Venture capitalist Adam Dell’s custody lawsuit against his ex-girlfriend, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, is a detailed declaration of war. Adam, the brother of Dell computing founder Michael, started dating Lakshmi in 2007. In his petition, he describes family visits and 10 rendezvous locations, including London, the Maldives, and one “Phoenicia, New York.” The list suggests a Dell in a cataloging reverie: We’ll always have Woodstock. In the fall of 2009 Lakshmi, the ex-wife of Salman Rushdie, gutted Dell with insults that she found him “unambitious,” his career “uninteresting,” and his friends “unmemorable.” She wanted out of the “superficial” and “primarily physical” relationship with Dell, his lawsuit contends.
After the breakup, she told Dell that she was pregnant and that she hoped the father was her new boyfriend, billionaire Ted Forstmann. Ouch. Prenatal DNA testing confirmed that Dell was the father, but Lakshmi turned down Dell’s request to attend baby Krishna Lakshmi’s birth in February 2010. Lakshmi has tried ever since to keep Dell out of his daughter’s life, he claims. His argument for custody is that Lakshmi won’t consider Krishna ahead of her own busy career. “Unambitious” Dell, by contrast, has an “extremely flexible” schedule and will put Krishna’s “needs above his own.”
Some unusual details of this litigation show that Dell’s goal is not to win in court. His interest in custody, sincere though it may be, is smaller than his desire to frighten Lakshmi into settling out of court—and on his terms. This is obvious from the inflammatory text of the petition itself and from the very public way his lawyers filed and discussed it with the press.
The suit was drafted for two audiences—the public and Lakshmi. Its message to the public is that Lakshmi is cold-hearted and promiscuous (she wasn’t even sure who the father of her child was, after all). To Lakshmi, the suit says two things. First, Dell is willing to outspend her. Litigation can cost millions of dollars in legal fees, and Dell has a lot more money than Lakshmi does. Second, by trumpeting his version of the story in the press and in the courts, he’s attempting to mar Lakshmi’s image and hurt her career as a cable host. The plan seems to be backfiring: Instead of making him seem sympathetic, Dell’s story of rejection just makes him seem vindictive.
Dell’s first low move was suing in New York Supreme Court. This is the state’s general trial court, where documents and cases are publicly available and easily accessible: A search term and 30 seconds gets you the court papers. Typically, high-profile, big-money family law cases settle before any papers are filed, but unmarried parents who do end up litigating in New York commonly go to Family Court, where cases are not displayed online. Furthermore, one of his lawyers spoke to the press immediately upon filing suit, making the details of this case as well-known as possible.
Dell makes five requests (“causes of action”) in his petition: an order of paternity; full custody; child support; that Krishna’s last name be changed from Lakshmi to Dell; and a new birth certificate. Two of these requests are noncontroversial, assuming Dell is Krishna’s biological father: to be named her legal father and to be listed on her birth certificate. The other requests reflect negotiation tactics, not what Dell really wants.
He is extremely unlikely to obtain full custody of Krishna, and Dell acknowledges he doesn’t want it. (He says he would prefer joint custody, which he believes, incorrectly, that the court cannot order.) New York custody cases are judged according to the “best interests of the child.” While the law is gender-neutral, the chances of a father obtaining full custody of a child he has never lived with are low. But the threat to pursue full custody is a common tactic in disputes between parents. Often the parent more interested in custody will agree to less money in exchange for more time or decision-making control over the children.
The request for an order of child support is where Dell’s suit turns from unseemly to ridiculous. The suit says that if he is awarded full custody, he will be entitled to child support, but that he’ll waive his right to receive it (Even though he has more money than Lakshmi, she would be on the hook for a percentage of Krishna’s expenses if Dell had custody.) In Dell’s public narrative, this draws attention to the fact that while he could ask for money, he won’t.
The melodrama amps up in the next request, which is that Krishna’s last name be changed to Dell. Lakshmi ignored his requests to have Dell’s family name included on Krishna’s birth certificate and compounded the insult by acknowledging new boyfriend Forstmann. (Krishna’s middle name is Thea, which Dell says is a nod to Theodore Forstmann.) Under New York law, either parent can change a child’s name. Dell states disingenuously that “there can be no reasonable objection to the change of name proposed,” but there are obvious objections. No legal presumption exists for a child to carry her father’s last name as her own, and Krishna has been known by her current last name for nearly a year.
Parts of Dell’s factual recitation are implausible too. He claims that Lakshmi “failed” to identify Dell as Krishna’s father on her birth certificate. In fact, because the parents were not married, and because (as Dell acknowledges) they did not sign a form establishing Dell as the father, Lakshmi could not have listed Dell even if she’d wanted to do so.
Every custody fight over a baby is sad. And the story of a lawsuit’s papers is almost never the story of the people involved. Dell either believes the only way he can get to his daughter is to fire a cannon at her mother, or he wants to punish Lakshmi, regardless of what’s best for Krishna. Sad doesn’t even begin to describe it.