January 2000 archives, part 2


January 31 – Scorched-earth divorce tactics? Pay up. Lawyers in Massachusetts are assessing the impact of two recent cases in which, departing from usual practice, courts have penalized family-law litigants for engaging in carpet-bombing tactics by ordering them to pay attorneys’ fees to their victimized opponents. In one case, Basel v. Basel, a husband was ordered to pay $100,000 of his wife’s legal bill after he unsuccessfully accused her of being a drunk, a drug addict, and a child abuser; the judge ruled that he’d engaged in a “calculated campaign of outrageous behavior to destroy (his) wife’s credibility” and called his portrayal of his wife “nefarious” and “fraudulent”. “By the time it was over,” the Boston Globe reports, “the lengthy litigation had cost more than $600,000 in legal fees, half of which was paid by [the husband's] parents.”

Peter Zupcofska, vice chairman of the Boston Bar Association’s family law section, said the ruling by Worcester probate judge Joseph Lian Jr. could signal a new departure in the state of matrimonial practice: “if the litigation that’s waged is clearly done to harass, harangue, and intimidate the other party, and to create a kind of economic slavery by utilizing vast amounts of marital funds in a really destructive way,” he said, “then the judge is going to do something to redress that imbalance.” In another recent Bay State case, Krock v. Krock, a probate judge awarded $81,000 in fees against a wife found to have engaged in wrongful litigation. “You can no longer assume that having money gives you the right to wage these frivolous, scorched-earth campaigns without risking paying the price for the other side,” said Boston family law practitioner Elaine Epstein. “And if you do, you do so at your own peril.” (Sacha Pfeiffer, “A warning to battling spouses”, Boston Globe, Jan. 23).

January 31 – Coils of forfeiture law. For Joe Bonilla, the good news is his acquittal three months ago on charges of drunken driving. The bad news is that New York City has no plans to give back the $46,000 Ford Expedition he was driving when cops pulled him over. Bonilla, a 34-year-old construction worker, is paying $689 a month on the vehicle, which he’d been driving for only two days when stopped last May on his way home, he says, from a late screening of the movie “Shakespeare in Love”. A Bronx judge declared him not guilty on the charge, but that doesn’t mean he can have his car back, the city says. (Tara George, “He’s Not Guilty of DWI, But Cops Still Have Car”, New York Daily News, Jan. 25) (more on forfeiture: Oct. 7, F.E.A.R., Reason, Fumento).

January 31 – Do as we say…. Serious fire code violations are threatening to snarl plans to open a $1-million public facility in Charleston, W.V. It’s kinda embarrassing since the facility is itself a fire station. “Not only is a firewall improperly installed inside the $1 million station house, but there are no smoke alarms in the sleeping quarters.” (Todd C. Frankel, “Fire station also lacking smoke alarms”, Charleston Daily Mail, Jan. 19).

January 31 – Showdown in Michigan. Battle royal shaping up this November in the Wolverine State, whose Supreme Court, since a series of appointments by Republican Gov. John Engler, has been assuming a national leadership role in rolling back litigation excesses. Trial lawyers, unionists and others are furiously plotting revenge when the judges stand for their retention elections. A Detroit News editorial provides a quick rundown on what promise to be some of this year’s most closely watched judicial races (Jeffrey Hadden, “State Supreme Court in partisan Catch-22″, Detroit News, Jan. 18).

January 29-30 – Update: OSHA in full retreat on home office issue. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced on Wednesday that it will not, after all, seek to regulate hazardous conditions in workers’ home offices, such as rickety stairs, ergonomically inappropriate chairs, or inadequate lighting. Accepting the agency’s spin, the New York Times‘s Steven Greenhouse reports the new stance as a “clarification” meant to dispel “confusion”. Translation: the agency has baldly reversed its earlier policy. When OSHA’s November advisory letter came to public notice earlier this month, the Washington Post summarized its contents this way:Companies that allow employees to work at home are responsible for federal health and safety violations that occur at the home work site.” (see Jan. 5, Jan. 6, Jan. 8-9 commentaries). Under the new policy, the word “not” will simply be inserted before the word “responsible” in that sentence. (At least as regards home offices: manufacturing activities conducted at home will still come under its jurisdiction, the agency says.)

Why did the earlier OSHA directive cause such an uproar? According to the Times‘ Greenhouse, it “alarmed thousands of corporate executives and angered many lawmakers, particularly Republicans” who began “using it” as a political issue — very naughty of them to do such a thing, we may be sure. But as most other news outlets reported, word of the policy had scared not just bosses but innumerable telecommuters themselves, who not unreasonably expected that the new policy would result in (at a minimum) more red tape for them and quite possibly a chill on their employers’ willingness to permit telecommuting at all. And while opposition from Republicans might come as scant surprise, the newsier angle was the lack of support from the measure from many elected Democrats; even a spokeswoman for Rep. Richard Gephardt said it “seemed excessive”.

OSHA director Charles N. Jeffress announced that the “bottom line” remained what it had “always been”: “OSHA will respect the privacy of the home and expects that employers will as well.” Translation: the agency was stung so badly by the public reaction to its initiative that it’s going to pretend it never proposed it in the first place (Steven Greenhouse, “Home Office Isn’t Liability For Firms, U.S. Decides”, New York Times, Jan. 28; Frank Swoboda, “OSHA Exempts White-Collar Telecommuters”, Washington Post, Jan. 27; “OSHA Exempts Home Offices”, Reuters/FindLaw, Jan. 27).

January 29-30 – Update: judge angered by obstructive SEPTA defense. After last month’s $50 million jury award against the Philadelphia transit authority over the maiming of 4-year-old Shareif Hall on an escalator, Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson expressed anger over SEPTA’s mishandling of physical evidence and failure to provide relevant documents requested by the plaintiffs. The agency settled the case for $7.4 million and pledged to improve both its escalators and its litigation behavior in the future. (Claudia Ginanni, “Judge Fines SEPTA $1 Million; Authority Held in Contempt for Withholding Evidence”, The Legal Intelligencer, Dec. 23; “SEPTA Settles Escalator Suit for $7.4 Million”, Jan. 6; see Dec. 17-19 commentary).

January 28 – Law prof wants to regulate newspaper editorials. Libertarians have long warned that laws curbing private buying of campaign ads constitute a dangerous incursion on free speech and are likely to pave the way for further inroads. In last June’s Texas Law Review, Associate Professor Richard L. Hasen of Loyola University Law School (Los Angeles) proceeds to prove them correct by endorsing government regulation of newspaper editorials. He writes: “If we are truly committed to equalizing the influence of money of elections, how do we treat the press? Principles of political equality could dictate that a Bill Gates should not be permitted to spend unlimited sums in support of a candidate. But different rules [now] apply to Rupert Murdoch just because he has channeled his money through media outlets that he owns… The principle of political equality means that the press too should be regulated when it editorializes for or against candidates.”

Hasen happily looks forward to the day when the Supreme Court can be persuaded to overturn Buckley v. Valeo and the way will be clear for such regulation of the expression of opinion in newspapers: “op-ed pieces or commentaries expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate for federal office could no longer be directly paid for by the media corporation’s funds. Instead, they would have to be paid for either by an individual (such as the CEO of the media corporation) or by a PAC set up by the media corporation for this purpose. The media corporation should be required to charge the CEO or the PAC the same rates that other advertising customers pay for space on the op-ed page.” (Quoted by Stuart Taylor, Jr., “The Media Should Beware of What It Embraces”, National Journal, Jan. 1, no longer online; see also Richard Hasen, “Double Standard,” Brill’s Content, Feb. 1999).

January 28 — From our mail sack: unclear on the concept. To judge from the summaries of our search-engine traffic, a nontrivial number of visitors land on this website each day because they’re looking to get in on class-action lawsuits. We fear that we do not always succeed in giving full satisfaction to these visitors. For example, last week the following note arrived in our inbox, signed K.E.: “Please send me the website or address re the Toshiba settlement. I need to file. Why was this not on your site where it could readily be found?”

January 28 – Strippers in court. A group of San Francisco exotic dancers sued their employers last month, saying they’d been improperly categorized as independent contractors with the result that they were denied overtime pay and were unfairly forced to purchase their own “supplies”, in the form of expensive drinks. (National Law Journal, “The Week in Review: The Flux”, Dec. 27-Jan. 3). In Canada, a judge has ruled against Loredana Silion, 24, in her petition for a work permit to perform as an exotic dancer. While Ms. Silion had danced in a nightclub in her native Rumania, the job there involved only topless dancing, which the judge ruled was not a close enough match in skills for the task of dancing at Toronto’s Sunset Strip club, where nothing at all is worn. (Marina Jimenez, “Stripper told she’s not naked enough to work in Canada”, National Post, Jan. 14). And exotic dancer Doddie L. Smith has now sued an Arizona plastic surgeon, saying the doctor’s augmentation surgery left her breasts “too high” with the result that she is “unable to be a ‘featured dancer’ at exotic dance clubs, model as a centerfold in adult magazines, or promote her modeling career”. Estimated wage loss: $100,000. (Gretchen Schuldt, “Exotic dancer claims doctor botched breast surgery”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jan. 12) (Update: more on strippers in court: May 23, July 26-27).

January 26-27 – Florida ADA complaint binge. Invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act, “a half-dozen non-profit corporations and associated individuals [ ] have filed more than 600 federal suits in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach” charging building owners and service providers with failing to make their facilities accessible to the handicapped, according to Miami’s legal publication, the Daily Business Review. Targets of the complaints, large and small, range from Kmart and Carnival Cruises down to local funeral homes and the little Coconut Court Motel in Fort Lauderdale, as well as nonprofits and public entities such as the local Baptist hospital and the city of Pompano Beach. A six-lawyer Miami Beach law firm, Fuller, Mallah & Associates, has spearheaded the assault, helping form three nonprofits that account for most of the filings. Indeed, no less than 323 of the cases name as plaintiff 72-year-old wheelchair user Ernst Rosenkrantz. “When pressed to explain how he hooked up with the law firm, Rosenkrantz said law firm partner John D. Mallah is his nephew.” However, “Mallah didn’t mention that relationship when asked about Rosenkrantz in an earlier interview,” notes reporter Dan Christiansen.

Most cases settle when the charged business agrees to make some modification to its facilities and pay the complainant’s legal fees — $275 an hour plus expenses in Mallah’s case. The ADA allows complainants to file suit without warning the target, and it displays considerable solicitude for the welfare of lawyers filing cases: “the attorney’s fees provisions are such that even if they get [nothing more than] the telephone volume controls changed, they automatically win the case,” says one defense lawyer. First Union, the large bank, says it refuses on principle to settle cases filed by the group: “The fees that are being charged seem to be way out of line to the amount of work that they do,” says one of its lawyers, besides which the bank had been moving forward on its own with an ADA compliance program. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate mass ADA filings in Broward County. (Dan Christiansen, “Besieged by Suits”, Miami Daily Business Review, Dec. 21). (Feb. 15 update: Congressmen introduce legislation) (DURABLE LINK)

January 26-27 – Seattle police: sued if they do… The constabulary of the northwest metropolis now faces a slew of lawsuits over its handling of the World Trade Organization protests in late November and early December. According to the Post-Intelligencer, the claims divide into two broad groups: those accusing the city of cracking down on the protesters too hard, and those accusing it of not cracking down hard enough. (Mike Barber, “Police sued for doing too little, too much”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 25).

January 26-27 – Feelings of nausea? Get in line. In 1997 a barge accident and chemical spill on the Mississippi sent a foul-smelling haze over much of Baton Rouge, La. A steering committee of attorneys formed to sue for compensation for local residents over symptoms such as “nausea, severe headaches and fatigue” experienced after smelling the odors. And did the claims ever start to roll in: by November of last year 13,000 forms had already been submitted, according to one lawyer, and the pace became even more frenetic as the Jan. 14 final deadline approached for filing claims. Long lines stretched around the block outside the old federal building; one woman said she waited six hours to get in the door, while more than 100 others were turned away at the end of the day, to come back the next day if at all; and many grumblings were heard about missing work. (Adrian Angelette, “Long line awaits claimants in chemical leak suit”, Baton Rouge Advocate, Jan. 14).(DURABLE LINK)

January 26-27 – From our mail sack: the lawyer’s oyster. Regarding our Jan. 15-16 “Poetry Corner” reprint of “The Benefit of Going to Law”, from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1733, New York attorney John Brewer writes: “Just a few days after noting the verse by Ben Franklin you had posted on your site, I came across an earlier and more concise exposition of the same image, viz.:

“Two find an Oyster, which they will not part,
Both will have all or none, the Lawyer’s art
Must end the strife; he fits their humour well,
Eats up the fish, and gives them each a shell.

“According to the recently published Oxford Companion to the Year (“An exploration of calendar customs and time-reckoning”), this appeared in the 1665 edition of Poor Robin’s Almanack (note possible Franklin influence of the name), as one of four such bits of doggerel marking the traditional four law terms. The oyster stanza was for Michaelmas Term.

“You might also find salient the verse for Hilary Term:

Anoint thy Lawyer, grease him in the fist,
And he will plead for thee e’en what thou list;
He’ll make thy cause strong though the same were weak,
But if thy purse be dumb, his tongue can’t speak.

“The verses for Easter and Trinity Terms are similarly on the theme of the costliness of going to law and its financial benefit to none but the bar, but have somewhat less punch and clarity of expression.”

January 25 – Feds’ tobacco hypocrisy, cont’d: Indian “smoke shops”. It seems when the Clinton Administration isn’t filing lawsuits to brand tobacco-marketing as “racketeering” (see Sept. 23 commentary), it’s quietly staking taxpayer money to help its constituents get into the business. A Senate Small Business Committee probe has found that since 1997 the Department of Housing and Urban Development has laid out $4.2 million to enable four Indian tribes to build “smoke shops” that sell discounted cigarettes free from state taxes. Why, one wonders, should subsidies be needed to facilitate an intrinsically high-profit activity that might be likened to lawful smuggling? And of course the source of this largesse is the very same HUD whose Secretary Andrew Cuomo has so loudly endorsed lawsuits against gun sellers whose wares are said to inflict spillover damage on other localities’ public health. A crowning hypocrisy is that some of the tribes that derive income from smoke shops are themselves now suing tobacco companies (see July 14 commentary).

The Senate committee uncovered six instances in which tribes obtained HUD subsidies to open smoke shops, five in Oklahoma and one in Nevada, but it is likely that the true number is larger. For example, this site’s editor, in his March Reason column (not yet in subscribers’ mailboxes, but previewing at the Reason site), identified another similar-sounding case: in 1997 HUD furnished the Reno Sparks Indian Colony with $450,000 “to build a smoke shop along Interstate 80 near the California border,” according to the Bend, Oregon, Bulletin. (Wendy Koch, “Tribes get funds to build ‘smoke shops’”, USA Today, Jan. 24; Walter Olson, “The Year in Double Takes”, Reason, March). (DURABLE LINK)

January 25 – Line forms on the right for chance to suffer this tort. A woman has won $5,135 in damages from owners for having been locked overnight in an Irish pub. “Marian Gahan fell asleep on the toilet in Searsons Pub in central Dublin, and did not wake until 2 a.m., by which time the pub was closed”. She argued that the pub managers should have checked the toilets before locking up. The trial had to be adjourned early on when Ms. Gahan’s barrister, Eileen McAuley, burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter while recounting her own client’s case. (“Woman locked in pub wins $5,135 damages”, Reuters/Excite, Jan. 18; “Tears and laughter at trauma in toilet”, Irish Times, Oct. 21).

January 25 – Recommended reading. On the unnerving ease with which charges of abuse and violence can be pulled from a hat to provide legal assistance in a divorce (Dan Lynch, “We’ll see how blind justice is”, Albany Times-Union, Jan. 19); on the war underway in legal academia over many scholars’ acceptance of the idea that the Second Amendment does indeed protect individual gun rights (Chris Mooney, “Showdown”, Lingua Franca, February); on the chill to workplace banter now that harassment law has gotten well established in Britain (Roland White, “Careless talk makes the office world go round”, The Times (London), Jan. 23).

January 25 – Latest lose-on-substance, win-on-retaliation employment claim. It’s pretty common, actually: the suit-prone worker flatly loses on his original claim of discrimination, but his claim for “retaliation” comes through to save the day because after the job relationship had turned adversarial the employer was shown to have treated him less favorably than before. Bad, bad employer! This time a Delaware jury decided that Eunice Lafate had not in fact been passed over for a promotion at Chase Manhattan because of her race, but awarded her $600,000 anyway on her retaliation charges; after filing the complaint, she said, she’d been cut out of management meetings and given less favorable evaluations. (Jim DeSouza, “Jury Wants Chase Manhattan to Pay $600,000 for Retaliating Against Employee”, Delaware Law Weekly, Dec. 9)(see also Sept. 29 commentary).

January 24 – Latest shallow-end pool-dive case. In Massachusetts, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to hear the appeal of Joseph O’Sullivan, who was visiting his girlfriend’s grandparents in Methuen and decided to dive into the shallow end of their pool. An experienced swimmer and 21 years old at the time, O’Sullivan was not paralyzed but did crack two vertebrae and proceeded to sue the grandparents for not stopping him or providing warnings. Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson takes a dim view of O’Sullivan’s case, and the lower court did not find it persuasive either (“A shallow case for the SJC”, Jan. 12).

January 24 – “Mormon actress sues over profanity”. Christina Axson-Flynn, 20, is suing the University of Utah, charging that the theater department insisted that she use foul language in character portrayals even though they knew it violated her religious principles to do so. The department disputes the contentions in her suit, which asks for unspecified damages. (Yahoo/AP, Jan. 14; Jim Rayburn, “U. theater department sued over language”, Deseret News (Salt Lake City), Jan. 14). Update Feb. 16, 2004: appeals court lets suit proceed.

January 24 – “Ambulance chaser” label ruled defamatory. The Second Circuit federal court of appeals has ruled that a New York attorney can sue over a printed description of him as an “ambulance chaser” given to taking only “slam dunk cases”. The American Association of University Women and its related AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund had put out a directory in 1997 which listed 275 attorneys practicing in its fields of interest. Appended to the contact information for attorney Leonard Flamm was the following description: “Mr. Flamm handles sex discrimination cases in the area of pay equity, harassment and promotion. Note: At least one plaintiff has described Flamm as an ‘ambulance chaser’ with an interest only in ‘slam dunk cases.’” U.S. District Judge Denny Chin had dismissed Mr. Flamm’s resulting lawsuit against AAUW, ruling that the comments, although “beyond the pale” and “seriously derogatory”, were protected as expressions of opinion under the First Amendment. On appeal, however, a panel led by Judge Thomas Meskill reinstated the action, noting that the objectionable passage might be read as implying specific factual assertions relating to unethical solicitation of business, that it appeared in italics, and that the other entries in the directory were generally of a factual rather than opinion-based nature. (Mark Hamblett, New York Law Journal, Jan. 6).

January 24 – No clash between clauses. Cincinnati attorney Richard Ganulin has filed a notice of appeal after a federal court dismissed his lawsuit claiming that the government’s observing of Christmas as a public holiday violates the Bill of Rights’ Establishment Clause. Last month U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott rejected Ganulin’s action, ruling that Congress was “merely acknowledging the secular cultural aspects of Christmas by declaring Christmas to be a legal public holiday. … A government practice need not be exclusively secular to survive”. She also prefaced her opinion with a bit of free verse: “The court will uphold /Seemingly contradictory causes /Decreeing “The Establishment” and “Santa” /Both worthwhile Claus(es).” (Ben L. Kaufman, “Challenge to Christmas holiday appealed”, Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 10).

January 21-23 — “Tracking the trial lawyers”: a contributions database. American Tort Reform Foundation today unveils a handy interactive database for keeping track of which lawyers have been donating to which politicians and parties. You can search by lawyer, by law firm, by recipient politician or institution, and more. Hours of alarming fun (“Follow the Money“).

January 21-23 — From our mail sack. Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Vera Institute of Justice writes, regarding our Jan. 18 report on the strange-warning-labels contest:

“I can tell you were never a teenage girl that you think the advice ‘never
iron clothes while they’re being worn’ is wacky. We used to do this in high school all the time. We’d be in a big hurry — having wasted hours trying on & discarding one another’s clothes — and would finally find the right thing to wear only to notice that the sleeve, say, was wrinkled. Why take it off? Just retract your arm & iron. The occasional small burn never deterred us that I can recall.

“I do like your newsletter.”

January 21-23 – Y2K roundup: poor things! Lack of century-end catastrophes is a “calamity” of its own for lawyers who’d been set to file suits galore demanding damages for outages and data loss. “Lawyers were licking their chops,” Madelyn Flanagan of the Independent Insurance Agents of America told the Washington Post‘s David Segal. “I think the whole world is relieved.” (David Segal, “A Y2K Glitch For Lawyers: Few Lawsuits”, Washington Post, Jan. 10.) Ross & Co., a British solicitors’ firm that had been planning a big Y2K practice, still hopes for the best: “It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Sues“, claims its website. (“Lawyers still gearing up for millennium bug attack”, FindLaw/Reuters, Jan. 20). Don’t count us out yet either, says Philadelphia attorney Ronald Weikers (softwarelitigation.com), who’s hoping the state of Delaware will sue manufacturers over a glitch that knocked out 800 slot machines for three days, thus preventing the state from slurping up locals’ spare coins over that period. Then there are the remediation-cost suits: thus the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which made the transition “without a murmur”, is considering suing tech firms over the $80 million it says it spent to upgrade systems. (“Puerto Rico Government Considers Suing Over $80 Million In Y2K Work”, DowJones.com, Jan. 4) The reliable Ralph Nader has chimed in with his reasons for blaming everything on the deep pockets (“Y2Pay”, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Dec. 29.) And here come the backlash suits: the Independent of London reports that one company has sued outside consultants for exaggerating the risk from the calendar rollover (Robert Verkaik, “Y2K consultants sued by firm for exaggerating risk”, The Independent, Jan. 11). (DURABLE LINK)

January 21-23 — Cartoon that made us laugh. By Ruben Bolling, for Salon: “….We can’t take those off the market! Dangerous products are a gold mine for the government!” (Jan. 20 — full cartoon)

January 21-23 – Civil disabilities of freethinkers. Imagine letting a murderer go free because you’d excluded the crime’s only witness from testifying on the grounds that as a religious unbeliever he could not take a proper oath. Absurd? Yet such notions survive today in the constitution of the state of Arkansas: “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court.” Along with Arkansas, the constitutions of Maryland, North and South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas retain historic provisions that contemplate or mandate the exclusion of unbelievers — and in some cases, minority religionists who reject the idea of a retributive afterlife — from public office, admission as witnesses in court, or both. Thus Article IX, Sec. 2, of the Tennessee constitution: “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.” Widely considered unenforceable today, such provisions might at some point resume practical importance given today’s highly visible movement to re-infuse religious sentiment into government; in the meantime, they symbolically relegate to second-class citizenship those who hold one set of opinions. “The Arkansas anti-atheist provision survived a federal court challenge as recently as 1982″. (Tom Flynn, “Outlawing Unbelief”, Free Inquiry, Winter 1999). (DURABLE LINK)

January 20 — The joy of tobacco fees. In his January Reason column, this website’s editor pulls together what we now know about the $246 billion state-Medicaid tobacco settlements, including: the role of the settlement in imposing a cartel structure on the industry and chilling entry by new competitors; the happy situation of some lawyers who are in line to collect hundreds of millions of dollars when they simply “piggybacked” on others’ legal work, with little independent contribution of their own; and the often more-than-casual ties between tobacco lawyers and the state attorneys general who hired them, to say nothing of such influentials as President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (both of whose brothers-in-law were in on the tobacco plaintiffs’ side). Maybe it’s time to retire Credit Mobilier and Teapot Dome as synonyms for low points in American business-government interaction. (Walter Olson, “Puff, the Magic Settlement”, Reason, January).

January 20 — “The case for age discrimination”. You do it, Supreme Court justices do it, we all do it: generalize about people based on their ages. It’s clear that most age-based discrimination isn’t “invidious” in the original sense of race bias, and it’s only rational for an employer to avoid investing in costly retraining for a worker who’s likely to retire soon. So how’d we wind up with a law on the books purporting to ban this universal practice, anyway? (Dan Seligman, “The case for age discrimination”, Forbes, Dec. 13).

January 20 — Watchdogs could use watching. Beginning in 1993 Brian D. Paonessa employed an active solicitation campaign in conjunction with various Florida law firms to sign up hundreds of securities investors to pursue arbitration claims against Prudential Securities Inc. Not prominently featured in Paonessa’s marketing, apparently, was the fact that federal securities regulators were on his own tail on charges that he’d pocketed $149,500 in “ill-gotten gains” at the expense of investor clients. Since then, as the busy rainmaker has become embroiled in legal disputes over alleged fee-splitting arrangements with the law firms, some colorful charges have made it onto the public record. (Stephen Van Drake, “Florida Fee-Sharing Suit May Open Door to Direct-Solicitation Scrutiny”, Miami Daily Business Review, Oct. 11).

January 20 – Gotham’s plea-bargain mills. “Last year each judge sitting in the New York City Criminal Court, on average, handled nearly 5,000 cases. With calendars that huge, the system is reduced to a plea bargain mill, with no true trial capability offering balance to the process. It’s no secret. Everyone — including the repeat offender — knows this.” — New York chief judge Judith Kaye, State of the Judiciary Address, Jan. 10 (New York Law Journal site).

January 19 — “Private job bias lawsuits tripled in 1990s”. “Aided by new federal laws, private lawsuits alleging discrimination in the workplace more than tripled during in the 1990s, the Justice Department said.” According to the Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, “job bias lawsuits filed in U.S. District Courts soared from 6,936 in 1990 to 21,540 in 1998….The percentage of winning plaintiffs awarded $10 million or more rose from 1 percent in 1990 to 9 percent in 1998.” (AP/FindLaw, Jan. 17; Bureau of Justice Statistics abstract and link to full report, “Civil Rights Complaints in U.S. District Courts, 1990-98″).

January 19 — Santa came late. Faced with outages and high volume, the e-tailing operation of Toys-R-Us failed to deliver many toys by Christmas as promised. Now Seattle attorney Steve Berman has filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status to represent all customers who did not receive their shipments by Dec. 25. According to George magazine’s profile of tobacco lawyers last year (see Aug. 21-22), Berman’s firm is in line to receive roughly $2 billion from representing states in the tobacco settlement — enough to stake a very large number of bets like this one, should he see fit. The named plaintiff is Kimberly Alguard of Lynnwood, Washington. (“ToysRUs.com Sued: Santa Failed”, Reuters/WiredNews, Jan. 12).

January 19 – The costs of disclosure. In 1992 Tacoma, Wash. attorney Doug Schafer fielded what seemed a routine request from businessman-client Bill Hamilton to draw up incorporation papers for a new venture. But the details Hamilton provided convinced Schafer that his client was involved with Tacoma lawyer Grant Anderson in dishonest business dealings arising from Anderson’s milking of an estate. To make things worse — and raising the stakes considerably — Anderson shortly thereafter was elevated to a Superior Court judgeship.

What should a lawyer do in those circumstances? Schafer later decided to go public and seek an investigation of the judge and the transaction, thus beginning a struggle whose eventual results included an order by the Washington Supreme Court throwing Judge Anderson off the bench (for “egregious” misconduct) and a $500,000 recovery by a hospital in a lawsuit against the judge and others over their conduct. But in the state of Washington — as in a majority of other states — a lawyer has no right to breach his obligation of confidentiality to clients even when the result is to bolster public integrity or provide a remedy to defrauded parties. And so next month Doug Schafer will appear before a panel of the Washington State Bar Association to defend himself against disciplinary charges. Moreover, the reputation he’s picked up as a single-minded scourge of the corruption he perceives in the system has helped devastate his legal career, while Judge Anderson, though forced off the bench, has as yet faced no other consequences from bar enforcers, though an investigation is ongoing. (Bob Van Voris, “The High Cost of Disclosure”, National Law Journal, Jan. 4; Mary Lou Cooper, “The Cadillac Judge”, Washington Law & Politics, Sept. 1998; Tacoma News-Tribune coverage, 1998, 1999; Schafer’s website). Update Jul. 26, 2003: Washington Supreme Court suspends Schafer for six months.

January 19 — 175,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. Thanks for your support!

January 18 – “Never iron clothes while they’re being worn”. That’s the winning entry in Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch’s third annual Wacky Warning Label Contest. Bonnie Hay of Plano, Texas, found the warning on an iron. Second place was awarded to a Traverse City, Mich. man’s discovery of “Not for highway use” on his 13-inch wheelbarrow tire, and third place went to “This product is not to be used in bathrooms” on a bathroom heater. M-LAW president Robert B. Dorigo Jones said the contest had a serious point, to illustrate manufacturers’ growing fear of lawsuits and the retreat of principles of individual responsibility. Finalists in earlier years’ contests have included sleeping pills labeled “May cause drowsiness”; a cardboard sunshield to keep sun off a car’s dashboard that warned “Do not drive with sunshield in place”; and a cartridge for a laser printer that warned the consumer not to eat the toner. (CNN/AP, Jan. 13; M-LAW; contest results).

January 18 — Courts mull qui tam constitutionality. The Civil War-era False Claims Act provides stringent civil penalties for anyone who submits inflated or false bills to government procurement officials, and the “relator” provisions of that act allow any private citizen to bring suit to enforce the law and obtain damages for the United States. The relator — who may be an employee of the defendant enterprise, or a complete stranger — can then by law collect a share of between 15 and 30 percent in any recovery obtained by the government, with no need to prove an injury to himself. Qui tam actions have soared in number in recent years, actively solicited by lawyers seeking rich contingency payouts (the law was liberalized in 1986 to provide treble damages). For their part, businesses, hospitals and universities complain that the quality of accusations filed against them is often low (see Sept. 9 commentary) and that the law can actually encourage bad behavior by bounty-hunting employees who (for example) may fail to report billing irregularities promptly to higher management finding it more lucrative to let them mount and then file a legal complaint. In Pennsylvania, eyebrows were raised when one entrepreneur pitched his services to a hospital as a consultant for the prevention of false claims, and then, having been turned down for that job, proceeded to sue that hospital and 99 others as relator based on a statistical analysis of their billing patterns.

Recently the qui tam provisions have come under heightened scrutiny. On November 15, writing for a panel of the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Jerry Smith struck down as unconstitutional the portions of the act that authorize actions by uninjured parties in the absence of a go-ahead from Washington, ruling that such suits encroach on the Constitutionally guaranteed separation of powers by impairing the executive branch’s right to control litigation that goes on in the name of government interests. The case will be reheard by the full Circuit. Moreover, the decision may have had immediate repercussions at the U.S. Supreme Court, which had already agreed to consider whether the state of Vermont can be sued by one of its own former staff attorneys, acting as relator, for allegedly exaggerating the proportion of its employees’ time that was allocable to federally reimburseable environmental programs. Apparently responding to the Fifth Circuit decision, the Court ordered the lawyers in the Vermont case to brief the issue of whether the relator provisions are unconstitutional. Even if the Court does not go that far, it might rule that the application of the law to states as defendants violates the Constitution. Justice Stephen Breyer called it “one thing” to allow individuals to sue private federal contractors and “quite another” to “set an army of people loose on the states.” Update: The Court later upheld the constitutionality of the act’s relator provisions, but ruled that state governments cannot be named as defendants (Francis J. Serbaroli, “Supreme Court Clarifies, Broadens Antifraud Laws”, New York Law Journal, July 27, reprinted at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft site) See also April 30, 2001, July 30, 2001.

SOURCES: Peter Aronson, “Whistleblower Breaks New Ground”, National Law Journal, Oct. 27; Susan Borreson, “5th Circuit Slams Qui Tam Suit”, Texas Lawyer, Nov. 22; Vermont Agency of Natural Resources v. United States ex rel. Stevens, Supreme Court case 98-1828; Kenneth Jost, “Qui Tam Comes To the High Court”, The Recorder/CalLaw, Nov. 30; Charles Tiefer, “Don’t Quit on Qui Tam”, Law News Network, Nov. 29. MORE BACKGROUND: Fried, Frank; Steven G. Bradbury, “The Unconstitutionality of Qui Tam Suits”, Federalist Society Federalism and Separation of Powers Working Group Newsletter, v. 1, no. 1; Mark Koehn and Donald J. Kochan, “Stand Down”, Legal Times, Dec. 6, 1999, reprinted at Federalist Society site; Dan L. Burk, “False Claims Act Can Hamper Science With ‘Bounty Hunter’ Suits”, The Scientist, Sept. 4, 1995; Ridgway W. Hall Jr. and Mark Koehn, “Countering False Claims Act Litigation Based on Environmental Noncompliance”, National Legal Center for the Public Interest, Sept. 1999 (PDF format). Pro-qui tam sites, many of which double as client intake sites for law firms, include those of Taxpayers Against Fraud; Phillips & Cohen; Ashcraft & Gerel; Miller, Alfano & Raspanti; QuiTamOnline.com; and Chamberlain & Kaufman.

January 18 – Columnist-fest. Pointed opinions on issues that aren’t going away:

* Major League Baseball, meet Soviet psychiatry? Charles Krauthammer on the John Rocker case, and why it’s dangerous to view racism and general unpleasantness of opinion as suitable candidates for mental-health treatment (“Screwball psychologizing”, Washington Post, Jan. 14)

* John Leo on how courts and legislatures often seize on ambiguous enabling language as a blank check for vast social engineering: vague provisions in state constitutions get turned into an excuse to equalize school funding or strike down tort reform, domestic violence gets federalized on the grounds that it affects interstate commerce, and more. (“By dubious means”, U.S. News & World Report, Jan. 24).

* Clarence Page asks why states fight so hard to keep convicts in prison even after newly emergent DNA evidence clears them of the original rap. Do prosecutors and wardens care more about maintaining high inmate body counts, or about doing justice? (“When Innocence Isn’t Good Enough”, Chicago Tribune, Jan. 3).

January 17 – New York court nixes market-share liability for paint. In a setback for lawyers hoping to make lead paint their next mass-tort breakthrough, a New York appeals court has rejected the plaintiffs’ request that “market-share liability” be applied to the industry. This theory allows claimants to dispense with the need to show whose products they were exposed to, in favor of simply collecting from all defendants who sold the item, in proportions based on their market share. In explaining why such methods of assigning liability would be unjust, the court observed that paint makers did not have exclusive control over risks arising from their products, that makers sold at different times and to different markets, and that the composition of paint differed substantially from one maker to the next. (Jim O’Hara, “Court Sinks Lead Poisoning Case”, Syracuse Online, Jan. 10).

January 17 – Montreal Gazette “Lawsuit of the year”. “Two bagpipers sued Swissair for lost income from tourists at Peggy’s Cove because of the plane crash that killed 229 people in September of 1998. They claim their income declined dramatically while the lighthouse area was closed to the public.” (“Technology”, Dec. 31; Richard Dooley, “Swissair responds to bagpipers’ lawsuit”, Halifax Daily News, June 22, 1999).

January 17 – Dot-coms as perfect defendants. They’re flush with venture-capitalist and IPO cash, they’re run by hormone-crazed kids who bring a party atmosphere to the office, and they haven’t developed big human resources bureaucracies to make sure nothing inappropriate goes on. Why, they’re the perfect sexual harassment defendants! New York contingency-fee attorney David Jaroslawicz, a veteran of securities class actions and now “an aspiring scourge of the Internet“, hopes to spearhead a resulting “Silicon Alley sex-suit wave”. He has filed three suits on behalf of disgruntled female employees, including two against free-access provider Juno.com, one of which has been dismissed, and a third against Internet-TV producer Pseudo.com.

Asked why he happened to ask for the same amount, $10 million, in both lawsuits against Juno, Jaroslawicz says the damage request “is ‘arbitrary, whatever the secretary types in’ — just as long as it has enough zeros”. You ‘put in some high absurd number, because you can always take less,’ Mr. Jaroslawicz explained.” (Renee Kaplan, “The Sexual Harassment Suit Comes to Silicon Alley”, New York Observer, Jan. 17).

January 17 – New improvement to the Overlawyered.com site: better search capability. This weekend we installed the PicoSearch internal search engine, which you’ll find to be a big leap forward from our previous search system: fast results displayed in context, fuzzy logic to catch near-misses, no ads, search boxes available on key pages, and so forth. In addition, the database indexed now includes our editor’s home page (with a wide selection of articles, mostly on legal themes). Give it a test run, either by visiting our search page or just by typing your search into the box in the left column and hitting “return”.

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09.22.08 at 9:53 am

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