- Christopher Hitchens: once utopian electoral buzz wears off, nation’ll face pretty much same set of problems as before [Slate] #
- Business preparing to play defense in D.C. on 3 big battlefronts: labor/empt law, arbitration, preemption [NLJ] #
- Pretty neat, Google Reader now translates foreign-language blogs for you [SearchEngineLand h/t @mike_elgan] #
- @gideonstrumpet it’s one of the “laws” of blogging — very hard to predict beforehand which posts’ll draw the biggest traffic #
- “Lawyer Hausfeld Learned of Firing as Chairman From Note on Seat” [Securities Docket] #
- If transcript “is held face down and shaken, thousands of confusion flakes will drift to the ground like snowflakes” [Lowering the Bar] #
- Jamie Gorelick, mentioned as possible AG pick, would bring baggage [Althouse] #
- GM-Chrysler merger = idea that pair of boozers can fix drinking problem by getting married to each other [McArdle] #
- Eeeeeeuw: House of Meats employees show reporter “they have all ten of their fingers” after customer reports human digit in her dish of oxtails [BayNews 9 Tampa]
- Press keeps digging into Joe Biden ties to asbestos bar [American Lawyer, more links in PoL roundup]
- Black eye for big law site FindLaw with reports that it’s been selling law firms links in editorial material, a practice sure to raise Google wrath [Oilman, Kevin O’Keefe/Real Lawyers Have Blogs, ABA Journal, Search Engine Land, National Post] More: WSJ on FindLaw’s denial; O’Keefe.
- Overlawyered favorite Fred Baron, of Rielle Hunter generosity, much in evidence at Democratic convention [Dallas Morning News, ABC News] Texas trial lawyer Steve Susman is only individual lawyer listed as convention sponsor [AmLaw Daily, scroll]
- As if legislative expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act weren’t worry enough, 1,000 pages of new DoJ regulations will add billions in costs, as by requiring that 50 percent of miniature golf holes be wheelchair-accessible [Las Vegas Review-Journal via ABA Journal]
- “Bond reduced for two fen-phen attorneys” in Kentucky [Lexington Herald-Leader, more]
- Cozen O’Connor and insurers dealt big setback as Second Circuit’s Judge Jacobs rules they can’t sue Saudi government over 9/11 [Philadelphia Inquirer, more; related on FOIA, Legal Intelligencer; earlier here and here]
- Jury awards $500,000 in malpractice suit against D.C.-based plaintiffs’ firm Cohen Milstein Hausfeld & Toll [Legal Times]
- Australia: “A serial protester who injured a policewoman during the G20 riots wants her conviction overturned so she can still practise as a lawyer.” [Melbourne Herald Sun, Julia Dehm]
Hard-hitting column by Stuart Taylor, Jr. on the destructiveness of the current legal actions
seeking more than $400 billion from companies that did business in South Africa during apartheid, [which] score high on what I call Taylor’s Index of Completely Worthless Lawsuit Indicators:
• The lawsuits will do victims of wrongdoing little or no good.
• They will penalize no human being who has done anything wrong.
• They will deter more conduct that is beneficial than harmful.
• The legal costs and any damages will come at the expense of the general public.
• The lawsuits therefore serve no purpose at all but to enrich lawyers and provide ideological power trips for some judges as well as lawyers.
American Isuzu Motors v. Ntsebeza, recently allowed to go forward, is being led by (among others) class-actioneer and frequent Overlawyered mentionee Michael Hausfeld.
The apartheid lawsuit is one of dozens seeking to pervert the Alien Tort Statute to mulct companies for ordinary commercial conduct in countries accused of human-rights violations. Caterpillar, for example, was sued for selling bulldozers that Israel used to destroy suspected Palestinian terrorists’ homes. (The case was dismissed.) “The American bar is actively soliciting alien plaintiffs” to try out novel theories, State Department legal adviser John Bellinger noted in a recent speech. Because so many federal judges have smiled on such suits, Bellinger added, foreign governments increasingly regard the U.S. judiciary “as something of a rogue actor.”
With added commentary on the Kivalina climate-change class action, Rhode Island lead paint, shareholder litigation, and Lerach, Weiss, and Scruggs. (National Journal, May 17, will rotate off page so catch it now).
- New Jersey Supreme Court won’t touch appellate court reversal of $105M dram-shop verdict against Aramark Corp. Not noted in our earlier coverage: Aramark was held liable as a deep pocket through illegitimate piercing of the corporate veil, adding yet another problem to an appalling series of problems with the trial. [New Jersey Law Journal; earlier on Overlawyered; Point of Law]
- Half-trillion-dollar class certified against Wal-Mart in lawless Ninth Circuit decision. [Point of Law]
- Court papers show direct link to Lerach in Milberg probe. Most entertaining: a letter by Lerach saying “Dr. Cooperman’s reputation and character are impeccable.” Cooperman has since pled guilty to taking kickbacks, and Milberg Weiss now says he has no credibility. [National Law Journal; WSJ Law Blog]
- Slip and fall worth $5.7M [Atlantic City Press]
- Cardiologists doing Brazilians: “Graduating med students aren’t blind; they see established physicians with busy practices dropping out. Looking ahead they see more headaches–more controls and regulations, more scrutiny, more liability, less money.” [TIME via Kevin MD]
- Florida law may allow men to get out of paying fraudulent paternity when DNA shows they’re not the father. [Miami Herald; see also Parker v. Parker; earlier on Overlawyered]
- Editorial: Alabama Supreme Court ruling on illegal multi-billion-dollar punitive damages award in Exxon contract dispute can prove state is no longer tort hell. [Press-Register]
- Update to earlier Overlawyered post: Danny Cuesta pleads guilty, sentenced to fifteen months; Melissa Cuesta, whose claim we covered, arrested for perjury, pleads not guilty. [EmpireStateNews.net via Teacher trash blog]
- Incomes and inequality: what the numbers don’t tell us. [Marginal Revolution]
- India and the drug patent wars. [AEI]
- I (along with John Beisner, Michael Hausfeld, and John Stoia) am speaking on a panel on the Class Action Fairness Act at the National Press Club February 14. [Federalist Society]
Lawsuit impresario Michael Hausfeld, whose doings often figure in these pages, is on “a crusade to export America’s legal system around the world,” per one recent U.S. magazine profile. He claims to share case ideas regularly with a network of lawyers in countries around the world, according to a profile in the U.K. publication The Lawyer (Jon Robins, “Michael Hausfield [sic] brings class actions to the UK”, Oct. 24)(via Schaeffer). More on Hausfeld: Jan. 11, Apr. 13, Jul. 25, 2004; May 24, 2001; Mar. 2 and Aug. 13-14, 2000.
“Encouraged by the press criticism, entrepreneurial trial lawyers, eyeing Wal-Mart’s deep pockets with glee, have made it perhaps the biggest private-sector target of the nation?s plaintiffs’ bar. In just ten years, the number of pending lawsuits against Wal-Mart has increased fourfold, to 8,000, and the company has tripled the size of its litigation department. … Wal-Mart faces a growing number of potentially costly class action lawsuits, exemplified by a sex-discrimination suit brought by the Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll firm, notorious for getting Texaco to pay $176 million to black employees in a discrimination suit.” (Steven Malanga (Manhattan Institute), “What Does the War on Wal-Mart Mean?”, City Journal, Spring). See Jul. 7-9, 2000 and more links: Feb. 1, 2004; Dec. 4, 2003; Jan. 11, Jun. 14, and Aug. 29-30, 2001; Sept. 6-7, Sept. 25-26, Nov. 15, and Dec. 13-14, 2000; and Dec. 2, 1999. More: we are linked by Always Low Prices — Always, a blog whose mission is to chronicle “The Best and the Worst about Wal-Mart” and which is put out in part by Kevin Brancato of George Mason U. and the economics blog Truck and Barter. (More: Apr. 19, 2005).
Class-actioneers Michael Hausfeld and Stanley Chesley, already in line to collect $10.5 million in fees under Microsoft’s settlement of one of its antitrust cases filed in federal court, “say they are entitled to share in $50 million for helping lay the groundwork for the state claims [filed by other law firms].” Hausfeld and Chesley say many lawyers who filed state claims were happy to rely on the work they did in advancing the federal case, but “‘Memories are short and gratitude fleeting when attorneys’ fees are at issue.’ … In a reply brief, the law firms of Milberg, Weiss and Lieff, Cabraser, and Kirby, McInerney & Squire argue that assistance provided by Hausfeld and Chesley ‘was spotty and sometimes non-existent.’ ‘To put it most charitably, rather than being a resource to various state court counsel throughout these proceedings, Hausfeld-Chesley looked out for their own clients (and fees) in their own cases, which of course is completely proper,’ the lawyers in the state cases replied. ‘Such behavior, however, does not give rise to an entitlement for fees for other plaintiffs in other cases.'” (James Rowley, “Legal-fee fight erupts over Microsoft case”, Bloomberg/Seattle Times, Jan. 7)
March 15 — Annals of zero tolerance: scissors, teacher’s beer. A twelve-year-old at Morton Middle School in Omaha has been expelled after she brought a pair of blunt-edged safety scissors to school earlier this month. (Tanya Eiserer, “7th-Grader With Scissors Violates Policy”, Omaha World-Herald, March 9, link now dead). And ordering and drinking a beer with dinner in the presence of her swim team has apparently brought an end to the teaching and coaching career of Lori Gallagher in Greenwood, Ind. Gallagher had taken her team to Noble Roman’s restaurant after a February swim meet. “Clearly, a situation in which alcohol is in the presence of minors is inappropriate,” said Dan Clark, deputy executive director of the Indiana State Teachers Association, which backed Gallagher’s removal. (Dana Knight, “Greenwood coach suspended for drinking”, Indianapolis Star, March 9, link now dead; Jeff Taylor, Reason Express, March 13 (second item)).
March 15 — Game over four decades ago: let’s change the rules. The latest “Angelos bill” moving through the Maryland legislature would retroactively change state law to make it easier for governments and individuals to sue makers of interior lead paint, which was pulled off the market in the 1950s. The bill would remove the requirement that plaintiffs actually identify which firm manufactured paint to which they were exposed, instead allowing suits against all manufacturers alike under the theory of “market-share liability”. The powerful attorney, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, was earlier instrumental in steering legislation through Annapolis retroactively tagging tobacco companies with liability for selling their wares, a caper that resulted in a $1 billion fee claim for his firm (see Dec. 9, Oct. 19 commentaries). Paint and pigment manufacturers brought in former U.S. attorney general Benjamin Civiletti, former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger and others to argue against the measure. (Michael Dresser, “Lead Paint Bill is Debated”, Baltimore Sun, March 10; Timothy B. Wheeler and William F. Zorzi Jr., “Lawmakers back bill on lead paint”, Baltimore Sun, January 28; industry press release) (via Junk Science).
March 15 — What ADA was written for. Jose Francisco Almada took off for Mexico on a Sunday in 1997 on learning that a niece there had died after a long illness. When he returned on Wednesday he was told that his employer, USA Waste Inc., had terminated him for skipping work without notifying a supervisor. Almada hired a lawyer who proceeded to sue the company under — can you guess which statute? Not the Family and Medical Leave Act, but the Americans with Disabilities Act, on the grounds that the company’s action was a mere pretext to discriminate against him on the grounds of a back injury which prevented him from doing heavy lifting in his sanitation rounds. The company denied the charge and said Almada had displayed “poor work attitude” aside from the absenteeism incident but the Colorado Civil Rights Division sided with him and so did a jury, which voted him more than $250,000. Almada’s lawyer, James E. Gigax, said: “It is this kind of case the ADA is written for.” (Howard Pankratz, “Driver wins lawsuit under disabilities act”, Denver Post, Feb. 22).
March 15 — A dream of black goats. “To dream of white goats is a sign of wealth and plenty,” declares a fortune-telling “Oraculum” regularly consulted by Napoleon Bonaparte; “but black signify sickness and uncertain lawsuits.” (Napoleon’s Book of Fate and Oraculum (Kessinger)) (via The New Yorker, “Book Currents”, Dec. 27-Jan. 3, not online) (send black-goat greeting card).
March 14 — Clinton legal legacy. American Lawyer asked this site’s editor to contribute to a cover-story symposium on President Clinton’s legal legacy. “Bill and Hillary Clinton emerged from a Yale Law School milieu that admired litigation as the remedy for practically every social ill and assumed that the more people could be persuaded to assert their rights in court, the better off society would be — what some of us call the invisible-fist theory. … [By the end] the Clintons themselves [came] to experience the intense miseries of destructive litigation — an ordeal through which they set a very poor example of how to behave, and from which they appear to have learned precisely nothing.” Along the way, the piece sounds off on everything from the federal tobacco suit to sexual harassment law. (Walter Olson, “Selective Liability”, American Lawyer, March 3).
March 14 — Swissair crash aftermath. Since its Flight 111 went down off Nova Scotia in September 1998, Swissair has been widely praised for going farther than any previous airline to help victims’ families: it offered them advance payments of about $154,000 without awaiting the results of litigation, reimbursed extensive travel and funeral expenses, and performed many other services for the bereaved. The efforts have generated much good will among the families, but “is all this likely to reduce Swissair’s liability or the number of lawsuits filed against it? Probably not,” reports Margaret Jacobs of the Wall Street Journal‘s news side. Faced with the reality that the American litigation system behaves in just as harsh a fashion toward defendants who try to be good guys as toward those who resist trench by trench, airlines in the future may find themselves financially tempted to emulate the much harder line taken by such as Korean Air Lines, which is still litigating against survivor families 17 years after a crash.
A sidelight on the affair: recognizing that “courts outside the U.S. typically award a third or less of what U.S. courts do in wrongful-death actions”, Swissair initially offered much lower amounts to European than to American families, which raised a ruckus over there: “Swiss papers asked whether the airline believed an American life had more value than a European one.” Inevitably, the airline wound up offering the higher sums to everyone. Talk about genuine (for once) American imperialism: our legal system is so successful at exporting its premises that European legal systems can hardly give effect to their considered view as to the suitable level of damages even in many disputes among European citizens. (Margaret A. Jacobs, “Swissair Crash Tests Relations With Insurers”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15, fee-based archive).
March 14 — How bad can a capital trial get? What happens when a candidate for the Bad Prosecutors Hall of Fame faces off against a contender for the Clueless Defense Attorneys Championship? You get something like the 1983 Texas trial that sent Calvin Jerold Burdine to Death Row, which a federal judge threw out last September in favor of a new trial. “It is true that there is no bright line that distinguishes consciousness from sleep,” wrote U.S. District Judge David Hittner, with reference to allegations that Burdine’s court-appointed defense lawyer had repeatedly snoozed off during the proceedings. “However, the record and the evidence here is clear: [the defense lawyer] was actually unconscious.” According to the Washington Post‘s Paul Duggan, such cases are frequent enough that Texas appellate lawyers simply call ’em “sleeping-lawyer cases”. Because Judge Hittner found the inadequacy of defense sufficient grounds to overturn the conviction, he did not need to address further allegations that prosecutors had tainted the atmosphere against Burdine, who is gay, by calling him a “fairy” and a “queer” during his trial on charges of fatally stabbing a man during a burglary. According to the Post, “the prosecutor, in seeking a death sentence, argued to the jury that imposing a life term on a gay man would be an inadequate penalty, considering the prevalence of homosexual activity in prison. ‘Sending a homosexual to the penitentiary certainly isn’t a very bad punishment for a homosexual, and that’s what he is asking you to do,’ the prosecutor told the jury, according to a transcript.” (“Inadmissible: Zzzzz”, Texas Lawyer, October 4; text of judge’s order, Southern District of Texas; Paul Duggan, “Verdict Overturned Last Fall, Man Still on Death Row”, Washington Post, March 2).
March 13 — Videogame maker agrees to furnish safety gloves. How our state attorneys general keep busy: Nintendo of America has agreed to offer padded, fingerless protective gloves, up to four per household, to owners of a video game that’s been blamed for cuts, blisters and other hand injuries. “The ‘Mario Party’ game on the Nintendo 64 home game system can cause hand injury because players are encouraged to rapidly rotate a joy stick with a grooved tip, [New York] Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said Wednesday.” Spitzer’s office said the company had set aside up to $80 million to provide gloves — actual outlays can be predicted to be far below that — “and agreed to also provide $75,000 for the cost of the attorney general’s investigation,” reports AP. (Spitzer press release, March 8; “Nintendo To Give Safety Gloves”, AP/AltaVista, March 8; David Becker, “Nintendo offers glove to prevent joystick injuries”, CNet News.com, March 9). Reader Kenton Hoover, one of our informants on this story, is reminded of the old dialogue: Patient: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” Doctor: “So don’t do that.”
March 13 — Majesty of the law. “Attorney Marvin Barish could be hit with harsh sanctions by a federal judge for threatening to kill an Amtrak defense lawyer and calling him a ‘fat pig’ during a trial recess,” Shannon Duffy reports in Philadelphia’s Legal Intelligencer. U.S. District Judge Herbert J. Hutton declared a mistrial upon learning that Barish had allegedly told defense attorney Paul F.X. Gallagher, fist cocked, “I will kill you with my bare hands.” “You threatened his life in the presence of witnesses, sir,” said the indignant judge, after hearing an account of the incident from his courtroom deputy. “Not in the presence of the jury,” Barish replied; then, perhaps as it dawned that this was not an entirely satisfactory response, he added a more general denial: “I didn’t threaten his life or anybody.” At a later sanctions hearing, Barish said that he was “not condoning my conduct. It was really bad” but that “I didn’t mean that I would kill him” and that Gallagher “wasn’t in obvious fear of his life”. Barish’s attorney, James E. Beasley, said that his client was the real victim in the situation, having been provoked by unfair legal tactics on the part of Amtrak: “I think that having Mr. Barish go through this has been a sufficient sanction in and of itself.” (Shannon Duffy, “An Angry Lawyer?”, The Legal Intelligencer, March 10).
The colorful Barish last figured in these columns December 14, when we reported on the controversy over his having set up a plaintiff client in an apartment and paid his rent, gas, electric, cable television and phone bills. Updating that case, a federal judge refused to disqualify the veteran Philadelphia attorney as counsel in the case, finding such a sanction too harsh even if he committed an ethical violation. (Shannon Duffy, “Sugar Lawyer”, The Legal Intelligencer, Nov. 22).
March 13 — Take the settlement, sue anyway. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is considering a regulation under which terminated workers who’ve accepted a severance packet in exchange for a waiver agreeing not to sue could keep the packet and sue anyway. The worker would be allowed to attack the waiver of rights as not knowing and voluntary without having to “tender back” the sums received. “This is take the money and run,” says Mark DiBernardo of the management-oriented law firm Littler Mendelson. Steven Allen Bennett, commenting on behalf of the American Corporate Counsel Association, isn’t happy about the proposed rule either, saying it encourages “disgruntled employees with spurious claims to fight on endlessly”. (Kevin Livingston, “Gilding the Golden Handshake”, The Recorder/ CalLaw.com, Jan. 24).
March 13 — Welcome WhatTheHeck.com, Center for Equal Opportunity, RTL-4 Dutch television visitors:
* WhatTheHeck.com says its mission is “exposing the funny underside of society and, of course, stupid government tricks”. Check out its list of joke Ebay auctions, entitled “Ain’t Capitalism Grand?”, and its link to Frederic Bastiat’s Petition of the Candle-Makers of Paris, the funniest-ever satire on trade protection, on an Australian server. We get listed under the heading “Smart Sites”;
* “If you haven’t visited <www.overlawyered.com>, you should,” advises the Legal & Regulatory News newsletter (January) of the Center for Equal Opportunity, “the only think tank devoted exclusively to the promotion of colorblind equal opportunity and racial harmony”, headed by Linda Chavez;
* And Max Westerman’s recent report for RTL-4 Dutch television on lawsuits in New York City draws on this site’s resources.
March 10-12 — Accused of harassment; wins $2 million from employer. A Circuit Court jury in Hawaii has voted a $2.1 million award to Leland Gonsalves, who was fired from an auto service manager job at Infiniti-Nissan after a female service clerk filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. “It felt like I was being dragged through the mud and no matter how hard you rinsed off, it was going to follow you for the rest of your life,” Gonsalves said. “The jury found that Infiniti-Nissan unlawfully discriminated against Gonsalves, breached a promise to him that his job would not be affected by the investigation, and violated its own personnel policies and procedures involving his termination.” In court documents, the company had contended that “it conducted a preliminary investigation into the clerk’s allegations and found that Gonsalves appeared to have sexually harassed her based on his admissions”.
Eric Miyasaki, president of Nissan Motor Corp. in Hawaii Ltd., said the company had scrupulously followed EEOC guidelines for investigating harassment claims but that the court had found those guidelines to be non-binding. Miyasaki “said the verdict has ‘dangerous’ implications for every employer in the state. ‘If this decision is allowed to stand, Hawaii employers receiving complaints of harassment will have to choose whether they want to risk liability for ignoring the complaint or risk liability for doing what the sexual harassment law says they must do.'” Gonsalves, according to his lawyer, “has admitted to some of the woman’s allegations, apologized to her for any actions that she may have considered offensive and denied some allegations. But [he] has maintained that his conduct did not reach a level where it created a hostile work environment”. (Debra Barayuga, “$2.1 million award in reverse prejudice jury verdict”, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Jan. 26). [Update Jun. 2, 2003: Supreme Court of Hawaii in Nov. 2002 reversed verdict. Also corrected plaintiff’s first name.]
March 10-12 — Do as we say, cont’d. A big employer that delayed sending out overdue paychecks for weeks or even months would get in trouble with the law, right? But in this case the poky payers are the D.C. Superior Court and D.C. Court of Appeals in Washington, which have had a reputation for years for neglecting their bills. Eventually they got sued (in federal court) by three lawyers and one private investigator who hadn’t been paid for court-appointed criminal defense work. Then things got worse: “Because its attorneys did not reply within 20 days of Dec. 16 — the date the suit was filed — a clerk entered a default against the D.C. courts,” reports Legal Times. The failure to respond “certainly sets an interesting precedent in the courts’ effort to instill public confidence in its operations,” observes attorney Gary Sidell. (Carrie Johnson, “D.C. Courts Default in Suit by Lawyers”, Legal Times, Jan. 14).
March 10-12 — Rise, fall and rise of class actions. “The frequency of class actions has ebbed and flowed in the past 30 years. In 1988, The New York Times reported a sharp drop-off in these cases since the 1970s. A legal expert told the newspaper that class actions ‘sort of had their day in the sun and kind of petered out.’
“The sun is shining again. Though no government agency keeps accurate statistics on the numbers of class actions, no one — trial lawyers or corporate America — disputes that the frequency of these cases has multiplied exponentially [well, at least geometrically — ed.] since the early 1990s.
“A survey of large corporations by the Federalist Society, a conservative research group in Washington, D.C., estimated that from 1988 to 1998, class actions filings increased by 338 percent in federal courts and by more than 1,000 percent in state courts. Corporations that were defending only a handful of these cases 10 years ago now report dealing with 50 or 80 at a time.” (Eddie Curran, “On behalf of all others: legal growth industry has made plaintiffs of us all”, Mobile Register, Dec. 26) (see Feb. 7).
March 9 — Record employment verdict thrown out. A unanimous California Supreme Court, reversing an appeals court, has upheld a trial judge’s overturning of a record-breaking $89.5 million discrimination verdict against Hughes Aircraft Co. The trial judge had “found that (1) passion and prejudice had motivated the jury, (2) the damages did not bear a reasonable relationship to Hughes’s actions or plaintiffs’ injuries, and (3) they were grossly disproportionate to the amount of actual damages.” Justice Janice Brown wrote the high court’s opinion and also added a concurring opinion, also signed by Justice Ming W. Chin, calling unlimited punitive damages a violation of fairness and due process (“fundamental notions of justice require some correlation between punishment and harm” — with cite to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) and saying such damages should seldom exceed triple the amount of actual damages. A counter-concurrence by Justice Stanley Mosk dismissed the awarding of excessive punitive damages as a non-crisis and the 3x-damages yardstick as itself arbitrary.
Since Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Malcolm H. Mackey threw out the verdict, attorneys for the plaintiffs have waged a personal campaign against him in the press: Judge Mackey appears to think “that only white people can be trusted to sit dispassionately on matters of race,” charges Santa Monica lawyer Ian Herzog, who represents former Hughes employees Jeffrey Lane and David Villalpando. “They were trying to send a message to the judiciary that any judge who overturns a civil rights verdict … is going to be accused of being racist,” said Hughes attorney Paul Grossman, of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. “The tactics were outrageous.” (Maura Dolan, “Justices Order New Trial in Race Bias Suit”, Los Angeles Times, March 7, link now dead; Lane v. Hughes Aircraft text of decision, filed March 6 (PDF format)).
March 9 — Costly state of higher awareness. “Deepak Chopra, the high lama of litigation, may be a pussycat on TV, but cross him in the courtroom and you’ll have a tiger on your tail,” reports Stephen Lemons at Salon. The New Age guru has “garnered notoriety through his frequent visits to the courtroom”, of which the most famous was his $35 million defamation suit against the Weekly Standard, settled on terms that included an abject retraction plus what Chopra says was a $1.6 million settlement. The La Jolla-based author and alternative medicine advocate has described that suit as “an act of love” meant to lift the magazine to “a higher state of awareness.” (Stephen Lemons, “The art of the spiritiual smackdown”, Salon, March 7).
March 9 — Everyone should weblog. Via Eatonweb yesterday, we discovered more ‘blogs to keep an eye on: Law School Dropout, by Chris O’Connor out of Oregon, led us to several previously unfamiliar resources, including a site on famous American trials by Prof. Doug Linder of the U. of Mo.-K.C. School of Law, Prof. Peter Tiersma’s list of links on law and language, and a compilation of “Weird and Funny Cases” with appended case citations, a welcome service. News/discussion log Edgecaseis worth a look as well. Weblogging (of which this site is one example) “appears to be undergoing a huge surge in popularity,” reports Wired News (Leander Kahney, “The Web the Way It Was”, Feb. 23). And Editor & Publisher Online columnist Steve Outing says it’s time mainstream news organizations “started doing Weblogs of their own”. (“Weblogs: from Underground to Mainstream”, March 8).
March 8 — Barrel pointing backward, cont’d. Another item, overlooked earlier, to add to the file on how litigation is slowing development of “smart guns” (see Feb. 17 commentary): a company that’s pioneered attempts to develop such guns is now seeking to pull out of the firearms business. Switzerland’s SIG Industrial Co. Holding Ltd. said it was seeking to sell its firearms businesses in Europe and the U.S., the latter of which claims an 11 percent share of the U.S. commercial pistol market. “The SIG announcement … is notable because the company attracted attention [in December], when it said that it would be the first manufacturer to market ‘personalized’ handguns. These weapons include an electronic locking system designed to allow only authorized users to fire,” reports Paul Barrett of the Wall Street Journal‘s news side. Such locking systems, of course, are among the innovations demanded by the cities suing gunmakers. “SIG said it will go ahead with ‘limited shipments’ of its personalized pistols later this year.”
From the same report: “In a separate development, gun manufacturer H&R 1871 Inc. said it would cease to produce handguns because of the litigation-driven increases in the cost of liability insurance and shipping. H&R, Gardner, Mass., had made a relatively small number of handguns and is primarily known for shotguns and rifles.” And the Zilkha group, which owns Colt’s, is trying to complete an acquisition of German-owned Heckler & Koch, after which it would “reduce or phase out Heckler & Koch’s sales of civilian pistols in the U.S.” (Paul Barrett, “Swiss Gun Maker SIG Plans to Sell U.S. Unit”, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19, fee-based online service).
March 8 — Californians reject law boosting insurance litigation. By about a two-to-one margin, Golden State voters turned thumbs down on Proposition 30 (see March 6 commentary), thus disappointing the state’s trial lawyers and a coalition whose efforts they had backed. With 59 percent of precincts reporting, the measure was trailing 33 to 67 percent. (L.A. Times, proposition results).
March 8 — “Girl puts head under guillotine; sues when hurt”. The mock guillotine, installed as part of a school gymnasium haunted-house, had a wooden blade and was considered safe but allegedly injured her when its rope snapped. (Paul Waldie, “Girl sues after having ‘guillotine’ hit her neck”, National Post, March 6, link now dead; via Obscure Store). It’s our second item within a week from a Nova Scotia junior high school (see “Hug protest in Halifax”, March 2).
March 8 — Audio clip: our editor on NPR “Morning Edition”. Lawyers filed suit this week against the company that owns the K-B Toys chain, seeking class action status on behalf of African-American customers. The suit charges that stores in the chain located in white neighborhoods around the Washington, D.C. area have a more liberal check acceptance policy than stores with a predominantly minority clientele, a disparity that they say violates the Civil Rights Act. NPR’s Kathleen Schalch interviews this site’s editor who points out that courts have been reluctant to find store-to-store disparities unlawful when owners can cite a cost basis for them, such as a higher risk of returned checks in some locations. (March 6, summary (sixth item); audio clip (6:09 — requires Real Audio)).
March 7 — Mass ADA complaints. The problem of ADA filing mills — law offices that work closely with nonprofits or individual complainants to file large volumes of complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which are then settled for legal fees and a promise of alterations — has begun breaking out into the general press (see our Jan. 26-27, Feb. 15 commentaries). John Stossel last Friday devoted his ABC 20/20 “Give Me a Break!” to the topic, relating the tale of shop owners Dave and Donna Batelaan in Lake Worth, Fla., whose Action Mobility Products got tagged with an ADA complaint for not having a sign designating handicap parking, an amenity that seemed unnecessary since the store sells products aimed at disabled buyers and nearly all of its customers are disabled. The Batelaans, who are disabled themselves, wound up paying $1,000 to settle the lawsuit, which was filed without warning. (Frank Mastropolo and James Wang (writers), “Taking Advantage“, ABC 20/20, “Give Me a Break!” with John Stossel, March 3, transcript).
Also last Friday, USA Today drew attention to the problem and, for balance, ran a guest op-ed by Florida attorney Robert Anthony Bogdan, who files such complaints (“…the motivation of myself and Lance Wogalter, as attorneys for our clients, is not to rake in huge fees, as critics claim. We have undertaken this representation because our client’s position is the right position. Of course, we cannot work for free.”) And Forbes‘ Michael Freedman contributes further details about Bogdan’s representation of the disabled daughter mentioned in our Feb. 15 report: she’s only 12 years old, which makes it especially incongruous that she’s filed complaints against a liquor store and pawn shop for alleged lack of accessibility. (“Loophole lets lawyers sue over dubious problems”, and Robert Anthony Bogdan, “Suits force ADA compliance”, USA Today, both March 3, no longer online; Michael Freedman, “How lawyers keep busy”, Forbes, March 20).
March 7 — Medical mistakes, continued. Further weaknesses of that much-publicized “epidemic of malpractice” study, per an article by New York Times health writer Lawrence K. Altman, M.D.: the “medication errors”, prominent among the total, aren’t necessarily the clear-cut kind where a different compound or dosage is taken than the doctor intended; many instead shade imperceptibly into judgment calls as to whether the physician was right to balance hoped-for benefits against known risks of side effects in particular cases. And: “Classifying falls as errors, as the report did, is also a murky area because they happen commonly in homes and on the street.” Though caregiver negligence concededly contributes to some falls, others are unavoidable in a largely elderly patient population amid unfamiliar surroundings and disoriented by illness and by powerful medications. (“The Doctor’s World: Getting to the Core of Mistakes in Medicine”, New York Times, Feb. 29) (earlier coverage of the study on this site: Feb. 22, Feb. 28).
March 7 — The scarlet %+#?*^)&!. More firms are severing relations with customers who are heard to make profane, raunchy or racially insensitive remarks, a step that helps insulate them from possible liability for tolerating a “hostile environment” for their own workers. “Plante & Moran, a Southfield, Mich., accounting and consulting firm, has terminated two or three clients in the past five years for abusive or profane language, sexist jokes or other offenses, says managing partner Bill Matthews.” (Sue Shellenbarger, “More Firms, Siding With Employees, Bid Bad Clients Farewell”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 16 (requires online subscription)). And Forbes reports that some employers are hiring $1,000-an-hour consultant James O’Connor to mount seminars for employees on how to avoid using foul language; O’Connor’s consultancy is called the Cuss Control Academy. (Michael Freedman, “The Curse of Consultants”, Forbes, Jan. 24).
March 6 — Zapped pylon-climber sues liquor servers, utility. Nominated by reader acclaim: Ed O’Rourke has sued Tampa Electric, along with six bars and stores that sold him alcoholic beverages, over a 1996 incident in which he was blasted by 13,000 volts of electricity after breaking into a fenced, gated and locked utility substation and climbing up a transformer in a “drunken stupor”. The suit further alleges that local bars and stores negligently served O’Rourke liquor even though he was “unable to control his urge to drink alcoholic beverages”. The owner of the Waterhole Sports Bar, one of those sued, said he “remembers the transformer incident but denied that O’Rourke drank at his bar the night it happened. ‘Because he was previously thrown out of here because he was writing on the bathroom walls.'” (“‘Shocked’ Man Sues Bars That Served Him”, Reuters/Yahoo, March 3, link now dead) (another pylon-climber case: see Sept. 17).
March 6 — Press releases, or “strike suit” ads? Tampa Tribune looks in some detail at the puffish “news releases” by which securities class-action lawyers announce new suit-filings: are they informing the press, or soliciting more clients? “‘These announcements are intended to say, “I’m here. I’d like to be lead counsel,”‘ said Charles Elson, a law professor at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.” Bar association officials say that because these releases “don’t technically qualify as advertising, they aren’t subject to scrutiny by these professional groups.” (Eric Miller, “The paper chase”, Tampa Tribune, March 5, link now dead).
March 6 — “Whirlpool settles $581 million verdict out of court.” The original Alabama jury verdict last May involved a $1,200 dispute over a satellite dish. Terms of the new settlement, with lawyers for Barbara Carlisle and her parents, George and Velma Merriweather, weren’t disclosed. (AP/Fox News, March 1).
March 6 — Pro-litigation measures on Calif. ballot. Propositions 30 and 31, if defeated by voters, would repeal two laws favored by trial lawyers that make it easier to sue insurance companies for delaying the payment of claims, including third-party liability claims against their policyholders. The measures appear to be trailing in voter support. (Michael Kahn, “Calif. battle over insurance lawsuits cost millions”, Excite/Reuters, March 2, link now dead; Benjamin Zycher, “Do We Really Need Even More Lawsuits?”, Los Angeles Times, March 3, link now dead; Andrew Tobias, “California Props”, online column, March 6) (measures defeated; see March 8 update).
March 3-5 — It’s Howdy Doody litigation time. Although the freckle-faced marionette of fifties TV was awarded a bronze star last month at Rockefeller Center, the actual cowboy-puppet used on the show has been locked in a trunk in a bank vault in New London, Ct. for the past year, the subject of a prolonged ownership dispute between the late puppeteer Rufus Rose’s family and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The last cast member to play the part of Clarabell the clown, Lew Anderson, 77, has even been put through a deposition, but apparently did not jump up and squirt the lawyers with seltzer as he might have in days of yore. (Corey Kilgannon, New York Times/Deseret News, Feb. 27; NBC website on the show)
March 3-5 — Welcome Reader’s Digest visitors. Randy Fitzgerald’s newly posted article on the outrageous results of asset-forfeiture laws, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent“, gives this website a link.
March 3-5 — Junk fax litigation, continued. Latest case of this sort to attract notice is in Georgia, a class action seeking $12 million from Hooters restaurants over alleged uninvited faxing of lunch coupons. “Value-Fax, owned by Bambi K. Clark, was hired by Hooters and other businesses to distribute advertisements to Augusta-area fax machines” in the mid-1990s, according to Trisha Renaud in the Fulton County Daily Report (Jan. 26). See our Oct. 22 commentary for an account of the epic legal struggle over unsolicited faxing in Houston.
March 3-5 — “Tenure Gridlock: When Professors Choose Not To Retire”. The New York Times quotes Muhlenberg College president Arthur Taylor on the “tenure gridlock” that’s resulted from age bias law‘s having deprived colleges of discretion over how long faculty stay at their posts: “We have no way of asking someone to retire. They literally can go on forever — and some do.” (Edward Wyatt, Feb. 16).
March 3-5 — “ADA’s Good Intentions Have Unintended Consequences”. Insight‘s John Elvin explores headaches caused by the application of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the workplace, including safety worries, the law’s protection of workers who suffer mental illness, and the “sued if you do, sued if you don’t” clash between various legal rules. Quotes this site’s editor at length (Jan. 28).
March 3-5 — Medical monitoring conference. Lawsuits over “medical monitoring” contend that although a plaintiff may not have sustained any detectable health injury from an event, the defendant should nonetheless pay for periodic doctors’ checkups to keep tabs on whether such injury emerges later. In December the Federalist Society brought critics and supporters of the idea together for a conference whose transcript is now online; product liability critic Victor Schwartz of Crowell and Moring, with three co-authors, has also published a paper critical of the notion on the Social Science Research Network. (“Medical Monitoring – Should Tort Law Say Yes?“, posted Feb. 22).
March 2 — Hug protest in Halifax. “Students at a Nova Scotia junior high school went on strike yesterday, walking out of class to protest a strict behavioral code they say forbids everything from hugs and high-fives to piggybacks.” Like a growing number of other schools across Canada, Vanier Junior High “takes a zero tolerance stance on all physical contact, fearful that horseplay could spiral into something more serious.” The results have included prohibitions on tag, touch football and other contact games; mandatory suspensions for playful antics such as pushing schoolmates in the snow; and, in recent controversies at two Manitoba schools, bans on “mass hugging” and kissing in hallways. “We want to be able to go to school and be able to hug your friend good morning,” says eighth grader Rosemary Buote of the new Halifax protests, in which about 200 students chanted slogans and “carried homemade signs that read: ‘We want hugs not punches’ and ‘We want a school not a prison'”. (Peter McLaughlin, “Halifax students walk out over hands-off policy”, Halifax Daily News/National Post, Feb. 29; Jennifer Prittie, “Schools are ruining childhood, critics charge”, National Post, Feb. 28, links now dead).
March 2 — Because they still had money. Class-action lawyers sued cigarette companies last month on grounds of alleged price-fixing, but antitrust experts interviewed by the Washington Post said the case for liability was far from clear on the evidence laid out thus far. Michael Hausfeld, of D.C.’s high-profile Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, is leading the charge, as he also is in private actions against Microsoft. The Wall Street Journal‘s news side reports that Hausfeld “says he was eager to sue the industry, at least in part, because his firm missed out on the fee bonanza that resulted from the state tobacco settlements.” When the earlier litigation binge was being organized some of Cohen, Milstein’s partners were skeptical about the states’ likelihood of prevailing, with the result that the firm “turned down invitations to help represent various states.” (James V. Grimaldi, “Doubts Raised on Tobacco Lawsuit”, Washington Post, Feb. 9, link now dead; Paul Barrett, “New Legal Attack Aims at Tobacco Firms”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 8) (requires online subscription).
March 2 — Update: unmitigated madness, on lawyers’ orders. Andrew Goldstein “has twice punched a court social worker since he stopped taking his anti-psychotic medication, court officials and lawyers disclosed”. Goldstein’s lawyers advised him to stop taking his medication in preparation for his murder trial so the extent of his schizophrenia could properly impress the jury (see February 26-27). Xavier Amador, a professor at Columbia’s medical school, conceded the defendant might benefit legally from the tactic, but said it was deplorable from a medical standpoint and might cause him permanent damage. In his previous trial, which ended with a jury deadlock, defense lawyers argued “that the subway attack [on Kendra Webdale] had been one in a series of psychotic episodes over 10 years in which Mr. Goldstein abruptly punched, kicked or shoved people.” (David Rohde, “Court is Told Subway Killer, Off Medication, Hit a Social Worker”, New York Times, Feb. 29 (fee-based archive)).
March 1 — From our mail sack: skin art disclaimers. Pat Fish of Tattoo Santa Barbara wrote us over the holidays:
“All tattoo parlors use a waiver form now, hoping to intimidate the clients from suing should they fail to take good care in healing their tattoo. Part of the form goes on at length about understanding that this is a permanent change to the appearance, that the client has no mental impairment or physical disease. So I got a perverse impulse the other day and added to mine the phrase ‘I am not a lawyer, nor do I work for one.’ Hey, I can wear gloves to protect myself from someone who has a communicable disease, but I figure it is LAWYERS I’m really scared of!
“So last week I got my first lawyer, and he did not initial the paragraph in which that phrase appeared and explained that, in fact, he was a lawyer. So I made him circle the phrase, and write in the margin next to it ‘But I am ashamed of it.’ Then we proceeded to do the armband tattoo.
“I have a feeling that I am on my way to becoming an urban legend in the law circles of Los Angeles, since I am sure that whenever he shows off his new tattoo to colleagues he will tell this story.” (Tattoo Santa Barbara consent form) (more on disclaimers).
March 1 — Class-actioneers’ woes. Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach L.L.P. is still the best-known plaintiff’s class action firm in the land, but it’s suffered more than its share of reverses of late. The National Law Journal reports that three of the firm’s partners have resigned so as to avoid paying a multimillion-dollar share of its $50 million settlement with Lexecon Inc. over charges of malicious litigation; the payout was not covered by insurance. In January, allegations emerged that one of the firm’s “lead plaintiff” investors in a class-action suit against Oxford Health Plans Inc. had misrepresented his education, criminal record, history as a defendant in a civil case and his trading in Oxford securities. All this on top of the embarrassment last fall (see Oct. 13) in which Milberg Weiss inadvertently sued one of its own clients for treble damages for alleged racketeering in the course of a legal offensive against makers of children’s Pokémon trading cards. (Karen Donovan, “Three Milberg Partners Resign”, National Law Journal, Jan. 11; “Another Fine Mess for Milberg”, Jan. 25).
March 1 — Prozac made him rob banks. Connecticut Superior Court Judge Richard Arnold last week found Christopher DeAngelo of Wallingford not guilty of robbing banks and a department store because the drug Prozac made him do it. “This is not a case of somebody pulling a fast one or being too clever,” said the twenty-eight-year-old’s attorney, John Williams. “The hard indisputable fact of this case is that this young man was driven to commit crimes by a prescription drug.” Courts in Kentucky, New York and Minnesota have rejected legal claims based on Prozac use over the last decade. (“Conn. judge: Man not guilty of robbing banks because Prozac made him do it”, AP/CourtTV, Feb. 25).
March 31-April 2 — Punished for resistance. Gun-suit organizers were hoping Smith & Wesson’s capitulation would bring about a race among other firearms makers to settle; instead, manufacturers, dealers and buyers are racing to dissociate themselves from the hapless company, formerly the market leader. Now — in a move that counts as heavy-handed even by the standards of activist attorneys general — Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal and New York’s Eliot Spitzer are readying antitrust action against companies in the gun industry for the offense of shunning S&W. Connecticut reportedly issued subpoenas yesterday; among possible grievances bruited in the New York Times‘ account are that some organizers of shooting matches have told S&W that it is no longer welcome, that dealers are dropping its wares, and that other gun companies are unwilling to go on coordinating their legal defense efforts with S&W, which means it will have to find a new law firm. Blumenthal’s and Spitzer’s message to those in the gun business could hardly be clearer: better go quietly, because we’ll crush you if you resist in any organized way. (Fox Butterfield and Raymond Hernandez, “Gun Maker’s Accord on Curbs Brings Industry Pressure”, New York Times, March 30; Peter Slevin and Sharon Walsh, “Conn. Subpoenas Firms in Gun Antitrust Probe”, Washington Post, March 31).
March 31-April 2 — Terminix vs. consumer critic’s website. Pest control company Terminix retreats from courtroom efforts to swat dissatisfied consumer Carla Virga, who put up a website to publicize her unhappiness with its services. After its defamation suit was dismissed, the company tried again on the theory that Ms. Virga was infringing its rights by using the word Terminix itself in “metatags” directed at search engine listings. This succeeded in infuriating many in the Web community, and now the company has backed off that second action as well. Other companies that have gone to court against angry-consumer websites include Bally Total Fitness, Circuit City, and U-Haul. (Craig Bicknell, “Site No Longer Bugs Terminix”, Wired News, Mar. 11; Robyn Blumner, “Welcome to the world of free-speech exterminators”, St. Petersburg Times, Mar. 19).
March 31-April 2 — Employer-based health coverage in retreat? Report in the news-side Wall Street Journal last month suggests more big employers are beginning to “look for an exit strategy from the health-benefits business”, especially since “it’s possible that Congress or a court ruling will expose employers to legal liability in malpractice cases“. Under “defined contribution” models pioneered at Xerox Corp. and elsewhere, employees are given lump-sum health vouchers and told to find the plan that’s best for them. Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Kenneth Abramowitz sees the benefits of giving workers choice, but points out the danger that employees will be cut loose with a “Yellow Pages” outcome: “Here’s $5,000 and the Yellow Pages. You figure it out.” “Adding new liability for companies could prompt some to scuttle their health-benefits programs and send employees into the market to fend for themselves. Says Margaret O’Kane, head of a managed-care accrediting organization called the National Committee for Quality Assurance: ‘If employers find themselves in the path of the trial lawyers, I think you can expect a massive bailout'”. (Ron Winslow and Carol Gentry, “Health-Benefits Trend: Give Workers Money, Let Them Buy a Plan”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 8, fee-based library).
March 31-April 2 — Welcome Milwaukee Journal Sentinel readers. Overlawyered.com was a featured website earlier this month in Bob Schwabach’s “On Computers” column, which runs in Wisconsin’s leading paper and many others nationwide (March 9).
March 30 — Hollywood special: “Erin Brockovich”. The words “babelicious” and “toxic tort” had probably never been used in the same sentence before, but Julia Roberts’ new flick is finally showing that with the right costume design a litigation movie can ace the box office. Now the Hudson Institute’s Mike Fumento, in an op-ed in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal expanded considerably into a piece in yesterday’s National Post (Canada), challenges the premise, taken for granted among most reviewers of the film, that Pacific Gas & Electric was guilty as charged of poisoning the populace of a small California desert town with chromium-6 in the water. Fumento says the levels of contamination found were orders of magnitude lower than those needed to induce health effects in experimental animals; that the lawyers sought to blame on the water a wide assortment of ailments among local residents that science has not linked to chromium exposure; and that health studies found that the plant’s own workers, who were likely exposed to at least as much pollution as neighbors, had a life expectancy comfortably exceeding the California average. (Michael Fumento, “The dark side of Erin Brockovich”, National Post, March 29; Michael Fumento, “‘Erin Brockovich’, exposed”, Wall Street Journal, March 28; official film site; Mr. Showbiz review; Christine Hanley, “Brockovich’s Work Is Just Beginning”, AP/ABC News, March 27).
March 30 — Hollywood special: “The Insider”. Though nominated for numerous Oscars, last season’s portentous litigation epic The Insider got shut out in the actual naming of awards. Were Academy voters bothered by the film’s unacknowledged fictionalizations, or did they just share the views of Adam Heimlich of the New York Press, who last week called the film “preposterously overheated … The title character’s big revelation in this interminable movie — which treats the looting of tobacco companies by trial lawyers with enough gravitas to make Judgment at Nuremberg feel like Oklahoma! by comparison — is that ‘cigarettes are nothing but a delivery system for nicotine.’ … God forbid someone in Hollywood or on the Upper West Side speaks out against the selective demonization, for purposes of state and oligarchic power, of the drugs they don’t happen to use. Philip Morris should fight back with a drama exposing that Starbucks lattes are nothing but a delivery system for caffeine and martinis are nothing but a delivery system for alcohol. If Insider wins Best Picture … it’ll prove that Hollywood is nothing but a delivery system for the propagandistic justification of top-down class warfare.” But it didn’t win. (Adam Heimlich, “Heimytown”, New York Press, Mar. 22).
March 30 — Al Gore among friendly crowd. Last Thursday Vice President Gore attended a $500,000 luncheon fund-raiser at the Cincinnati home of Stanley Chesley, sometimes nicknamed the “Master of Disaster”, one of the country’s most prominent plaintiff’s trial lawyers. The Cincinnati Post says that Chesley, known for air-crash, tobacco and Microsoft suits, “has been a dependable fund-raiser for the vice president and President Clinton.” (Bill Straub, “Gore next to visit Cincinnati to raise funds”, Cincinnati Post, March 22; Sharon Moloney, “Gore bashes Bush tax plan”, Cincinnati Post, March 24); Christopher Palmeri and James Samuelson, “The Golden Leaf”, Forbes, July 7, 1997). For recent fund-raising by Bill Clinton among trial lawyers, see our Feb. 14 commentary.
Forbes Online columnist James Freeman recently took a hard look at Gore’s in-depth support from trial lawyers (“Who’s funding Gore?”, Feb. 28). Gore’s financial backers over the years have included most of the biggest names in the litigation business, including Wayne Reaud (asbestos, Toshiba laptops), John O’Quinn (breast implants, many others), Joe Rice (asbestos, tobacco), Bill Lerach (shareholder lawsuits), etc. Gore hosted Lerach at the White House for coffee in February 1995, Freeman writes, and Chesley was there for coffee that same day.
March 29 — Litigator’s bliss: finding opponent’s disgruntled former employee. “Assume the legal lotus position and imagine a happy place. What greater nirvana could there be than [finding] the disgruntled former employee of an opposing party? Gruntled or not, a high priority of any good discovery plan should be to identify and interview former employees as quickly as possible, before the other side can neutralize or co-opt them.” (Jerold S. Solovy and Robert L. Byman, “Discovery: Ex parte, Brutus?” (practitioners’ advice column), National Law Journal, March 27, not online).
March 29 — Why rush that software project, anyway? California adds to its reputation as a high-hassle state for tech employers with a law taking effect this year, backed by unions and plaintiff’s employment lawyers, requiring that many computer consultants be paid overtime rates if they put in more than eight hours in a day. Many such consultants bill at rates that exceed $50, $100 or even $200 an hour, before the overtime premium is added in. One Bay Area staffing exec says most of his employer clients are unwilling to trigger the overtime entitlement and are instead sending home specialists after eight hours who would previously have worked longer (Margaret Steen, “New overtime law spurs change in tech firms”, San Jose Mercury News, March 22, link now dead; “Hi, OT Law; Bye, Tech Boom?”, Reuters/Wired News, March 2; Margaret Steen, “New law means overtime pay for computer consultants”, San Jose Mercury News, Feb. 29; Kirby C. Wilcox, Leslie L. Abbott and Caroline A. Zuk, “The 8-Hour Day Returns”, CalLaw, Jan. 24).
March 29 — The bold cosmetologists of law enforcement. The New York Times took note this Sunday of efforts in Nevada and Connecticut to enlist beauty-parlor personnel in the task of identifying possible victims of domestic violence for referral to battered women’s shelters and other social service agencies (see our March 16 commentary). Its report adds a remarkable new detail regarding the sorts of indicators that Nevada cosmetologists are being officially encouraged to watch for as signs of household violence (being licensed by the state, they have reason to listen with care to what’s expected of them). “Torn-out hair or a bruised eye may signal abuse, but more subtle warning signs may come out in conversation. One Nevada hairdresser, [state official Veronica] Boyd-Frenkel said, told of a client who said: ‘My husband doesn’t want me to see my friend anymore. He says she is putting bad ideas in my head.’
“‘Emotional abuse, intimidation, control, jealousy, overpossessiveness and constant monitoring,’ she said, can be as sure signs of domestic violence as physical injuries.” Does Ms. Boyd-Frenkel, who holds the title of “domestic violence ombudsman” for the attorney general of Nevada, really deem it “emotional abuse” and potential domestic violence when a husband seeks to warn a wife (or vice versa) away from a friend who’s considered a bad influence? Is such spousal behavior really to trigger the notice of the official social-service apparatus, and its new deputies in the hair and nail salons of Nevada? (Jeff Stryker, “Those Who Stand and Coif Might Also Protect”, New York Times, March 26).
March 29 — Update: advice to drop medication unavailing. As reported earlier, subway-push defendant Andrew Goldstein went off his antipsychotic medication before his recent murder trial on advice of his lawyers, in order to demonstrate to the jury how deranged he was (see Feb. 26-27 and March 2 commentaries). Whatever the ethical status of this tactic, it was apparently unavailing in practice: a New York City jury convicted Goldstein of murder last week. He will probably serve his sentence in a state prison outfitted to give him psychiatric care. (Samuel Maull, “Man Convicted in Subway Shove Case”, AP/Excite, Mar. 22).
March 28 — $65 million Texas verdict: driver at twice the legal blood limit. “A Galveston, Texas, jury has awarded $65 million to the parents and estate of a woman who drowned after her car plunged off a boat ramp and she couldn’t disengage her seat belt.
“The jury found defendants Honda of America Manufacturing Co. Inc. and Honda R & D Co. Ltd. 75 percent responsible for the death of Karen Norman — even though after her death, Norman’s blood-alcohol level measured at nearly twice the Texas legal limit. …
“After the accident, [Honda attorney Brad] Safon noted, Norman’s blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.17. The Texas drunk driving limit at the time of the accident was 0.10; it is now 0.08.” Plaintiff’s lawyers said the salt water in which Norman drowned might have thrown off the blood level reading. (Margaret Cronin Fisk, “Fatal Grip of Seat Belt Results in $65M Verdict”, National Law Journal, Mar. 27)(& update Oct. 13, 2003: appeals court throws out award, which trial judge has previously reduced to $43 million).
March 28 — Call me a fraud, will you? Why, I’ll…I’ll hire you! Last year Big Five accountants Ernst & Young paid $185 million to settle a bankruptcy trustee’s charges that it had mishandled the affairs of the now-defunct Merry-Go-Round apparel chain. Now Ernst has sued its former law firm, D.C.-based Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman, which it says should share the blame. And to prosecute the new suit Ernst has hired none other than the law firm that sued it in the first round, Snyder, Weiner, Weltchek & Vogelstein of Pikesville, Md. “Swidler noted that Snyder Weiner in the earlier suit had accused Ernst of fraud, and now Snyder Weiner in ‘this complaint asserts “E&Y’s innocence of the fraud”‘”. An Ernst executive shrugs off criticism: “Who knows about the case more than the firm that argued the other side?” (Elizabeth MacDonald, “Ernst & Young Sues Law Firm Over Settlement”, Wall Street Journal, March 14 (online subscribers only); James V. Grimaldi, “Accounting Firm Sues Lawyers”, Washington Post, March 14).
March 28 — Annals of zero tolerance: don’t play James Bond. A fifth-grade “model student” at Sutton Elementary School in Tecumseh, Michigan faces expulsion for up to a half year for bringing a plastic toy gun to school because he wanted to “play James Bond”. “You could see it was plastic,” said school superintendent Rich Fauble. “If you looked at it, you could tell it wasn’t a gun.” “I just wanted to play with it at recess,” said the boy, in Fauble’s account. “I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I play with it at home.” Sutton principal Debra Langmeyer said the board’s recommendation of expulsion “might seem extreme” but is intended to “send a message” about guns. (“Toy gun may cause student’s expulsion”, Toledo Blade, Mar. 16).
March 28 — From the labor arbitration front. The Connecticut Supreme Court, over dissents from two of its members, has upheld an arbitrator’s order that David Warren be reinstated to his municipal job in the town of Groton, from which he was dismissed in 1997 after pleading no contest to charges of larceny. Warren was accused of stealing money from the town by selling dumping permits and pocketing the proceeds himself, but the court saw no reason to disturb an arbitrator’s reasoning that his no contest plea might have reflected a wish to avoid the cost and inconvenience of trial, rather than actual guilt. (“‘No-contest’ not guilty, Supreme Court says”, New Haven Register, March 21). And the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review an arbitrator’s order that a West Virginia mining company rehire a heavy machinery operator fired after he twice tested positive for marijuana use. The Fourth Circuit upheld the reinstatement, noting that courts “overwhelmingly” defer to the results of arbitration in the unionized workplace. (AP/FindLaw, “Supreme Court to clarify when lower courts can overrule arbitrators”, Mar. 20; Eastern Associated Coal Corp. vs. United Mine Workers, 99-1038).
March 28 — Another visitor record set. Last week was the busiest yet for visitors since Overlawyered.com was launched nine months ago … thanks for your support!
March 27 — Welcome Arts & Letters Daily readers. The best weblog in the world for coverage of essays and history, biography and belles-lettres, is put out for a worldwide audience by philosophy professor Denis Dutton of the University of Christchurch in New Zealand. We get a featured link today (see right-hand column after link to Sullivan piece, for which itself see below).
March 27 — Another S&W thing. “We want to do a Smith & Wesson-like thing with DoubleClick,” Michigan attorney general Jennifer Granholm said Thursday, referring to restrictions on Web data collection that she and attorneys general from New York, Connecticut, and Vermont have been negotiating with the biggest online ad-placement company. We suppose this means that she and her colleagues want to invent far-fetched legal theories to attack business practices that have long been regarded as lawful; file a great flurry of suits in multiple courts so as to overwhelm the designated opponent; use the threat of bankrupting legal expense to muscle it into submission with no need to reach a decision on the merits; and instill fear into other businesses that the same thing could happen to them unless they cooperate with the dictates of ambitious AGs. After all, that’s what was done to S&W. (“AGs Eye Privacy”, Reuters/Wired News, March 23; “DoubleClick in settlement discussions”, Bloomberg News/CNet, March 23).
March 27 — Philadelphia: feminist groups to be consulted on whether to classify incidents as rape. As several high-profile cases in recent years demonstrate, authorities sometimes charge men with rape or sexual abuse in cases where there’s conflicting or ambiguous evidence as to whether there was nonconsensual sexual contact (see, for example, the case of Columbia University grad student Oliver Jovanovic, whose conviction was overturned by a New York appeals court in December). Now Philadelphia police commissioner John Timoney has announced that “he will let women’s organizations help police decide when to believe sexual-assault complaints and how to classify them.” Barbara DiTullio, who heads the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Organization for Women, called the plan “wonderful” and said it could become a model for police departments across the country. “We’re putting together a committee of women . . . and [will] actually, quite literally, let this women’s group be the final say on our classification [of cases]” said Timoney in an interview, though the women’s groups themselves expressed doubt as to whether their say would be final. (Mark Fazlollah, Craig McCoy, and Robert Moran, “Timoney to allow sex-case oversight”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 21) (via Freedom News).
March 27 — Microsoft Windows downgrade. Be prepared for the Justice Department’s anticipated “remedies” in Reno v. Gates by visiting this parody site (Bob Rivers, KISW, Seattle).
March 27 — Social engineering by lawsuit. Yale law professor Peter Schuck “doubts [that Smith & Wesson] would have lost a court case,” according to this New York Times “Week in Review” piece, which also quotes the editor of this website concerning the evils of litigation as an end run around democratic process (Barry Meier, “Bringing Lawsuits to Do What Congress Won’t”, New York Times, March 26). Cato Institute fellow Doug Bandow wonders why undemocratic lawmaking-by-lawsuit hasn’t become a bigger election issue: “Politics is a bad way to make policy. Litigation is worse.” (“Litigative vs. Legislative Democracy”, Cato Daily Commentary, March 20). And Andrew Sullivan warns Britons that unless they watch out, their country’s trend toward “empowerment of lawyers” will lead them to the state of “hyper-litigation” typified by the U.S. (“A brief warning: soon lawyers will have Britain by the throat”, Sunday Times (London), March 26).
Also: we’ve now put online our editor’s op-ed from last Tuesday on the Smith & Wesson settlement, which expanded on the arguments made earlier in this space (Walter Olson, “Plaintiff’s lawyers take aim at democracy”, Wall Street Journal, March 21).
March 27 — Kessler rebuked. Last week the Supreme Court ruled that former Food and Drug Administration chief David Kessler had made an improper power grab when he claimed for his agency “broad powers that had somehow gone unnoticed for more than half a century” to regulate tobacco, writes Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman: “This was a startling revelation indeed. In 1964, the FDA said it had no authority to regulate tobacco. In 1965, it said it had no authority to regulate tobacco. In 1972, it said it had no authority to regulate tobacco. Ditto in 1977, 1980, 1988, and so on — until four years ago, when Kessler checked the attic and was pleasantly surprised to find this prerogative stashed in a box crammed with eight-track tapes and copies of Look.” (“On Target: A Setback for the Anti-Tobacco Jihad”, March 23; Tony Mauro, “For ‘Better or Worse’ FDA Can’t Regulate Tobacco”, American Lawyer Media, March 22).
March 24-26 — “Trial Lawyers Pour Money Into Democrats’ Chests”. The article everyone’s talking about: yesterday’s New York Times shines some overdue light on the trial lawyers’ frantic shoveling of vast sums into this year’s federal election races. “‘It would be very, very horrifying to trial lawyers if Bush were elected,’ said John P. Coale, a Washington lawyer involved in the tobacco litigation, who has given over $70,000 to the Democrats. ‘To combat that, we want to make sure we have a Democratic president, House and Senate. There is some serious tobacco money being spread around.'” “What’s different this time around,” said Michael Hotra, vice president of the American Tort Reform Foundation, “is that everyone recognizes that the stakes are higher. We have a candidate who is making legal reform a core issue and we certainly applaud Bush for that.” Also discusses the website ATRF has set up to monitor trial lawyer campaign spending (Leslie Wayne, “Trial Lawyers Pour Money Into Democrats’ Chests”, New York Times, March 23).
March 24-26 — Who wants to sue for a million? A group of disabled Miami residents has filed a federal lawsuit against Disney and ABC under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming that the screening process for the hit TV show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” requires the use of a touch-tone telephone and does not make alternative provision for deaf applicants. “The group is seeking class-action status for themselves and others who are deaf, blind or paralyzed and have problems using the phone or hearing the instructions.” (Jay Weaver, “Disabled 4 sue to try for TV million”, Miami Herald, March 17). Update Nov. 7: federal judge dismisses case.
March 24-26 — Next: gender-blind stage casting? A federal jury in Nashville has returned a sex discrimination verdict against a pair of historical theme restaurants that hired only male food servers as a part of attempting to convey the atmosphere of 1800s-era riverboats. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Cock of the Walk restaurants in 1996 after a woman named Susan Mathis carried a secret tape recorder in her purse while applying for a server’s job (more on the curious lack of outrage over this practice). “The servers had to represent the legendary fighters who brawled for the privilege of steering the riverboats, which netted them the best-of-the-best title: ‘Cock of the Walk’,” a group that historically did not include women.
In 1997 the EEOC came under criticism for its crusade against the “Hooters” sexy-waitress chain, which paid $3.75 million in a settlement in hopes of not having to hire “Hooters Boys”. However, the agency’s contention that entertainment value is an improper basis for sex-casting in the hiring of food servers “has never been applied [by a court] to a more mainstream restaurant such as this, which does not have sexual titillation as part of its theme,” said a lawyer for the restaurants. (Stacey Hartmann, “Restaurants’ male-server policy loses in court”, The Tennessean (Nashville), March 16).
March 24-26 — Slip, fall, head for court. Roundup of recent Chicago gravity mishaps, as reported in the Sun-Times and relayed in Jim Romenesko’s irresistible Obscure Store: “Debbie Jacques was forced to wear paper booties when she tumbled. Monica Beeks walked in deep, loose grass, and fell. John Incisi tripped on a Kleenex box left on the stairs. They’re all hanging out in civil court, hoping to get some cash.” (Tim Novak, “Health worker blames paper booties for slip”, Chicago Sun-Times, Mar. 21).
March 24-26 — Welcome visitors. A sampling of the websites that have linked to Overlawyered.com recently: the distinguished literary and arts monthly, the New Criterion; ABC News correspondent John Stossel‘s site; the Capital Research Center, which keeps an eye on politicized philanthopy; Pat Fish’s Luckyfish.com; the Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom; Pickaway County (Ohio) Sportsmen, known for their shooting competitions; and Turkey’s Association for Liberal Thinking (Liberal Düsünce Toplulugu).
March 23 — Baron’s judge grudge. Dallas asbestos-suit czar Fred Baron may or may not have added another notch to his belt with the GOP primary defeat this month of Texas 14th District Court judge John Marshall. In 1998 Judge Marshall was presiding over asbestos litigation filed by Baron & Budd when evidence surfaced that the firm had engaged in extensive witness-coaching (see “Thanks for the Memories“); Judge Marshall referred the matter to a grand jury for possible prosecution, but the charges were eventually quietly buried without indictments. Baron, who now claims vindication, “made no secret of the fact he wants Marshall’s head,” according to alt-weekly Dallas Observer in a report just before the primary. “As early as last spring, Baron was casting about, looking for a candidate to back. ‘I talked to half a dozen people. We were looking for any candidate we could get who would be qualified to run against John Marshall'”. It had to be in the Republican primary, though, which is nowadays tantamount to election in Dallas County. First-time candidate Mary Murphy of Jenkins & Gilchrest, the one who eventually stepped forward to challenge Marshall, “insists she’ll be a fine Republican judge even though she wrote a $1,000 check to the Democratic party four years ago” among other past Democratic ties. “I had nothing to do with getting Mary Murphy to run. That’s a lie, a complete and absolute lie,” Baron told the Observer. Murphy says Baron did try to talk her into running but that it was others who convinced her. Promptly assembling an ample campaign chest, she went on to defeat the incumbent Marshall, obtaining 52 percent of the vote. (Thomas Korosec, “Bench Press”, Dallas Observer, March 9; Todd J. Gillman, “Republican judge questions challenger’s party loyalty”, Dallas Morning News, Feb. 19; Holly Becka, “Voters sent message by ousting three judges, experts say”, Dallas Morning News, March 16 (links now dead)).
Baron, whom we believe holds the title of president-elect of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (we apparently jumped the gun recently in awarding him the title of president), has in the past been touchy about criticism. In 1998, when the Dallas Observer ran a cover-story exposé on his firm, columnist Julie Lyons said Baron had “bullie[d] the Observer’s every effort to investigate his firm’s practices, even taking the newspaper to court to discover sources, in a pattern of intimidation and paranoia such as the Observer has never experienced before.” (Patrick Williams, Christine Biederman, Thomas Korosec, Julie Lyons, “Toxic Justice”, August 18, 1998; Julie Lyons, “The Control Freak”, August 12, 1998. See also earlier Baron coverage on this website: Feb. 14, Jan. 8).
March 23 — Update: mistrial in bank robber’s suit, more litigation expected. By a vote of 9 to 3, jurors in their deliberations were of the view “that the civil rights of Emil Matasareanu, armed criminal, shooter of cops, were not violated on Feb. 27, 1998, by officers who didn’t get an ambulance to poor Emil quickly enough” after his bloody shootout with police following a North Hollywood bank robbery (see Feb. 23 commentary). A federal judge declared a mistrial, and an L.A. Times columnist writes that “the attorney for Matasareanu’s survivors is expected to bring the case against the city and two retired LAPD officers to court again. By survivors, I mean the dead man’s family, not the people he didn’t kill.” (Mike Downey, “A World With No Bad Guys, Just Topsy-Turvy Juries”, Los Angeles Times, March 17, link now dead).
March 23 — Let them sue us! In the recent media boomlet over “medical mistakes”, it’s been easy to forget that hospitals currently must anticipate years of expensive litigation if they move aggressively to withdraw practice privileges from perceived “problem doctors”. Consider the now-celebrated “Dr. Zorro” case, in which Dr. Allan Zarkin is alleged to have carved his initials into a patient’s body at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital. The hospital’s chairman, Morton P. Hyman, “vowed he would make it harder for doctors to maintain their privileges at Beth Israel and would see that hospital procedures were tightened further. … Doctors disciplined by the state will be automatically dismissed from the hospital, he announced, even if their firings leave the hospital liable. ‘Let them sue us,’ he said, pounding the table.” (Jennifer Steinhauer, “At Beth Israel, Lapses in Care Mar Gains in Technology”, New York Times, Feb. 15, not online).
March 22 — Next on the class-action agenda: liquor? Public Citizen, whose campaigns against American business often closely parallel those of the organized plaintiff’s bar, has for a while been grouping alcohol and gambling companies with tobacco and gun makers as “killer industries” in its distinctively shrill propaganda. (“Killer Industries Fund Congressional Champions of “Family Values'”, press release, Dec. 28, 1998, “Family Values, Killer Industries”, undated; both on Public Citizen website). And the pro-hospitality-business Guest Choice Network thinks it has evidence that the previously long-shot idea of mass litigation against alcoholic beverage makers may be getting to be less of a long shot:
“* The Minnesota DWI Task Force called upon their state’s criminal justice system to initiate class action litigation against makers of adult beverages.
“* MADD’s [Mothers Against Drunk Driving‘s] year-end press conference closed with a comment from president Karolyn Nunnallee that initiating litigation against alcohol and hospitality companies ‘will be an issue of discussion’ at an upcoming meeting. Although MADD did not have plans to sue ‘at this time,’ she added, ‘but never say never!'” (“They’re Bellying Up to the Bar!”, Guest Choice Network, undated). Martin Morse Wooster examines the evolution of MADD’s views in a new paper for Capital Research Center (“Mothers Against Drunk Driving: Has Its Vision Become Blurred?”, Feb. 2000).
March 22 — Rise of the high school sleepover disclaimer. Before having some of his daughter’s tenth-grade classmates out for the weekend to the family home in East Hampton, a parent at Manhattan’s tony Brearley School had his attorney draft a 765-word “liability waiver and indemnification agreement” for the other parents to sign and return. It describes the students’ impending visit to the “house and surrounding property at the above address (the ‘premises’) without charge on or about Saturday, November 20, 1999 and Sunday, November 21, 1999 during their weekend trip to East Hampton, NY (such use of the premises, the ‘visit’).” Several dense sentences later, it gets to the point: “Student and parent hereby waive any and all present and future claims related to or arising out of or in connection with the visit or any losses they, any other family member or any third party may suffer in connection therewith…” Apparently enough parents signed and the trip came off with no problem. (“Gotham: In Loco Parentis”, New York, Dec. 6; portions of disclaimer appear in printed magazine but not online).
March 22 — Newest disabled right: audio TV captioning. Decision expected this summer on Federal Communications Commission proposal that TV networks be compelled to provide at least four hours of programming a week with “secondary audio” descriptions of filmed action (“…Rhett takes Melanie in his arms and carries her to safety as Atlanta burns around them”) in hopes of giving blind viewers an “equivalent experience” to what sighted viewers are getting. Hollywood types “say descriptions will stifle creativity and jack up programming costs by about $4,000 for an hour of airtime”; audio captioning is considerably more expensive than closed-captioning for the deaf, mandated since 1998, because descriptions of filmed action call for a modicum of editorial judgment as opposed to mere transcription. And the National Federation of the Blind reports that many of its constituents have mixed feelings about the technique, finding it “irritating, overdone, and full of irrelevant information” and switching it off after a trial. (FCC captioning page; Nat’l Fed. Blind comments; Jonathan Aiken, “FCC proposes descriptive audio to help blind enjoy TV”, CNN, Feb. 24). See also our Feb. 19-21 commentary, on the ADA suit filed by deaf moviegoers in Oregon seeking to compel theaters to install closed captioning for films.
March 21 — Smith & Wesson’s “voluntary” capitulation. Today’s Wall Street Journal carries our editor’s op-ed on the Smith & Wesson settlement, adapted and expanded from yesterday’s commentary on this site. The piece asks: why aren’t Republican members of Congress and business people expressing more outrage? “It would surely make a symbolic difference if a few CEOs of companies outside the gun industry chipped in personal checks to start a legal defense fund for small gun makers being bulldozed by the cost of litigation, to give them at least a hope of surviving to fight the suits on the merits. Or if they let it be known that mayors who’ve signed on to the gun-suit jihad should stop passing themselves off as ‘pro-business.’ Not long ago the mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., Joseph Ganim, a gun-suit mastermind who’s considered ambitious for statewide office, was feted by a Chamber of Commerce in his local Fairfield County. Hey — it’s someone else’s industry he’s working to destroy, right?” (Walter Olson, “Plaintiffs Lawyers Take Aim at Democracy”, Wall Street Journal, March 21 (requires online subscription)).
March 21 — Ability to remain conscious not obligatory for train dispatcher, EEOC argues. “In the case of a former Consolidated Rail Corp. employee with a heart condition that can cause him to lose consciousness, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission told a federal appeals court in Philadelphia that ‘while consciousness is obviously necessary to perform’ train-dispatcher tasks, ‘it is not itself a job function.'” The worker had sued Conrail under the Americans with Disabilities Act and lost in federal court; on appeal, the EEOC argued that the railroad could have accommodated his condition and that he was not a ‘direct threat’ to others, which is the standard employers must meet under the ADA if they wish to exclude disabled employees from jobs on safety grounds. “The employee was denied a dispatcher’s job that involves directing trains and taking emergency action to prevent crashes.” (“Employment Briefs: Worker denied promotion sues”, Detroit News, March 18).
March 21 — Furor just one click away. Outcry over Amazon.com’s patent of “one-click” shopping method rumbles on. Founder/CEO Jeff Bezos says the company did it in self-defense; he’s now proposed an across-the-board reduction in the length of patent protection for software and business-method patents. Some veteran intellectual-property lawyers take issue with that scheme and are also upset at a New York Times Magazine article by science writer James Gleick questioning some of the patent system’s fundamental assumptions. Until recently it was widely assumed that business methods — the discovery of a superior method for laying out the aisles of a supermarket, for example — couldn’t be patented at all. What would stores be like today if the idea of a “checkout counter” had been locked up for twenty years by the first company to file for it?
SOURCES: Victoria Slind-Flor, “The Biz-Method Patent Rush”, National Law Journal, Feb. 28; Chris Oakes, “Another Amazon Patent Furor”, Wired News, March 2; Boycott Amazon site (Free Software Foundation); Chris Oakes, “Bezos: Patents Were Self-Defense”, Wired News, Mar. 3; Chris Oakes, “Patently Absurd”, Wired News, Mar. 3; Bezos open letter, Amazon site; Dugie Standeford, “Book Publisher Launches Cybercampaign Against Amazon.com”, E-Commerce Law Weekly, March 8; James Gleick, “Patently Absurd,” New York Times Magazine, March 12; “The Harm of Patents”, O’Reilly Network, March 13; Omar Perez, “Amazon.com Patents Cast Giant Shadow Over Affiliates”, March 20; Miami Daily Business Review, March Victoria Slind-Flor, “Bar Reacts To Bezos Patent Reform Plan”, National Law Journal, March 20.
March 21 — Whether they meant to hurt anyone or not. How harsh can the legal environment become for drunk drivers? North Carolina seems to have pushed things to the ultimate extreme: its prosecutors seek to execute them when they cause fatal accidents. (Paula Christian, “Supreme Court to decide if drunk drivers get death penalty”, Greensboro News & Record, Mar. 12).
March 21 — New subpage on Overlawyered.com: Canadian corner. Finally! A page for our many readers north of the border who’ve noticed the nuggets of Canadian content we periodically slip in and would like them gathered in one spot for convenience. As befits the differences between the two legal systems, there isn’t so much “overlawyering” apparent in most of the stories we relay from Canada; but with regard to most other types and varieties of human folly, the two nations seem to be are in a neck-and-neck race.
March 20 — Liberty no longer insured by Smith & Wesson. In an ominous triumph for brute litigation force — and a setback for both democratic governance and Second Amendment liberties — the Clinton Administration and lawyers representing city governments on Friday bullied the nation’s largest gun maker into agreeing to a variety of controls on the distribution of its products, controls that the Administration had not been able to obtain through the normal legislative process. The company said its capitulation would preserve the “viability of Smith & Wesson as an ongoing business entity in the face of the crippling cost of litigation.” As the New York Times reports, the deal has “opened a new avenue for regulating the firearms industry without action from Congress, where partisan gridlock has stalled even modest gun-control legislation in recent months” — “partisan gridlock” being here employed by the Times as a pejorative synonym for the normal democratic process, which when working properly does not result in the speedy enactment of measures passionately opposed by a large constituency within the majority legislative party.
At this point it would make sense for the Republican Congressional leadership to rise up in unmistakable disapproval of the Clintonites’ invasion of their legislative prerogatives, and announce that –whatever one’s personal position on the details of gun control proposals — the use of litigation as an undemocratic end run around the legislative process is categorically wrong and must be fought with appropriate means at Congress’s disposal, such as funding cutoffs. And yet the first round of wire service stories quotes only one GOP Congressional leader, J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, as reacting to the news, and his quoted words, incredibly, are favorable: “we hail Smith & Wesson for taking a pro-active approach to the problem of violence”.
Advocates of gun-control-through-litigation — not to mention trial lawyers looking for an eventual payday from gun suits — view Smith & Wesson’s surrender as a harbinger of more victories ahead. “The legal fees alone are enough to bankrupt the industry,” boasts John Coale, one of the lawyers masterminding the city suits. “The pressure is going to be on”. Why are so few elected officials standing up to say that what’s going on is wrong?
SOURCES: Agreement text at HUD website; Smith & Wesson statement; Clinton Administration press release; “U.S. Drops Legal Threat Against Smith & Wesson”, Reuters/Excite, Mar. 17; Knut Engelmann, “U.S. Drops Legal Action Against Gun Maker”, Reuters/Excite, Mar. 17; David Ho, “Officials Praise Smith & Wesson”, AP/Excite, Mar. 17; Amy Paulson, “Smith & Wesson agrees to landmark gun safety settlement”, CNN, Mar. 17; Brigitte Greenberg, “Smith & Wesson Gets Preference”, AP/Excite, Mar. 18; Edward Walsh and David A. Vise, “U.S., Gunmaker Strike a Deal”, Washington Post, March 18; James Dao, “Gun Maker Agrees to Curbs in Exchange for Ending Suits”, New York Times, March 18 (requires free registration).
March 20 — “Study Shows Breast Implants Pose Little Risk”. “An analysis appearing in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine suggests silicone breast implants are safe, despite widespread perception that the controversial devices cause health problems” — not to mention a trial-lawyer-led campaign that drove the devices off the market and reaped a settlement totaling billions of dollars from manufacturers. Researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, performed a combined analysis of 20 earlier studies and concluded that “‘the elimination of implants would not be likely to reduce the incidence of connective-tissue diseases’ such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or other illnesses caused by the misfiring of the immune system”. (Reuters/ FindLaw, Mar. 15).
March 20 — Do as we say, cont’d. Disabled-rights laws are feared by many private business owners who face the prospect of heavy fines and lawsuit settlements for noncompliance. As for the judicial branch, charged with enforcing these selfsame laws? Well, they’re often a wee bit less mindful of ’em. Howard County, Maryland Circuit Judge James B. Dudley, who isn’t disabled, concedes that his desire to stick close to the courthouse so he could answer jurors’ questions during a trial was “probably not a justification” for his having chosen to park in a clearly marked handicapped space, a practice also engaged in by local sheriff’s deputies. (Del Quentin Wilber, “Judge parks in hot water”, Baltimore Sun, Mar. 11). And in Massachusetts, following on the revelation that Boston’s opulent new courthouse lacks wheelchair access to its jury boxes and witness stands (see July 17-18, 1999 commentary), the Cape Organization for Rights of the Disabled sued over the disabled-unfriendly state of the Plymouth County courthouse; Barry Sumner couldn’t get over the threshold to divorce his wife and had to ask her to help lift his chair. (Paul Sullivan, “Suit seeks access for disabled at Plymouth court”, Boston Herald, Sept. 10, 1999). Aren’t these courts lucky they’re not private businesses?
March 20 — Costs of veggie-libel laws. Talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey keeps winning in round after round of litigation filed by cattlemen after a February 1998 show she did on mad-cow disease. “Ironically, the more she wins, the more she loses,” observes First Amendment specialist Paul McMasters. Aside from our lack of a loser-pays rule, the culprit is “agricultural-disparagement” laws enacted in 13 states, which menace media producers if they knowingly broadcast false and disparaging statements that harm the salability of perishable farm products. (“Shut up and eat everything on your plate”, Freedom Forum Online, Feb. 21; Ronald K.L. Collins and Paul McMasters, “Veggie Libel Laws Still Out to Muzzle Free Speech”, Texas Lawyer, March 30, 1998). Last year the Texas legislature turned back an attempt to repeal that state’s ag-disparagement law, though the Abilene Reporter-News pointed out that the law is hard to square with the state’s successful efforts under Governor Bush to curb excessive litigation. (“‘Veggie libel’ law Texas can live without” (editorial), April 13, 1999; “House lets ‘veggie libel’ law stand; Bill seeking repeal voted down 80-57”, AP/Dallas Morning News, May 8, 1999).
March 20 — 250,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. Thanks for your support!
March 17-19 — Holiday literary selection: Irish squire’s litigious ways.“Then there was a bleach yard near us, and the tenant dare refuse my lady nothing, for fear of a law-suit Sir Murtagh kept hanging over him about the water course. With these ways of managing, ’tis surprising how cheap my lady got things done, and how proud she was of it. … [The tenants] knew her way, and what with fear of driving for rent and Sir Murtagh’s law-suits, they were kept in such good order, they never thought of coming near Castle Stopgap without a present of something or other nothing too much or too little for my lady eggs honey butter meal fish game, grouse, and herrings, fresh or salt all went for something. … [H]e made a good living of trespassing cattle there was always some tenant’s pig, or horse, or cow, or calf, or goose, trespassing, which was so great a gain to Sir Murtagh, that he did not like to hear me talk of repairing fences….
“As for law, I believe no man, dead or alive, ever loved it so well as Sir Murtagh. He had once sixteen suits pending at a time, and I never saw him so much himself roads lanes bogs wells ponds eel-wires orchards trees tythes vagrants gravel-pits sandpits dung-hills and nuisances every thing upon the face of the earth furnished him good matter for a suit. He used to boast that he had a law-suit for every letter in the alphabet. How I used to wonder to see Sir Murtagh in the midst of the papers in his office why he could hardly turn about for them. I made bold to shrug my shoulders once in his presence, and thanked my stars I was not born a gentleman to so much toil and trouble but Sir Murtagh took me up short with his old proverb, ‘learning is better than house or land.’ Out of forty-nine suits which he had, he never lost one but seventeen; the rest he gained with costs, double costs, treble costs sometimes but even that did not pay. He was a very learned man in the law, and had the character of it; but how it was I can’t tell, these suits that he carried cost him a power of money in the end he sold some hundreds a year of the family estate but he was a very learned man in the law, and I know nothing of the matter except having a great regard for the family. I could not help grieving when he sent me to post up notices of the sale of the fee simple of the lands and appurtenances of Timoleague. ‘I know, honest Thady,’ says he to comfort me, ‘what I’m about better than you do; I’m only selling to get the ready money wanting, to carry on my suit with spirit with the Nugents of Carrickashaughlin.'” — from Chapter 1, Castle Rackrent, subtitled An Hibernian Tale Taken from Facts, and from the Manners of the Irish Squires, Before the Year 1782, by Maria Edgeworth (1800) (biographies: Edgeworth family site, E-Search Ireland, WritePage, Morley’s) (e-text at Carnegie-Mellon; alternate e-text location, Creighton U.) (passage is from fourth long paragraph of text).
March 17-19 — Letterman sign suit. Anna Soares, 79, who lives near the Manhattan studio where David Letterman tapes his show, filed a lawsuit last month demanding $12 million from CBS because the network has declined to remove a giant illuminated sign of Letterman’s likeness which shines into her apartment’s window. Network officials say they believe they have the proper permits for the sign. Reader Gregory Kohs of American Cynic comments: “what I find preposterous is the $12 million sum the lady decided would be fair.” If the sign does not violate code, how about asking for the costs of relocating to a less-commercial neighborhood? “I think a wee bit less than $12 million would be sufficient to get her belongings into a moving truck.” (“People in the news: Woman files lawsuit over Letterman sign”, Boulder Daily Camera, Feb. 19) (second item).
March 17-19 — Go ahead and comment — if it’ll do much good. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s proposals on ergonomics “may be the single most costly employment policy regulation in U.S. history,” according to the Employment Policy Foundation. Now OSHA has thrown open a period for public comment on the rules, but the Clinton Administration has already signaled that the option favored by most organized employers — not proceeding with the rules at all — is unlikely to be considered, no matter what volume of critical comments may come in. (Alice Ann Love, “Public dialog opens on new workplace safety rules”, AP/Fox News, March 14; Michael D. Towle, “OSHA pushing for new regulations aimed at preventing repetitive motion injuries”, CNN, March 9).
SOURCES: OSHA proposed standard; Yahoo Full Coverage; Ron Bird and Jill Jenkins, “Ergonomics Regulation: Vague, Broad and Costly”, EPF Backgrounder, Jan. 12; National Coalition on Ergonomics (employer alliance); Matt Labash, “Hooked on Ergonomics”, Weekly Standard, Feb. 28; “OSHA Unveils Ergonomics Standard To Ire of Congress, Employer Groups”, Employment Law Weekly, Nov. 29; comments of Mercatus Center, George Mason U., National Association of Manufacturers; (via Junk Science Robert Hahn, “Bad Economics, Not Good Ergonomics,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 24; David Saito-Chung, “What Price Workplace Safety? New Rules Spark Debate Over Science, Business Costs”, Investor’s Business Daily, Nov. 30; “New OSHA regs need rethinking” (editorial), Boston Herald, Nov. 26; “OSHAme on them!” (editorial), New York Post Nov. 24; “Repetitive Bureaucracy Syndrome” (editorial), Chicago Tribune, Nov. 24.
March 16 — Dave Barry on tobacco suits, round II. The humorist, who wrote a priceless column on the federal tobacco suit last fall (see Oct. 26) now offers an update reflecting on the news that “so far the states are spending more than 90 percent of the tobacco-settlement money on programs unrelated to smoking, such as building highways. … This is good, because we need quality highways to handle the sharp increase in the number of Mercedes automobiles purchased by lawyers enriched by the tobacco settlement.” Then there’s the new round of class-action suits contending that smokers themselves deserve money from the states, which if successful will establish the following cycle:
“1. SMOKERS would give money to THE TOBACCO COMPANIES in exchange for cigarettes.
“2. THE TOBACCO COMPANIES would then give the money to THE STATES (and their lawyers).
“3. THE STATES would then give the money to SMOKERS (and their lawyers).
“4. THE SMOKERS would then presumably give the money to THE TOBACCO COMPANIES in exchange for more cigarettes.”
But isn’t this inefficient, you may ask? Wouldn’t it be easier to order the tobacco companies to give smokers free cigarettes directly? “The trouble with that idea is that it would defeat the two main purposes of the War on Smoking, which are (1) to provide the states with money; and (2) to provide lawyers with, well, money.” Don’t miss this one (“War on Smoking always has room for another lawyer”, Miami Herald, Feb. 18).
March 16 — Judges can’t charge cost of corruption defense to insurer. “Three former San Diego Superior Court judges convicted of corruption charges can’t parlay judicial liability insurance into coverage for their criminal defense, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.” In one of the biggest judicial scandals in California history (see our editor’s 1996 piece on the case), Michael Greer, James Malkus and G. Dennis Adams were found to have accepted gifts from prominent trial lawyer Patrick Frega in exchange for favorable rulings in cases. (Jason Hoppin, “No Coverage for Judges Convicted of Corruption”, The Recorder/ CalLaw, March 2).
March 16 — Your hairdresser — and informant? Hairdressers “are often confidantes for many people,” says Veronica Boyd-Frenkel, who holds the post of “domestic violence ombudsman” in the state of Nevada. All this is by way of explaining why her office, working with the state attorney general’s office, has launched a program to train cosmetologists to recognize signs of domestic abuse, the better to steer suspected victims to approved anti-domestic-violence groups. “They may hear things even someone’s best friend may not hear,” says Ms. Boyd-Frenkel, of the hair stylists. The Las Vegas Review-Journal, in an editorial, thinks it all rather smacks of the enlistment of ever wider circles of the citizenry as official informants (Angie Wagner, “State asks hairdressers to help domestic abuse victims”, AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Feb. 28; “Down the wrong path” (editorial), Feb. 29; Vin Suprynowicz, “The Libertarian: Watch what you tell your hairdresser” (expanded version of editorial), March 1; “Training would not make informants of cosmetologists” (letter to the editor from Ms. Boyd-Frenkel), March 5).
March 16 — Prof sues for right to flunk students. The University of Michigan describes as “utterly without merit” a lawsuit filed by Dental School associate professor Keith Yohn challenging the university’s refusal to fail two sophomore dental students. Yohn charges that the school bent its academic rules to allow the two to remain, and that an assistant dean sent him a belligerent email informing him that poor grades he and three other professors had given the students would be disregarded. Acting as his own attorney, Yohn went to federal court to charge the university with “deprivation of ‘freedom of speech'” and disregard of the ‘health care interest’ of the public and their children”; he also asks $125,000 for emotional distress. (David Shepardson, “U-M sued over dental grades”, Detroit News, Dec. 30; Hanna Lopatin, “Dental Prof. Sues U. Michigan for Refusing to Fail Students”, Michigan Daily/ StudentAdvantage.com, Jan. 5).
January 15-16 — “Blatant end-runs around the democratic process”. “If I had my way, there’d be laws restricting cigarettes and handguns,” writes former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, a prominent liberal, in this widely noted piece in the new American Prospect. But “[f]ed up with trying to move legislation, the White House is launching lawsuits to succeed where legislation failed. The strategy may work, but at the cost of making our frail democracy even weaker.”
The legal grounds for both the tobacco and gun suits “are stretches, to say the least. If any agreement to mislead any segment of the public is a ‘conspiracy’ under RICO, then America’s entire advertising industry is in deep trouble, not to mention HMOs, the legal profession, automobile dealers, and the Pentagon.” The federal gun case prefigures liability for the makers of such products as “alcohol and beer, fatty foods, and sharp cooking utensils.”
“These novel legal theories give the administration extraordinary discretion to decide who’s misleading the public and whose products are defective. You might approve the outcomes in these two cases, but they establish a precedent for other cases you might find wildly unjust….But the biggest problem is that these lawsuits are blatant end-runs around the democratic process…. In short, the answer is to make democracy work better, not give up on it”. (Robert Reich, “Smoking, guns”, The American Prospect, Jan. 17).
January 15-16 — “Public paranoia, and other losses”. George Williams of Cut Off, Louisiana is suing the Fair Grounds Corp. and assorted other defendants over two winning trifecta bets he placed at an off-track betting parlor which paid $80.80 and $36.60 when the television monitor suggested that the actual payout should be $121.20 and $41.80 respectively. The suit charges the race track and various other defendants with wire fraud, mail fraud, theft and breach of contract, and claims damages for “mental anguish and emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of sleep, public paranoia, and other losses.” Williams’ attorney, Corey Orgeron of Cut Off, “said he simply wants to get to the bottom of the discrepancies between what Williams thought he won and what he was actually paid. ‘It very easily could be nothing more than simple negligence,’ Orgeron said. ‘I don’t think there was any criminal intent.'” Then why’d he throw in the charges of fraud, theft, and so on? (Joe Gyan Jr., “Man accuses OTB parlor of fraud”, Baton Rouge Advocate, Jan. 8) (& letter to the editor, Jan. 16, 2001).
January 15-16 — Poetry corner: Benjamin Franklin. Thanks to Tama Starr for suggesting this one:
The Benefit of Going to LAW
Two Beggars travelling along,
One blind, the other lame,
Pick’d up an Oyster on the Way
To which they both laid claim:
The matter rose so high, that they
Resolv’d to go to Law,
As often richer Fools have done,
Who quarrel for a Straw.
A Lawyer took it strait in hand,
Who know his Business was,
To mind nor one nor t’other side,
But make the best o’ th’ Cause;
As always in the Law’s the Case:
So he his Judgment gave,
And Lawyer-like he thus resolv’d
What each of them should have;
Blind Plaintiff, lame Defendant, share
The Friendly Laws’ impartial Care,
A Shell for him, a Shell for thee,
The Middle is the LAWYER’S FEE.
— Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1733 (& see Jan. 26-27 update).
January 15-16 — Welcome HealthScout visitors. In an article on the “Internet addiction” defense (see Jan. 13-14) and other creative legal theories, the online health news service concludes: “If you wonder whether America’s legal system is getting out of control, check out Overlawyered.com (yes, that’s its real name) to read more about the Columbine case and other questionable legal tactics.” (Serena Gordon, “‘The Web Made Me Do It!'”, HealthScout, Jan. 13). Check out our subpage on law and medicine.
January 13-14 — Latest excuse syndromes. A Florida teenager accused of making a threat of violence in an email to Columbine High School was suffering from “Internet intoxication”, his lawyer plans to argue. Michael Ian Campbell was “role-playing” when he sent a message threatening to “finish” what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began in their massacre last April, according to Miami attorney Ellis Rubin. In earlier cases, Rubin offered “television intoxication” as a defense for a teenager eventually convicted of murdering an elderly neighbor, and defended a woman who eventually pleaded guilty to prostitution by saying that the antidepressant Prozac had turned her into a nymphomaniac. Meanwhile, a black Pennsylvania man accused of bank robbery is offering an insanity defense, saying that he had been driven to mental derangement by the racism of the white culture around him. “Police said [Brian] Gamble dressed as a woman when he went into the bank on July 3 and robbed tellers at gunpoint.” (Steve Gutterman, “Internet Defense in Columbine Case”, Washington Post, Jan. 12; “Robbery suspect claims racism made him insane”, AP/CNN, Dec. 23).
January 13-14 — “Litigation Bug Bites Into Democracy”. “Fueled by the success of the class-action war on Big Tobacco, class-action ‘lawfare,’ if you will, is also now being waged against — among others — gun manufacturers, makers of lead paint, Microsoft, the health maintenance organization industry, makers of genetically altered seed, the vitamin industry and the airlines.” Chicago Tribune editorial also points out, regarding charges that American businesses poured too much money into averting even minor Y2K glitches, that of course they were terrified out of any reasonable cost-benefit calculation: “it wasn’t just fear of the millennium bug. It was fear of lawyers waiting to pounce. Didn’t spend enough money to fix your computers, eh? Created a public safety problem, did you? Surely you knew your negligence would disrupt us. We’ll see you in court.” (editorial, Jan. 10).
January 13-14 — Huge jump in biggest jury verdicts. Survey by Lawyers’ Weekly USA finds the ten biggest jury awards to individual plaintiffs approached an aggregate $9 billion in 1999, nearly tripling from the amount in 1998. “Something totally unparalleled in history is going on in our legal system,” says the weekly’s publisher, not without a touch of magniloquence. Besides the Anderson (Chevy Malibu) verdict against GM, set by the jury at $4.9 billion and reduced by a judge to $1.1 billion (see Dec. 16, Aug. 27, July 10 commentaries), the other billion-dollar case was an award of $1.2 billion to the family of 32-year-old Jennifer Cowart, who died of burn injuries after a go-cart accident at a Pensacola, Fla. amusement park. (AP/FindLaw, Jan. 11).
January 13-14 — Watch your speech in Laguna Beach. The use of slurs, catcalls and other “hate speech” on the street is not in itself unlawful, but police in Laguna Beach, Calif. have begun documenting episodes of such verbal nastiness anyway on the theory that perpetrators often “graduate” to physical violence later on — a sort of gateway theory, as they call it in the drug war. Police Chief James Spreine said the database of hate-speech incidents will help his department identify suspects in serious crimes — raising the danger that constitutionally protected speech, although not to be punished itself, will bring with it something akin to official suspect status when unknown parties commit bias crimes later on (Mayrav Saar and Barbara Diamond, “Laguna Beach police will document hateful speech”, Orange County Register, Jan. 12).
January 13-14 — “Americans Turn To Lawyers To Cure Nation’s Social Ills”. Uh, speak for yourself, would you mind, please? Last week’s flattering news-side Wall Street Journal profile of class-action impresario Michael Hausfeld (anti-guns, anti-HMOs, anti-biotech) got the most basic premise wrong about the class action biz when it said that “more and more frequently, they [referring to “people” or “society”] turn to courts when the traditional avenues of politics or activism seem obstructed.” But the “people” don’t hire class action lawyers; more typically those lawyers hire themselves, and if necessary go out and find a representative plaintiff to sue for. Of course these lawyers would love to establish that their activities simply coincide with what the public wants them to do, but why is the Journal‘s news side lending them a hand by assuming what is to be proven? (Paul Barrett, “Americans Turn To Lawyers To Cure Nation’s Social Ills”, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4)
January 13-14 — Your fortune awaits in Internet law. Five years ago this Ohioan was toiling away as a computer operator for a sleep clinic, but now he’s moved on to a career in the fast-growing world of Internet law — representing a client who cybersquatted on such domain names as “dolphins.com” and “jets.com” and now wants major bucks from the football folks on the grounds that they interfered with his sale of the names. “Mr. DeGidio sees such issues as fertile ground for dispute.” (George J. Tanber, “Web challenges kindle this attorney’s interest”, Toledo Blade, Jan. 10).
January 13-14 —Overlawyered.com announcement list now hosted at ListBot. It was getting too big to be managed any other way — besides, this way you can volunteer fun demographic information about yourself. To join the list, look for the red Listbot button in the column at left and enter your email address.
January 13-14 —Correction: surname of Pennsylvania AG. Our January 10 report mistook the surname of Attorney General Mike Fisher of Pennsylvania. We’ve fixed it now. Our apologies.
January 12 — Finally! Reform may be in the wind for New York City’s patronage-ridden courts, following a burgeoning scandal in Brooklyn. Two top officials resigned last month from the law committee of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, complaining that despite their “unquestioned loyalty” to the party they’d been cut out of lucrative court assignments. The letter painted a damning picture of the operations of the city’s notoriously buddy-buddy system of fiduciary appointments, by which judges appoint clubhouse lawyers to fee-intensive positions managing the estates of decedents, orphans, failed businesses, foreclosed properties and other entities that can’t tend to their own affairs. Mayor Rudy Giuliani promptly called for reform to purge the system of its continuing machine taint, and now the state’s chief judge, Judith Kaye, has announced that she’s appointing an investigator with subpoena power to uncover improprieties and make the fiduciary appointment process worthy of public confidence. If that works, our friend Augeas has some stables that need cleaning out. Update Dec. 20, 2001: investigation results in report exposing abuses.
SOURCES: Alan Feuer, “2 Brooklyn Lawyers, Ex-Insiders, Outline a Court Patronage System”, New York Times, Jan. 5; Thomas J. Lueck, “Giuliani Urges Chief Judge to End Patronage in Courts”, New York Times, Jan. 6; Winnie Hu, “Political Favoritism by Judges Faces an Investigation”, New York Times, Jan. 11 (all Times links now dead); John Caher, “NYS Courts to Probe Judicial Appointments of Lawyers”, New York Law Journal, Jan. 11; Tracey Tully, “Judge To Probe Patronage”, New York Daily News, Jan. 11; Frederic U. Dicker and Maggie Haberman, “Top Judge Orders Probe of B’klyn Patronage Scandal”, New York Post, not dated.
January 12 — Disabled accommodation in testing. Sunday’s L.A. Times notices the trend: “The number of students who get extra time to complete the SAT because of a claimed learning disability has soared by more than 50% in recent years, with the bulk of the growth coming from exclusive private schools and public schools in mostly wealthy, white suburbs.” (Kenneth R. Weiss, “New Test-Taking Skill: Working the System”, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 9; see our editor’s “Standard Accommodations“, Reason, February 1999.) The U.S. Department of Justice has sued the Law Schools Admissions Council for allegedly following overly rigid rules in responding to physically disabled applicants’ requests for extra time on the Law School Admissions Test. “We are extremely disappointed that the Department of Justice has decided to litigate this matter and even more disappointed that they issued a press release about the lawsuit before serving us with the complaint,” says the Council’s president. (Shannon P. Duffy, “Disabled Students Denied Accommodation to Take LSAT, Suit Says”, The Legal Intelligencer (Philadelphia), Dec. 9). Columnist Robyn Blumner isn’t the only one reminded of the Kurt Vonnegut story, “Harrison Bergeron”. (“The high cost of equality: our freedom”, St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 19).
January 12 — Ontario judge okays hockey-fan lawsuit. Justice Michel Charbonneau ruled that a lawsuit by season-ticket holders against player Alexei Yashin (see Oct. 20 commentary) can proceed even though the law in the area is “relatively undeveloped”. “This is groundbreaking because this is the first time we can examine an athlete’s state of mind regarding fans,” said attorney Arthur Cogan. “Does he ever think about fans’ interests?” Next up: lawsuits by inconvenienced customers against workers who go out on unauthorized strikes? (Kevin Allen, “Yashin to face fans’ discontent”, USA Today, Jan. 6; “Judge: Fans’ lawsuit against Yashin can proceed”, CBS SportsLine, Jan. 5).
January 12 — Warn and be sued. “When Gwinnett County police officer Gordon Garner III told clinical psychologist Anthony V. Stone during a fitness-for-duty interview that he had had a vision of killing his captain, and thoughts about killing eight to 10 others including the chief and a county commissioner, Stone took it seriously.” He “consulted a lawyer for the Georgia Psychological Association, Susan Garrett, who advised him he had a duty to warn the individuals Garner had named”, according to court papers. Two weeks after the initial interview, he did warn them — walking right into a lawsuit from Garner for breach of confidentiality which culminated last month in a jury award of $280,000. Sued if you do, sued if you don’t? “In previous reported cases in Georgia, mental health professionals have been sued for failing to warn third parties that they might be in danger; Stone was sued for issuing that precise warning.” (Trisha Renaud, “Ex-Cop Wins Rare Confidentiality Case”, Fulton County Daily Record, Jan. 5).
January 11 — Health plans rebuffed in bid to sue cigarette makers. Now we find out! Helping close the door on the premise of the state Medicaid suits (after that $246 billion horse has already escaped from the barn), the Supreme Court yesterday let stand lower-court rulings denying union health plans the right to sue tobacco companies to recoup smoking-related health outlays. (“Union health plans lose round with cigarette makers”, AP/FindLaw, Jan. 10; Joan Biskupic, “Court Rejects Union Tobacco Suits”, Washington Post, Jan. 11). For a brief run-down of why these third-party payor claims have no law on their side, we recommend Judge Frank Easterbrook’s enjoyably abrasive 7th Circuit opinion, issued in November, dismissing suits filed by union funds and Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans in Illinois.
January 11 — Microsoft temps can sue for stock options. “In another victory for temporary workers at Microsoft, the Supreme Court today let stand a ruling that greatly expanded the number of employees who could sue the software giant to purchase stock options and get other benefits.” If you’re an employer who was counting on the old notion of freedom of contract to hold temps and independent-contractor employees to the benefits they bargained for, be afraid. (James V. Grimaldi, “High court rules 15,000 Microsoft temps can sue”, Seattle Times, Jan. 10; Dan Richman, “Microsoft ‘Permatemps” Win”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 11) (see also Aug. 19 commentary).
January 11 — “Update from the Year 2050”. The protagonist of this 1984-like tale wakes up to tepid home-brewed coffee: “Today, no house could be programmed to prepare scalding fluids. No ice cubes either: People choked on them and died. As Plaintiff in Chief Rodham Bush liked to say, ‘Extremes are unhealthy.'”. It was in the 00’s decade that the lawyers really took over: “By piling lawsuit atop lawsuit, the attorneys could bankrupt any company that tried to fight them….Politicians had discovered that by joining in the lawsuits, the government could take a cut of the settlements.” Now there was just one big company left, McNikeSoft, which efficiently settled hundreds of thousands of suits a day on the Litigation Exchange, and which the lawyers refrained from bankrupting because that would end the game. “Profits flowed efficiently from the real economy directly to the attorneys. Everybody was happy.” Hurry up and read this new satire by Jonathan Rauch before the folks he skewers find some way to sue him for writing it (National Journal, Jan. 7 — see Reason archive)
January 11 — Can they get a patent on that? “Two top executives and two high-level officers at a consulting firm that serves lawyers and insurance companies were indicted by a federal grand jury [in November] on charges of designing a computer program that automatically inflated the bills it sent to clients.” The indictment charges that a computer programmer at the firm, S.T. Hudson International Inc. of Wayne, Pa., “developed a program he called the ‘gooser’… which automatically multiplied every hour worked by a consultant by 1.15 and then added an extra half hour to the total hours,” with resulting overpayments by clients and affiliated companies totaling more than $320,000. (Shannon P. Duffy, “Consulting Firm Indicted for Inflating Bills Sent to Lawyers”, Legal Intelligencer (Philadelphia), Nov. 30).
January 11 — “Dear Abby: Please help…” “…I fell in love with a married man. He claimed he loved me. My husband caught us and now has filed for divorce. My lover called it quits and ran back to his wife.
“Can I sue my lover for breach of promise because he promised to get a divorce and marry me?” — Destroyed in the U.S.A.
“Dear Destroyed: I recommend against initiating such a lawsuit.”
— An entry, reprinted in its entirety, from “Dear Abby“, January 2.
January 11 — Welcome, Yahoo and About.com visitors. Our page on overlawyered schools has recently won listings at Yahoo “Full Coverage: Education Curriculum and Policy” and J. D. Tuccille’s popular Civil Liberties section at About.com.
January 10 — Pokémon litigation roundup. The Burger King Corporation last month recalled about 25 million pull-apart plastic balls containing the cartoon characters, which had been distributed as premiums with childrens’ meals, after a young child apparently suffocated on half of one of them. The company offered a small order of french fries in exchange for each returned ball, which did not save it from class action lawyers in Dallas who dashed at once to court, their named client a local mother whose son was entirely unharmed by the balls but who (or so the premise of the suit went) considered the french fries inadequate compensation for the toys’ return. (“Burger King Hit With Pokémon Lawsuit”, Reuters/FindLaw, Dec. 30; Jenny Burg, “Dallas Mom Sues Burger King Over Poke Balls”, Texas Lawyer, Jan. 5).
In other Pokémon litigation news, showman Uri Geller, whose act is best known for his purported ability to bend spoons by the power of remote mind control, is threatening to sue the makers of the cards over the inclusion of the character Kadabra, which is shown wielding a spoon and which boasts “special mental powers: It plagues bystanders with a mysterious pain in the brain'”, to quote the New York Post. Japanese children are said to have nicknamed the character “Uri Geller”; “There’s no way that they’re allowed to do this,” Geller says his lawyer told him. (Lisa Brownlee, “Pokémon card trick makes magic man mad”, New York Post, Dec. 30). And the American Lawyer has now given a write-up to the recent imbroglio (see Oct. 13 commentary) in which class-actioneers Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach filed a lawsuit charging that the trading cards are a form of unlawful gambling, without realizing that a company it represented owned the licensing rights to the characters — with the result that it sued its own client for treble damages for alleged racketeering. (Sherrie Nachman, “Cartoon Conflicts”, American Lawyer, Dec. 20) (earlier Pokémon coverage: Dec. 16, Oct. 13, Oct. 1-3).
January 10 — Pennsylvania tobacco fees: such a bargain! “One lawyer spent 12 minutes reading the Wall Street Journal and billed $62. Another charged $290 for the hour he took identifying and ordering books.” Lawyers’ bills like that might stand in need of a little revising, you might think — but in the case of the Pennsylvania tobacco fees the revision was upward, from $7.1 million to a negotiated deal of $50 million. On a per-capita basis that still ranks among the lowest tobacco fees in the country, but eyebrows have been raised by the fact that the prominent and generally business-oriented law firms that handled the work for the state, Buchanan Ingersoll of Pittsburgh and Duane, Morris & Heckscher of Philadelphia, were selected in what critics say was not an open or competitive process, and happened to be major campaign contributors of Attorney General Mike Fisher, the one doing the selecting (Fisher also made the key decisions in the eventual negotiated fee settlement). “Obviously,” says one critic, Philadelphia attorney Lawrence Hoyle, Jr., “it was a political kind of deal.”
“The $50 million that Duane, Morris and Buchanan Ingersoll will share over the next five years dwarfs the combined total of the Ridge administration’s bills for outside legal counsel last year: about $35 million to 241 law firms, with none getting more than $2.3 million.” And by the time Pennsylvania sued, other states had developed the legal theories on which the case rested. Tobacco-fee zillionaire Joseph Rice, who represented many states in the affair, agrees that the late-filing Keystone State did not face as much legal risk as states that filed earlier, but says: “I don’t think we should quibble about it.” But then, he would say that, wouldn’t he? (Glen Justice, “In tobacco suit, grumblings over legal fees”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 4)(& see Oct. 24, 2002).
January 10 — Back pay obtained for illegal aliens. Scoring an early win for its new policy of backing lawsuits by undocumented workers over the loss of jobs it was unlawful for them to hold in the first place, the federal government has extracted a $72,000 settlement from a Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites in Minnesota on behalf of nine illegal Mexican immigrants. The National Labor Relations Board and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had charged the hotel with firing the workers because they were leading a union organizing drive, along with other employment and labor law infractions. The workers are still in the country and are resisting a deportation order. (“Hotel Settles Illegal Aliens Case”, AP/FindLaw, Jan. 7) (see Oct. 29, Oct. 28 commentary).
January 8-9 — OSHA at-home worker directive. No wonder the AFL-CIO spoke favorably of this abortive (see Jan. 6, Jan. 5) proposal; as recently as the 1980s it was calling for an outright ban on telecommuting. Communications Workers of America president Mort Bahr, for example, warned that allowing stay-home employment was dangerous “particularly if that worker wants to work at home”. (Quoted in James Bovard, “How Fair Are Fair Labor Standards?”, Cato Inst./Regulation mag.) “Traditionally, unions have opposed telecommuting/work-at-home programs because they fear that such programs represent a return to cottage industry piecework. A distributed workforce makes it more difficult for unions to organize, represent members, and police collective bargaining agreements”. (“Telecommuting and Unions”, Telecommute America California Style).
Curiously, the only newspaper we could find that commented favorably on the new OSHA intervention was Silicon Valley’s own San Jose Mercury News (link now dead) (cynics might point out that since at-home tech workers in Bakersfield, Boise and Bangalore directly compete with the face-to-face Valley culture, they’re not exactly the Merc‘s constituency). At other papers it was a more or less uniform hail of dead cats: the Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Hartford Courant (“Bureaucrats Gone Berserk”), Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Detroit News, Cincinnati Post, Denver Post, Washington Times, Arizona Republic, Birmingham News, as well as Sen. Kit Bond, the American Electronics Association (EE Times) and commentators Steve Chapman (quotes our editor), Dick Feagler, Marjie Lundstrom, Bruce Harmon (Bridge News), and Ken Smith (many of these links via Junk Science)(many links now dead).
When the OSHA letter hit the nation’s front pages, reports the Washington Post, “A number of companies immediately put on hold plans to expand telecommuting privileges to employees”. But the letter was hardly a frolic or detour on the part of some low-level Munchkin: the agency spent two years on it, and it was “considered a declaration of existing policy by OSHA officials”. Among the possible real-world effects of the letter, the Post quotes a Labor Department official as saying, is to have been “used by courts to make it easier to hold employers accountable for injuries that occur in home offices” — i.e., in litigation. And “since Labor Department officials had originally regarded the letter [as] a statement of existing policy, it is unclear whether withdrawing the letter had much practical effect.” (Frank Swoboda, “Labor Chief Retreats on Home Offices”, Washington Post, Jan. 6)
January 8-9 — Right to win unlimited carnival prizes. Florida’s Busch Gardens has put a limit of ten a year on the number of prizes — stuffed animals, football jackets and the like — that its patrons can win at its carnival games. One of the park’s frequent patrons, Herman James, is so adept at the games that he says he makes a side business of reselling the many prizes he wins. Now Mr. James is suing the park, saying the ten-prize-a-year limit is unfair to him. The park denies that its limit is directed specifically at Mr. James. (“Man sues Florida’s Busch Gardens for the right to win unlimited prizes”, AP/Court TV, Jan. 5)
January 8-9 — Shenanigans on the bayou. Someone — who was it? — posed as a staff person with the clerk of court’s office and placed calls to potential jurors’ residences, inquiring about their plans, while a multimillion-dollar asbestos case was going through its jury-selection stage this fall in Plaquemine, La. Soon ugly charges were flying back and forth between Exxon Corp. and prominent Dallas plaintiff’s firm Baron & Budd. The case has been referred to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which regulates the state’s lawyers, but it’s expected to be at least a year before the ODC completes its investigation. A year? They sure take their time down there (Angela Ward, “Baron & Budd’s Bayou Blues”, Texas Lawyer, Nov. 11).
January 8-9 — No warning given to cousin-spouses. 22-year-old Leslie Zambrana and her husband Alfredo are seeking millions of dollars in a lawsuit against the University of Miami School of Medicine, Jackson Memorial Hospital and a health clinic for failing to warn them that their daughter might be born with Down’s Syndrome, the genetic disorder whose effects include mental retardation. The suit contends that even though Leslie told the clinic’s physician that she and her husband, the baby’s father, are first cousins to each other, she was not administered a recommended “triple screen” blood test for high-risk mothers that might have detected the syndrome and caused her to seek an abortion. The couple’s grandparents are also first cousins to each other. (Jay Weaver, “Married cousins sue over baby’s disability”, Miami Herald, Jan. 3).
January 7 — Hire that felon, or else. Our editor’s December Reason column, now online, looks at what happened after the state of Wisconsin passed a first-of-its-kind law forbidding employers in most circumstances from discriminating against job applicants on the grounds of those applicants’ criminal records. Among the consequences: the cash settlement won by the notorious “Halloween killer” from a company that declined to hire him on his release from prison, and a case where the Milwaukee school system learned it was not free to deny a job to a man convicted of felony child endangerment. (Walter Olson, “Reasonable Doubts: Felon Protection”, Reason, Dec. 1999) (see also our Sept. 24 commentary).
January 7 — Protests just aren’t what they used to be. We reported in our November 3 installment on how flag-burning protesters in at least one sizable American city (Las Vegas) are now legally required to take out advance environmental permits — smoke emissions into the atmosphere, and all that. Now John Leo, in a U.S. News column on the way many campus newspapers have faced intimidation and thefts of their stock after printing material that offends identity groups, tells what happened after “the Ohio State Lantern [ran] a comic strip poking fun at the women’s studies department….A noisy crowd took their protest to the front porch of cartoonist Bob Hewitt and attempted to burn a bra, but thanks to consumer protection regulations, the flame-retarding brassiere failed to ignite.” (John Leo, “The 1999 Sheldon”, U.S. News, Jan. 3)
January 7 — GQ on Gov. Bush, Karl Rove and litigation reform. The new January issue of GQ profiles Karl Rove, key strategist in the George W. Bush campaign and “easily the team’s most pivotal player after W. himself.” Aside from the intrinsic interest of the following passage, it allows our editor to get away with more shameless self-promotion about how his book The Litigation Explosion (buy it now!) gets read in high places:
“Of the four issues he ran on in ’94 [education, welfare, juvenile justice, tort reform], I can honestly say I played a role in only one of them,” Rove told interviewer Robert Draper. “I’m a huge tort-reform advocate, and I said, ‘See what you’ve talked about here — a thread of responsibility runs through all of these. We have a society where people are being held responsible for their actions not to the degree of their responsibility but to the degree of their monetary worth, and someone’s life’s work can disappear overnight because he happens to have deep pockets and gets hit by junk and frivolous lawsuits.’ And I gave him Wally Olson’s book [The Litigation Explosion] and a couple of others. He had feelings about the topic, but he hadn’t thought about it. And look — that’s the way the best candidates are. They need people around them to execute the mechanics of the campaign, the tactical considerations . And the strategy is born out of their heart, soul and gut.” (Robert Draper, “W’s Brain”, GQ, Jan. 2000 — not online)
January 6 — “Accord tossed: Class members ‘got nothing'”. A panel of the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has thrown out a settlement in a class-action suit over the mailing by Equifax Check Services Inc. of allegedly unlawful debt collection letters. Judge Frank Easterbrook, joined by Judges Richard Posner and Ilana Diamond Rovner, said the settlement provided no tangible benefit for the 214,000 class members while funneling fees, later determined to be $78,000, to the lawyer for the class. Equifax agreed to stop using a form letter and to donate $5,500 to a law school consumer clinic; “Crawford and his attorney were paid handsomely to go away; the other class members received nothing (not even any value from the $5,500 ‘donation’) and lost the right to pursue class relief,” Judge Easterbrook wrote. (opinion, Cases Nos. 99-1973 & 99-2122, decided January 3; Patricia Manson, “Accord tossed: Class members ‘got nothing'”, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Jan. 4)
January 6 — Haunted house too scary. “A woman suing Universal Studios contends the theme park operator’s annual Halloween Horror Nights haunted house attraction was too scary and caused her emotional distress.” Cleanthi Brooks, 57, says that when she and her granddaughter were visiting the Florida park in 1998, an employee wielding a (chainless) chainsaw chased them toward an exit, with the result that they slipped on a wet spot and suffered unspecified physical injuries. (Tim Barker, “Universal fall leads to lawsuit”, Orlando Sentinel, Jan. 5; “Woman sues haunted house over injuries, emotional distress”, AP/FindLaw, Jan. 5)
January 6 — OSHA backs off on home office regulation. Moving quickly to nip mounting public outrage, Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman now explains that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration never intended to bring home working conditions under full-fledged federal regulation — why, the idea never even crossed their minds! The advisory letter to that effect has been withdrawn, but Republicans on the Hill are promising hearings. (“Labor Department does about-face on home office letter”, AP/CNN, Jan. 5; see yesterday’s commentary)
January 6 — Backyard trash burning. Researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency and the New York State Department of Health report that the burning of ordinary trash by households, still a common practice in many rural areas, is an unexpectedly important likely source of release into the atmosphere of polychlorinated compounds such as dioxin, long a subject of regulatory scrutiny because of their potential toxicity. A family of four burning trash in a barrel on their property “can potentially put as much dioxin and furan into the air as a well-controlled municipal waste incinerator serving tens of thousands of households”. (“Backyard Burning Identified As Potential Major Source Of Dioxins”, American Chemical Society/Science Daily, Jan. 4)
January 5 — Beyond parody: “OSHA Covers At-Home Workers”. “Companies that allow employees to work at home are responsible for federal health and safety violations that occur at the home work site, according to a Labor Department advisory,” reports the Washington Post. The policy covers not only telecommuters but even the parent who briefly takes work home to be with a sick child. “Although the advisory does not provide specifics, in effect it means that employers are responsible for making sure an employee has ergonomically correct furniture, such as chairs and computer tables, as well as proper lighting, heating, cooling and ventilation systems in the home office.” Employers may also be responsible for identifying and repairing such hazards as, for example, rickety stairs that lead down to a basement home office. They “must also provide any needed training to comply with OSHA standards, and may have to ensure that the home work space has emergency medical plans and a first-aid kit.”
The new directive “makes sense”, says AFL-CIO health and safety director Peg Seminario: “Employers have to provide employees a workplace free from hazards.” Pat Cleary, vice president for human resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, takes a different view: “This is nuts”. And at Slate “Breakfast Table”, Matt Cooper is almost equally succinct: “This is one of those regulatory rulings that sets liberalism back a generation.” Washington lawyer Eugene Scalia calls the development “part of a string of recent initiatives intended to court union leaders as the presidential primaries approach.”
Sources: Frank Swoboda and Kirstin Downey Grimsley, “OSHA Covers At-Home Workers”, Washington Post, Jan. 4; Slate “Breakfast Table”, Jan. 4 (third item); “Workplace Rules Protect Home Office”, AP/FindLaw, Jan. 4; “Workplace Safety Rules Cover Telecommuters — OSHA”, Reuters/Excite, Jan. 4; Eugene Scalia, “Gore, Unions Invite OSHA to Your Home” (op-ed), Wall Street Journal, Jan. 5 (online subscription required).
Sequel: faced with mounting public outrage, the Department of Labor announced within 24 hours that it was withdrawing the new directive and rethinking its policy (see January 6 commentary)
January 5 — Calif. state funds used to compile tobacco “enemies list”. The Daily News of Los Angeles reported last month that the Americans for Nonsmokers Rights Foundation, a Berkeley advocacy group, has received $1.2 million from the state of California over the past four years to track and counter critics of “tobacco control”. Among its activities: “[m]onitoring people who attended and spoke on tobacco issues at city council meetings in cities throughout the state”, “[i]nvestigating a federal judge in North Carolina who issued a ruling in a case involving second-hand smoke,” and “[i]ncorrectly accusing John Nelson, a spokesman for former Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, of being on the payroll of the tobacco industry. After Nelson complained, the foundation apologized.”
A state official acknowledges that the private foundation has been asked to monitor groups that have “interfered in tobacco control activities” — such “interference” taking the form, for example, of opposing municipal smoking-ban ordinances. Steve Thompson, vice president for government affairs of the California Medical Association, called the program “a political surveillance operation on people that this group perceived as unsympathetic to the anti-smoking movement.” Among those who learned that his name was on the resulting lists was Los Angeles attorney Bradley Hertz, who led the opposition to an anti-smoking ordinance in Long Beach but says he was erroneously listed in the advocacy group’s reports as a participant in pro-tobacco efforts on a statewide level; Hertz says that in his view public funds should not be used to “spy on citizens”. Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, went further, charging that the dossier-compiling “smack[ed] of Gestapo tactics…. Taxpayers are actually financing an abuse of government power.” However, some on the other side dismissed the criticism and said they found nothing improper about the program. “To protect the public interest, there must be independent monitoring of these front groups — the job cannot be left to newspapers or public officials,” said Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles).
In North Carolina, many attorneys “leapt to the defense” of U.S. District Judge William Osteen, who the Nonsmokers Rights group targeted with an exposé after he handed down a 1998 ruling overturning a federal report on secondhand smoke. “To me it’s just one more example of a focused interest group trying to intimidate judges,” said the recently retired chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, Burley Mitchell. “It’s part of the meanness that’s crept into public life at all levels.”
Sources: Terri Hardy, “Smokers’ Spy Tax; Using Tax Funds for ‘Enemies List’ Not What Public Intended, Critics Say”, Daily News (Los Angeles), Dec. 6; and “Group Assailed for Sloppy Work; Man Says Organization Hurt His Reputation When it Got Facts Wrong”, sidebar to above, same date (fee-based archive, search Daily News file on “Nonsmokers Rights Foundation”); same, reprinted as “Tax-funded group had ‘enemies list'”, Orange County Register, Dec. 6 (fee-based archive, see above); David Rice, “Lawyers back N.C. judge on anti-smoking group’s ‘hit’ list”, Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, Dec. 9, link now dead. See also “Tobacco industry influence and income on decline in California”, press release, Oct. 12, for an account of “research” at the Univ. of California, S.F., into constitutionally protected advocacy and campaign contributions from tobacco sources; the work was funded by the tax-supported National Cancer Institute as well as the American Cancer Society.
January 5 — New page on Overlawyered.com: cyberlaw. The legal woes of such class-action defendants as Microsoft and Toshiba, liability for improper linking and non-handicap-compliant web design, domain-name squabbles, state-of-the-art ways for your litigators to sift through your enemies’ and competitors’ internal emails, and other news of the growing inroads being made against America’s most successful business, high-tech, by its second most successful business, litigation.
January 4 — Gun-buying rush. “More than a million Americans asked for background checks so they could buy guns in December, a surge insiders say has something to do with Millennium mania, but more to do with pending litigation,” Reuters reports. “Current and pending litigation…is making many consumers rush to buy arms before any anti-gun verdicts or new laws further restrict their purchase,” in the view of a spokesman for gunmaker Sturm, Ruger & Co. Better exercise those Second Amendment rights before mayors, trial lawyers and Clinton cabinet secretaries take ’em away for good! Yet such a result is far from the outcome of any democratic decision process; indeed, senior analyst H. Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis) cites the results of a poll conducted by the Tarrance Group finding firearms manufacturer liability a singularly unpopular idea — “only 5 percent [of respondents] feel that manufacturers or retailers should be held responsible for firearm misuse”.
A second Reuters report, from London, suggests the havoc litigation can wreak on its targets’ businesses through its sheer uncertainty, independent of outcome. British-based conglomerate Tomkins PLC would like to sell its U.S. handgun maker Smith & Wesson, according to the Financial Mail on Sunday. But the newspaper “said the prospect of class action lawsuits against gun makers in the United States could block any sale of Smith & Wesson. ‘Tomkins will (sell Smith & Wesson) if it can, but until the lawsuits are settled, it may be difficult to sell,’ [a] source close to Tomkins was quoted as saying.”
Sources: “Century End, Lawsuit Threats Spark Gun Sales Spike”, Reuters/FindLaw, Dec. 28; H. Sterling Burnett, “Latest Gun Lawsuits Leading Us Down a Slippery Slope,” Houston Chronicle, Dec. 11, 1999; Burnett, NCPA op-ed, Dec. 12; “U.S. gun maker sale mulled”, Reuters/CNNfn, Jan. 2.
January 4 — Lawsuits over failing grades. In Bath Township, Ohio, 15-year-old Elizabeth Smith and her mother Betsy Smith have sued the Revere School District and 11 teachers over the girl’s failing grades. The suit, which seeks $6 million, says the school’s grading practices punished the girl for her frequent lateness and absences even though “Elizabeth has chronic tonsillitis that caused her to miss school, and she has had to stay home in the mornings to put her twin siblings on their elementary school bus because her mom, a single parent, had to be at work,” said her lawyer, James Childs. And Kerry Grandahl has sued the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences after her dismissal for poor exam scores, charging that under the Americans with Disabilities Act the school should have accommodated her “exam phobia,” which she says was triggered by depression. Because the exam room was noisy and thronged with other students, Kerry “could hardly concentrate, much less remember what she knew,” according to the suit filed by attorney Nicholas Kelley, which faults the school for not allowing her to take exams in smaller rooms with her own monitors. (Donna J. Robb, “Student fails over failing grades”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 8; Shelley Murphy, “Ex-student sues college for ignoring ‘test phobia'”, Boston Globe, Dec. 21).
January 4 — Expert witnesses and their ghostwriters. Critics have long voiced alarm about the way American lawyers can orchestrate the testimony of expert witnesses they hire. In a recent case in Michigan a federal magistrate judge threw out the testimony of an expert hired by plaintiffs in a “vanishing-premium” case against Jackson National Life Insurance Co. The magistrate found that the report filed by actuary Philip Bieluch avowing his opinion as to the facts of the Jackson case had improperly reused verbiage from a report he had filed for the same lawyers in a separate case in Iowa, and was “substantially similar” to the language of a report filed by an entirely different expert in a Louisiana case. U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Scoville concluded that the lawyers themselves had furnished Bieluch with the wordings: “This is one of the most egregious cases of providing witness-for-hire testimony that I’ve ever seen, and at some point the courts have to say that enough is enough,” he said. The plaintiff’s executive committee in the Jackson National litigation included representatives of four firms, including well-known class-action powerhouse Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach. (Emily Heller, “An Insurance Expert Is Bounced”, National Law Journal, Oct. 28).
January 3 — Lawyers for famine and wilderness-busting? “Pitched on its environmental merits, the class-action lawsuit filed [last month] against Monsanto would be thrown out in short order,” argues Peter Huber of the Manhattan Institute. “So the lawyers dressed it up as an antitrust case instead.” Class-action high rollers such as Washington’s Michael Hausfeld have lent their assistance to longtime ludfly Jeremy Rifkin in organizing the suit. “They aren’t trying to save free markets from a monopoly, and the last thing they want is more competition in this field. What Mr. Rifkin is after is something even less competitive than a monopoly. He wants nobody in the genetic technology business at all.” If that happens, lawyers will have managed to stop today’s best hope — given the new methods’ success in boosting crop yields — for enabling the Third World to feed itself without pushing its agriculture into yet more wilderness.
“Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of this whole farce,” writes “Moneybox” columnist James Surowiecki at Slate, “is Rifkin’s use of the word ‘populist’ to describe the suit” — which, after all, seeks to shift power away from elected officials and farming populations and into the hands of elite lawyers and activists who effectively appointed themselves. Surowiecki calls the action and its arguments “spurious”, a “publicity stunt” and “a haphazard and scattershot collection of charges that might have been designed to demonstrate the excesses to which the U.S. legal system can be driven.”
Meanwhile, the world’s most prominent environmental group, the million-donor, supposedly respectable Greenpeace, has been openly conducting property-destroying sabotage against biotech installations in the United Kingdom; the “direct action” bug has now crossed the Atlantic, and last year vandals struck more than a dozen crop sites in the United States.
Sources: Philip Brasher, “Antitrust lawsuit to fight biotech farming”, AP/Spokane Spokesman-Review, Sept. 14; “Rifkin sues Frankenfood giant”, Reuters/Wired News, Dec. 14, link now dead; Peter Huber, “Ecological Eugenics”, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 20, now reprinted at Manhattan Institute site; James Surowiecki, “Jeremy Rifkin’s Spurious Suit Against Monsanto”, Slate, Dec. 20; Michael Fumento, “Crop busters”, Reason, January; anti-biotech site Genetech.
January 3 — Overlawyered.com forums on hold for now. Over the holiday weekend we attempted to install an upgrade for this site’s bulletin board software. Bad move: we managed instead to knock out the forums entirely, and haven’t even succeeded in figuring out yet what went wrong. We’d like to keep the forums idea going, but are mulling over a number of options at this point, including the possibility of forums hosted off-site, which might lessen the demand on our already overstretched techie skills. Advice from experienced forum-managers is welcome.
January 3 — This side of parodies. Calls for a ban on lawyer jokes as hate speech? A Million Lawyer March on Washington to protest anti-attorney stereotyping? Well, maybe not yet, but it can be hard to pick out which elements of this whimsical column are based on fact and which parts are invention. (Richard Dooling, “When you prick us…”, National Law Journal, Oct. 11).
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”.