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Titanic Sinking

Throwback: Curtis and the Titanic Lawsuits

Curtis Partner Frederic K. Seward, Sr. (great nephew of Secretary of State William Seward) represented several third-class passengers on a pro bono basis in what became an estimated US$2.5 million class action lawsuit against the White Star Line, operator of the Titanic, which sank in April 1912.

The case was close to Seward’s heart: he was one of the 706 survivors of the Titanic himself, having escaped in a lifeboat to survive.

Having concluded some Curtis business in Europe, he had planned his return on the Titanic's maiden voyage, from Southampton, England to New York.

A total of US$664,000 compensation (around US$30,000,000 today) was paid out to indigent passengers and their families by White Star Line in December 1915 in final settlement for all outstanding legal claims.

Aviation world war 2

Throwback: Attorneys, Aviators and WWII Damages Claims

As an airman, Curtis’ John P. Campbell led the bombing of several electric power plants during World War II on a campaign over what is now Serbia. As a Curtis attorney decades later, he was to represent the owners of the very same power plants, seeking compensation for their destruction as a war damages claim.

As a young man, Curtis partner John P. Campbell saw active service in World War II, during which, among other activities, he undertook bombing expeditions over the former Yugoslavia. In one such mission, his unit heavily damaged two electric power plant targets located at Novi Sad and Vojvodina. Campbell was shot down twice during the war, first over what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, which he allegedly escaped with the help of Yugoslav partisans; and later over present-day Slovakia, where he was turned in to German authorities before eventually making his way back to the U.S.

Safely back in New York, Campbell joined Curtis as a junior associate in 1952. One of his first cases was an expropriation claim for various infrastructure assets, including two electric power plants in the former Yugoslavia, by extraordinary coincidence the very same that he had bombed during the war. The power plants were owned by the American Yugoslav Electric Company, which was itself owned by investors who were Curtis clients.

The original case was under the auspices of the International Claims Settlement Commission. At the time, war damage claims were specifically excluded from consideration, which significantly limited the size of the award.

Ten years later, the 1962 U.S. War Claims Act created special provisions for religious structures and small businesses, paving the way for war damage claims. It surely must have been a source of some satisfaction to Campbell when he succeeded in getting one of the clients categorized as a small business for the purposes of its claim. He secured it a US$500,000 award (equivalent to US$4.1 million today) and as a partner in the firm now, he would have received the settlement check on his client's behalf.

Campbell went on to play a significant part in developing Curtis’ corporate, bankruptcy, and litigation practices.

History Suffragettes

Throwback: Edna Pierson Hopkins - Nearly the First Female Partner on Wall Street

Edna Pierson Hopkins was among the first women ever to graduate Washburn University School of Law in 1918. Prior to law school, she had attended Bryn Mawr and Simmons Colleges after receiving her A.B. degree from the University of Kansas and teaching English at Topeka High School. Shortly before graduation from Washburn, Edna loaned the law school her late father’s entire law library to help it reach the number of volumes required by the Association of American Law Schools.

She joined Curtis in October 1918, a full two years prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment, which granted women suffrage.

Edna started as a law clerk for Harris D. Colt. After passing the New York Bar, she continued as the firm’s first woman associate. Edna was also one of the first charter members of the Kansas Women Lawyers’ Association, which was established in 1919 to urge women to “take up law as a profession.”

Over time she became indispensable to the firm and was invited to join the partnership. She declined the invitation to become a partner in what was then Stearns, Curtis & Colt, because she felt that “it would not be fitting.”

Had she accepted, Curtis would have been the first Wall Street law firm to elect a woman partner. Another few years passed before a woman received that invitation. According to the New York Women’s Bar Association, the first woman to make partner at a Wall Street law firm was Soia Mentschikoff at Spence, Windels Walser, Hotchkiss & Angell in 1944.

Edna assumed the role of a de facto partner anyway. For example, she attended partnership meetings and trained and mentored a generation of Curtis lawyers that included noted Curtis partners Townsend Knight and John P. Campbell, who described her many years later as “outspoken” and “intolerant of soft thinking.”

Edna remained affiliated with Curtis until her retirement in 1962. She was posthumously awarded Washburn University School of Law’s Distinguished Alumni Recognition Award on June 21, 2008.

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Throwback 3 Severo Mallet Prevost

Throwback: Founding Partner Severo Mallet-Prevost and his Tryst with the Peralta Grant

In March 1883, James Addison Reavis, a Civil War deserter, put forth a petition (including Spanish-language documentation) claiming rights to the territory covering much of present-day New Mexico and Arizona.

Reavis attempted to establish validity of title by way of marriage. He married a young woman who claimed her maiden name was Peralta and that she was related to a conquistador who had been awarded the massive land grant from the Spanish monarchy. This was significant in that Spanish titles (and territory) originating from the Crown were recognized as valid by the United States under the 1853 treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. As the conquistador’s descendant, the territory was rightfully hers and, by extension, her husband’s.

Approximately ten years prior to joining Curtis, Severo Mallet-Prevost was the assistant attorney general responsible for reviewing the Peralta-Reavis claims and for putting together the government’s case before a special United States Court of Private Land Claims in Sante Fe.

While many officials fretted over how to handle Reavis’ claims, which were taken to be valid, Mallet-Prevost was able to establish that the supposed title, which traced back to the vice regency in Mexico as well as the Crown records in Seville, was in reality an elaborate hoax. As a native Spanish speaker, Mallet-Prevost became suspicious when he saw that the “original” documents had linguistic errors. He traveled both to Mexico and to the General Archive of the Indies in Spain. There, he examined the actual originals and discovered that Reavis had altered them and inserted the name “Peralta.”

After a trial held in which his wife “Peralta” testified, it was revealed that Reavis had made up the story of her illustrious background, and convinced Peralta herself that it was true.

Reavis was unmasked as a fraudster thanks to the linguistic and historical detective work of Mallet-Prevost. Following the indictment and subsequent conviction of Reavis, the grant was voided.

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Old penny BW

Throwback: Curtis, Carlisle, and the Gold Standard

William E. Curtis Jr., the son of founding member and namesake William Edmond Curtis, joined Stearns & Curtis (as the firm was then known) in 1877. He remained with the firm until his retirement in 1920, with the small but significant exception of four years in which he served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under President Grover Cleveland.

This period would prove to be quite fruitful indeed for Curtis Jr. – and also amplified the firm’s involvement in the development of the U.S. industrial economy.

During his time in office, the nation was reeling from a currency crisis. As a consequence of the Shearman Silver Purchase Act of 1889, the U.S. Treasury Department was required to purchase silver each month, using notes redeemable in gold. Due to an oversupply in the world market, silver was valued at approximately half the rate of gold at the time. Employing the Shearman Act shrewdly, investors capitalized voraciously on the cheap silver – obtaining large quantities and selling it to the U.S. government in exchange for gold. By February 1895, the Treasury was losing nearly US$2 million in gold each day.

To contend with the crisis, Secretary of the Treasury John Carlisle (himself later a partner at the firm), made a public request to bankers – asking them to sell gold to the Treasury in an effort to stave off a run on the nation’s reserves. As a former Senator for Kentucky, Carlisle was an unknown among New York’s banking elite. Thankfully, Curtis Jr. was not – in 1893 he traveled back to the city on a mission to woo influential financiers.

Despite their best efforts, seducing bankers could not stave off the crisis indefinitely. Thankfully the pair soon devised a better solution – employing emergency legislation passed during the U.S. Civil War that would enable Congress to issue bonds for the purpose of buying gold.

A fierce proponent of global free trade, Carlisle outlined in an 1888 speech on tariff reform his preference for a gold-backed currency, contending it was a question of “whether the general business of the people shall be transacted with good or bad money, whether the wages of labor shall be paid in a sound and stable currency, with full purchasing power in the markets, in which these are exchanged for the necessaries of life, or in a depreciated and fluctuating currency having no fixed value.”

This stance on currency undermined the political careers of both Curtis Jr. and Carlisle in the Democratic Party, the base of which at the time largely consisted of Western and Southern agricultural and mining communities – which were deeply in debt and therefore would be burdened by a further hardening of the dollar. In appearing to side with bankers such as JP Morgan (who visited President Cleveland personally on this very issue) and East Coast commercial markets, their time at the helm of the Treasury was cut short. Upon leaving office in 1897, Carlisle joined Curtis Jr. at the latter’s family firm. Carlisle’s career flourished at Curtis where he represented industrial clients including the New York and Porto Rico [sic] Steamship Company and the Houston and Texas Railroad Company.

The U.S. continued to employ a form of the gold standard until the Nixon administration.