Corporate America and irresponsible government officials consistently trash lawsuits as “frivolous” and trial lawyers as “greedy.” Why? Because lawsuits and trial lawyers hold them accountable when they abuse their power, break the law, and violate people’s rights.
Want proof? Just look at the five finalists for Public Justice’s 2015 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award. This coveted honor goes annually to the lawyers who won the verdict or settlement that made the biggest contribution to the public interest in the past year.
David v. Signal International
In 2005, Signal International, a large contractor in Alabama and Mississippi, was hired to help rebuild the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. It recruited nearly 500 pipefitters and welders from India with promises of good jobs and permanent U.S. residency. The recruits paid $10,000 to $25,000 just to be considered. But Signal brought them here on guest worker visas, with no possibility of residency; forced them to live in “man camps” on “the reservation,” with up to two dozen workers in a trailer with one bathroom; and deducted $1,050 monthly from their pay to do so. When Signal learned some workers were organizing to take action, they locked those workers in a trailer, terminated the leaders of the organizing movement and attempted to forcibly deport them. One became so distraught he attempted suicide.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and a team of public interest and private attorneys fought for seven years – and continues to fight – to hold Signal accountable. When the judge would not let the case proceed as a class action, the SPLC recruited an extraordinary group of lawyers to represent hundreds of workers in a dozen related lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions on a pro bono basis. David v. Signal International was the first to go to trial. Led by Alan Bruce Howard of Crowell & Moring in New York, with other attorneys from that firm, the SPLC, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Louisiana Justice Institute in New Orleans, and Sahn Ward Coschignano & Baker in Uniondale, NY, the lawyers navigated numerous complex challenges, including explaining immigration law to jurors and presenting testimony from workers who did not speak English. They won a unanimous $14 million jury verdict for five workers in a four-week trial. The jury found Signal had engaged in labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination. This is the largest labor trafficking litigation in U.S. history. The David verdict is just the beginning. The claims of the other workers have yet to be heard.
Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania v. Wetzell
Solitary confinement can be a harrowing experience for any prisoner. For those with mental illnesses, it is especially brutal. Forced to spend 23 hours each day alone, locked in a tiny cell, prisoners with pre-existing mental health conditions can be utterly destroyed. An exhaustive investigation by the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania discovered that one-third of the 2400 prisoners in solitary confinement in the state had serious mental illnesses. Those prisoners suffered sleeplessness, hallucinations, and paranoia; refused to leave their cells; declined medical treatment; covered themselves with feces; banged their heads against the walls; injured themselves and prison staff; and repeatedly attempted suicide. DRN tried to engage directly with officials at the state Department of Corrections, but when talks proved unsuccessful, it gathered a team and sued.
Led by Robert W. Meek, Kelly L. Darr and Jeffrey M. Skakalski of DRN, with co-counsel from Kairys Rudovsky Messing & Feinberg, LLP, in Philadelphia; Covington and Burling, LLP, in New York; the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project in Philadelphia; and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh, the lawsuit was so meticulously executed that, within weeks of filing, the DOC agreed to negotiate. The resulting settlement is remarkable. It ensures prompt and regular mental health evaluation for all Pennsylvania prisoners, ends solitary confinement for those with serious mental illness absent “exceptional circumstances,” and places limitations on disciplinary measures and the use of force and restraints for prisoners with serious mental illness. The settlement also establishes three types of new mental health treatment units. It won state-wide reform of mental health treatment for 52,000 prisoners in Pennsylvania, including over 4,000 total prisoners in the Pennsylvania correctional system with serious mental illness, when nothing else would work.
Elwin v. NS Home for Colored Children & Province of Nova Scotia
The Halifax Home for Colored Children was founded in 1921 to care for African-Canadian orphans in the province. That is not what it did. Children there were subjected to unspeakable treatment – physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse – for nearly a century. Deanna Smith, placed there at age ten for four years by child welfare social services when her mother died, was just one example. Told she was “stupid,” “useless” and “would amount to nothing,” she was fondled by staff members and forced to perform in “sex shows” with other girls and boys there for the staff’s entertainment. Other children were shockingly mistreated in numerous different, hideous ways. The period of abuse spanned nearly 70 years.
Between 2000 and 2003, Wagners, a personal injury law firm in Halifax, Novia Scotia, filed 60 individual lawsuits on behalf of former residents. Even then, the provincial government, responsible for placing children in the home, refused to acknowledge the truth. So, in 2011, the Wagners team, led by Raymond F. Wagner and Michael Dull, filed the Elwin case, a class action. Ending a 14-year battle, the government and orphanage conceded what was taking place and entered into two different settlements totaling $34 million. To date, over 300 former residents have come forward to receive compensation, access to mental health care, and financial counseling. Nova Scotia’s Premier issued a formal apology and promised to “cast an unflinching eye on the past as we strive toward a better future.” The home is now a short-term residential facility providing proper care for children of all races.
In re McCray, Richardson, Santana, Wise and Salaam Litigation
The beating and rape of a jogger in New York City’s Central Park made national headlines in 1989. Five young boys ages 14 to 16 were arrested for the crime, convicted, and sent to prison on the basis of coerced confessions. The boys, all of whom were black or Hispanic, served from 7 to 13 years behind bars and, upon their release, were required to register as sex offenders. Then, in 2002, a convicted serial rapist came forward and claimed responsibility for the attack. When the District Attorney’s office investigated his claims using DNA analysis, they found he was telling the truth. The “Central Park Five” were left to rebuild their lives.
For 13 years, attorneys for the wrongfully convicted young men fought New York City lawyers in their quest for justice. The team was led by, for different clients, Myron Beldock, Karen Dippold, and Jonathan C. Moore of New York’s Beldock, Levine & Hoffman and Jane H. Fisher-Byrialsen, David Fisher, and Alissa Boshnack of New York’s Fisher, Byrialsen & Kreizer, with co-counsel from the Michael W. Warren Law Office and Thomas Wareham & Richards in Brooklyn. After hundreds of depositions and hundreds of thousands of pages of discovery, the city agreed to pay a record $41 million settlement, more than $1 million for each person for each year served in prison. The young men are publicly speaking out about the lessons to be learned from their case and the need to videotape interrogations of juvenile suspects. In 2013, award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns featured the five in his acclaimed documentary, the “Central Park Five.”
Navajo Nation v. U.S.
The United States government holds in trust 14 million acres of land belonging to the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the country. As part of its agreement with the Nation, the U.S. government leases parcels of that land for farming, housing, timber operations and oil and coal exploration. For nearly seventy years, however, the government conducted its operations without any accurate accounting of the funds, failed to get fair market value for what it leased, and failed to monitor the extraction of natural resources from the Navajos’ land. So the Navajo Nation never received the true royalties it was owed.
Navajo Nation v. U.S. was filed to hold the government accountable. Led by Samuel J. Buffone (who passed away just before he was nominated) of BuckleySandler in Washington, D.C., and Alan R. Taradash of the Nordhaus Law Firm in Albuquerque, with co-counsel from both firms and the Attorney General’s Office for the Navajo Nation, the case lasted for eight years. The lawyers spent enormous time and resources compiling evidence of the government’s misconduct over decades. Finally, in what then-Attorney General Eric Holder called a “landmark resolution,” the United States agreed to pay $554 million to the Navajo Nation. It is the largest settlement ever obtained by a Native American tribe from the federal government.
Why This is Important
Public Justice honors these lawyers because of their extraordinary work fighting injustice, taking great risks (trial lawyers don’t recover any fees unless they win), and accomplishing great things. And the stories above are just summaries of the incredible work these teams did. Fore more details, including the names of all the finalists.
On Monday, July 13, Public Justice will debut a series of short documentary films about each nominee, and the winner of this year’s award will be announced, at our Annual Gala during the Annual Convention of the American Association for Justice in Montreal. For event details, click here.
While we celebrate these lawyers, let’s be clear. They were just doing their jobs: using lawsuits to hold corporate, government, and individual wrongdoers accountable when they break the law, cheat people, sell defective products, discriminate, mistreat workers, poison the water and air, or maximize profit over safety and lives.
That’s what lawsuits and trial lawyers do. And that’s why Corporate America and irresponsible public officials keep talking about “frivolous” lawsuits and “greedy” trial lawyers. It’s a lot easier than talking about their outrageous misconduct, their fear of liability, and their hope for immunity. If people believe them, juries will be tainted and less likely to hold them accountable; judges and legislators will cap their damages and limit access to justice; and far fewer people will sue them – or be able to sue them – when they do wrong.
Don’t let them get away with it. Share this with others. Spread the word.
The problem isn’t “frivolous” lawsuits or “greedy” trial lawyers. The problem is the injustice we need lawsuits and trial lawyers to expose, remedy, and prevent.