Published on May 12th, 2023 | by Dr. Jerry Doby0
Franci Neely: I’m Proud of Susman Godfrey’s Fox News Settlement
Leading trial firm Susman Godfrey has made headlines for its client Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation suit against Fox News Network. Retired attorney and philanthropist Franci Neely was the firm’s first woman lawyer and partner. “I was with them, or their predecessors in name, since 1979 until I retired,” she says.
On April 18, Dominion and Fox News reached a $787.5 million settlement ahead of a jury trial that was set to start in Delaware Superior Court. “I am so proud of my law firm,” says Neely. “I’m really proud of Susman Godfrey, though, and what they were able to accomplish. Because Fox could pay lawyers forever more. And I’m sure they resisted all my firm’s efforts to get documents, like resting them out. So I am confident that it was not an easy job.”
It’s believed to be the largest defamation-related settlement ever reached, yet another reason Neely is beaming with pride.
“I was fortunate to be recruited as one of the first six lawyers ever at the law firm that became Susman Godfrey,” says Neely. Steve Susman was the firm’s founder. Neely says he was “a brilliant lawyer who began his legal career at Fulbright & Jaworski, a big, multipurpose firm. From the beginning, Steve’s philosophy was to hire the best and the brightest regardless of gender, color, or sexual orientation.
“I didn’t experience the same degree of gender bias that many other women lawyers in the 1980s probably faced. Instead, Steve embraced me for who I was. He expected me to represent our clients zealously, and I did.”
Franci Neely adds, “Steve believed in the firm’s lawyers enough to provide them first-chair experience early in their careers and to pay them well for doing so. In return, our litigation-only firm worked hard.”
Dominion Case Details
The $787.5 settlement was approximately a quarter of Fox News’ available cash when the deal was reached. As a result, there was no need for what The Washington Post called “one of the most highly anticipated media trials in decades.” The Wall Street Journal stated, “The case was set to test the contours of modern media law.”
It began in March 2021 when Dominion filed a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox. The suit claimed that Fox News and its commentators repeatedly stated that the voting machines from Dominion were responsible for stealing the 2020 election from then-President Donald Trump.
Dominion brought the suit against the network because the Fox News comments put their voting machines at the center of the conspiracy that the presidential election was rigged in favor of Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
In a press conference, Justin Nelson, a Susman Godfrey partner, and Dominion’s co-lead counsel, stated that the settlement “represents vindication and accountability” and proves that “lies have consequences.”
Nelson and partners Stephen Shackelford and Davida Brook are heading up similar litigation against former lawyers for Trump, including Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell; Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO; Patrick Byrne, founder of overstock.com; and media outlets Newsmax and OAN.
Franci Neely Discusses Her Legal Career
Neely remembers being hired at what became Susman Godfrey about a year after she completed law school. After about four years with the firm, Neely became a partner. “We were trained in the line of fire,” Neely recalls. “As a very young lawyer, I took depositions of key executives in major Houston companies, defended by the best litigators in Houston, including the famous Joe Jamail
Jamail passed away in 2015. However, during his illustrious career, he was considered the wealthiest practicing attorney in America. Forbes estimated his net worth to be $1.5 billion in 2011. In 1985, he won a $10.53 billion jury verdict against Texaco for his client Pennzoil.
Neely reminisces, “Joe’s technique was to intimidate his adversary, and he was top-notch at doing just that. I recall taking the deposition of a Houston real estate tycoon who Joe was defending. Joe kept interrupting my questions to derail me. This was during the 1980s, and at one point, he said, ‘Hey, honey, where did you go to law school? In the Soviet Union?’ I continued with my questions, undeterred.”
Neely never shied away from challenging litigation during her law career. “I worked on many fascinating cases, such as the case between Northrop Corp. and McDonnell Douglas Corp. over the foreign sales rights to the F-18 fighter plane.”
In April 1985, McDonnell settled the case for $50 million. The companies said they agreed that McDonnell Douglas will be the prime contractor in all sales of the F-18, domestic and foreign. Settling is “the norm for most big-dollar cases,” says Neely.
Franci Neely was also one of the lead lawyers for the underwriters in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case. She says that was “a suit Exxon brought in Harris County, Texas, its world headquarters, against some of the least popular people in the world: insurance companies.”
She’s also proud to have represented a woman whose three male partners had wrongfully squeezed her out of their partnerships. “The jury and judge agreed that the guys had behaved illegally,” says Neely. “Forty years after the case was resolved, I remain in touch with a woman who, when in her late teens, was hit by a car while walking by the side of the road. That young woman ultimately married the sheriff’s deputy who came to the scene of the accident. They are still married and still communicate with me regularly.
“Another of my clients was sued by a large securities firm for $50 million, alleging that my client had defrauded it. The judge and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. We managed to obtain a summary judgment, with the court finding there were no disputed issues of material fact on every cause of action that the securities firm had brought. The judge correctly wrote that if our client was a scoundrel, the securities firm knew it in advance and intentionally chose to continue to do business with him. Our client simply outsmarted the big firm, and that was not actionable.”
Franci Neely says she “was one of the most outspoken lawyers at the firm when I practiced there, as my colleagues will readily acknowledge. I did not back down from standing up for what I thought was right. I had the courage of my convictions, even before I made partner.”