The Real Deal New York

Stephen Meister: The underdog's lawyer

The scrappy NYC real estate litigator is handling some of the most contentious cases in the industry — with a dogged aggressiveness and far-right political leanings
By Will Parker | November 01, 2017 10:00AM

Stephen Meister

Over his 25-year career in New York real estate litigation, Stephen Meister has represented the likes of Harry Macklowe, Donald Trump, Joseph Moinian, Larry Gluck and other heavy Manhattan real estate hitters. But they have usually dialed him up when debt has piled on, a partner has gotten combative or they need to navigate their way out of a contract.

“I just have to be comfortable that I have the facts right,” said Meister. “I either have the law on my side or some reasonable extension of the law.”

Lately, this scrappy Manhattan attorney — who, depending on who you ask, is best known for wild Hail Marys or righteous campaigns of monetary justice — has been popping up even more than usual with clients in less-than-enviable situations rushing to retain him.

And the cases he’s handling are among the juiciest and most contentious in the city.

He is currently representing the Connecticut company AmBase Corporation, which is facing foreclosure at 111 West 57th Street, a planned luxury supertall. He’s also got Ralph Sitt — the investor feuding with family members over control of 2 Herald Square — who has been accused by his one of his brothers and a group of investors of forging documents to make it seem like he was the sole owner of the building. And he was recently working for Joseph Beninati, whose upstart development firm Bauhouse Group made a daring (albeit unsuccessful) attempt to regain control of the development site at 3 Sutton Place.

That’s not to mention Trump, Meister’s former client, for whom he argued the financial crisis was an act of God that prevented the developer from being able to pay his debts to Deutsche Bank.

Meister, an occasional conservative op-ed writer with many Fox News appearances under his belt, is also landing controversial clients outside of real estate.

This spring, he was hired by the uber-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who is seeking $10 million from Simon & Schuster after the publisher scrapped plans to release his autobiography, “Dangerous.” The decision to nix the book came after year-old footage emerged of the author — and now former Breitbart News editor — appearing to condone sex with minors.

Talking generally, Janice Mac Avoy, a real estate litigator at Fried Frank who has faced off against Meister on real estate cases, said he is known for taking positions that are “outside of the norm.”

“He’s on the right side of the line as far as still maintaining credibility, but he’s not afraid to look at that line,” she said.

‘The guilty man’s lawyer’?

Since co-founding Meister, Seelig & Fein in 1994, Meister has established himself as a fixer for investors and developers in the middle of so-called “tranche warfare,” or infighting with their financial partners.

He gained prominence after the 2008 financial crisis when he represented Moinian in a high-profile dispute against Related Companies and Deutsche Bank at 3 Columbus Circle. He also represented Yair Levy — who in 2014 was banned from ever selling apartments in New York City again — and others in their post-crash troubles.

Real estate attorney Joshua Stein said Meister — whose 2010 book “Commercial Real Estate Restructuring Revolution: Strategies, Tranche Warfare, and Prospects for Recovery” features reviews from conservative commentator Larry Kudlow and Trump — often takes on hairy cases where contracts didn’t address or “really think through” certain outcomes.

“He tends to get involved in those litigations,” Stein said

That’s certainly an accurate description of his current caseload.

At 111 West 57th, he’s representing AmBase’s Richard Bianco, a little-known figure whose company’s only assets are its Connecticut office and its stake in one of the most high-profile condo projects in the city.

Ralph Sitt, meanwhile, stands accused by one of his brothers, Eddie, of “starving” 2 Herald Square. Eddie and a group of investors also allege that Ralph secretly created a shadow entity to buy out other investors at the property.

“Usually, when you hear his name on the street, it’s as the guilty man’s lawyer,” Eddie said of Meister, whose firm he actually once hired in a patent matter involving an ice cream cup.

Meister dismissed Eddie’s take as “agenda-driven” but noted that he does take on cases that others might see as unwinnable.

“While I certainly am not the ‘guilty man’s lawyer,’ I have undertaken and made a name for myself representing the ‘David’ in many ‘David and Goliath’ type representations,” he said.

He cited Moinian at 3 Columbus and Macklowe at 510 Madison Avenue, where he thwarted a foreclosure attempt from SL Green, as two examples. But he said he often ends up “representing the Goliaths after I prevail for their particular David.”

“That’s exactly what happened with SL Green after my successful representation of Harry,” he said. “Sometimes I stop representing the Davids because they don’t pay. That happened on 3 Columbus Circle with Joe Moinian, who I sued for nonpayment. We promptly settled.”

Recently, one of his Davids was Beninati, who tried to build a skyscraper at 3 Sutton Place but instead ended up getting foreclosed on by Gamma Real Estate. Gamma is headed by a scion of the Kalikow real estate dynasty and was represented by the high-powered law firm Kramer Levin.

“Meister plays the underdog,” said David Scharf, an attorney at Morrison Cohen, who often competes with Meister for clients. “The Fried Franks, the Paul Weisses, the Kramer Levins — he’s definitely the one who will take them on and take on some of the their more institutional clients.”

Meister started out on this path nearly 30 years ago, when he walked away from a position as partner at the white-shoe law firm Herrick Feinstein. He struck out on his own, investing in properties, taking on occasional freelance legal work and testing his luck on the stock market.

“I was a little disillusioned,” Meister said. “I kind of didn’t like having a lot of bosses, and I left on my own.”

He also learned to fly planes because, he said, he was tired of waiting in Long Island traffic on regular outings to the Hamptons. He said that skill has created a rugged self-reliance and independence that he still brings to court.

It was during this time, in the early 1990s, that he wagered $100,000 on a single Wall Street sleeper called Diagnostic Sciences and ended up losing all of it.

“I went to a public shareholders’ meeting and I was screaming my lungs out: ‘Fuck you,’ ‘It’s a pump and dump,’ ‘I bought your stock and now it’s worth a nickel and I paid you a dollar for it,’ ‘You’re a piece of shit.’”

Though he had never litigated before, Meister, who is now 62, filed a racketeering suit against the company and its principals, who included Gerry Angulo, a former money manager for insider trading felon Ivan Boesky.

Court records show the case was dismissed, but Meister persisted. When Angulo’s counsel offered him a $75,000 settlement, he held out and eventually got a full $100,000 refund. “I totally taught myself,” he said. He’s been known as a commercial litigator and trial attorney ever since.

Stephen Meister

Parsing the fine print

“That’s a Muhammad Ali-signed robe,” said Meister, pointing to a framed garment in his office on the seventh floor of 125 Park Avenue, where his roughly 100-person firm juggles 100 cases at any given time.

The robe was a gift from Gluck, the founder of Stellar Management, who Meister represented in a well-publicized 2012 victory to deregulate the 1,000-plus-unit rental complex in Tribeca called Independence Plaza North.

“That complex is worth a fortune,” said Meister, who favors double-breasted pinstripe suits, has a grin of edited teeth and he keeps to a very strict low-carb, high-fat ketosis diet. “It made him hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Meister argued that city had mistakenly continued to give Gluck J-51 tax benefits after they were set to expire, at which time he should have been able to legally deregulate the building. (The Court of Appeals agreed).

Looking at some of Meister’s other arguments, it’s clear he lives and dies by the fine print.

In a 2009 case with Gluck, Meister contended that the landlord should be allowed to deregulate units at Tivoli Towers in Crown Heights because original documents showed that the stabilization benefit applied only to the parcel beneath the parking garage — not under the actual apartment buildings. (An appellate court rejected the argument).

When Meister represented Trump against his lenders at Trump Tower Chicago in 2009, loan documents indicated that any proceeding had to be filed in a court in the City of New York, with no specified borough, allowing Meister to successfully argue the suit ought to be punted to Queens, where he believed the judges might be less hostile to Trump. (Trump ultimately settled the case with Deutsche Bank, the senior lender).

Then there are the cases where Meister alleged that his clients’ enemies were conspiring to sabotage them, or at least take advantage of them — moves that appear to have bought his clients time.

In 2010, when a lender tied to Blackstone moved to foreclose on the late developer Tamir Sapir at the William Beaver House, Meister delivered a bombshell in court, revealing that Sapir had been mentally incapacitated for more than a decade and should never have been able to guarantee a loan. (Sapir was eventually bailed out by CIM.)

And in 2010, when Moinian was facing foreclosure from Deutsche Bank and Stephen Ross’ Related, Meister accused Related of trying to “steal” 3 Columbus Circle.

In court, Meister spoke of performing a “Ross-ectomy,” according to the Observer.

“I won’t take on a frivolous suit,” Meister said, “but I do not shy away from a fight.”

Mac Avoy said Meister made an ingenious move in that fight.

Ross and Deutsche wanted $304 million from Moinian — a $250 million mortgage plus a $54 million penalty. Meister got SL Green Realty to cut a $250 million check and submit it to the court in what was then the largest payment ever processed by the Manhattan courts. By law, Ross suddenly had just 10 days to decide whether to take the $250 million or go to trial in the hopes of getting $304 million. The move pushed Related’s hand, and the firm entered settlement negotiations with Meister. (Ultimately the dispute was settled, with SL Green’s bailout allowing Moinian to keep the building.)

“I had never seen anyone do it before,” Mac Avoy said.

Meister’s peers, even those who critique his tactics, don’t seem to hold him in contempt. One of his adversaries, who asked to remain unnamed, put it plainly: “He’s an arrogant guy, but so are most high-powered attorneys.”

Meister also wanted to make clear that he has the respect of the court, sending The Real Deal a recent decision from Judge Shirley Werner Kornreich praising him: “Simply put, if your adversary hires Stephen Meister, and millions of dollars are at stake, you would be crazy not to hire equally competent New York counsel (if you have the means).”

Take it as a compliment

Even in a Republican-leaning industry, Meister stands out for his outspoken political views and his coarse assertions of fact.

He was an early supporter of Trump’s White House bid, penning a 2015 op-ed in the Washington Examiner entitled “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” which argued that journalists’ alleged bias against the candidate had “contaminated” their ability to report accurately.

And he’s remained loyal to Trump even as others in the industry have tried to distance themselves.

Meister’s latest source of ire is kneeling by NFL players — or anyone else, for that matter — during the national anthem.

“I take [my staff] once a year here to a Mets game. They better not kneel,” he said. “They can kneel, [but] not while I’m paying to bring them.”

Just the mention of any political issue puts Meister on the offense. His list of grievances is long: “Black Lives Matter, in my opinion, you can quote me on this, is the worst thing to happen to black people since slavery.” “Transgenderism is a mental disorder.” (When challenged on his Black Lives Matter comment, Meister said he was being flippant and speaking in hyperbole, but noted that he thinks the movement misdiagnoses the problems facing black Americans)

When the topic of women in real estate was raised, Meister launched into oral arguments before a question was even posed. “There’s no wage gap, where’s the wage gap? There’s no wage gap. … There’s no fucking wage gap, Will!”

While Meister acknowledged that his views are “so conservative, I don’t know where to publish them,” he said this never creates problems with clients. “They know my views, but they don’t care. They pay me and they want me to win.”

“I don’t see myself as limited by convention,” he added.

To critics who call him the lawyer who will argue anything, Meister owns the identity. “I think I am a smart guy, and I think outside of the box,” he said. “So I’m going to take it as a compliment.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated with a clarification from Meister regarding his comments on the Black Lives Matter movement.