His mother, Cecelia Davis, owner of Mastercraft, says she’s not about to back down. “I want this guy out of business,” she said in an interview, vowing to beat Greenstein in court. “This is going to be my good deed for Los Angeles.”
Greenstein, meanwhile, says he doesn’t plan to retreat from his principles any time soon.
“I can’t live with someone screwing me over,” he said. “It’s cost me in my life and it will cost me again.”
Times researcher Rebecca Andrade contributed to this story.