As PGA golfer Dustin Johnson prepares to tee off later this week at the Open Championship at St. Andrews in Scotland, the law firm that he alleges stole $3 million from him is fighting for its existence in bankruptcy court in Virginia.
But despite Morris Schneider Wittstadt declaring bankruptcy last week, Johnson does not intend to give up his fight to get his money back. Johnson accused the firm and the firm's partners of using their positions as Johnson’s “trusted advisors” to steal from him to cover shortages in the firm’s accounts, allegedly created by one of the partners himself.
Last week, Morris Schneider Wittstadt filed for bankruptcy protection, saying in part that Johnson’s lawsuit, which was first reported by HousingWire, and the publicity surrounding it, were “too much for even an otherwise successful firm like MSW to bear,” Mark Wittstadt said in the firm’s bankruptcy filing.
Wittstadt adds that the “false allegations” levied by Johnson and his attorneys caused many MSW clients to contact the firm and tell them that they would no longer do business with the firm.
But Johnson, through his attorney, said that those claims and the firm’s filing for bankruptcy don’t change anything.
"Dustin was lied to by his attorneys and they then misled the Court,” David Cornwell of Barnes & Thornburg LLP said on Johnson’s behalf. Cornwell is representing Johnson in his suit against Morris Schneider Wittstadt.
“We will continue to seek our damages and will remind the Court that the bankruptcy filing doesn't protect the individual defendants,” Cornwell continued.
Last year, Johnson sued the firm Morris Hardwick Schneider, now Morris Schneider Wittstadt, accusing the firm, the firm’s former managing partner, Nathan (Nat) Hardwick, the firm’s current managing partner, Mark Wittstadt, and Gerard (Rod) Wittstadt, of conspiring to steal $3 million from him.
Johnson sued the firm after lending it $3 million at the behest of Hardwick, who was, at one time, one of Johnson’s primary advisors.
When Johnson filed suit against the firm, he said Hardwick “played a particularly unique and significant role of trust and confidence” in Johnson’s life, serving as one of his primary advisors on all matters relating to his career as a professional golfer.
Hardwick was also an officer in Johnson’s professional corporation, and was listed on Johnson’s personal website as a member of “Dustin’s Team” as Johnson’s “attorney/counselor.”
When Johnson loaned Hardwick the money, he didn’t know that the Wittstadts were about to file suit against Hardwick, accusing him of embezzling at least $30 million from the accounts of the law firm of Morris Hardwick Schneider (now known as Morris Schneider Wittstadt) and its subsidiary, LandCastle Title.
Johnson’s original lawsuit laid much of the blame on Hardwick, but later filings shifted the blame from Hardwick onto the Wittstadts.
Johnson’s amended complaint, filed in November, called Hardwick a “pawn,” who was set up by the Wittstadts to take the fall for the shortages discovered within the companies’ accounts.
In their amended motion to dismiss, the Wittstadts say that Johnson’s reversal from initially calling Hardwick a “racketeer” to later referring to Hardwick as a pawn raises “serious questions” about Johnson’s judgment.
“Dustin Johnson’s first wild theory, that his friend Nat Hardwick conspired with the Wittstadt Defendants to steal $3 million, was so ludicrous that he abandoned it,” the Wittstadts said in their latest motion to dismiss.
“Johnson’s new yarn, that he and his friend are patsies in a complex, serpentine fraud scheme, would be even more laughable but for the damage that such patently false allegations cause to the reputations of good lawyers who are, without any question, the true victims here.”
Johnson, for his part, told the GolfChannel.com in January that the lawsuit has been a distraction, but despite everything that’s happened, he still views Hardwick as a friend.
From the GolfChannel.com report:
“It tough. It’s a lot of cash, [but] it doesn’t really bother me,” Johnson said. “I’m mad because I want my money back, but I have an attorney that’s handling the case. I’m interested in seeing what unfolds because there is a lot of stuff involved in the case.”
Johnson, however, added that he has been in contact with Hardwick and that the two remain friends.
“He’s always been a really great friend of mine, and I still don’t believe that he did anything wrong to me,” Johnson said. “Obviously it’s an ongoing case and we’ll see what happens. He’s a good friend, and I don’t believe he tried to do anything wrong.”