Battle Belli

The international soap opera that surrounds the crumbling San Francisco landmark that was center stage for the incomparable "King of Torts," Melvin Belli

The letter began a hilarious exchange between Longaway and Marc Greenberg, who represents Melia and Olson. Greenberg asked the court to take notice that Kosovo is 300 miles from Bucharest, that it doesn't share a border with Romania, and that "Romania has been a republic since the end of World War II, and the royal family has no role in politics and diplomacy in the country."

Both the claims of Olson and Melia remain unresolved.

In his 1988 book, Divorcing, Melvin Belli mentions that his youngest daughter, Melia, had her own desk in the Belli Building when she was 5 years old. Belli also gave Melia an office mailbox, which he filled with papers and surprises. Belli was 66 years old when Melia was born, and he admitted to doting on her in ways that didn't apply to his older children. (Caesar, the closest in age of Belli's children to Melia, is 14 years her senior.) She lunched on Saturdays with her father and whoever of his colleagues happened to be around, and was a regular at the firm.

Lettering on the exterior of the building reads, "Belli, Belli & Belli" -- evidence that father Belli was expecting Melia to join Caesar and him in the firm. In fact, he'd clearly planned for these two children to take over the firm. Sometime before 1984, Belli transferred the building ownership to his children -- half to Caesar and half to Caesar in trust for the younger Melia. (Caesar was already a lawyer at the time.) Belli describes the situation in his book:

"Melia and Caesar are both very proud of that; they speak of the building as 'their' building, and their advice is asked about what flowers are to be planted, what painting is to be done, what furniture and computers and such are to be gotten. They understand these things are being put into 'their' building."

And then things got ugly around theirbuilding.

By the time she was about 15, Melia had her own lawyer, thanks to a Superior Court judge who had appointed an attorney to represent Melia's interests in her parents megadivorce. And even though she never became an attorney, it seems that Melia learned a lot about the power of litigation from her early years at the firm.

In 1992, she sued Caesar, her half brother, for stealing money from her trust -- in particular, for failing to pay her half of the income from the Belli Building and properties they owned together in Sonora. After an appropriate amount of legal haggling, the court found that Caesar owed Melia $116,000. According to Melia's attorney, Marc Greenberg, Caesar has made only one payment -- for $50,000 -- since. In his 1996 bankruptcy, Caesar tried to have the debt to Melia dismissed with his other obligations, but was unsuccessful. A federal judge ruled that, bankrupt or not, Caesar owed Melia the money.

But Melia didn't stop with her half brother.

In 1994, she sued her father, also for misappropriating part of her trust fund. Melvin Belli had cashed a bond that was held in trust for Melia after she turned 18, when it should have rightfully belonged to her. The bond was valued at up to $1 million, but had matured only to $330,000 by the time Belli cashed it. Melia argued that her father had used the money to prop up his financially troubled law practice. Belli contended that he'd used the money for Melia's benefit, keeping the Belli Building, which she co-owned with Caesar, from slipping into foreclosure.

In the world according to Belli, the trust, like so many other Belli family deals, was governed by an oral arrangement. The money, he said, hinged on Melia becoming a lawyer and joining her father and half brother in the family firm. Since Melia had "refused to go to law school," he argued, the money was no longer hers. And, Belli added, he was being harassed by Melia's mother, Belli's ex-wife Lia, who he believed was funding and encouraging their daughter's lawsuit.

In the end, father and daughter settled their dispute the day before trial was to begin. Part of the agreement stated that if Belli paid his daughter $250,000 by a certain date, she would return her half of the Belli Building to her father or his designee. Belli paid, and Melia signed the deed. Two months later, Belli filed bankruptcy, placing the building at the center of turmoil of indefinite duration.

Still, Melia wasn't finished with her family. And if her mother was fanning the flames in Melia's suit against her father, the wind changed.

In 1998, Melia filed another suit for alleged breach of fiduciary duty, this one against the former Lia Belli. In the suit, Melia alleged that her mother cashed in stock that was held in trust for her. And again, the stock was apparently cashed in after Melia had become a legal adult and therefore was the rightful owner. In the suit, Melia claimed that she was forced to drop out of the University of Glasgow, Scotland, because she didn't have money for tuition, while Lia kept the stock proceeds.

Lia has not answered the complaint from Bucharest. Melia, meanwhile, is back in school at the University of London. The lawsuit is pending in San Francisco Superior Court.

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