Headed for Splitsville? Just hope your spouse doesn't hire Rose Palermo 

Bruce was a doctor; wife Lynn was a nurse. Married right out of college, she worked as an RN to support them while he attended medical school.

Bruce went on to open a solo OB-GYN practice, where she worked as his office manager while raising their two children. They lived more than comfortably. He earned some $300,000 annually, a salary that afforded them a lakefront home in Old Hickory they had built to spec.

The Goodmans weren't Bill Gates wealthy, but they enjoyed membership at the Old Hickory Country Club, owned a sailboat, and had season tickets to the Titans, along with substantial stocks and investments.

But after 26 years of marriage, Lynn discovered he'd been cheating on her for 10 of those years with numerous women—one of whom would soon become pregnant. She knew only two things: She wanted out of her marriage, and she wanted to continue to raise the kids in their home.

To do so she'd need support. The taxes, utilities and upkeep on a 6,000-square-foot house couldn't be met on a $40,000-a-year nurse's salary once she found a job.

Bruce agreed to alimony, but just the rehabilitative kind—a few bucks for a few years to help Lynn transition into a new home, a new job and a lesser standard of living.

It wasn't like he owed her, he believed. Yes, they'd lived off her income while he was in medical school. But she had become too accustomed to his handsome salary, shopping excessively, at times spending as much as $7,000 a month. She barely worked at his office.

So instead of giving away the house, Bruce wanted it sold at a 50/50 split.

No way, Lynn countered. The children shouldn't have to change neighborhoods and friends. Their family was being dismembered already. Why should their home be as well? Besides, she was the one who supported him through med school. Hers were the sacrifices that made their lifestyle possible. She'd worked as his office manager for 17 years. She wasn't about to be treated as the lesser partner in the marriage.

So Lynn did what many well-heeled Nashvillians do when confronted with matrimonial warfare: She hired Rose Palermo, the city's divorce attorney to the stars. Suddenly, the power shifted.

"She did everything to help him with his career," says Palermo from her Music Square West office. "The most she's ever going to make is $40,000 or $50,000. But she's helped put him in a position where he can make $350,000 to $400,000 a year. And in the meantime, this guy is having all kinds of affairs, and in fact had a baby with another woman while the divorce is going on. So do you think it's fair for the judge to say, 'OK, you take your little $40,000 a year job and you go off, and he takes his medical career that you helped build and goes off with the girlfriend and the baby.' Is that fair? No, it's not fair."

Her argument would carry the day. Instead of being cast back to a peasant's life, Lynn got the house and a whole lot more.

By the time the divorce was finalized in 2004, she walked away with some 75 percent of the goods, including the house and the sailboat. But Lynn's biggest score was alimony until age 65—to the tune of $4,000 a month.

Count it as just another notch in Palermo's string of victories dating back to the 1970s. It's why so many of Nashville's moneyed hire the much-feared lawyer, who's either loved or hated—depending on what side you're on.

Just ask Dr. Bruce Goodman, who calls his divorce "a total nightmare—and still is." He claims Palermo distorted the reality of his marriage, painting Lynn as a victim when her true role was to simply "have his checkbook."

"She's a good attorney who does her job well, but it's not based on what's right," he says. "It's not a matter of what's right or wrong. It's how good your attorney is. If you ask my ex-wife, of course she'll think she's a wonderful person."

Indeed she does.

People come to Palermo at the height of misery. The stakes are high, and emotions run higher.

She's best known for high-profile clients—folks whose wealth and clout make the Goodmans look like a charity case. She's handled splits for Tracy Lawrence, Wynonna Judd and Vince Gill's ex-wife Janis.

Those music connections go all the way back to the early '70s, when Palermo handled contracts for aspiring stars after graduating from Vanderbilt in the top of her class. One of her earliest cases involved predatory producers who preyed on wannabe country singers by promising them a record, radio play and stardom, all for a few grand out of pocket. But the producer would stop returning calls as soon as the check cleared.

Her case against Caprice Records changed the law on promissory fraud, and landed Palermo a starring role on a 1979 episode of 60 Minutes, where she joined Mike Wallace in ambushing one such rip-off artist at his Music Row office.

It was an early preview of what would become her trademark feistiness. Palermo is seen slapping down paperwork on the offender's desk. Next is a shot of the thirtysomething lawyer confronting the offender with unflinching confidence.

Now 66, Palermo has phased out her entertainment practice in favor of a booming divorce business—a specialization she arrived at by default. Her office—there's an autograph from Wynonna Judd with a note that reads "To my 2nd mama"— feels more like a living room than a law firm that charges $400 an hour.

"It just kind of came to me rather than me coming to it," Palermo says. "When you're first starting out in a two-person law practice, you take whatever comes in the door."

And what walked through her doors more and more were divorce cases: the wounded and the battle-weary. Word spread that Palermo got results, and she found she had a nurturing instinct—often meeting with clients in those early years while her infant son played in a crib.

"When people come to you for a divorce, they're coming to you at their lowest ebb," says Palermo, whose maternal curves, dark hair and angular features—clear indicators of her Italian heritage—are at odds with her down-home Cajun cadence, earned from an upbringing in New Orleans.

"Once in a while, people are so glad they're getting out from under a bad situation that they're ecstatic. For the most part, though, this is not a happy place when people come in to talk to you about a divorce. They're sad. I think of divorce like a death in the family. Some people are sad and some people are not at their best behavior. Some people have done things they shouldn't have done. I still have great empathy for people and I feel really sorry for them in these situations. I'm not trying to sound like Mother Teresa—I'm making a living off of them. But I guess I've always liked stepping up there and saying, 'Hey, I'm going to help take care of you.' "

Palermo isn't a child of divorce. Breaking vows is an alien concept in her tight-knit Catholic family. Nor was she born to the affluence of the people she represents. Her father drove a mail truck and her mother sold clothes at J.C. Penney, and Palermo's been married to the same man for decades.

The other half of Cheatham & Palermo is her husband, lawyer Denty Cheatham, who handles civil litigation and "everything but divorce." They'll be married 36 years this September. He describes his wife as a brilliant lawyer, someone who can be "very aggressive and very feminine at the same time."

Others find that temperament a little unsettling. Take Margaret Fox, whose husband was represented by Palermo in their divorce.

"I was sitting out waiting for my attorney to come [to mediation], and she and my ex were in the other room," says Fox. "She was on the phone, and you could hear her yelling through the door and then you could hear her throw her cell phone against the wall."

Even country star Judd says she was nervous meeting Palermo for the first time. "I had heard that she was a force to be reckoned with," she says. "She also will not put up with anyone's crap and she'll tell you the truth, even if/when you don't want to hear it."

Palermo currently has 150 active cases. It is a daily grind of disappointment, stress and strife, of humans at their most fragile, greedy or vindictive.

Ask around about her reputation, and you'll hear some folks call her a brilliant attorney with a maternal concern for her clients. Colleagues say she has a gift for crunching the numbers of a marital estate, and a natural ability for playing the game of he said/she said—a sixth sense for whether someone is lying. Others say she's a rich and powerful woman tight with judges, a master at spinning facts to score big settlements.

"She has worried me to death for 33 years," says lawyer Phillip Robinson with a chuckle. "She's going to hang on. She'll put those hands on her hips and screw her face all up and tell you, 'You're not getting that from my client!' But if she feels you're being reasonable, she'll be reasonable. And she'll still draw lines about what she'll accept."

Retired lawyer Jack Norman Jr. agrees. "I just think Rose is the epitome of what a good family relations lawyer should be. She's fair, she's honest and she doesn't gouge people on her fees. She's very reasonable and very persistent, and she's always prepared. She'll beat you to death—but that's the business."

That business is finding justice within misery. Watch a divorce trial or read even a handful of cases, and the details play out like an exercise in human failure.

It's measuring marital worth under the shadow of deceit and neglect, or sometimes just two people who've given up. In very little time, you can't even tell what brought these men and women together in the first place. What began with a romantic swoon ends with a division of assets under cold, fluorescent light.

The lawyer is the last person at the scene of the crime. Part clinician, part archaeologist, and part gotcha journalist, they calculate assets and liabilities, unearth hidden benefits in old pensions, dust off tax records. They pull cell phone records, exposing every weakness and every last bit of soiled laundry.

Sometimes, they'll even stop mid-trial to march down and open a safety deposit box as proof their client's wife is just after his money.

That happened when Palermo was representing Houston Hare, who owned a wrecker service on Bell Road. Wife Vallean had convinced him to make the business a corporation with half the stock in her name, says Palermo. But Houston was convinced Vallean was trying to kill him. She'd taken out multiple life insurance policies on him. Palermo also believed she was hiding her assets while giving his away, according to court documents. Vallean denied it.

"Every time you asked her about her property, she'd claim it was her own separate property," Palermo recalls. "Houston said she was taking it all from him. She'd say, 'Well I got that in my old divorce.' "

Vallean had been married before—once in Georgia, another time in North Carolina. So one weekend, Houston and a co-worker hopped in a tow truck and drove to both states.

"So I'm presenting all these divorce papers to her," Palermo laughs. " 'Where'd you get that?' I'd say. 'Well, I got that in my last divorce!' 'That's interesting, because this paper here says you got nothing in your last divorce.' So I'm presenting all these papers to her and she's just dying. I'm asking her, 'Did you take out all these life insurance policies on your husband?' 'No I have not, she said.' "

The judge stopped the trial, and four lawyers, two clients and a bailiff booked it to the bank, huddling around a safety deposit box as if it were the Holy Grail.

"We pull it out, and it's like one of those snakes in a can that pops up!" Palermo recalls, laughing. "We open the top of the box and all these insurance policies just fly out. There they all are!"

But the game of divorce is more than just establishing the facts—it's knowing what to enhance, and what to downplay, to show your client in the best possible light. Meanwhile, anything that makes your opponent look like Mussolini is fair game.

"One thing I don't have much of a stomach for is when kids are involved," Palermo says. "But I can fight over a dollar any day of the week."

That dollar comes a little easier now. In 1985, Tennessee added irreconcilable differences as grounds for divorce, a kind of catch-all reason for splitting up that's similar to the no-fault divorce California pioneered. As long as the couple agrees on how they'll split property and deal with child custody, it's a rubber-stamp. Nobody has to prove wrongdoing.

Tennessee also requires two hours of mediation before anyone can go to trial. But while the rules have changed, the reasons why marriages break have not. Palermo still finds infidelity as the primary reason for divorce. "Then it's money problems, and then it's alcohol and drug abuse." But technology has made it easier to uncloak it all.

"People think they are invisible on the Internet or when they're talking on a cell phone," says Palermo. "What they don't realize is that it's the quickest way to catch someone being unfaithful or engaging in pornography. All you have to do is download the hard drive and find out anything you want to know."

In one case, a private investigator hired to look into a wife's misconduct discovered the woman was addicted to chat rooms.

"I was representing the husband," Palermo recalls. "And he worked at night, and she was ordering pizza every night for the kids to eat—and that's all they were eating because she was so wrapped up on the Internet."

Turns out the wife had gotten involved with a fellow online. They'd begun to call each other their cyber husband and wife, and were planning to meet in person.

"So my PI just joined in the chat room and found out they were going to have this wedding on the Internet, and then meet at a hotel somewhere in Brentwood to consummate this cyber marriage."

All it took was a PI staking out a parking lot with a video recorder.

Other cases have revealed porn addictions or married people who fail to tell they're spouse that they're gay. "You can find out a lot of stuff to explain their behavior if you can just get into their computer," says Palermo.

Or their cell phone records.

"People go out in the middle of the night and talk to their boyfriend or girlfriend out in the yard and all you have to do is pull the cell phone records," Palermo says. "Why was he talking for 45 minutes between the hours of 2:15 and 3 a.m.?" she asks, imitating the back and forth of cross-examination.

" 'Well, uh, that was somebody I work with.'

" 'Well, do you usually call somebody you work with at 2:15 in the morning and talk for 45 minutes?' And it makes them look pretty stupid if they try to say they're not having an affair."

It also makes them look pretty stupid when they try to lie. Palermo has busted folks fibbing on the witness stand with proof as simple as a misleading MySpace page—stories she recounts with particular relish.

Take the lawyer who was cheating on his wife with another lawyer. Palermo represented the wife. Once she discovered the husband had moved out of their Williamson County home and into a Davidson County apartment, she filed the divorce papers there, knowing Davidson judges to be more generous with alimony than in conservative Williamson.

The husband, well aware of that generosity distinction, filed a motion to have the case refiled in Williamson County on the grounds that he had no residence in Davidson. His mistake was not only signing a lease in Davidson—which he denied was true—but also letting his new lady friend set up a MySpace page for him. It said he was not only single, but residing in "Nashvegas."

She shakes her head in disbelief at the ease of uncovering the lie. "Well, I just hate it when people lie, and especially when lawyers lie under oath," she says. "It really makes me mad."

Couples going through a bitter divorce may be engaging in raw, emotional warfare, but it's the lawyer's job to provide the cunning. It's an elaborate game of chess, anticipating your opponent's move and being two steps ahead.

Palermo is a master in court, often leaving opposing lawyers to rifle through papers, struggling to remember which exhibit is which, and finding themselves generally outwitted. But that's the game—outsmarting your opponent.

"It is, it really is," Palermo says. "And it's kind of fun when you nail somebody. I guess you have to take your kicks where you can get them."

A recent day found Palermo sitting patiently while opposing counsel cross-examined her client—the wife of a prominent couple with a substantial amount of debt.

The opposing lawyer had requested "credit card statements" from the wife. Palermo complied by sending the first page of each statement to show the balance.

The lawyer wanted to show the itemized spending habits of the wife, but she hadn't bothered to examine the documents prior to trial. Palermo had technically met the lawyer's request, but sneakily avoided offering the entire card statements. Now, on the second day in court, it was too late.

These semantic games are what provide lawyers with their reputation for sleaze. But they also win Palermo's clients big settlements.

"The outcome shouldn't be based on the lawyer in these cases, but the evidence," says one lawyer who refuses to be named for fear of a lawsuit. "They present incomplete information and skirt the rules—and this affects the outcome of the case."

But Palermo says it's the name of the game. "They should have said they wanted all the pages," she says with a shrug. "She didn't do her homework. Like I said, I can fight about a dollar all day long. Unless it's about kids."

She may be right, but it does little to enhance the standing of her profession. Dr. Bruce Goodman is still tied to his ex, five years after the ink dried on the divorce.

"To me, there is no justice in the system," he says. "The way I look at it, when I was married everything was hers. Now some of it's mine. It's ridiculous to me that we're divorced and I still pay her a good portion of what I make. In my perspective, it's a form of slavery. I worked for her when I was married, and now I'm still working for her."

Even some clients believe Palermo's too hard for her own good. "I was recommended to her because of that [pitbull] reputation," says one who fears using her name because of her public profile. "But there wasn't really big money there. I'm just an average person with three children. She was not very approachable. It was weeks and months before I could get her. She never took a phone call."

Palermo says she makes it clear with all her clients that she won't be available at the drop of a hat. That's what her six assistants—the self-described Hormone Harem—are for. They handle the overflow of questions and guidance that Palermo is simply too busy to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

"Sure, I have a few people say, yeah, I was irritated when I couldn't get a hold of you, but at the end when I saw my husband's attorney bill was $75,000 and mine was $12,000, I understood," says Palermo. "If you just pick up the phone and want to talk to me, it's not going to happen, because I'm in court, in depositions or I've got someone in here. If I'm working on your case, you've got my undivided attention. It's in my retainer agreement. I tell people that before they hire me. I'm going to care about your case and I'm going to work for you, but I'm not going to be your psychologist."

It's a single-mindedness that may not always appease clients. But it does draw a grudging respect even from foes. "She's a very good attorney, that's all I can say," says Bobby Joe Appleton, whose wife Betty Jean was represented by Palermo. "She won and I lost. Rose is probably one of the best lawyers in town. I had a decent lawyer—but not compared to her."

Palermo indeed "wins" case after case. Yet as Judge Jim Martin says, winning in divorce is only a matter of degree. "I can't think of a single case I had where we went to trial, the judge ruled and my client felt vindicated," he says. "Nobody ever gets all they want; nobody ever truly wins."

Palermo agrees: "There's only such a thing as winning a bigger amount of alimony than the other side wanted to give you. Or winning a bigger share of the pie of the marital estate."

She scored exactly that for Constance Gee in the much-publicized split from former Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee, winning a large alimony settlement.

For Mary McElhaney, winning meant getting the house, alimony, and the Titans tickets. Her discovery that her husband of 10 years "just decided to get a girlfriend without telling me" led her to Palermo's office. "She was wonderful to work with," says McElhaney. "Very personable. It was not a situation I was happy to be in and she made a very difficult situation for me as pleasant as she could."

McElhaney was so pleased that she made T-shirts after the divorce that read: "My attorney is better than your attorney."

Vanderbilt radiologist Anthony Cmelak isn't concerned with winning. Like most of Palermo's clients, he'd be grateful just to get through a harrowing ordeal with a little dignity—and some of his property.

He heard about Palermo from colleagues who said she could be "sweet as pie or a wolf." He was comforted by what he describes as Palermo's heard-it-all-before confidence, and that she seemed to actually care about him.

"I'm a cancer specialist at Vanderbilt, and in the middle of my proceedings I said to her, 'I think I see people at their best, and you see people at their worst.' "

That's an unexpected sentiment from someone who deals daily with cancer, but Dr. Cmelak explains that he's either dealing with patients who've recovered and are enjoying every moment of life with renewed vigor, or those who are at the end of life, dying with nobility and grace.

"And she said, 'Yes, you're right. But look at the good things I can do for people. I can get them time with their children and settle bad relationships. I can help mediate closure on things. Yes, I may not see it as often as you, but it's just as fulfilling.' "

Wolf or not, if you're heading down the alley of divorce, you want someone with a fierce compassion in your corner. Most of Palermo's clients believe she has that in spades—at least toward them. And that makes all the difference.

"Yes, she's a pitbull to the other side, but to you she's a golden retriever," says McElhaney. "She's compassionate and gentle, so you feel like she's hugging you with one arm, and punching them with the other."

Email tmoore@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-744-3362.

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