• Mike McGroarty

Judge quotes 'Godfather,' classic literature to nudge local artist, ex-wife towards settlement

August 27, 2019


SANTA MONICA—Superior Court Judge Susan Lopez-Giss employed creative tactics—including good-natured psychological manipulation—to steer a local artist and his ex-wife closer to a divorce settlement on Monday.


The central conflict to be revolved was, on the surface at least, a simple matter of determining the date at which the marriage officially ended.


Of course, with that date potentially having an affect on the duration of spousal support, shared property, taxes owed to the IRS, and even the "feeling" of victory for either side, nothing was simple. Most of the day, therefore, was spent wrangling over the various reasons why the parties disagree on the date.


Judge Lopez-Giss rotated both parties and their legal teams back and forth in what resembled a high-stakes negotiating session commonly played out between big business and labor unions. Rarely did the two sides spend much time in the courtroom together.


Not only did this minimize bickering, but it also allowed Lopez-Giss to build rapport with each side, perhaps even leading each to believe that she was leaning in their favor.


For example, in response to the ex-wife's emotional plea for a return to an earlier proposed deal that the artist allegedly retracted, Lopez-Giss twirled her glasses and said knowingly, "It's the girlfriend. He's not coming up with this on his own. It's the girlfriend."


At this, the ex-wife and her attorney appeared emboldened, claiming that the "girlfriend" is an "independently wealthy" millionaire as a result of her own divorce settlement. They further asserted that she had loaned the artist money to pay a seven-figure tax bill, and that the two have been living in an historic mansion in Los Feliz called "The Castle."


Lopez-Giss proposed various settlement options to the ex-wife, which appeared to be a good-faith effort to strike a balance between the amount and duration of spousal support on the one hand and the ex-wife's claim to her ex-husband's artwork on the other.


As lunch break neared, however, none of these options satisfied her or her attorney.


The teams were switched, and Lopez-Giss, channeling Don Corleone, told the artist ex-husband, "You have to make her an offer she can't refuse."


After lunch, and alone again with the artist and his team, Lopez-Giss quoted classic literature, perhaps to appeal to his sense of culture. "Ever read Shakespeare?" 'Hell hath no fury...'" she recited with gravitas.


(The famous quote, "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned," commonly attributed to Shakespeare, is actually English Restoration playwright William Congreve's.)


Then, in a suddenly comical and self-deprecating tone, Lopez-Giss joked that she's a "brain dead idiot," making fun of her earlier confidence in proposing settlement options. She urged the artist to realize the extent to which his ex-wife's emotional state was holding up the settlement. "It's not you," Lopez-Giss told him. "It's her. She's angry."


While it's impossible to know exactly what was going on in the artist's head, he was clearly put at ease by this, opening up about the haphazard management of his business affairs and his dyslexia. "I was making art like a loony," he said. "My studio was run awfully."


This opened the door to more information about the state of the artist's finances. His legal team, including a forensic accountant, said they can show evidence of massive debts and advances from art galleries that must be payed back.


The judge's tone softened. She told the artist that she could understand how a "creative type" like him might lose track of his business affairs.


With both parties back in the room, Lopez-Giss reached for evolutionary biology and the principles of "Far Eastern" negotiation. Comparing family law to the "flight or flight" response of our "ancestors," she communicated an understanding for both parties' survival instincts. But, she lectured, the intellectual and rational part of our brain is not connected to our emotions. In order to get what you want, and not simply what the lawyers want, Lopez-Giss counseled, you have to be able to "give face" and "make people feel they're winning."


And that's something Lopez-Giss does extremely well.


The parties finally agreed on two dates: one for the end of the marriage, and another for shared property. Now the next stage of the settlement can begin.


(For the record: this writer is still scratching his head a little.)