March 2001 archives, part 2


March 19-20 – “Kava tea drinker alleges bias in FedEx firing”. Taufui Piutau of San Bruno, Calif., a native of Tonga, was pulled over by a California highway patrolman in 1999 and charged with driving while impaired. It turned out he’d downed dozens of cups of kava tea, a popular Pacific Islander beverage widely regarded as having relaxing medicinal effects. A jury last November deadlocked on whether to convict him and prosecutors decided to drop the case, but by then Federal Express, Piutau’s employer, had suspended him without pay from his driving job over the off-duty incident. Now he’s suing the company for — guess the theory — religious discrimination, saying enjoyment of the beverage is a custom of a religious nature. (Ann E. Marimow, San Jose Mercury-News, Mar. 14).

March 19-20 – Scientologists vs. Slashdot. “In the face of legal threats from the Church of Scientology, Slashdot pulled down an anonymous posting that quoted a copyrighted church tract, known as Operating Thetan, Section III (OT III). ‘It’s an open forum, but as of today it’s a little less open than it was yesterday,’ says Robin Miller, the editorial director of Slashdot’s parent, the Open Source Development Network. ‘And we’re not happy about that.'” (Roger Parloff, “Threat of Scientologists’ Legal Wrath Prompts Slashdot to Censor a Posting”, Inside.com, March 16; Slashdot thread; Church of Scientology; some of its critics (“Operation Clambake“); Declan McCullagh, “Xenu Do, But Not on Slashdot”, Wired News, Mar. 17).

March 19-20 – Why they seize. “Kansas law enforcement officials on Monday strongly opposed a reform forfeiture bill that would send money seized in drug cases to education. Currently, law enforcement agencies can keep most of the money once it is legally confiscated. Law enforcement officials told the House Judiciary Committee that if their agencies were not allowed to keep drug money, forfeitures could become extinct in Kansas”. Kind of confirms what critics have said about the motivations for forfeiture law, doesn’t it? (Karen Dillon, “Kansas law enforcement officials oppose reform forfeiture bill”, Kansas City Star, Mar. 12; see May 25, 2000).

March 19-20 – Microdonation update. Amazon’s new micropayment “Honor System” for small and nonprofit websites has had at least one big success so far, as you may have heard: Andrew Sullivan’s personal site has taken in an envy-inducing $6,000 from his fans. That’s way ahead of most other popular sites: for example, the well-thought-of ModernHumorist.com says that as of March 9 it had received $509.99 from 209 readers, according to its “Tip Jar” account. Reason editor-at-large Virginia Postrel writes that her weblog/commentary “The Scene” “is pulling in about 500 page views a day — the poor woman’s approximation of visitors — and in the last month has netted contributions of $457.38 via Amazon and, in the last week, $27.50 via PayPal.”

So how’re we doing at Overlawyered.com, comparatively? As of Sunday evening we’d taken in about $404.50, from sixty readers, for an average donation of about $6.50. That’s not shabby at all. But we do notice that our readers are showing a far lower rate of participation than Virginia’s: we’ve been getting around 3,500 page views per weekday lately, so if our readers were as generous as hers we’d have raised a kitty that was seven times as high instead of a little lower. Another way of looking at it is that although it takes many thousands of regular readers to get us up to that 3,500-page daily volume, only an average of two of those readers a day actually throw coins in the hat. (No wonder Amazon calls it the Honor System.) We’ve just installed, on our PayPage, a new feature where you can watch donations climb and see your own added to the total. Thanks (again) for your support!

March 16-18 – Coupon settlement? Pay the lawyers in coupons. In a “blistering” 27-page ruling, Broward County, Fla. circuit judge Robert Lance Andrews has slashed a $1.4 million class-action legal-fee request by the New York law firm Zwerling Schachter & Zwerling to about $294,000, and “ordered that a quarter of the fees be paid in $10 to $60 travel vouchers — the same vouchers awarded to the 80,000 plaintiffs in the suit”. The suit had accused Renaissance Cruises Inc. of padding port charges. “Too often, [Judge Andrews] wrote in the ruling, lawyers use class actions as cash cows that ultimately don’t yield much for plaintiffs. … ‘Essentially, these vouchers have no value whatsoever,’ said [Edwin H.] Moore, president and chief executive of the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee, Fla., think tank. ‘It’s kind of absurd, taking a cruise for hundreds of dollars and getting $10 off.'”

The judge further accused the lawyers of engaging in “fuzzy math” and said they had piggybacked on enforcement efforts by the Florida Attorney General, who had investigated cruise lines’ practice of passing on “port charges” to vacationers greater than those actually incurred. “Andrews said he considered denying plaintiffs’ lawyers any legal fees, ‘on the basis of their blatant disregard of their ethical obligations to the class and to the court.’ In fact, before ruling on legal fees, Andrews rebuffed 13 law firms that claimed to have had a hand in the class action.” Zwerling Schachter says it expects to appeal. “(Tom Collins, “Florida Judge Slashes Fee Request, Blasts Attorneys Suing Cruise Lines”, Miami Daily Business Review, Mar. 15).

March 16-18 – Compulsive grooming as protected disability. Last month a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, reversing a lower court, ruled that medical transcriber Carolyn Humphrey can proceed with her claim that her firing by a Modesto, Calif. hospital was unlawful. Humphrey, “an otherwise excellent employee, compiled a history of tardiness and absenteeism because of grooming and dressing rituals that took hours, sometimes all day. … [Her suit claims] the obsessive trait that drove her relentless primping had not been accommodated, as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act.” (Denny Walsh, “Compulsive grooming a true disability? Perhaps”, Sacramento Bee, March 14).

March 16-18 – Wife: hubby’s tooth discovery deprived me of companionship. Ronald Cheeley of Alamance County, N.C. “is suing Hardee’s, claiming he found a tooth in a biscuit from a one of the chain’s Burlington restaurants. … The lawsuit does not say whether Cheeley actually put the tooth in his mouth. … Cheeley’s wife, Queen Williamson Cheeley, is also named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which claims the incident has deprived her of companionship.” (Bill Cresenzo, “Tooth found: Man sues Hardee’s”, Burlington (N.C.) Times-News, Feb. 15) (via Obscure Store)

March 15 – Reclaiming the tobacco loot. If the Bush administration has its way, the politically connected lawyers who helped themselves to billions for representing the states in the great tobacco shakedown may soon have to turn a large share of that booty over to their clients, the fifty states (see our earlier coverage of the fees, the settlement and the lawyers). “President Bush proposed during the campaign to apply to lawyers in mass tort cases the Internal Revenue Code provisions that govern fiduciary breaches of duty by pension fund trustees, foundation executives, and employees of 501(c)(3) non-profits. Under this so-called Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker provision of the 1996 Taxpayer Bill of Rights, overreaching fiduciaries have the ‘choice’ of refunding their excess payments or paying a federal tax of $2 for every dollar they keep.” Contrary to some early reports that President Bush had dropped this plan, “[p]age 80 of the president’s budget contains this terse and, to taxpayers, cheering sentence: ‘The budget also assumes additional public health resources for the States from the President’s proposal to extend fiduciary responsibilities to the representatives of States in tobacco lawsuits.'” (Michael Horowitz, “Can Tort Law Be Ethical?”, Weekly Standard, Mar. 19; Ramesh Ponnuru, “A Good Tobacco Tax”, National Review Online, Mar. 14). And hurrah for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has just filed Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain information from 21 states about the magnitude of fees paid to the tobacco lawyers, which it says may exceed $100,000 an hour (U.S. Chamber release; the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform; “Group Targets ‘Outrageous’ Legal Fees in Tobacco Case”, Yahoo/Reuters, Mar. 14).

March 15 – No more Indian team names? “The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will vote next month on a statement that would condemn sports teams or mascots named after American Indians as violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. If adopted and widely accepted, the statement could eventually lead to a cutoff in federal funding for schools that cling to traditions like the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux or the University of Illinois’ mascot Chief Illiniwek.” (Catherine Donaldson-Evans, “Civil Rights Commission Considers Condemning Sports Teams Named After American Indians”, FoxNews.com, Mar. 13 (related story and links, right column, includes this page); John J. Miller & Ramesh Ponnuru, “Home of the Braves”, National Review Online, March 9) (& see letter to the editor, April 16).

March 13-14 – Hypnotist sued by entranced spectator. During a show by mesmerist Travis Fox at the Puyallup Fair last September, fairgoer Joshua Harris of Tacoma agreed to participate but “felt such a threat from a space alien mask that he broke his hand trying to ward off the extra-terrestrial. And now he’s suing. … ‘If people get up there and participate, you have to make sure it’s safe,’ said Harris’ attorney, George Christnacht.” (Karen Hucks, “Entertainment hypnotist being sued for negligence”, Tacoma News-Tribune, March 8).

March 13-14 – Judge throws out Hollywood- violence suit. Citing the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, Louisiana state judge Bob Morrison on Monday “threw out a lawsuit against director Oliver Stone that claimed his movie ‘Natural Born Killers’ led to a young couple’s bloody crime spree.” (“Judge Throws Out Movie Lawsuit”, AP/FindLaw, March 12). “It’s depressing that a suit that should have been thrown out on the first pass could result in such a waste of time, energy and money. We’ve created a new legal hell where everyone is entitled and no one is responsible,” said Stone (“Notable Quotes”, Reuters/Yahoo, March 13).

March 13-14 – “Nursing homes a gold mine for lawyers”. Week-long series in the Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun-Sentinel (series overview) examines mounting crisis in Florida nursing homes, where lawsuits have multiplied several-fold in recent years as lawyers have learned to deploy a liberal “Resident’s Rights” law that allows them to recover damages without proving negligence. Even the Lutheran Haven home, which hasn’t been sued in its 52 years, faces a liability insurance bill of $175,690 a year. (Diane C. Lade, “Money remains root of nursing homes’ woes”, March 6; Bob LaMendola and Greg Groeller, “Nursing homes a gold mine for lawyers”, March 4; Jeff Kunerth, “Even never-sued home feels insurance’s squeeze”, March 5). “Nursing homes are often in a Catch-22 when it comes to restraining patients. One tenet of the state’s nursing-home residents’ bill of rights guarantees residents the right to safety. Another tenet guarantees their freedom from ‘physical and chemical restraints.'” (Diane C. Lade and Greg Groeller, “Bedsores, falls make homes ripe for suing”, March 4; Jeff Kunerth, “Broken bones ended in lawsuit”, March 6; Jeff Kunerth, “A rarity: Lake lawsuit went to trial”, March 4).

As frequently happens with these newspaper group efforts, the tone is weirdly inconsistent, with one of the lead reporters buying much of the pro-litigation side of the story (Greg Groeller, “Elderly care put to test”, March 4) while many of the other installments in the series tend to document the need for curbs on suing (“Collapse of care” (editorial), March 11). Both nursing home operators and trial lawyers have been pouring money into Tallahassee, where lawmakers are considering such curbs. Among the attorneys opening their wallets is “Jim Wilkes, a sharp and politically connected nursing-home litigator from Tampa who said he probably gave at least $1 million of his own money to campaigns in the last election cycle. ‘If you took the national and state money that my firm has contributed to campaigns, I could have probably retired on the money,” Wilkes said.” Mark Hollis, “Nursing homes, lawyers plan fight in capital”, March 6). Six of eight publicly held for-profit home operators are now operating in bankruptcy, and a plaintiff’s lawyer concedes the possibility that “[t]he entire industry would end up being regulated through the bankruptcy courts.” (Lade, “Money remains”, March 6). Update: the National Law Journal‘s Margaret Cronin Fisk reports on the trend (“Juries Treat Nursing Home Industry With Multimillion Dollar Verdicts”, Apr. 23): “In the past 12 months, there have been verdicts of $312 million and $82 million in Texas, $5 million in California, $20 million in Florida and $3 million in Arkansas. … One Florida-based law firm, Tampa’s Wilkes & McHugh, has about 1,000 cases pending.”

March 12 – We have some to send you. The level of litigation in Japan is still minuscule by U.S. standards, but it has doubled over the past decade, and rural areas experience a perceived lawyer shortage. “Japan has set a goal of reaching France’s level of one lawyer per 1,900 people. That compares with its current level of about one per 7,155 people and America’s world-beating one lawyer per 295 people.” “One unfortunate side effect [of the obstacles to litigation in Japan] has been a social dependence on organized crime for help in settling thorny disputes,” according to the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in the island country. (Mark Magnier, “No Joke: Send More Lawyers”, Los Angeles Times, Mar. 9).

March 12 – More Tourette’s discrimination suits. John Miller is suing Gold’s Gym in Totowa, N.J., saying it terminated his membership because of the involuntary tics caused by his Tourette’s Syndrome. ‘I want these people to realize . . . I guess I do want them to be hurt a little — to realize what they’ve done to me,” he said. The Bergen Record also reports that in October, “a jury in New York City awarded $750,000 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s former assistant banquet manager after finding the museum’s food contractor had fired him illegally because of the disorder.” (Jennifer V. Hughes, Bergen County Record, Feb. 9) (earlier Tourette’s cases: August 21 and July 26, 2000).

March 12 – Welcome National Review Online readers. The pseudonymous author, described as an officer of the Los Angeles Police Department, writes: “The Soviet menace may have faded into the history of another era, but the American legal profession, with its standing army of some half-million attorneys, presents as grave a threat to western civilization as has ever existed. For proof of this, I recommend to the strong of heart a visit to Overlawyered.com, a website that will at once amuse, bemuse, and horrify.” We’re headed toward a banner day for traffic, testimony to NR Online‘s popularity. (“Jack Dunphy”, “Disorder in the Court”, March 12).