|Arthur Alan Wolk|
"She's the sweetest thing on the planet," Wolk said, fussing over his new 13-week-old golden retriever during a phone call Wednesday from his vacation home in Del Mar, a beach town near San Diego.
The pup is a replacement for his beloved Boo, who died March 1 at age 9. "I'm still grieving for her," said Wolk, 72 and semiretired. He wrote about Boo's early years in a book, Recollections of My Puppy, and donated the proceeds to the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society.
Yet the persona Wolk projects in a courtroom is less playful golden than pugnacious pit bull - an image he has underlined with the lawsuit against the Lower Merion school system, a taxpayer victory thought to be unprecedented in Pennsylvania. Wolk, who lives in Gladwyne, argued that the district misled township residents into believing a large tax increase was needed to avoid a deficit this year when school officials were actually hiding millions in surpluses.
On Monday, Montgomery County Court Judge Joseph A. Smyth agreed with Wolk and ruled that the school board had to rescind the 4.4 percent hike. Any increase, the judge said, could be no higher than 2.4 percent.
On Wednesday, the district appealed the decision, but not before Superintendent Robert Copeland sent a letter to parents defending its fiscal practices and painting Wolk as an enemy of public education who wanted to make it "inherently inferior to private school education."
In the interview, Wolk called Copeland's letter "inflammatory" and "wrong," and the district "arrogant." That was an opening salvo. He wants district administrators removed from office, he said, and plans to launch a "Dump the Lower Merion School Directors" movement to run a slate of independent candidates.
The Lower Merion case was Wolk's first foray into education law. "Once you learn how they [school systems] work," he said, "it makes your head swim."
He is far better known for his work as a topflight aviation litigator, founding partner of the Wolk Law Firm in Philadelphia, which according to its website has handled crash-related cases resulting in more than $1 billion in settlements and verdicts in the last decade alone.
Wolk ascended into the specialty's stratosphere from an impoverished beginning in Oxford Circle, earning his law degree from Temple University. He is an accomplished pilot, although that avocation was nearly the end of him two decades ago. En route from Michigan to an air show in Virginia in 1996, he broke his back and an arm in a bad landing of his Korean War-era Grumman F-9F Panther fighter.
Wolk has sometimes hauled the remains of planes to court as exhibits. In 2010, he parked a salvaged single-engine Cessna 210 under a tent outside City Hall to use at trial in a case against the aircraft manufacturer. He was representing two people aboard a Cessna when it crashed in 2005 in Idaho.
Among his more recent cases was the plane crash that killed Lewis Katz, co-owner of the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com, and six others in June 2014 in Bedford, Mass. He represented the families of two of the victims.
Wolk is not known to suffer detractors gladly. He is known instead to sue them.
His libel litigation has been so prodigious that a 2011 story on Consumer Law & Policy Blog carried the headline, "Has Arthur Alan Wolk Finally Learned That He Cannot Sue Every Critic?"
Lawyer George Bochetto describes him as a brilliant lawyer and "intense." He represented Wolk in a libel suit against the law blog Overlawyered.com, and many others, for their coverage of another of his suits, against the aviation website AVWeb.com for its story on his record $480 million verdict against Cessna.
Paul Rosen, another lawyer who has represented Wolk in civil cases, also said he was a "brilliant strategist" but noted he could be "caustic," with a short fuse. Rosen said Wolk's lawsuits against critics often stem from airplane manufacturers' attempts to smear his reputation and keep him from winning cases.
"He attacks every one of them," Rosen said. "He's not someone to back down. . . . His livelihood depends on the quality of his reputation."
Keith Knauss knows little about the world of aviation law. But he knows about school budgets.
A former Unionville-Chadds Ford school board member, he wrote a letter to a local paper last winter complaining about Lower Merion's "fictitious budgeting." Wolk read it, called him, and invited him to his house to talk about it. That conversation led to the lawsuit, in which Knauss was the plaintiff's only witness.
Wolk's two children did not attend Lower Merion schools; they graduated from Cheltenham High School and Abington Friends School. But "he's got a large house and pays lots of taxes," said Knauss, adding that he thinks Wolk viewed the suit as a "civic service."
Wolk said he thought it was "worthy." The median refund of $1,400 that Smyth said taxpayers might eventually receive is kibble compared with what he said he spent out-of-pocket on the case.
As of Wednesday, he said, he had received 50 or so emails - all but one supportive. He said he also got a death threat. Lower Merion police confirmed they were investigating. If they identify the culprit, Wolk said, he would sue the person.
When asked about his penchant for libel suits, however, the lawyer said he didn't want to talk about it and wouldn't let anyone "take my money or my reputation." He ended the conversation and hung up.
As Boo, the golden retriever, said in the book Wolk wrote about her: "Dad has been home with me after work every day and wrestles with me every chance he gets. He always wins even when I try to bite him."