Retiring Judge Kevin Gross has deftly managed some of the nation’s most complex and famous bankruptcies, from the Los Angeles Dodgers to telecommunications giant Nortel Networks, with a friendly demeanor that earned him many courtroom admirers.

That doesn’t mean the Delaware bankruptcy judge is a pushover.

“If someone crosses the line with him, he changes pretty quickly,” said Bruce Grohsgal, a bankruptcy law professor at Delaware Law School at Widener University and longtime colleague.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware announced April 8 that Gross would retire early next year, ending 14 years of “exemplary service,” including three years as chief judge.

Gross and his fellow judges on the Delaware bankruptcy court declined requests to be interviewed for this story. Lawyers who practice before him say Gross is known on the bench for listening carefully, coming prepared, and never cutting arguments short. Everyone gets a warm welcome and fair shake.

“You’re made to feel valuable whether you won or lost,” said Laura Davis Jones, managing partner at Pachulski Stang Ziehl & Jones LLP in Wilmington, Del. “You never leave his courtroom feeling that you weren’t heard and respected.”

Gross hasn’t been afraid to make tough decisions or go against the tide. In 2011, he ruled that the Los Angeles Dodgers bankruptcy would remain in Delaware despite pressure to move the case to California. He moved the bankruptcy of casino giant Caesars Entertainment Corp. to Chicago in 2015 despite a push from creditors to keep it in Delaware.

His most famous case was the bankruptcy of Nortel Networks, which included a 21-day multi-jurisdictional trial in 2014 that required his courtroom to be converted into a theater that live-cast hearing among parties in Delaware, Canada, and the U.K.

“The way that process was handled was masterful,” Ted Gavin, managing director of Gavin/Solmonese LLC in Wilmington, said. “How the value was allocated in Nortel has become a precedent for how value is allocated in intellectual property cases.”

‘Ruthless’ Mediator

Gross can be “strangely ruthless” as a mediator, according to Patrick Jackson, an associate at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP in Wilmington.

Jackson was involved in a multi-party mediation process that Gross facilitated as part of a bankruptcy case that involved clergy sex abuse claims against the Diocese of Wilmington and affiliated parishes. Gross facilitated a 2011 settlement in the complex case, which also involved certain Catholic religious orders and the pension plans of lay employees.

Gross is known to flash his temper during mediation “to nudge people along,” Jackson said, and if someone is being stubborn, “he can turn on a dime.”

For attorneys used to his sunny courtroom demeanor, “it makes it very poignant when he flips the switch,” Jackson said.

Judge Gross has been known to keep parties at the table for long hours in pushing for a settlement. If Gross is your mediator, “you’d better bring a toothbrush,” Jackson said. “He’ll just keep you there, and he won’t let you leave to get food, and it’s two in the morning.”

Delaware Native

Born in Wilmington in 1952, Gross graduated with a degree in psychology from the University of Delaware and got his law degree from the American University in Washington, according to a 2017 profile about Gross in The Federal Lawyer.

He started his legal career in 1978 for Chancellor William Marvel and Vice Chancellors Grover C. Brown and Maurice A. Hartnett III in the Delaware Court of Chancery, and then joined the firm Morris & Rosenthal.

At first Gross did a mix of general practice work and corporate litigation. He transitioned to bankruptcy starting in 1991 when he got pulled into Columbia Gas System Inc.'s Chapter 11 case, one of the largest and most complex that Delaware had seen up to that point. He stayed with the firm, eventually becoming a named partner, until he took the bench in 2006.

Gross was always “the cheerful one in the law firm that everyone in the firm gravitated to,” recalled his then-partner Jeffrey S. Goddess, who is still a director at the Wilmington firm, now named Rosenthal, Monhait and Goddess, P.A.

The Delaware bankruptcy court declined to comment on his plans after retirement. But Gross is already passing along his legacy through mentoring and training young lawyers.

Gross worked with the Delaware Chapter of the Federal Bar Association to help create a Bankruptcy Trial Practice Seminar for mid-level bankruptcy associates, said L. Katherine Good, partner at Potter Anderson & Corroon LLP and chair of the bankruptcy section of the Delaware State Bar Association.