Melvyn I. Weiss, Notable Class Action Attorney Fought Giants; Recovered Billions for Holocaust Victims

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This week Richard and Joe welcomed Melvyn I. Weiss, a former plaintiffs’ class action attorney who built a new era of legal practice representing shareholders’ interests. In 1965, with Lawrence Milberg he co-founded the Milberg Weiss firm, which ultimately maintained offices throughout the country and practiced complex securities, antitrust and consumer fraud actions. He predominantly represented plaintiffs in class actions against major corporations under the amended Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure which allowed securities fraud and other cases to proceed as class actions. In 1976 Mr. Weiss developed a West Coast office in San Diego headed by William S. Lerach, whom he mentored and became a key partner in the expansion of the firm.

As lead counsel Mr. Weiss handled some of the largest and most complex cases in the country, such as the Washington Public Power Supply System, a municipal bond default case which was then the largest ever in the country; the Michael Milken-Drexel Burnham case, dealing with the collapse of numerous companies, including savings and loans, as a result of the sale of junk bonds. Weiss’ efforts along with the US government, led to a joint recovery of over $2 billion. In addition, he was lead counsel in numerous major life insurance marketing fraud cases, such as the Prudential Life Insurance marketing fraud case in which he recovered $4.5 billion for its policyholders.

Among his greatest achievements was Mr. Weiss’ role as co-lead counsel in class actions suits on behalf of Holocaust victims recovering $1.25 billion against Swiss banks and $5 billion against German companies. Mr. Weiss insisted in proceeding on a pro bono basis, that is, he donated his services in bringing this complex global litigation and working on the international settlements.

Over the course of his career, Mr. Weiss and his firm recovered approximately $50 billion in hundreds of class actions for defrauded class members who were victims of major stock fraud and manipulation, insider trading and other financial schemes. Mr. Weiss and his colleagues built their operation into a national juggernaut. In becoming a major legal, economic and political force, it would not be an understatement to say that Mr. Weiss and his peers were not popular among the largest corporate and financial institutions on Wall Street and abroad. His firm’s success in massive recoveries led to legislation and US Supreme Court decisions designed to curtail the plaintiff’s bar in these matters. [cf. the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 and Stoneridge Investment Partners v. Scientific-Atlanta, 552 U.S. 148 (2008).]

Mr. Weiss has lectured extensively to lawyers, law students, and other professionals throughout the country and abroad. He has been frequently quoted as a leading authority on shareholder and consumer rights in the national media and he has testified before congressional committees on securities litigation and accountants’ liability. Mr. Weiss was a Fellow of The American College of Trial Lawyers. He received the 1993 Arthur T. Vanderbilt Medal from New York University Law School, the highest award given annually to an outstanding alumnus, and was a member of the law school’s Board of Trustees and a recipient of the Alumni Achievement Award. In 2005, Accounting Today named Mr. Weiss as one of its Top 100 Most Influential People. He has received the Anti-Defamation League’s Gotham Award and Humanitarian Award; the United Jewish Appeal’s Proskauer Award, given annually to an exemplary Jewish lawyer and humanitarian; and the B’nai B’rith of Argentina Dignity & Justice Award for humanitarian activities. Mr. Weiss was the International Chair of the Hatikva Project, which built a memorial on the site of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which was destroyed by terrorists.

Mr. Weiss was born in the Bronx and grew up in Queens as the son of an accountant. Working for his father throughout high school and college, he received a B.B.A. degree in Accounting from Baruch College of the City College of New York. After graduating from New York University School of Law in 1959 and serving two separate tours of duty in the United States Army, he co-founded the Milberg Weiss firm. He was admitted to the Bar of the State of New York in 1960 and was a member of the Bar of the United States District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, and the United States Supreme Court.

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