LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Star bond investor Jeffrey Gundlach was awarded $66.7 million by a jury over his messy divorce from money management firm Trust Company of the West, in one of the ugliest battles ever to grip the multitrillion-dollar bond-fund world.
TCW, a unit of French bank Societe Generale (SOGN.PA), prevailed on its claim that the famed fund manager took trade secrets and violated his fiduciary duty to the firm, although the California state jury awarded the company no damages. The judge will decide if TCW is entitled to damages on the trade-secret claim, and TCW said it will seek $89 million.
The six-week trial offered a rare glimpse inside big investment firms and the out-sized personalities who run them. Both sides sued each other after Gundlach was fired from TCW in December 2009 and he set up a rival firm, DoubleLine Capital.
Jurors heard testimony about tirades against TCW by Gundlach in the company cafeteria and even about a hard drive taken from TCW in the bra of a woman who worked for Gundlach.
One thing that did not come up was evidence allegedly showing that Gundlach, 51, kept a stash of drugs and pornography in his office. The judge ruled this “unrelated evidence” could not be introduced at trial. Gundlach has said the items represented “vestiges of closed chapters of my life,” according to a letter to his clients.
Several DoubleLine employees showed up to court on Friday to hear the verdict, including a stone-faced Gundlach. Nearly every audience member had a printout of the verdict form, and was filling it in as the jury’s decision was read.
Gundlach showed no reaction during the verdict, and left immediately afterward without speaking to reporters.
“Victory!” was all he said in an email to Reuters after the verdict was delivered.
In some ways, Gundlach had already won the bruising battle with Los Angeles-based TCW before the trial even began.
His new firm is less than two years old but already manages $16 billion in assets, according to the most recent data given by DoubleLine. His DoubleLine Core Fixed Income Fund (DBLFX.O), rose 11 percent over the past 12 months, beating all of the more than 1,000 competing funds in its category, according to financial research firm Morningstar.
The jury delivered its verdict after just two days of deliberations. It ordered TCW to pay Gundlach $66.7 million in wages, to be divided by Gundlach between himself and his co-defendants. Gundlach and his associates had sought hundreds of millions of dollars.
“The bottom line is, he didn’t do anything to hurt TCW,” said Gundlach attorney Brad Brian. He said a ruling from Superior Court Judge Carl West on trade-secret damages is not expected for a couple of months.
TCW also claimed victory.
“We are gratified by the jury’s verdict, which speaks directly to the principles at the heart of this case -- integrity, honesty and trust,” TCW’s general counsel, Michael Cahill, said in a statement.
“The jury found that each of the defendants violated these principles -- that each one of them breached their fiduciary duties and stole trade secrets and that Jeffrey Gundlach wrongfully and intentionally interfered with TCW’s business.”
TCW, which said Gundlach gutted its entire mortgage-backed securities team when he left, sued its former star a month after it fired him. Gundlach fired back with a counter-lawsuit.
In the weeks following his termination, Gundlach formed DoubleLine, along with three of his co-defendants at the trial. Roughly 45 TCW employees followed him.
Jurors heard testimony from Gundlach that he was indirectly approached by Pimco, formally known as Pacific Investment Management Company, to join the giant bond firm. Two witnesses also testified that Gundlach discussed succeeding Pimco bond boss Bill Gross, his long-time rival.
Gundlach and Gross were both contenders for Morningstar’s Fixed Income Manager of the Decade award for 2000-2009, an award that Gross ultimately won.
TCW struggled with outflows after Gundlach left and it replaced Gundlach’s mortgage-backed securities group with fixed-income managers from MetWest. Institutional investors yanked $20.5 billion from TCW in 2010 and another $300 million in the first quarter of 2011, according to eVestment Alliance, a market research firm in Atlanta.
TCW contended that Gundlach stole its secrets, including client lists and investment data.
Trade-secrets law can be murky, often boiling down to whether someone conspired to steal confidential information for a new enterprise. Unlike patents or trademarks, trade secrets are not registered with the government, and the definition of what is a trade secret can be subjective.
Since the jury recognized that each side had been wronged by the other, the judge could award TCW the exact same amount in trade-secret damages -- $66.7 million -- that Gundlach won in back pay, said Eric Talley, a professor at University of California Berkeley School of Law.
“As a general matter, this could be a cautionary tale about trying to litigate the bejeezus out of an unhappy situation,” Talley said.
The jury decided that TCW was harmed by the trade-secret misappropriation, but found Gundlach did not act willfully. That means any damages awarded by the judge cannot be multiplied under the law, Talley said.
It also may mean the judge will opt for a smaller damages measure. “If a person didn’t act willfully, then there’s nothing to deter,” Talley said.
The case is in Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles is Trust Co of the West v. Jeffrey Gundlach et al, BC429385.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Ablan in New York, Dan Levine in San Francisco and Aaron Pressman in Boston; Writing by Martha Graybow; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Bernard Orr