Norman Yatooma: A Matter Of Style

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Norman Yatooma uses moving trucks to make a point to those who owe his clients money.

In July 2004, Yatooma, on behalf of Georgia attorney Antonio L. Thomas, drove to former Burger King and Pizza Hut franchisee La-Van Hawkins’ Detroit home with a flat-bed truck to remove the equivalent of $70,000 owed in legal fees. He left with a Rolex watch, some cash and furniture. “Don’t get me wrong, we don’t do it in ski masks, we do it under the authority of the court,” Yatooma said.

Earlier in the year, Yatooma arrived at Ziebart International headquarters with three moving trucks to collect—in the form of office furniture, or anything else that could be moved—payments owed to many of the company’s current and former franchisees. The tactic worked. Ziebart has been paying what it owes each month.
Contrary to what those measures might conjure, Yatooma, is polite, articulate and laughs easily at himself. While he would prefer not to have to resort to drastic methods, he does say his tactics are a matter of style. “I think there are very few people that would not use ‘aggressive’ or ‘tenacious’ to describe my litigation style,” Yatooma said. “I’m very proud of that. And that’s where we win our cases in large part.”

Yatooma’s aggressiveness in the courtroom is offset by his involvement in his community as a mentor, inspirational speaker, and his charitable work. He founded in 2003 For The Kids Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps children who have lost a parent. He serves as its chairman. In addition to free legal help, the foundation also provides scholarships, vocational training and grief counseling for the surviving spouse.

Not exactly the behavior of someone who was called a “rabid pit bull” by Hawkins’ lawyer in the Detroit Free Press. It was supposed to be an insult, but Yatooma took it as a compliment, and is going to include it in his firm’s press kit. “I once had a client call me up and say, ‘I can’t use my family lawyer for this. I need you. I need an ethical piranha,’” he said, laughing. “It took me a moment, and I didn’t know how to respond. Then I thought, ‘I can handle that. All right. Ethical piranha.’”

Being a courtroom predator and a philanthropist doesn’t mean Yatooma is two different people, said Marlana Geha, a gerontologist and chairwoman for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Michigan chapter. Geha also serves as vice-chair for Yatooma’s For The Kids Foundation. She has seen Yatooma in action in the courtroom and the community.

“Professionally, he is a pit bull,” she said. “As sweet as he can be with the disenfranchised or people who are down and out, as an attorney he is a superb litigator, always prepared. But he’s one person. Whatever he’s focused on, he doesn’t split the pie with you or anyone else. He gives the same attention.”
Rick Frazier, president of Charity Funding, which works with Charity Motors, an organization on whose board Yatooma serves as chairman, met Yatooma in church. He agrees with Geha’s assessment. While Yatooma might appear to be “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” he is the same person “because of his ethical standards,” Frazier said. “He’s an ethical attorney, and when you have him on your side, he’s going to do everything for you. And you pray that you never have to go up against him. One of the things he prides himself on is he’s never lost a case. If you’ve ever seen him in the courtroom, you know why.”

It’s the same person who will “get up in front of a group of 700 people, share his background, and tears will roll off his cheeks,” Frazier said.

“(Yatooma) started his For The Kids Foundation as a result of the tragedy in his own life,” Geha said. “What he doesn’t tell you is, while he was in law school, he borrowed to the maximum to put his brothers in school, (and) pay the mortgage. He’s one of those people who hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from, who he is, and wants to help other people.”

Background

Yatooma grew up in Michigan’s Oakland County area, the eldest of four sons. His father, Manuel, was a Chaldean (Christian) Iraqi. Yatooma’s mother is Lebanese. “Everybody just thinks I’m Italian,” Yatooma joked.

Yatooma attended the same school, Southfield Christian, from first grade to graduation. He also met his wife there—when they were five years old, he said. “We went to school together from 6th grade on,” he said. “I followed her to college, and finally sealed the deal in our mid-20s.” They have a 3-year old daughter, and another child on the way.

It was during his college years at Taylor University in Indiana that Yatooma suffered what was the most traumatic moment of his life—his father was shot and killed in a car-jacking incident. Not only did his family suffer the loss of their father, but “complete monetary chaos,” Yatooma said. Several of his father’s business partners—including family members—swooped in to claim a piece what they thought was a large estate.

“My father was a real entrepreneurial spirit; he had a lot of businesses, a lot of business partners, a lot of clients,” he said. “Within a year after he passed away, 63 claims were filed against his estate. …We went through something of an indescribable hell, and were absolutely broke within six months, threatened with foreclosure more times than I can count on my fingers and toes—we got sued by everybody.”

Including his grandparents. At 20, Yatooma settled his first case with them. “They had a claim against us for a half-million, I offered them twelve-five, and we ended up somewhere in the middle,” he said. During the process of sorting through the estate, Yatooma grew to “detest” attorneys. “What the claimants didn’t take from us, the attorneys stole from us,” he said. “We had quite a few attorneys that beat us up pretty badly.” Yatooma remained in college, however, and used school loans to help pay the bills for the family’s home. When he graduated, despite his low opinion of lawyers, he went straight into law school at Indiana University. “It was necessary,” he said. “The estate didn’t close for 10 years.”

But he discovered becoming a lawyer was “a natural fit” for him. “My father always called me, ‘My son the attorney,’ long before I ever had the schooling for it,” he said. “I was just a talker.”

After graduating, he returned to Michigan to practice, beginning his career with one of Michigan’s largest law firm’s, Butzel Long PC. He left to start his own firm, Norman Yatooma & Associates, based in Birmingham, Mich. in August of 2000.

The Softer Side of Norman Yatooma

When he’s got time outside the office and his charity work, Norman Yatooma spends most of his time with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. “I’ve found myself becoming one of those cliché dads who can’t stop pining about their child,” he said.

Golfing “under the guise of client meeting” is another pursuit. “I broke a collarbone playing football on the first Thanksgiving of our marriage, and my wife banned me from that,” he said. “So I took up golfing.” Still, he couldn’t escape injury. He broke his arm on the course, although not because he was swinging too hard.

“With the football game, I took a heavy tackle—that’s very macho,” he said. “In the golf game, I was actually going in reverse down a hill, flipped the golf cart, and smashed my arm into 15 pieces. Now my left arm is all metal from elbow to wrist. And it has improved my golf game remarkably. Straightened out the arm beautifully.”

Current practice

Yatooma’s firm practices in many areas, including franchise law and litigation, bankruptcy, civil rights, environmental, criminal and trademark law. But it’s the world of franchising that Yatooma calls his specialty, and he’s worked for or against some of the industry’s giants. “I really fell into it. I never decided I wanted to be a franchise lawyer.”

When he started at Butzel Long, he was handed clients who “weren’t calling for any particular lawyer,” he said. He started with some real estate cases, which turned into franchise issues with Burger King, including a case with La-Van Hawkins. “And I couldn’t stop the franchise cases from coming in at that point.”
While he enjoys doing his work for his corporate clients, such as Capital One, Yatooma finds representing franchisees particularly satisfying. “If I win or lose these franchise cases on behalf of the franchisees, it affects whether they file bankruptcy or whether they live a normal life,” he said. “That’s motivating for me.”

Currently, Yatooma is representing 23 former Thomas Kinkade Signature Art Dealers who charge that Kinkade’s licensing company, Media Arts Group Inc., gave them severely flawed business plans and then flooded the market with the artist’s popular prints through venues such as Wal-Mart, which further undercut value.

Jim Coté had four Media Arts dealerships and a personal net worth of $5 million, he said. Now he’s down to one independent gallery in Birmingham, Mich. and is “on the edge of bankruptcy.” He was also the former president of the national Signature Gallery Association, the franchisee association for Media Arts. Coté heard about Yatooma’s reputation with franchisees and sought him out. “I’ve been nothing but impressed with him since I started working with him,” he said. “Certain people, when you meet them, just command respect, and Norman’s one of those people.” Yatooma is delivering on his reputation. Arbitration cases began in January, and “we have an arbitration or trial every month for the next six months,” Yatooma said.

For the record, Yatooma’s firm does not have moving trucks parked in the office lot, ready for use. For most cases, Yatooma said he first “extends an olive branch before litigation” to try to resolve the problem. “That was certainly the case with Ziebart. We worked for about a year trying to find redress.” Yatooma won for the franchisees $1.5 million in damages for breach of contract and product liability, but the company continued to stall on payments.

The current situation with Hawkins, a former client, “disappoints me,” he said. Yatooma represented Hawkins in 2000 in a $1.9 billion fraud and racial discrimination lawsuit against Burger King. The suit attracted national attention and held the interest of the African-American community. Hawkins was awarded a $30 million settlement in 2001.

When he’s asked about how he can represent both franchisees and franchisors, or why he represented Hawkins in one case and against him in another, Yatooma said it’s simply a question of ethics. “We represent who’s right. That’s it. In the Burger King litigation, La-Van was right. …And he deserved the result that he got. He deserved to get paid.

“But then La-Van made decisions that I hope he’s not proud of—that I’m certainly not proud of—and one of them was not paying his lawyer (and many others). And that’s never smart.”

In the end, though, he takes great satisfaction by just simply helping people out, he said. “What’s most rewarding is to find a client in shambles, and to leave them in good standing with their lives back,” he said. “And likewise, this firm has made a lot of opportunities for me to engage in the charitable work that we do. I suppose that’s every bit a personal goal as a professional one.”

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