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'The Black Hole

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  • | 6:00 p.m. March 5, 2004
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'The Black Hole

Nearly seven years ago Jeffrey Warren successfully represented Celotex through its bankruptcy reorganization. Now he is defending the Asbestos Settlement Trust.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

One day last month Dean Robert Jerry of the University of Florida College of Law sought an audience with Jeffrey Warren. The two talked about new law school construction, admissions policies and fundraising.

Later in the day, Congressman Jim Davis, D-Tampa, met with the president of Tampa's Bush Ross Gardner Warren & Rudy PA. Politics surely entered the conversation, considering Warren contributed $2,000 in December to Davis' re-election campaign. But the two also have much in common from Davis' days as a former Bush Ross partner.

That night Warren joined a gathering at Tampa's University Club to welcome J. Bernard Machen, UF's new president. It was a chance for Machen to meet an ardent booster, who serves as an emeritus member to the law school's trustee board.

The itinerary might suggest Warren, 56, has taken a more administrative role at the practice that thrust him into the national spotlight as a top bankruptcy attorney. He spent the better part of the '90s guiding Celotex Corp. through Chapter 11 reorganization under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. He even successfully argued a Celotex cause before the U.S. Supreme Court (Celotex Corp. v. Edwards, 115 SC 1493).

"There were times from 1990 through the spring of 1997 I didn't work on anything other than Celotex because it was all time consuming," he says. "Today, I am still very much involved."

And then there is his role as special counsel to Celotex's Asbestos Settlement Trust.

As part of the Celotex reorganization, the bankruptcy court created the Asbestos Settlement Trust in 1997 to pay worker-health and property-damage asbestos claims through 2040. Because of Warren's familiarity with the issues, the trust's three trustees hired him as its special counsel.

Now about seven years later Warren is defending the settlement trust against nearly $100 million in disputed asbestos-related property-damage claims.

"There is a big conflict over the validity of the property-damage claims," he says. The trustees argue that too many of the property-damage claimants have similar claims against other companies that used asbestos in manufacturing.

In a recent dispute, for instance, the trust appealed a decision by Chief Judge Paul Glenn of the Middle District of Florida in favor of about $40 million in asbestos property-damage claims submitted by New York City. The city is the trust's largest property-damage claimant.

"There is currently an appeal of the trust of Judge Glenn's decision that some property-damage claims should be paid," Warren says. "There is another appeal that involves a multiplier with the state of Illinois and the state of Utah. Judge Glenn said the multiplier should apply. We're appealing."

The trustee's counsel

About a year after the Celotex reorganization, Tampa accountant Larry Hyman retained Warren and his firm to represent him as the bankruptcy trustee in the Chapter 7 liquidation of Tampa-based Scott Wetzel Services Inc.

When it originally filed a Chapter 11 petition, the third-party insurance administrator maintained about 200 client trust fund accounts of about $6 million. It was Hyman's job to settle each one.

An attorney for Scott Wetzel's largest unsecured creditor called Hyman and made a request. "He said, 'I want you to hire Jeff Warren in this case, because I've been an adversary of Jeff's for years in the Celotex case,' " Hyman recalls. " 'He's a fine attorney and will represent you well.'

"I think that's the finest compliment anyone can get, when an adversary refers him to you," Hyman adds.

Hyman also has witnessed Warren's work in other bankruptcy matters. He says Warren is a gifted litigator.

"He can certainly analyze an abundance of different case issues and put them together to logically analyze the issues," Hyman says. "You can be the smartest litigator around as far as knowing the facts, and being technically very gifted, but you also have to know the judges you're dealing with and your adversaries. He's very good at meshing those particular aspects of the case together. He's achieved the highest best results I could expect."

The man

Born in New Jersey, Warren grew up in Starke, Fla., where he received recognition as a high school football player. His talent as an offensive lineman earned him a scholarship to the University of Florida. Following graduation, he earned a law degree in 1972.

Although he didn't earn any playing time as a ball player, Warren gets much credit for his support of the university and its law school.

"Jeff is one of our distinguished alumni," Jerry says. "We're very proud to claim him. He has a nationally recognized legal practice in Chapter 11 reorganization cases.

"He's a very bright, extremely capable lawyer and a very decent human being," he adds. "I view Jeff as someone who I can go to get counsel about the law school on any occasion."

Following an ROTC commitment, Warren joined what now is Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen PA - then the second largest law firm in the state.

In 1981, Warren and a group of Macfarlane attorneys spun off to form their own firm. Since then, John Bush, Jerry Ross, John "Jack" Rudy, Steve Gardner and Warren have remained together. He attributes much of his success to the support from them and other attorneys at the firm.

"I am one of the most blessed lawyers you can find, because I've been supported by very bright partners and associates at Bush Ross, who've helped with all the research, study and analysis that's necessary to keeping up all the complex issues," Warren says. "In many ways, Bush Ross is a unique law firm. When Celotex hired Bush Ross for the bankruptcy proceeding in 1990, we recommended they hire one of the very large New York law firms. We offered to serve as local counsel. They said, 'No.' "

Measured growth

The firm has become one of the Tampa Bay area's largest law firms, with about 40 lawyers.

Despite the temptation, the firm relied on existing resources rather than hire more support during the Celotex years.

"When we finished Celotex we didn't have a surplus of lawyers," he says. "We had all the support from the other Bush Ross lawyers. There was a long running joke that Celotex was a black hole."

In the mid-1980s, the firm's partners invested in the Dixie Candy Co. building at 220 S. Franklin St. They renovated the now 84-year-old building, acquired abutting property and transformed the site across from the Tampa Convention Center into a modern multistory office building. They made it income producing, too, by signing the U.S. Postal Service to a lease.

Ever the astute lawyer, Warren acknowledges his concern about rumors of the city's interest to expand the neighboring convention center. It seems to him the only place to expand is east across the Bush Ross property.

Warren just laughed when it was suggested the law firm would profit handsomely even at fair market value under a public-takings action. Like a proud father, he talks of the building's renovations. He took pleasure in talking about the building's history, high ceilings and expensive woodwork.

Jeff Warren

Age: 56.

Title: President.

Firm: Bush Ross Gardner Warren & Rudy PA

Personal: Married to Susan since 1969. They have three children: Matthew, 28; David, 24; and Laura, 21.

Education: Bachelor's degree, 1969, and JD, 1972, both from the University of Florida.

Mentor: Tampa attorney Larry O'Neill.

Business hero: Late-Tampa attorney Chester Ferguson.

Favorite place to eat in the Tampa Bay area: Chateau de France, St. Petersburg.

What do you do for fun: Sports or any extracurricular activity involving his alma mater. "I'm a devoted Florida Gator," he says.


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