A Reed Smith pro bono team has won a significant trial victory for U.S. Army veteran Sam Yanni (formerly Sameh Fawzy) in Sameh Fawzy v. Lisa M. Garcia (U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Central District of California).
This victory marks the latest win in a thirteen-year legal dispute pursued by Reed Smith for a remarkable U.S. Army combat veteran, who originally came to Egypt under asylum and later became a citizen. In many ways, his life exemplifies the American Dream, and the story of this long-running case is about veterans helping veterans overcome the many obstacles they face in returning to civilian life.
Sam and his family immigrated to America when he was 20 years old after enduring persecution in their native country, because of their religious faith. In his first years in America, Sam experienced an extraordinary journey across the U.S., where he rose from pumping gas in California to owning and running a grocery store in Tennessee. Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Sam decided to join the Army in order to give back to the country in which he and his family had found success and a home.
From there, Sam was recruited to serve in a then-new Army linguist program, and he served honorably in Iraq with the 3d Special Forces Group during combat operations. By way of background, only the best are selected for assignment to Special Forces units. Following his deployment to Iraq, Sam returned home with various injuries, including a shoulder injury suffered as a result of helicopter operations, as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Once Sam was home, he received care for his combat-related injuries and convalescent services at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC. However, while Sam was recovering from his injuries, his fiancée, Ms. Garcia, betrayed his trust by misappropriating his assets. Over the span of a few months, Ms. Garcia covertly transferred substantial funds out of business account for Sam’s grocery store and their joint bank accounts, and used the power of attorney Sam had granted her prior to his deployment to secretly transfer Sam’s car title to herself.
After draining their bank accounts, and while Sam was still convalescing, Ms. Garcia broke off their engagement and sought to block him from her life. Although Sam had supported her through college and post-graduate school, and become very close to her family, she sought to repay his kindness with a restraining order she brought in Family Court in Orange County, California—possibly in an effort to stop him from recovering his assets.
The Fight for Justice
Reed Smith began representing Sam back in 2006 after receiving a legal referral from a rehab supervisor at Walter Reed, who had recently attended an event at the firm’s Washington, D.C. office for injured combat veterans recovering at the Medical Center.
With the proceeding pending in Orange County, Reed Smith stepped in and has not left Sam’s side since. Reed Smith first opposed the request for a TRO, in writing, and later appeared at the hearing on the petition. The team arrived at the hearing prepared after spending a long day with Sam hearing his story and preparing for the expected mini-trial. On the day of the hearing, Reed Smith came armed with good facts, an impressive client, and even Ms. Garcia’s grandmother was presented as a witness for the defense. After the petitioner made her case, Reed Smith moved for dismissal as a matter of law, a request which the court quickly granted.
Phase two of Reed Smith’s work was then devoted to getting Sam his personal assets back. However, Ms. Garcia routinely and consistently ignored demands by Sam and Reed Smith to return his personal property, vehicle, and substantial savings. So, the firm filed a Civil Complaint in Arizona State Superior Court, where Ms. Garcia was then residing, alleging conversion, fraud, constructive fraud, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Reed Smith prevailed in 2009 when an Arizona jury found that Ms. Garcia had committed conversion and constructive fraud. The Arizona State Superior Court also awarded punitive damages and attorney fees, because the jury found that Ms. Garcia had acted with an “evil mind” when she secretly withdrew money out of the parties’ bank accounts and forged DMV documents to unlawfully transfer title of Sam’s car to herself.
After the team’s jury-trial win, the focus shifted to trying to get Ms. Garcia to begin paying back what she had taken. When Reed Smith attempted to garnish her wages in 2017, she filed for bankruptcy, which led to Reed Smith filing a complaint in federal bankruptcy court stating the Arizona judgment was nondischargeable. On August 5, 2019, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Central District of California ruled in Sam’s favor, finding that the Arizona judgment was nondischargeable because Ms. Garcia had willfully and maliciously taken Sam’s property. On August 27, 2019, the court entered judgment in favor of Sam, memorializing its ruling that Ms. Garcia’s debt to Sam—for more than $300,000 stemming from Ms. Garcia’s fraud and conversion—was not dischargeable in her personal bankruptcy.