February 2000 archives, part 1
February 15 – County to pay “mountain man” burglar $412,500. Mincho Donchev, an escaped murderer from Bulgaria who lived for ten years in the Cascade Mountains of Washington breaking into vacation cabins, has won a $412,500 settlement of his lawsuit against Snohomish County for excessive force in his arrest. Two years ago, as Donchev resisted officers trying to subdue him, a police dog mangled his foot, causing the eventual loss of two of his toes; he was armed with knives, handguns and a pronged stick during the affair. The sheriff denies that either his deputies or the dog did anything wrong, but Donchev’s Seattle attorney, Mark Shepherd, said his client had “been horribly, grotesquely disfigured on his foot, and that foot will never function properly again”; the settlement money, he said, would help ease his client’s re-entry into society when he’s released from prison this August. Some local residents may have other ideas for where the money ought to go. “Every time he broke into our place he cleaned out every bit of our food in the cabinet and the refrigerator — pop, any kind of meat we had,” said Bob Gardner, whose vacation cabin was burglarized three times. (“‘Mountain-Man’ Thief Wins $412K for K-9 Bite”, AP/APB News, Feb. 4).
February 15 – Bill introduced to curb opportunistic ADA filings. Florida GOP Representatives Mark Foley and Clay Shaw have now introduced legislation “designed to block plaintiffs’ lawyers from using the Americans with Disabilities Act as a mill for grinding out legal fees,” reports the Miami Daily Business Review. As previously reported (see our January 26-27 commentary), more than 600 South Florida businesses have been hit with charges that their facilities are out of compliance with the ADA; most of the complaints can be traced to a small network of activists linked to lawyers who obtain legal fees typically in the thousands of dollars from defendants eager to settle. The new bill would require that businesses be given notice of an ADA problem and an opportunity to correct it before suit could be filed. According to a press release issued by the Congressmen, a group calling itself Citizens Concerned about Disability Access appears to consist mainly of “the two lawyers initiating the suits, and a neighbor and her disabled daughter who reportedly live across the street from one of the lawyers.” Some of its complaints are premised on the notion that the disabled daughter encountered barriers while trying to patronize the businesses, which included a pawn shop, a liquor store and a swimming-pool-supply store — the latter an especially curious subject of concern since the disabled daughter “has no swimming pool.” Last month U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno declined Rep. Foley’s request that the Justice Department investigate the matter. (Dan Christiansen, “Congressmen Rein In ‘Rogue’ Disabled Access Suits”, Miami Daily Business Review, Feb. 8).
February 15 – Britons debate false-rape-claim damages. In Newcastle upon Tyne, England, a four-man, eight-woman jury has ordered Lynn Walker to pay $630,000 (£400,000) in damages to co-worker Martin Garfoot, after concluding she had falsely accused him of raping her in a storeroom. Ms. Walker had waited nine months after the supposed incident to raise the claim and had sought neither police nor doctors’ help; video camera records from the days after the claimed attack showed her “at ease and untroubled” as she worked with the accused. Mr. Garfoot, 46, managed a branch of Boots, the drugstore concern; both Ms. Walker and Mr. Garfoot’s wife Janice are pharmacists. Feminist groups expressed outrage, but Mr. Garfoot’s barrister, Edward Garnier, Q.C., said: “She should not be able to simply walk away and hide in her tent after she has been found to be an out-and-out liar. Mr. Garfoot has spent the last few years wearing a cloak of shame. She twisted and twisted and twisted the knife in Mr. Garfoot.” (Nigel Bunyan, “Woman must pay £400,000 to man she said raped her”, Daily Telegraph (London), Feb. 8; Mark Blacklock, “Rape Claim Woman Lied”, Daily Express (London), Feb. 8).
February 14 – Bill Clinton among friendly crowd. The President hit Texas last week for a fund-raising tour of which the highlight was a $25,000-a-couple dinner hosted by trial lawyer husband-and-wife Fred Baron and Lisa Blue at their “palatial” (eleven bathrooms, six wet bars) Dallas home. The event raised an estimated $500,000 for the Democratic National Committee. The Reuters report describes Baron only as a “Democratic activist” but not as a trial lawyer, and none of the papers appear to pick up on his rather salient role as president-elect of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. Needless to say, none of the reporters are so rude as to mention the controversies over the coaching of testimony in Baron’s asbestos claims practice, either. Maybe host and guest-of-honor shared tips about their respective successes with creative witness preparation.
The February 11 Dallas Morning News does report that at the Baron event “the president had plenty of lawyers to chat with. He was seated at the head table with trial lawyer Trevor Pearlman, and law partners/life partners Debbie and Frank Branson, as well as his lawyerly hosts.” (“Clinton Says Senate Doing ‘Slow Walk’ on Nominees, Reuters/Excite, Feb. 9; Madeline Baro Diaz, “Clinton arrives in South Texas to discuss border issues, raise money”, AP/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Feb. 10; Todd J. Gillman, “In Texas, Clinton blasts GOP”, Dallas Morning News, Feb. 10; Alan Peppard, “Backing Bill all the way”, Dallas Morning News, Feb. 11 (fee-based archive)).
February 14 – U.S. foreign policy, hijacked by lawsuits. Trial lawyers’ freelance pile-on of WWII-recrimination suits is undercutting America’s effort to maintain a coherent foreign policy, most recently in Japan, where U.S. Ambassador Thomas S. Foley has joined the Japanese government in rejecting an attempt to claim compensation in U.S. courts for maltreated American prisoners in World War II. “The peace treaty put aside all claims against Japan,” Foley pointed out. The continuing claims are generating dismay and an anti-American backlash among Japanese (as also among citizens of various European nations). By this point, however, the American litigation system has grown so vigorous in its assertiveness that mere treaties may not be very effective at reining it in. (Doug Struck and Kathryn Tolbert, “US envoy, Japan reject WWII veterans’ lawsuits”, Boston Globe (originally Washington Post), Jan. 19, link now dead; Richard Pyle, “Ex-POWs want Japanese firms to pay for ‘slave labor’”, AP/Seattle Times, Sept. 15, 1999; “Anger as court rejects Allied POWs’ compensation suit”, CNN, Nov. 26, 1998) (see Sept. 20, Aug. 25, Feb. 5-6 commentaries).
February 14 – Improvements to our gun-litigation page. We’ve been continuing to add links to our subpage on firearms lawsuits. Included are the useful news-links page on gun issues maintained by the Colorado Shooting Sports Association, the special page on gun controversies at Jurist: The Law Professor’s Network, a bunch of choicely worded letters to the editor from the Detroit Free Press last summer responding to the NAACP’s suit, and Robert Levy’s Jan. 30 opinion piece for the National Law Journal, “Blackmail of gun makers“. In response to a suggestion from an attorney reader who protested, “We’re not all against gun rights, you know”, we’re also pleased to add a link to the Lawyers’ Second Amendment Society.
February 12-13 – AOL upgrade’s sharp elbows. America Online‘s new 5.0 upgrade, like many other pieces of software, asks whether you want to make it your “default” program for the purpose; if you say yes, it alters your settings in ways that make it easier to use AOL but harder to use other Internet service providers you may have installed. Some users have found that the AOL “default” setting makes it remarkably difficult indeed to use rival ISPs, and some ISPs report spending hours helping frustrated customers trying to use their service after having installed AOL 5.0 over it.
Enter class-action lawyers, who’ve filed two distinct lawsuits: one on behalf of the roughly 8 million AOL customers who’ve already installed the new version, and the other on behalf of rival ISPs. The suit on behalf of individual users rather arbitrarily demands up to $1,000 for each user, and CNN rose to the bait by describing the suit in its headline as being for $8 billion — even though AOL claims that more than 90 percent of its users do not have accounts with other ISPs, which means they’re unlikely to have run into difficulties (at least if they’re not trying to connect over a LAN or corporate system). AOL says other ISPs’ software does the same thing as its does, and contends that the upgrade gives users a smoother Net experience which has reduced reports of technical problems overall. According to USA Today, one of the suits invokes a federal anti-hacking law which provides both criminal and civil penalties for anyone “who alters the programs or use of a computer used in interstate commerce,” quoting “Lloyd Gathings, a Birmingham, Ala., lawyer involved in the case.”
SOURCES: Brian McWilliams, “AOL Sued Over Networking Bugs in AOL 5.0″, InternetNews.com, Feb. 2 (& see same site, Oct. 6, 1999, Oct. 12, 1999, and Feb. 8, 2000, all links now dead); “AOL Sued over 5.0 Install”, Reuters/ZDNet, Feb. 2; Slashdot, Feb. 2 (bonus: thread includes link to this site); “Disgruntled AOL 5.0 users seek up to $8 billion in damages”, CNN.com, Feb. 2; “AOL sued over latest software”, USA Today, Feb. 2; Brooke A. Masters, “AOL Rivals File Suit Over Its New Software”, Washington Post, Feb. 8; Donna DeMarco, “AOL 5.0 problems boot up users’ ire”, Washington Times, Feb. 9, link now dead; Peter H. Lewis, “Takeover Artist”, New York Times, Feb. 10. The inevitable website by lawyers organizing the suits is called www.classactionversion5.com.
February 12-13 – Blue-ribbon excuse syndromes. Former Chicago City Treasurer Miriam Santos, once a rising star of the Democratic Party, has “blamed her now-overturned conviction on extortion charges on pre-menstrual syndrome….’I am human and probably the first woman to go to jail for PMSing,’” she told a news conference. (“Former treasurer blames PMS for crime”, UPI/Virtual New York, Feb. 7). A lawyer for New York City’s Dr. Allan Zarkin, charged with carving his initials into a sedated patient’s belly after delivering her baby by Caesarean section, says his client “has a “frontal lobe disorder” called Pick’s disease, an Alzheimer-like disease that causes personality and behavior changes and dementia.” (“Doctor charged in carving incident”, Reuters/Excite, Feb. 10; “Report: Woman Settles with Doctor”, Feb. 12). Vancouver Metis Indian Deanna Emard, convicted of stabbing her common-law husband to death, has gotten off without jail time because Canadian law now recognizes Indians’ cultural oppression as a mitigating factor in sentencing. (Neal Hall, “Metis woman avoids jail term for killing husband”, Vancouver Sun/National Post, Jan. 20). And in a recent U.S. News column, John Leo nominates 1999′s top ten claims of victimization, including several discussed previously in this space as well as additional contenders such as James Moore, a landscape gardener from upstate New York who raped and strangled a 14-year-old girl in 1962 and asked a judge last year for release from his life-without-parole sentence, arguing that exposure to insecticides made him do it. (“The top ten victims”, Jan. 31).
February 12-13 – The nutty professor. How does University of Wisconsin law professor Marc Galanter retain his position as the favorite academic of America’s trial lawyers? In part by his willingness to dispense to reporters quotes like the following: “Some who have studied the issue say that what Bush has called ‘the litigation explosion in Texas’ was nonexistent. ‘There is really no evidence that frivolous or totally unfounded lawsuits pose a significant problem,’ said [Galanter].” (George Lardner Jr., “‘Tort Reform’: Mixed Verdict”, Washington Post, Feb. 10). (tell the Post what you think).
February 10-11 – Antitrust obstacles to hacker defense. This week’s hacker attacks on Yahoo, E-Trade and other sites are likely to encourage proposals to establish surveillance of the Net by federal law enforcers, but a better reaction, according to MIT network manager Jeff Schiller, would be to roll back existing regulations that make it hard for operators to coordinate network security. “There needs to be a way network operators can [work together] in a way that’s immune from Sherman antitrust,” he said. “We had a situation at IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) where we couldn’t have two people in the same room together by themselves since they were representatives of big competitors.” (Declan McCullagh, “Was Yahoo Smurfed or Trinooed?”, Wired News, Feb. 8) (second page of story).
February 10-11 – ADA vs. freedom of expression on the Web. The U.S. Department of Justice has indicated that a wide range of Internet activity may be subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act and its requirement that “reasonable accommodation” be provided to handicapped users (see Dec. 21 commentary). At a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday (Wednesday), panelists explained that a wide range of common page construction techniques currently cause websites to be “inaccessible”, including the use of undescribed visual and audio elements, image maps that lack text for hotspots, link text that does not make sense when read out of context (example: “click here”), graphs and charts that are not summarized, nondescriptive frames titles, and much more. The editor of this site, unlike several of the other witnesses, found it alarming that federal law should presume to enforce such rules on private web publishers. We’ll try to provide a fuller report on the hearing at a later point; in the mean time, we’ve posted our editor’s prepared statement.
February 10-11 – “Not-a-Lawyer”. Fast Company nominates it as among “Job Titles of the Future”, and it’s the official description on Rory Holland’s business card. Mr. Holland works for Canadian law firm Russell & DuMoulin in Vancouver, helping clients “figure out what role lawyers should play in their companies”. (Erika Germer, Fast Company, March).
February 10-11 – Gun litigation roundup. Free-Market.Net’s J.D. Tuccille has assembled a link-rich “Spotlight on Anti-Gun Lawsuits” feature (Jan. 6). At a gun industry trade show last month in Las Vegas, members vowed greater activism in fending off attacks on their business, including the formation of a legal defense fund under the auspices of the National Shooting Sports Federation to respond to courtroom bullying. (Melanie Eversley, “Gun dealers take aim at rash of anti-gun suits”, Knight-Ridder/Spokane Spokesman-Review, Jan. 19). And in a Cato Institute Daily Commentary, David Kopel counters some myths about the supposed “gun show loophole”. One Congresswoman has charged that 70 percent of guns used in crimes come from gun shows, but National Institute of Justice figures indicate the figure is 2 percent, Kopel says. Handgun Control, Inc. “claims that ’25-50 percent of the vendors at most gun shows are unlicensed dealers.’ That statistic is true only if one counts vendors who aren’t selling guns (e.g., vendors who are selling books, clothing or accessories) as ‘unlicensed dealers.’” (David Kopel, “The Facts About Gun Shows”, Cato Daily Commentary, Jan. 10).
February 10-11 – Orange, soured. After representing bankrupt Orange County, Calif. and other public entities seeking to recoup investment damages, the L. A.-based law firm of Hennigan, Mercer & Bennett petitioned for an extra $48.7 million on top of its standard fee. In November U.S. District Judge Gary Taylor of Santa Ana issued an order allowing a mere $3 million of that request. What really stung was the judge’s language: he called the firm’s arguments for the enhanced fee “flawed”, “cynical”, and even “unethical” and “dishonorable”. The firm had already been accorded fees of $26.3 million based on hourly charges of up to $445 an hour for its work on the cases, but then placed a lien on the county’s recovery in quest of an additional $48.7 million as a “lodestar” multiplier to reward it for having achieved good results in the face of difficulty. “If lawyers in cases like these are paid only their straight hourly rates, they have less reason to maximize results for clients,” the firm said in a court filing, which prompted the judge to ask at oral argument: “Do you really believe that?” The judge’s subsequent fee opinion asserted that attorneys are obliged to do their best for clients whether or not the fee arrangement partakes of a contingency element: “anything less would be unethical and dishonorable.” Now there’s a revolutionary idea! A legal ethics expert says the judge is being “idealistic”. (Gail Diane Cox, “Firm Smacked by Judge Over Orange Bankruptcy”, Cal Law/The Recorder, Nov. 17).
February 8-9 – Litigious varsity. “High school sports should be a healthy, fun lesson in fair play, not a prep course for law school.” But parents and educators are running to court to get referees’ calls reversed, says a Boston Globe editorial. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association reports that eight lawsuits arose in the last year alone from high school games. After a brawl during a recent hockey game between Melrose and Stoneham, several players were handed a two-game suspension, but a mother went to court and got a restraining order letting her son back on the ice, claiming he hadn’t been involved. In a case in Springfield, officials didn’t clear the legal paperwork allowing them to eject an offending player until the next game was about to begin and the National Anthem was playing, the player suited up and ready. (“Spoiled sports” (editorial), Boston Globe, Jan. 17, link now dead). And in Brunswick, Ohio, a father sued the coach of the Brunswick Cobras boy’s baseball team for leading the team to such a poor record. “Charles Settles, whose son, Kevin, was the catcher on the 16-year-old-and-under team,” went to small claims court asking $2,000, “the estimated value of a seven-day Florida trip the team could have made had it not lost every game — most by a 10-run ‘mercy’ rule.” A magistrate dismissed the action. (Stephen Hudak, “Losing season prompts dad to sue son’s coach”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Jan. 9).
February 8-9 – From the dog’s point of view. A week ago we reported on dogbitelaw.com, a lawyer’s website that encourages persons bitten by dogs to sue the animals’ owners (see February 1 commentary). Now, for balance, here’s an excerpt from a Washington Times interview last week with Boston attorney Steven Wise, who heads an animal-rights group called the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights. “Over the last 15 years, I have represented probably 150 owners of dogs who have been ordered executed or banished from their towns. People may have complained they bit someone or they bark excessively.
“Most people who have companion animals consider them family members. They come to me and say one of my family members has been ordered executed. We’ve managed to save the lives of every single one except for two people who didn’t stay with us.
“We try to convince judges to say it’s a good and safe thing for dogs to live with their families. We bring in an animal behaviorist and try to help the judge understand what happened from a dog’s point of view.”
The judges who hear these cases aren’t the only ones giving more consideration to the dog’s point of view; last week Harvard Law School kicked off its first-ever class in animal-rights law, with Mr. Wise as instructor. (“Animal rights lawyer unleashes profession”, Washington Times, Feb. 3, link now dead).
February 8-9 – Emails that ended 20 Times careers. MSNBC has posted this Wall Street Journal account of the New York Times‘s mass firing of 23 employees, all but one of them in the company’s Norfolk, Va. outpost, found to have forwarded offensive e-mails, including sexually oriented images, blonde jokes and Ebonics jokes. One of the fired employees, former database security manager Carla Belgrave, “who is black, says she found the Ebonics jokes funny. ‘I don’t speak that way,’ she shrugs. ‘Who’s to tell me what I should be offended by?’”.
“Why are the Times and other companies so concerned about e-mail? One reason is their liability in harassment suits. One or two explicit e-mail messages typically aren’t enough by themselves to prove that a workplace environment was hostile. But such e-mail can bolster other damaging evidence. At a subsidiary of Chevron Corp., e-mail containing such jokes as ’25 reasons beer is better than women’ were used along with other evidence in a sexual-harassment claim that was settled in 1995 for $2.2 million.” (Ann Cairns, “That bawdy e-mail was good for a laugh — until the ax fell”, MSNBC (highlights from WSJ.com), Feb. 4, link now dead). Also see Lisa Fried, “Employers Crack Down on Personal Internet Use”, New York Law Journal, Jan. 3; Christine A. Amalfe and Kerrie R. Heslin, “Courts start to rule on online harassment”, National Law Journal, Jan. 24).
February 8-9 – Court insists on summoning nine-year-old girl as juror. Her Brooklyn parents have been trying to explain for the past year that she’s too young to serve, but the paperwork grinds on as judicial officials insist that fourth-grader Alyson Fuchs report for her civic duty. Her mom, who thinks Alyson may have gotten on prospective-juror lists because she has college savings in a mutual fund, is giving up and bringing her in to the courthouse, which she’s eager to see anyway. (Bridget Harrison, “A Jury of Peers?”, Fox News/New York Post, Feb. 6) (via Reason Express)
February 7 – Mobile Register probes class-action biz. Alabama cases have figured prominently in complaints of class-action abuse and the Mobile Register deserves some sort of prize for the thorough investigation of the topic it published over the holidays in a five-day report written by Eddie Curran. The series contains too much good material to summarize in a single installment, so we’ll start with one chunk for now and come back for more later. (Impatient readers can find the entire series here: “On behalf of all others”, Mobile Register, Dec. 26-30).
The series includes a thorough airing of the famous BancBoston case of the mid-1990s, filed in Mobile, in which locally based lawyer John Sharbrough teamed up with the Chicago class-action firm of Daniel Edelman to accuse the large lender of retaining excessively high escrows for mortgage borrowers nationwide, one of many similar class actions filed at the time against mortgage lenders over escrow practices. Pressured by a rules change from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, BancBoston and other lenders agreed to reduce the escrows, thus allowing consumers earlier recoupment of money which they’d eventually have gotten back anyway. In the case of BancBoston, the repayments that were accelerated were estimated in the lawsuit at about $42 million, but the actual sum seems to have been lower.
For achieving this result, the class-action lawyers asked for more than $14 million, all of it deducted directly from consumer accounts; Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Braxton Kittrell wound up granting them more than $8.5 million of that request. Thus consumers around the country were billed what was often $100, $150 and more in exchange for benefits that included the refund of a few dollars interest (in no case more than $8.76) and the chance to use their funds somewhat earlier than would otherwise be the case — mere weeks or months earlier in the case of many who were near refinancing or selling their homes at the time.
How’d the lawyers pull it off? They hired as expert witness a local accountant who testified that the real economic benefit to a consumer of getting back a lump of money earlier than otherwise is equal to the total sum at issue — after all, once he had it in hand he could invest it and double his money! The lawyers could then claim fees equal to a third of this notional benefit. The witness also assumed that the bank would otherwise have held surplus escrows for twenty years before refunding them, though in fact most loans get paid off through refinances or home sales within a few years and many of the mortgages were of 15-year duration. Boston U. law professor Susan Koniak, who’s co-authored a law review article on the case, describes the resulting enrichment of lawyers as “so outrageous, it’s not even a close call”. When a Maine real estate broker and class member named Dexter Kamilewicz stepped forward to challenge it, however, Chicago lawyer Edelman countersued Kamilewicz personally for $25 million, cowing him into silence (see Nov. 15 commentary).
Prominent class-action lawyer Elizabeth Cabraser, who was not involved in the case, defended the current state of the system, telling the Register that the BancBoston case is “like urban folklore“, that it “did happen, but it continues to be brought out as an example of class action abuse when in fact there’s never been another case like it,” in her words. “There’s never going to be another BancBoston case, and there doesn’t need to be legislation to prevent that from recurring. It won’t. It was freak in every sense.”
But is that so? The Register had no trouble finding escrow cases against other mortgage lenders that led to outcomes very similar to those in BancBoston, but were given less publicity. In these cases, too, consumers found themselves docked hundreds of dollars for little evident benefit and complained in heated letters to the court. In truth, “the BancBoston case was not alone…some other Alabama judges — such as Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Sally Greenhaw and Choctaw County Circuit Court Judge Harold Crow — approved similar settlements for the same lawyers, but avoided public scorn.” In a case against Colonial Mortgage, class lawyers asked judge to award them 40 percent of the escrow sums — an even higher share than in the BancBoston case. (“You win, you pay”, Dec. 29; “Bottom of the class”, Dec. 30; “Colonial customers rage at lawyer, judge”, Dec. 29).
February 7 – New subpage on Overlawyered.com: disabled-rights law. In which we pull together our reports on how students with clever parents get extra time on the SATs, the risk if you’re a merchant of not admitting an emotional-support dog to your shop, courthouses that hear handicap accommodation lawsuits but fail to comply with the law themselves, disability suits for boozing student athletes who don’t want to be thrown off the team, and other dispatches from the front lines of the Americans with Disabilities Act and related statutes. Incidentally, this Wednesday our editor is going to be a witness at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the ADA’s application to the Internet. See our Dec. 21 commentary for a preview of his likely comments about the ominous implications of letting website publishers get sued on the grounds that their content isn’t sufficiently “accessible” to all users.
February 5-6 – Don’t blame us, we didn’t say it: “‘If criminals can rehabilitate themselves, then why can’t lawyers?’ — East Lansing attorney Steven A. Mitchell, quoted in Michigan Lawyers Weekly on a proposal to permanently disbar lawyers for misconduct.” The Detroit News ran the above item under the heading: “But I Repeat Myself”. (Editorial roundup, Jan. 22).
February 5-6 – Weekend reading: columnist-fest. More well-stated cases from the in-box:
* Laura Pulfer of the Cincinnati Enquirer, who admits to an occasional weakness for shopping sprees at outlet stores, receives a notice in the mail saying she’s a member of the plaintiff class in a class action against Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation. “I am allowing myself to get a little bit excited. This is a defendant with deep, deep pockets. And Mr. Lauren apparently has done something terrible, something really bad, something actionable, something expensive to me.” However, the prospective settlement merely promises a discount if she goes back for another splurge at the store (“Lawsuit just an invitation to go shopping”, Feb. 3). Bonus: the same columnist comments on animal-rights law (“Does your dog need services of a lawyer?”, Nov. 7) and on warning labels (“It’s impossible to outlaw sheer stupidity”, Feb. 18, 1999) (NPR Morning Edition version, Real Audio).
* “There’s scarcely an issue in international affairs this year more likely to induce a feeling of moral superiority in Americans than that of the dormant Jewish accounts in Swiss banks.” Yet the recently issued Volcker report reveals that the actual sums in such accounts fall “staggeringly short” of what had been alleged by American class-action lawyers. More remarkable yet, the United States was at least as important as Switzerland as a destination for money escaping Nazi rule, yet somehow escapes scrutiny though it did little after the war to compensate heirs of dormant accounts (Alexander Cockburn, “Forget About the Swiss; What About US Banks?”, NewsMax, Dec. 29).
* Good general brief overview by CBS News legal correspondent Andrew Cohen on why this country is so litigious and what might be done — he even mentions loser-pays. (“Americans going nuts for lawsuits”, USA Today, undated). It leads with this grabber: “The Girl Scouts now take customers to small claims court when cookie payments are not made on time.” We hope he’s just referring to one overzealous troop somewhere.
February 5-6 – 200,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. Thanks for your support!
February 4 – Special assignments for special cases? Federal judges at the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. have now voted to require incoming cases to be assigned randomly among their number. Eyebrows were raised last year when it was revealed that chief judge Norma Holloway Johnson had used special procedures to bypass random selection and assign six Clinton Administration scandal cases to judges appointed by the Clinton Administration. Included were five fund-raising prosecutions, including that of presidential friend Charlie Trie, plus the tax evasion case of Webster Hubbell. In a letter to the editor of a newspaper, Judge Johnson said that she made the assignments to “move the docket as expeditiously as possible” and that politics was “never a factor.” (“U.S. judges end controversial rule that let Clinton appointees get Democrats’ cases”, AP/Dallas Morning News, Feb. 3).
February 4 – Jeff MacNelly. The premier editorial cartoonist of his generation is currently keeping to a reduced but regular output schedule while battling health challenges. His website allows you to send him a get-well message and browse an archive of his cartoons back to the middle of last year, including great panels on Microsoft, health care, tobacco, tobacco (again) and many more. Then there’s his oil painting of lawyers….
February 4 – Taco Bell bites back. In 1997 customer Dwonne N. Carter charged that she had been insulted because of her race by an employee at a Taco Bell in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Plenty of press coverage resulted, and the restaurant’s business fell off sharply. But Carter’s story in her discrimination lawsuit kept changing, and she turned out to have previously filed and then recanted charges of rape and abduction in another case. Taco Bell countersued for defamation and last month a jury found in the company’s favor, awarding it a token $1,060 in damages. The tapes from the restaurant’s surveillance camera proved particularly helpful. (Gretchen Schuldt, “Customer defamed Taco Bell, jury decides”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jan. 14).
February 4 – Green cards gather moss. Linus Torvalds, Finland-born architect of Linux and perhaps the world’s most admired programmer, has been in this country three years. He’s still waiting for his green card. Thousands of engineers and other highly skilled immigrants in Silicon Valley are in the same predicament, as delays stretch on seemingly endlessly in the processing of applications for permanent residency. The average wait for final green card processing has jumped from 21 months a year and a half ago to 33 months. Holders of H-1B visas can stay at most six years, which is not always long enough to make it through the queue. “Real lives are being destroyed,” says immigration attorney Peter Larrabee, and an Immigration and Naturalization Service official privately calls the situation “a mess”. At least no one can accuse us of discriminating unduly in favor of the talented. (Ken McLaughlin, “Workers left in limbo by INS”, San Jose Mercury News, Jan. 30, link now dead; Wired News, Feb. 1).
February 3 – Reason Online “Featured Site”. Overlawyered.com has just been awarded this honor, bestowed approximately weekly by the lively website associated with the magazine of “free minds and free markets”. While you’re visiting the site, now would be a good time to catch up with our editor’s February column, which examines the class-action lawyers’ assault on the high-tech business, taking off from the Toshiba laptop settlement and the private actions against Microsoft that tagged along in the wake of Judge Jackson’s findings of fact. (main page/archive; Walter Olson, “Gold Bugs”, Reason, February).
February 3 – Tobacco: Connecticut AG has “no idea” whether lawyers he hired are overcharging. Richard Blumenthal, attorney general of Connecticut, is much feared by that state’s business community for his relentless and headline-grabbing pace of suit-filing; he’s known for “demonizing his foes”. One group of business people in the state, however, will “do extraordinarily well” from his tenure: the “tiny group of private lawyers” whom he hired to represent the state in the tobacco litigation. Queried about how much money these lawyers are getting from the deal, Blumenthal says, “I have no idea.” He says he’s sure it’s “substantially less” than the generous 25 percent contingency he agreed to bestow on them, which if followed through would have given them $900 million (the firms agreed not to insist on that full amount). It happens that the four lucky law firms he picked to do the work include his own former firm, Silver, Golub & Teitell of Stamford. (Thomas Scheffey, “Jedi Blumenthal”, Connecticut Law Tribune, Dec. 1) (see February 16 update: fees to total $65 million, more details on lucky firms).
February 3 – Another pro bono triumph. Beat cop Jim Gratz says he was acting on his own initiative when, imitating a practice used by some other Bay Area police departments, he asked some of the hardest-core drinkers who slept in San Francisco’s Washington Square Park if he could snap their pictures. Then he had flyers printed up and handed them to owners of nearby liquor stores, asking them not to sell to these people. “Someone had to do something to try and save their lives…I have nothing against booze, but plainly it was killing them,” he says. Well, the homeless-advocacy lawyers were on his case like a duck on a June bug, and soon the city agreed to settle the resulting litigation by paying each of the ten people approximately $960, which they spent on…well, what do you think they spent it on? All are still on the street, Gratz says, and one was admitted to Laguna Honda Hospital nearly paralyzed with alcohol poisoning. (Scott Ostler, “Trying to Help Just Doesn’t Pay”, San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 6).
February 2 – “Children’s rights” fee grab. In 1995, following front-page scandals about child neglect in New York City, a private group called Children’s Rights Inc. filed suit seeking court oversight of the city’s child welfare system. The case ended in a settlement in December 1998. Now Children’s Rights Inc. is asking a court to award it $9.1 million in legal fees for its work on the case, to be paid from — where else? — taxpayer funds. City child welfare commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta is particularly steamed about the fee demand because he says the city offered to settle the case in May 1997 on terms substantially the same as those eventually reached. Children’s Rights Inc. spurned that offer and insisted on battling for a further year and a half, during which time the group ran up what it says are $6 million in billable hours. Scoppetta says $9 million would be enough to hire 230 child welfare caseworkers, put 1,059 children in Head Start for a year or support 1,200 kids in foster care, if it isn’t handed to lawyers instead. (“Children’s rights is wrong” (editorial), New York Daily News, Feb. 1; “Children’s Advocacy Pays” (editorial), New York Post, Feb. 1; past Post coverage).
February 2 – Cookies, dunked. Privacy advocates have been aghast at the recent disclosure that Internet ad-placement firm DoubleClick is planning to combine cookie use with access to clients’ site-registration data in ways that will enable it to detect the actual identity of many users who currently enjoy the customary expectation of anonymity as they browse its clients’ sites. Already a California lawyer has jumped in to sue the company; his named client does not claim to have suffered any damages, but he says he wants to “put DoubleClick’s policies under a microscope.” Of course his client could just have gone to DoubleClick’s site and selected the “opt out” feature, which the company says will bail you out of its cookie-mongering for the life of your browser or until you delete your cookie file, whichever comes first. To repeat: if a privacy solution that simple happens to appeal to you, just press here and follow the “opt out” link. But that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as suing, would it? (“DoubleClick defends data gathering as suit pends”, FindLaw/Reuters, Jan. 28; “Privacy group eyes DoubleClick”, Reuters/Wired News, Feb. 1). Update May 9, 2001: federal court dismisses one such suit.
February 2 – Cuomo menaces gun makers: “death by a thousand cuts”. Settlement talks have broken down between firearms makers and activist litigators who continue to seek restrictions on gun sales that go beyond anything they can persuade democratically elected legislatures to enact. On Monday HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo warned gun companies that unless they cooperate they’ll suffer “death by a thousand cuts” from lawsuits filed by 28 localities (and vocally backed by his own department). Could the Cabinet secretary be invoking the cost-infliction threat of litigation to bully an opponent? Naah — that would be unethical. (Bill McAllister, “Gun industry rejects settlement effort”, Denver Post, Feb. 1).
February 1 – Welcome Humorix (and Slashdot) visitors. Humorix, complete with penguin-graphic adornment, consists of parody and humor articles geared to aficionados of the Linux open-source operating system. Last week it ran a piece by Dave Finton and James Baughn about the DVD-copying-code litigation (see Dec. 31 commentary) which pointed to this site by way of providing an embedded link for the phrase “overachieving lawyers”. Then yesterday a discussion of the piece in turn made it onto Slashdot. Jeepers, do a lot of people ever read Slashdot: next thing we knew we were beating, by far, this site’s previous daily traffic record (assisted by some other publicity). (“Corporate Media Conglomerate HOWTO”, Jan. 26.)
February 1 – Give us Syracuse. Trial began last week in upstate New York on Cayuga Indian land claims, the first such Indian case to make it to a jury for damages. Lawyers for the tribe, backed by the U.S. Department of Justice, say they’re owed at least $335 million in market value and rental fees for lands in the Finger Lakes region bought from them in 1795 and 1807 in deals which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1985 voided as having lacked the federal government’s go-ahead as required by law. Waiting in the wings: similar (often larger) claims by the Oneidas, Mohawks, Senecas and Onondagas. Wrangling over the Onondaga claim promises to be especially lively because the large tract of land under dispute includes the city of Syracuse, New York’s fifth largest. “It’s in total violation,” says the Onondaga chief, referring to the 160,000-population community. (James Odato, “Land’s value at heart of Cayuga claim case”, Albany Times-Union, Jan. 25; David L. Shaw, “Damages trial focuses on cash”, Syracuse Online, Jan. 24; “Claim comes down to numbers”, Syracuse Online, Jan. 25; Matthew Purdy, “Tribal Justice? They’d Settle for Syracuse”, New York Times, Jan. 30; see our Oct. 5-6, Oct. 27 commentaries) (via Empire Page) (see update, Feb. 19-21).
February 1 – Down, attorney! Down! Here’s a site for you if you’re a mailman tired of having your leg chewed on, or just want to convince the neighbors to send that ill-tempered yapper of theirs to the glue factory: dogbitelaw.com. “Attorney Kenneth Phillips is available by e-mail at no charge. He will respond to your questions about dog bites,” explains the promotional copy. Lots of links, too, such as one to the website of a canine forensics specialist to testify in your lawsuit: dogexpert.com. (via The Recorder/Cal Law).
February 1 – Career advice: become a lawsuit entrepreneur. Columnist Jim Pinkerton tells the public-administration class of ’00 they’re wasting their time thinking about civil service, when the real action in government today is in privately managed policy-through-lawsuits. “Why plow through discrimination cases in a back room at the EEOC, when you can join hands with Jesse Jackson and sue the pants off of some big company in a civil rights class action? Why work at the FDA and worry about drug approvals, when you can work at a law firm and share in billions after the drug is withdrawn and the suits are settled? Why lobby for gun control, when you can sue and put the gun makers out of business?” Why tinker with health care regulation when you can just file suit against HMOs and make yourself a player at the negotiation table overnight? Yes, it’s a parody, but just barely. (James Pinkerton, “Being a Bureaupreneur”, GovExec.com (Government Executive magazine), January).