In a family fight a judge that turned siblings against each other, four sisters Monday won a $547.9 million judgment against two older brothers whom a judge found cheated them out of their inheritance in their family’s 70-year-old company.
Ending a Byzantine estate battle involving decades-old transactions, U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman said in a 103-page opinion that brothers Dennis and John Griffin had intimidated their sisters to keep them from getting their fair share of a fortune derived from Griffin Industries, a Northern Kentucky rendering business their father founded in 1943.
Bertelsman ordered John Griffin and the estate of Dennis Griffin, who died last year, to pay three of the sisters, Linda Holt, Cynthia Roeder, and Judith Prewitt, $178.8 million each, and to pay $11.6 million to a fourth sister, Elizabeth Osborn. Osborn had already settled another suit.
DBL Law attorney Kent Wicker, one of the lawyers for the sisters, said: “Obviously, we are very pleased with the judge’s decision today. Our clients have waited a long time for justice to be done.”
Cincinnati attorney Joseph Callow, an attorney for the brothers, said he was disappointed with the ruling but that it would be appealed.
Bertselman said the brothers froze out their sisters by “sharing information selectively, by leveraging their roles to discourage and, sometimes, intimidate, the sisters from seeking information, and by “staunchly insisting that their actions were in keeping with their Father’s wishes, even in the face of documents that reflected the contrary.”
The judge said the breaches occurred “amid a family dynamic in which it was the sons — or ‘working boys,’ as they have been referred to — who were schooled in the business that their father had built and, ultimately, who followed in his management shoes when their father was incapacitated by a stroke and later died.
In contrast, he said, the Griffin daughters “seemingly occupied what might be termed traditional gender roles with respect to the family business.”
But “while defendants’ mantra in litigation has been that ‘Father wanted the boys to get stock and the girls to get a million dollars,’ none of their parents’ estate plan reflected such an intent,” the court said.
Bertelsman ruled in 2014 that brothers John and Dennis breached their duties by selling themselves the stock in the company and valuable real estate for far less than they were worth.
“Although millions of dollars are at stake, at heart this is a family fight,” Bertelsman said.
Holt, Roeder and Prewitt lived in Northern Kentucky while Osborn lives in St. Louis, Wicker said.
The sisters first learned they may have been cheated in 2010, when Cynthia’s daughter received tax documents that disclosed the stock ownership of the company and showed how much more stock the brothers had than their sisters, Wicker said.
This story was originally written by Reporter Andrew Wolfson and printed in the Courier-Journal.
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