‘Litigation Warrior’ wins some of the most complex corporate lawsuits in the U.S. court system
Tonja De Sloover’s first courtroom appearance came in 2002 only a month after she graduated from the University of Iowa College of Law, but weeks before she had passed the bar exam.
De Sloover and another lawyer at then-Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston represented a couple who had saved $30,000 from his VCR repair business so that they could move their manufactured home to a better school district for their young daughter. But the woman who owned the home-moving business took their money but literally dumped their home on the side of the road and refused to pay them back.
The morning of the trial, De Sloover told the lawyers for the other side that she didn’t have my law license yet and asked if they minded.
“They laughed a bit and said they didn’t mind,” she said.
The rookie lawyer proceeded to take their lunch in court, defeating the defense’s efforts to exclude all of the plaintiffs’ witnesses for the plaintiffs. De Sloover’s clients won the case and got their $30,000 back.
“The family was so happy,” she said. “I realized then that I made the right choice to become a trial lawyer.”
Sixteen years later, De Sloover is the assistant general counsel and head of litigation at Energy Transfer Partners, one of the largest oil and gas pipeline companies in the U.S.
Despite being only 41, she has scored several huge billion-dollar courtroom victories in some of the most complex corporate lawsuits pending in the U.S. court system.
Recently the Texas General Counsel Forum, an organization of 650 chief legal officers for Texas businesses, honored De Sloover with its prestigious Magna Stella Award for Major Litigation.
“I am sure that many opponents — including a lot of trial lawyers — have misjudged Tonja and they came to regret that mistake,” said Paul Yetter, who is the managing partner of Yetter Coleman in Houston. “Tonja is tough as nails. She has a maturity and understanding of litigation that is way beyond her years.”
Legal industry insiders say De Sloover is one of the new faces of high-stakes business litigation — tough, aggressive, brilliantly strategic, and more than willing to use the court system to accomplish her company’s objectives and enforce its rights.
But corporate law analysts also say that De Sloover is the perfect role model for highly successful women in the practice of law today.
A mother of three, De Sloover’s Facebook pages are filled with adorable family photos — she and the children trick-or-treating, the family posing with the Easter Bunny and nights at Minute Maid Park watching the Houston Astros.
“Tonja is young and attractive and a good, kindhearted person and a doting mother, but do not be deceived, she is a litigation warrior,” said Dallas trial lawyer Mike Lynn of Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst.
“So many lawyers are so scared of losing in court that it paralyzes them,” said Lynn, who represents ETP in various matters. “Tonja is absolutely unafraid to take a case to trial. In fact, she loves being in battle and she loves trials.”
De Sloover, in an exclusive interview with The Texas Lawbook, admits that she is “conservatively aggressive” and has “no fear of going to trial,” but she attributes it to her bosses at ETP.
“I hate losing, but I think there are lawyers at other companies who are afraid of going to trial because they are afraid that they will lose their job if they lose the case. I operate without such fear because I have the full support of Tom Mason and the company’s leadership,” she said. Mason is ETP’s general counsel.
During the past two years, De Sloover has guided ETP, a $40 billion company with nearly 30,000 employees and operating 70,000 miles of pipeline, through some treacherous legal waters, including:
She led the litigation team that defeated a multibillion-dollar lawsuit brought by competitor Williams over an aborted $33 billion merger deal that was canceled when it was learned that assets would not be tax-free, which was a key condition of the transaction.
She is currently guiding ETP’s legal battle in Delaware Chancery Court against Williams, which claims that ETP owes it $410 millions in an M&A deal break up fee. The case is in discovery.
She oversaw the successful defeat of a major securities class action lawsuit earlier this year brought by ETP unit holders seeking to cancel a private placement, which would have cost the pipeline company an estimated $500 million.
She has taken a hands-on role in ETP’s $500 million litigation against rival Enterprise Products Partners of Houston, which ETP claims violated their partnership to build a pipeline from Oklahoma to Houston with a competitor.
Finally, she has successfully guided ETP through a highly sensitive, high-stakes, high-profile environmental legal battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is still pending. Last year, ETP sued environmental groups for inciting riots and environmental terrorism.
Lawyers who work with De Sloover say that she is actively involved in just about every case, despite supervising a staggering volume of lawsuits for the pipeline company.
Lynn pointed to a $200 million lawsuit against ETP in South Texas in which De Sloover developed “an ingenious tactic” designed to create internal divisions between the two plaintiffs in the case.
“No one on the outside legal team had thought of the idea before, but it worked, ultimately unraveling the other side’s case and resulted in a very favorable outcome for the company,” Lynn said.
De Sloover was born in Norway, Iowa, population 450, which is 17 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids. Her mother and father met in Shanghai, where her dad served in the U.S. Air Force doing airplane maintenance and her mother worked at the U.S. Embassy. They married and moved to Iowa, where he had been raised. De Sloover is the youngest of three daughters — each was born about 18 months apart.
“We are frequently mistaken as triplets all the time,” she said. “Growing up in Iowa was wonderfully simple, nice and uncomplicated. Iowans are great, hard-working people. I have those values instilled in me.”
The thought of becoming a lawyer came, she admitted, because she “probably watched too many episodes of “LA Law,” but I thought the idea of being a lawyer seemed fun.”
Houston-based Fulbright & Jaworski — now Norton Rose Fulbright — recruited De Sloover to join the firm — a job she believed she would have for the rest of her legal career. But then ETP called in 2013, and it was a challenge she couldn’t pass up.
“I was so naïve when I took this job,” she said. “I had no idea what the head of litigation did and no idea the breadth of the work.”
Beyond the major cases already mentioned, De Sloover also oversees a significant docket of litigation involving vehicle accidents, pipeline ruptures and contract disputes across the country.
“I like to be actively involved in our cases, and I try to attend most of the important depositions and hearings in person,” she said. “I’m very hands-on. I want to be in the weeds in order to evaluate the risks. I want to see the credibility of the witness. And I’m a note-passer. If I’m there in court, I believe I should contribute.”
Michael Holmes, a partner at Houston-based Vinson & Elkins and who works with ETP on the Williams litigation, said De Sloover “jumps right in the fray” and “meaningfully contributes” to litigation.
“Tonja got into the weeds, reviewing key motions, deposition transcripts and expert reports and attending the deposition and trial planning sessions,” Holmes said. “Tonja is a legitimate trial lawyer who contributes on the front lines.”