Showing posts with label professionalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label professionalism. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

'Fisk' is the civil-practice lawyer you've been looking for

If you're looking to fill that Netflix queue as the writers' strike drags on, check out the Australian sitcom, Fisk.

When I put together a church message on ethics recently, I was looking to fill out a line about civil practice attorneys and coming up short. I wanted to make the point that when someone says "personal injury lawyer," we are quick to think of iconic unethical characters, and it's harder to conjure up the ethical ones. I didn't at first realize how much harder.

I ran the thought experiment on myself first. Even for me, a torts prof, it's hard, first, to filter out criminal lawyers. When I work the problem chronologically, the first character lawyer I remember adoring in my youth is Star Trek's Samuel T. Cogley (Elisha Cook), who defended Captain Kirk in a court-martial: criminal. The first civil selection that comes to mind is Boston Legal's Alan Shore (James Spader). But even he first appeared on The Practice, a criminal-law show.

Solidly on the civil side, unethical characters do come to mind quickly. For the message, I settled on My Cousin Vinny's Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci), who was a civil-practice attorney out of his depth in a criminal-law storyline, and, to cross generations, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul's Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). 

Then the ethical characters....  There are plenty in criminal, both prosecution and defense. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) is most often cited as admired when I survey 1L students. Ben Matlock (Andy Griffith) and Atticus Finch are classics.

Civil? Alas, so few people remember Alan Shore. I briefly considered Victor Sifuentes (Jimmy Smits). But on close inspection, nobody on L.A. Law holds up well as memorable and consistently ethically. There was Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart), but she had a lot of balls (and dancing babies) in the air besides law practice. I interrogated the staff of The West Wing; none of the leads was a lawyer. I'm fond of Madam Secretary's Mike B. (Kevin Rahm), but he was as often as not a devil's advocate to test Elizabeth McCord's righteousness. Erin Brockvich? Real-life hero, but, to be technical, paralegal and consultant, not lawyer. Maybe Ralph Nader, though then it gets political.

John Calvin (1509-1564)
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
For the church message, I settled on the real-life John Calvin, the 16th-century French theologian. He trained as a lawyer before he got caught up in the Reformation. It's a reach, I know.  But the bench is not deep, and Calvin was a stalwart for his faith.

So I come back around to Fisk, the title character of which is lawyer Helen Tudor-Fisk, created and played by comedian Kitty Flanagan. Tudor-Fisk was a high-powered corporate lawyer in Sydney until a bitter divorce and a workplace meltdown prompted her to upend her career and move to Melbourne. There she struggled to find a bed and a job, landing as a temporary fill-in for a suspended trusts-and-estates lawyer at a scrappy two-partner shop.

Fisk is not about law or legal ethics. The show, and its comedy, derive from Flanagan's delightfully dry-witted character as she navigates the ups and downs of her shattered life. The law practice is setting and background. But then—I don't think it's a big spoiler to say—her quiet diligence in her new job suddenly and gratifyingly comes to the fore in the finale of the six-episode season 1.

When I finished Fisk s1 last week, my own biases were laid bare. I had tried to think of what an ethical civil-practice attorney looks like. I pictured a renowned, tough-as-nails civil litigator, a silver-haired Matlock analog, dazzling jurors in the courtroom in "ripped from the headlines" cases.

Forget all that. Helen is the real deal.

I fell for Fisk.

Season 1 of Fisk is streaming now on Netflix. Season 2 ran on Australian Broadcasting last year; to my knowledge, it has not yet been licensed to stream in America.

UPDATE Oct. 22, 2023: Fisk s2 is now available to purchase in America from services including Amazon Prime.

Friday, March 24, 2023

In wake of Stanford free speech fiasco, Duncan models civility, and dean surprises with powerful letter

Abortion rights rally at Stanford Law in 2022.
(Suiren2022 via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)
After the brouhaha at Stanford Law School in which protestors disrupted a lecture by Trump-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan, Stanford Dean Jenny S. Martinez this week stood up for free speech on campus.

There are video and audio recordings aplenty on the internet if you want to learn more about what happened March 9. Here's David Lat with the play by play. For my money, the take-away is that a guest federal judge was treated disrespectfully—dare I say uncvilly?—in an effort to silence him, and even a school administrator joined in the effort. That must have been the dean's take, too, when she issued an apology to Duncan, which drew a disruptive protest of her office in turn.

Martinez's letter is masterful and worth a read for the First Amendment refresher and expression of commitment to academic freedom at even a private school. She put the protesting administrator on leave and pledged mandatory educational programming for the student body on free speech and legal professionalism. 

Frankly, I was shocked. I do not expect deans in today's legal academy to stake out clear and strong positions on, well, anything other than which way the wind is blowing.

Today Duncan appeared at Notre Dame Law School and talked about the incident. His remarks and the Q&A livestreamed and are available on YouTube. To be fair, many renditions of what went down at Stanford report rudeness from both sides, whoever struck the first blow. However so, there was none of that at Notre Dame. Duncan's remarks were unremarkable, but that struck the right tone. The thrust of his assessment was that zealous disagreement is laudable, but shouting down one's opponent or merely vituperating one's ideological adversary does nothing to enrich the marketplace of ideas. Like me here, he lauded Martinez's letter.

In a curious coincidence, and really the only reason I throw my two-cent hat into this ring, I today (at last) finished legendary lawyer Robert Corn-Revere's superb 2021 book, Mind of the Censor and Eye of the Beholder: The First Amendment and the Censor's Dilemma.  The book could not be more on point in the Duncan matter.

Mind of the Censor is chock full of engaging prose and a paean to the freedom of expression in our troubled times. But it's the final chapter that delivers the biggest bang for the buck with a delightful Jeff Foxworthy-esque list of 10 reasons to suspect "you might be a censor."  And apropos of Duncan's comments today, Corn-Revere's number 8 reads, "You Might Be a Censor if You Believe that Silencing Speech You Dislike Is the Exercise of Your Rights."

I wrote just this week about "civility" being deployed as a new, conveniently vague code word to suppress academic freedom. To be clear, I wasn't speaking against civility. The problem arises in the misuse of the word to differentiate speech one wants to hear from speech one does not want to hear.

It's OK to disagree with Duncan, indeed, to disagree vehemently. He spoke today of the challenge all judges face in remaining open to the possibility that they are wrong in their preconceptions. Civility is about respecting other people regardless of agreement or disagreement, and acting ethically, accordingly. Thus, willingness to hear challenges to our thinking is part and parcel of civility and goes hand in hand with an expectation that others will hear our challenges, too.

I'm really not wrong about this.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Judge chides attorney for not wearing coat

An Arkansas Supreme Court justice earlier this month called out a professor-attorney for not wearing a coat in a Zoom argument.

Associate Justice Courtney Rae Hudson took to task attorney and Professor Robert Steinbuch, Arkansas Little Rock, my colleague and past co-author on freedom-of-information works (book, essay), first, for not wearing a coat over his button-down shirt in the Zoom argument on February 2, and then for not having asked advance permission to use a demonstrative exhibit. She had the court and counsel wait painfully while Steinbuch and his attorney-client fetched coats.

Steinbuch probably should've worn a coat. He told Justice Hudson he had not because it interfered with his handling of the exhibit, a statutory text, within the small space of the camera view. Good excuse, bad excuse; either way, Justice Hudson's handling of the matter was condescending and, coming as it did after Steinbuch's argument, felt more personal than professional. My impression as a viewer was that Hudson was the one who came off looking worse for the exchange.

Being an aggressive advocate for transparency and accountability in Arkansas, Steinbuch has many allies in mass media, and they were not as gentlemanly about what went down as Steinbuch was. The aptly named Snarky Media Report made a YouTube video highlighting the exchange.  As Snarky told it, "Justice Hudson pulled out her Karen Card." Snarky also observed, with captured image in evidence, that "[s]everal times during the hearing Hudson appeared to be spitting into a cup."

More seriously, Snarky took the occasion to highlight past instances in which Hudson's ethics were called into question. Hudson (formerly Goodson), who was elected to the court in 2010, and her now ex-husband, a class action attorney, took two vacations abroad, valued together at $62,000, at the expense of Arkansas litigator W.H. Taylor (Legal Newsline). Hudson did report the gifts, and she said she would recuse from any case in which Taylor was involved.

Very well, but my suspicions of bias run a bit deeper. Hudson's vacation-mate ex, John Goodson, is chairman of the board of the University of Arkansas. (Correction, May 9, 2023: I'm told that Goodson ended his service on the board a year or so ago; I've not been able to ascertain the date.) One of Steinbuch's tireless transparency causes has been for Arkansas Freedom of Information Act access to the foundation funding of the university system in Arkansas, especially the flagship University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Indeed, Steinbuch wrote just last week (and on January 29), in his weekly column for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, about that very issue in connection with secret spending at Arkansas State University. University System counsel have fought ferociously and successfully for decades to stop any lawsuit or legislative bill that would open foundation books to public scrutiny.

Goodson also has what the Democrat-Gazette characterized in 2019 as "deep political and legal connections around the state" with disgraced former state Senator Jeremy Hutchinson. Hutchinson is a nemesis of former Arkansas politician Dan Greenberg (a longtime friend of mine). After Greenberg lost the senate race to Hutchinson in 2010, Greenberg sued a local newspaper, alleging a deliberate campaign of misinformation. Steinbuch supported Greenberg in the suit. Though Greenberg was unable to demonstrate actual malice to the satisfaction of the courts, discovery in the suit revealed a problematically cozy relationship between the newspaper editor and Hutchinson.

The day after the oral argument in Steinbuch's case, Hutchinson was sentenced to 46 months in prison on federal charges of bribery and tax fraud—ironic, given that a false report of ethical misconduct was a rumor that Hutchinson had sewn about Greenberg in 2010. 

I don't know; maybe Justice Hudson just gets really hung up on men's attire.  She does hail from a conservative corner of Arkansas.

But a wise friend once told me, "Nothing in Arkansas happens for the reason you think it happens."

The case is Corbitt v. Pulaski County Jail, No. CV-22-204 (Ark. oral arg. Feb. 2, 2023).

Monday, February 20, 2023

Judge teaches, supports professional development by encouraging appearance of junior attorneys

In multi-district civil antitrust litigation over turkey prices, a federal magistrate judge in Illinois in the fall issued an unusual order, calling on litigating firms to designate only junior attorneys to argue motions.

Pending before the court at the time were three pretrial matters, a discussion of expert testimony, a motion to preclude a deposition, and a motion to amend a scheduling order. On October 20, 2022, Magistrate Judge Gabriel A. Fuentes wrote:

[T]he Court would like to offer junior counsel an opportunity to speak to the expert discovery issue and to argue the two motions. The Court strikes the [planned telephonic] hearing and resets it to [Nov. 1,] when there will be ample time to address all three issues. If the parties do not indicate that they will permit junior associates to argue the motions, the Court will hold the hearing telephonically on the expert discovery issue only and will decide the two motions on the paper submissions.

The Court kindly requests that the parties confer and notify the courtroom deputy ... whether counsel with less than four years of experience after law school will be permitted to speak and argue; ideally, different counsel would argue the two different motions for the arguing parties. Also, multiple junior counsel could divide a party's arguments on a single motion if it makes logical sense to do so. Senior counsel of course may and should attend in a supervisory role and will be permitted to add or clarify as they see fit.

No inferences should be drawn about the importance of any motion to the Court based on the Court's attempt to create professional development opportunities for junior counsel. Additionally, the status hearing on the expert discovery issue strikes the Court as one that could be addressed by junior counsel.

(Paragraph breaks added.)

Judge Fuentes has served on the bench for almost four years, since May 2019. Before his appointment to the bench, Fuentes was an accomplished lawyer, and before law school, an accomplished journalist.

Fuentes wrote news and sports for local papers as a secondary-school student, and he worked his way up to managing editor of the Daily Northwestern while at the Medill Journalism School. He worked for four years as a reporter for The Los Angeles Times before going back to the Northwestern Pritzker Law School. After six years as an attorney associate, Fuentes made partner at Jenner and Block; left to serve about five years as an assistant U.S. attorney; then returned to Jenner and Block for 13 more years.

While practicing as a litigator in white collar defense, antitrust, and media law, Fuentes maintained a heavy docket of pro bono practice. In 2015, the Chicago Bar Foundation recognized his work "on indigent criminal defense, prisoner rights, the protection of voting rights for minorities, and First Amendment issues." In particular, Fuentes never stayed true to his journalistic roots, for example, once negotiating with counsel for Western University Illinois University on behalf of a student investigative journalist.

Being also a product of journalism and law schools, and likewise having represented student journalists pro bono, I identify with Judge Fuentes's experience. More importantly, as a law professor, I appreciate Fuentes's initiative to help new attorneys in big-law practice to get real forensic experience. 

Much of what is wrong with legal education today can be traced to the bean-counter orientation of administrators, universities, and the American Bar Association as accreditor, all of which are more concerned with bar pass statistics, superficial diversity, and, above all else, revenues, than with whether students actually learn anything worthwhile or grow as moral actors. Yes, law schools do care about making students "practice ready," but that only because the bar, unlike the medical fraternity, has shirked its historic responsibility to teach. The responsibility has devolved wholly on law schools, where practical skills training has all but supplanted the policy, theory, and moral deliberation that are supposed to make law a profession rather than mere occupation.

Fuentes has counseled students at Medill and taught adjunct at Pritzker, so he's kept a hand in the classroom, too. I don't know Fuentes. But to me, his apparent ability to synthesize his career experiences into simultaneous roles of servant and mentor represents the very model of professional identity. His minute order entry of October 20 should be the norm, not a headline.

Judge Fuentes ruled on the motions on November 9, and entered into the record: "The Court extends its thanks to the parties and counsel for allowing junior associates to argue and address these matters, and the associates are commended for an excellent performance."

The underlying case is In re Turkey Antitrust Litigation, No. 1:19-cv-08318 (N.D. Ill. filed Dec. 19, 2019). HT @ Adrian Cruz, Law360.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Ukraine Bar Association soldiers on

Lawyers have never stopped work in Ukraine, and the bar has been a catalyst in the development of democracy there, I learned today at a presentation of the Federalist Society.

Gvozdiy via Zoom from Kyiv today.
Via Zoom from Kyiv, Dr. Valentyn Gvozdiy, vice president of the Ukraine Bar Association, joined the Federalist Society International and National Security Practice Group to talk about the evolution of the profession in Ukraine and the role of lawyers in the present war. Dr. George Bogden interviewed Gvozdiy.

The talk came on the heels of news of the firing of a slate of top Ukrainian government officials in a corruption scandal. Gvozdiy addressed that developing story, too, in response to questions.

After the independence of Ukraine from the Soviet Union in 1991, the legislature adopted a "Law on the Bar," in 1992, Gvozdiy recounted. The enactment liberated the bar from "complete state control," but instituted only "quasi self-governance."

Ukraine had long looked to join the European community of nations, and work began promptly after independence to move the country in that direction. A key plank in the platform of European standards, Gvozdiy explained, is the existence of an independent bar. A 1995 resolution in the Council of Europe provided an incentive, recommending the organization of Ukrainian lawyers. The recommendation later became a precondition of the landmark Ukraine-EU association agreement in 2014.

Formal progress was long stalled by the very conflict that animates the present war. The fledgling Ukrainian state was weak, and political leaders were susceptible to corruption by easterly interests. Like popular opinion and the commercial sector, the developing bar leaned westward. By the time Donetsk Oblast-born Viktor Yanukovych claimed the presidency in 2010, to the dismay of the United States, the Russian-leaning leader was walking a tightrope that could not hold. Katya Gorchinskaya explained for Eurasianet:

The catalyst for the Yanukovych administration’s downfall was Ukraine’s stop-and-start efforts to sign an association agreement with the European Union. By late 2013, a majority of the population backed a draft agreement. But the pact to draw Ukraine closer to the EU placed Yanukovych in a tough situation. The treaty would open the way for substantial EU economic assistance and other perks, such as visa-free travel to Europe for Ukrainian citizens. But it would also mandate compliance with transparency and accountability provisions that gave Yanukovych and his associates reason to pause. In addition, Russia, the Ukrainian president’s main foreign patron, was steadfastly against seeing Ukraine take even the tiniest step toward Europe.

Amid the push and pull, Parliament coughed up landmark legislation in 2012 that established the Ukraine Bar Association as fully self-governing. Two years later, the Maidan Revolution deposed Yanukovych, Ukraine and the EU concluded the association agreement, and Russia invaded Crimea.

"'An obstacle is often a stepping stone,'" Gvozdiy said of Yanukovych, invoking a maxim usually attributed to U.S. Revolutionary War Colonel William Prescott. "The former president is not only not popular in Ukraine, he is the worst person we can imagine in our recent political history."

The recent ouster of top Ukrainian officials amid a corruption scandal has unsettled supporters of Ukraine with fear that the Zelensky Administration looks unstable. The news broke at a sensitive time, as the Biden Administration is navigating German reluctance to provide advanced tanks to Ukraine and skepticism over military investment in Ukraine from House Republicans. Meanwhile, Joanna Kakissis explained for NPR, Putin will seize on the news to bolster his characterization of Ukraine as a western puppet and threat to Russian security, incompetent in purported independence without Russian intervention.

In fact, the ouster is a good sign for Ukraine and should bolster western support, Gvozdiy said. Zelensky is signaling to Ukrainians and the world that contemporary Ukraine has "complete intolerance to the corruption."

Formerly, politicians robbed public coffers, and any court order to halt corruption was unenforceable, he said. The ouster now demonstrates Ukraine's remarkable progress in only a few years.

Yet in the present war, the bar is among democratic institutions fighting for survival, Gvozdiy said. The bar "would wither and absolutely disappear under Russian law."

Ukrainian advocates have "never stopped practicing law during the war," Gvozdiy said. Their work has included the defense of prisoners of war, if often to the chagrin of Ukrainians. (Other members of the legal community, such as prosecutors and judges, are busy too, for example, collecting evidence of war crimes. They are law-educated, but, unlike advocates, not members of the bar, as Ukraine follows a bar model in the European civil law tradition.)

Upholding the rule of law is the lawyer's constitutional obligation, Gvozdiy said. "We're not defending their crimes," he said of the POWs. "We defend their human rights."

One program attendee asked what American lawyers can do to help. Relayed by Bogden, the questioner expressed frustration that we don't have on-the-ground skills with obvious application, like other professionals have. 

I often have shared this frustration. We can't charge to the rescue like healthcare workers, nor mission like clergy. Even for pro bono projects at ABA conferences in the United States, I've picked up litter and organized dogs for vaccination, but I've never been asked to use my skills as a lawyer.

Gvozdiy's response was revealing, but not gratifying. Ukrainian lawyers need not just financial support, he said, but mental health support.

"We need professionals who can help us in a professional way to understand better how we need to behave and work and combine war with the practice of law," he explained. "We need training ... which will teach us how to react and how to reflect, how to communicate, how to live in peace with yourself and with all this pressure as a professional."

I'm not sure we're well stocked in the United States with experts in practicing law in a war zone. But when the conflict finally comes to an end in Ukraine, I know where we can find some.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Code might inevitably regulate journalism in digital age

The U.K. Information Commissioner's Office is working on a "journalism code of practice" to legislate against defamation and invasion of privacy by mass media.

Principally and ostensibly, the code is intended to bring media law into conformity with U.K. data protection law, essentially the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), including the stories "right to be forgotten," or right to erasure (RTBF). On the ground, the picture is more complicated. The British phone hacking scandal and following Leveson Inquiry constitute a strong causal thread in public receptiveness to media regulation.

Cambridge legal scholar David Erdos analyzed the draft code for the INFORRM public in part one and part two postings in October.  The code incorporates media torts such as defamation of privacy and misuse of private information (MOPI), the latter a common law innovation of British courts to facilitate enforcement of data protection rights. I have posited in other venues that common law tort similarly might provide a way forward to fill gaps in information privacy law in the United States.

Journalism and data protection rights have been on a collision course for a quarter century, like a slow-motion car wreck, and the draft journalism code is a harbinger of the long anticipated impact.  Back in 1995, when the EU GDPR-predecessor Data Protection Directive was brand new, the renowned media law scholar Jane Kirtley published an article in the Iowa Law Review, "The EU Data Protection Directive and the First Amendment: Why a 'Press Exemption' Won't Work."  Kirtley foresaw data protection and the First Amendment's arguably irreconcilable differences before most U.S. scholars had even heard of data protection.

In those innocent days, journalism ethics was reshaping itself to preserve professionalism in the newly realized and anxiety-inducing 24/7 news cycle.  A key plank in the new-ethics platform was its essentiality to resist regulation.  In 2000, media law attorney Bruce Sanford published the book Don't Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us.  Then in 2001, everything changed, and mass media and their consumers became engrossed by new concerns over government accountability.

In a way, the consolidation of media regulation in a generation of code could be a relief for journalism, especially on the European continent.  In an age of ever more complex regulatory mechanisms, codification can offer bright lines and safe harbors to guard against legal jeopardy.  Information service providers from local newspapers to transnationals such as Google are struggling to comply with new legal norms such as the RTBF, and there is as yet little evidence of uniformity of norms, much less convergence. Yet even if industry ultimately embraces the security of code, what's good for business is not necessarily good for wide-ranging freedom of expression. 

Courts, too, are struggling with novel problems.  For example, in late November, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Biancardi v. Italy that RTBF de-indexing orders extend beyond search engines and bind original news publishers.  Writing for Italian Tech and INFORRM, attorney Andrea Monti fairly fretted that the decision effectively compels journalistic organizations to expend resources in constant review of their archives, else face liability in data protection law.  The result, Monti reasoned, will be to discourage preservation, manifesting a threat to the very existence of historical record.

On the one hand, it's foolish to wring one's hands for fear that journalism is being newly subordinated to legal regulation.  Tort itself is a regulatory mechanism, and defamation has been around for a long time, notwithstanding the seeming absolutism of the First Amendment.  On the other hand, media regulation by law looks nothing like the punctilious supervision of regulated industries, including the practice of law.

In my own education, I found the contrast in approaches to ethics perplexing.  In journalism school, my ethics class had been taught aptly by a religion scholar who led impassioned discussions about handout hypotheticals.  In law school, the textbook in legal profession hit the desk with a thud for what was as much a study of model or uniform code as was crim or sales.

With no "First Amendment" per se, media regulation by code is not the novelty in the U.K. that it would be in the United States.  Still, with privacy and digital rights sweeping the globe, law is poised to regulate journalism in new ways everywhere, whether through the subtlety of common law or the coercive power of civil regulation.  American courts will not be able to escape their role in reshaping fundamental rights for the digital world, as European courts are at work doing now.  Kirtley foresaw the issues in 1995, and the chickens are slowly but surely turning up at the roost.

The present ICO consultation closes on January 10, 2022.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Disputed allegations in malicious prosecution suits against Apple raise data protection issues

Apple Store Osaka (S├ębastien Bertrand CC BY 2.0)
A case of identity theft, now the subject of lawsuits against Apple and a security contractor, SIS, in three jurisdictions, seems to have raised an alarm about data protection.  But the case might be more complicated, as the defendants have accused the plaintiff of false pleadings.

Plaintiff Ousmane Bah was a 17-year-old Bronx honors student and permanent resident alien applying for citizenship at times relevant to the complaints.  An acquaintance of Bah's acquired Bah's temporary New York driving learner's permit (ID); it is disputed what Bah knew about the acquisition.

The ID did not have a photo, and the biographical data did not match the acquaintance's in all particulars, such as height.  Nevertheless, when the acquaintance was, according to the complaints, apprehended trying to shoplift from Apple stores in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, he was misidentified as Bah.  Bah was criminally charged, subject to arrest warrants, and repeatedly compelled to defend himself.  The case does not directly implicate the known risk of race discrimination in facial recognition algorithms.  But in Bah’s version of events, Apple's use of facial recognition technology to identify the perpetrator in subsequent incidents gave police a false confidence that the suspect was Bah.

Apple and SIS have filed for Rule 11 sanctions in New Jersey and characterize the complaint in that jurisdiction as fiction.  They rely on discovered communication between Bah and the acquaintance to allege that Bah knew well that he was being impersonated, and that misidentification resulted from the acquaintance’s deliberate deception, not from error on the part of Apple or SIS. 

Media have been quick to seize on the allegations in the initial complaint, which does resonate with extant privacy issues in public policy.  If the plaintiff’s allegations are complete and accurate, then the case speaks to Americans’ lack of comprehensive data protection law.  A data protection regulation like Europe’s, generally speaking, would shift the burdens of fair and accurate identification to the defendants, rather than a victim of identity theft, time and again.

Moreover, if the plaintiff’s allegations are complete and accurate, the case has unpleasant overtones in race and socioeconomic equality.  A mismatch of data between the false ID and the acquaintance's appearance prompts concern that “black” was all the retailer needed to see, and one must worry whether persons of limited means can afford to defend themselves against false charges and wrongful arrest, not to mention the collateral effects of publication of misidentification to third parties, such as employers and creditors.

Bah claims defamation and malicious prosecution.  The complaints at least allege evidence in support of actual malice, which Apple and SIS deny.  Malicious prosecution is usually a claim made against public officials in tandem with civil rights violations, but the tort is viable against private parties who initiate criminal proceedings on false pretenses.  Whether the plaintiff’s allegations hold up, I do not know.  The counter-allegations of Apple and SIS in seeking sanctions in the New Jersey case are biting.

The cases are:

  • Bah v. Apple Inc., No. 1:19-cv-03539-PKC (S.D.N.Y. filed Apr. 22, 2019) (Court Listener);
  • Bah v. Apple Inc., No. 2:20-cv-15018-MCA-MAH (D.N.J. filed Oct. 27, 2020) (Court Listener); and
  • Bah v. Apple Inc., No. 1:21-cv-10897-RGS (D. Mass. filed May 28, 2021) (Court Listener).
Bah is represented in the New York case by UMass Law alumnus Subhan Tariq, '13.  My thanks to Steven Zoni, '13, for bringing this case to my attention.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Atlas Obscura fills in fuzzy history of title, 'esquire'

Squire (NYPL)

Atlas Obscura has an excellent piece on the title "Esquire" and its connection to the American legal profession.  The writer is L.A.-based freelancer Dan Nosowitz. He writes:

One of the weirder movements in modern American political action attempted to attack a title so vigorously that it would have essentially collapsed the entire history of the American government. The movement didn’t succeed, because it was both factually wrong and wildly misguided, but it was wrong in a really interesting way. It relied on the title "Esquire," which is one of the more common but most unusual ways a person can ask to be addressed.

The essay is Dan Nosowitz, What Does the Title "Esquire" Mean, Anyway?: And What Does it Have to Do with Lawyering?, Atlas Obscura, Feb. 3, 2021.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Plaintiff verdict upheld for IIED, hostile environment upon shocking attorney maltreatment of employee

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a verdict against a lawyer for shocking maltreatment of an employee.

mohamed_hassan (pixabay.com)
The employee, a Hispanic woman, was a clerical worker with responsibilities well into the paralegal vein.  She had worked in the attorney's office for about three years when she quit and sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), hostile-work-environment sexual harassment, and constructive discharge.  Finding the defendant attorney liable, the jury awarded $20,000 on the IIED claim, $20,000 on the sexual harassment claim, and $150,000 in punitive damages.

Collaterally, plaintiff's husband was found liable in assault, for which defendant was awarded $1,000, and was held responsible for illegal wiretapping.

The Appeals Court affirmed plaintiff's verdict.  Application of law in the case was routine.  The court upheld the verdict as against defendant's erroneous assertions (1) that worker's compensation superseded IIED; (2) that the jury had doubled up on its calculation of damages; (3) that the jury was misinstructed on punitive damages; (4) that evidence of defendant's losses was improperly excluded; (5) that the evidence failed to support the jury's findings of causation and damages; and (6) that plaintiff evidence not produced in discovery was admitted at trial without sufficient remediation.

None of that is why I comment on the case here.  Rather, I want to republish the court's recitation of the facts, because they constitute a shocking portrait of a workplace that no person should have to endure for one day, much less three years.  Please keep in mind that the defendant here is a member of the bar.  And be warned that this text is not suitable for kids. 

Viewing the evidence with respect to the counts of the plaintiff's complaint for which the defendant was found liable, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the jury could have found as follows. The plaintiff was employed as a legal assistant at the law office of defendant, an attorney with a solo practice in Essex County. When she began working there in 2012, the plaintiff was the defendant's sole employee, but the defendant expanded his staff after hiring her.

The plaintiff's duties evolved over her years of working in the office, from answering the office telephones, handling the mail, and scheduling meetings, to working on interrogatories, doing legal research, and discussing client settlements. The plaintiff's desk was in the reception area of the office, across from the defendant's office. When the defendant was in the office, he worked directly with the plaintiff as her direct supervisor.

The plaintiff's complaint alleged, and the jury could have found, that over the course of several years the defendant made numerous comments and engaged in repeated behaviors that constituted tortious misconduct. This conduct occurred at the defendant's office, in the course of the plaintiff's employment. The defendant verbally attacked the plaintiff, calling her stupid and a moron. The plaintiff's coworkers testified that the defendant often belittled the plaintiff in the office, shouting uncontrollably at her and screaming in her face. When she tried to defend herself, he would yell at her to shut up and continue to scream at her. The defendant's screams could be heard even in offices on the floor above the defendant's office. When she was not present, and the defendant was angry with her, he would describe the plaintiff as a bitch, a slut, or a whore. He would also say she was crazy. There was a jar kept in the office into which the defendant would place money each time he called the plaintiff stupid.

Much of this misconduct related to the plaintiff's gender and race. The defendant told the plaintiff that men were intelligent while women were stupid; men were "superior" to women. He instructed the plaintiff to clean up after him in the office, including the mess left behind after his meals, because "that was women's work." The defendant also made comments about the plaintiff's and other female employees' appearances at work. He referred to one female employee as "Miss Dominican Republic." The defendant, at times without prior permission, photographed the plaintiff and her female coworker for the purpose of showing his friends "that I have nice girls here at the office." The plaintiff and another employee testified that the defendant would stand close behind the plaintiff while she was at her desk and look at her cleavage.  When she asked him to stop staring at her breasts, he responded that he could not help it and that she should wear other clothes to work. The plaintiff was also instructed to pick up condoms and lubricant for the defendant when she ran errands for him. The defendant would have the plaintiff go through his e-mails in the office, including pornographic advertisements; he once sent a pornographic e-mail to the plaintiff's daughter.

In explicit detail, the defendant would describe his sexual encounters to the plaintiff at the office.  The defendant described himself to the plaintiff as "always horny," asked her to comment on his girlfriend's breasts, and repeatedly described sex with his girlfriend to the plaintiff. He recounted a trip to the Dominican Republic in which he said his hotel room "came with [a] girl" and that "for $20 he got full service. Blow job and everything."  He described women in the Dominican Republic as "a bargain." He frequently bragged to the plaintiff of a trip to the Philippines in which he claimed he had sex with "cheap" young girls. When she asked him to stop, he ignored her or told her that she had to listen to this commentary because he paid her.

In speaking to the plaintiff, a Hispanic woman, the defendant made numerous racist remarks to her about African-American and Hispanic people. He would refer to his Hispanic clients as "drug dealers" and say that African-Americans were "stupid" and white people were superior. She testified that he used a number of racial slurs, referring to his Hispanic clients as "F-ing Spic[s]" and "calling [black] people n[word*]." When she asked him to stop making such comments, he disregarded her or told her to shut up and listen to him because he was her boss. The plaintiff testified that the defendant also made her sit with him and read his e-mails consisting of racist comments and "jokes" about black and Hispanic people. He often made fun of her accent and told her that her brown eyes were "dirty" compared to his "superior" blue eyes, which were "beautiful."

The plaintiff ultimately left the defendant's employ on October 22, 2015, after an incident with the defendant in the office. The defendant had been yelling at the plaintiff for failing to follow his instructions, and when she tried to explain what she had done, he repeatedly screamed at her to shut up. She informed the defendant that she was not feeling well and needed to go home, and the defendant told her, "Get the hell out of my office. Don't ever come back if you don't say sorry to me." The plaintiff left without the intention of returning, and her employment with the defendant ended.

....

After the plaintiff left the defendant's office, her husband went to the office himself to confront the defendant about his treatment of the plaintiff. After turning on his cell phone camera to record this encounter and placing the cell phone in his shirt pocket, the husband entered the office and moved toward the defendant, who was sitting at the front conference table talking on his cell phone. The husband sat down at the conference table near the defendant and told the defendant repeatedly to put his cell phone away.  The defendant and the plaintiff's husband began to argue at increasing volume about whether the defendant would put the cell phone away, and the husband told the defendant to listen to him. The defendant, feeling threatened, retreated to his office and closed the door, repeatedly telling the husband to leave. The husband opened the defendant's office door, and the defendant slammed it shut and called the police.

*All redactions in court opinion, except this one, which is mine.

These frightening facts embody the IIED rule of "utterly intolerable in a civilized society."  In our cancel culture, so replete with persons eager to be offended and to castigate their offenders with the force of law, we would be well advised to remember people who are truly and terribly victimized.  Watering down our civil rights law by giving eggshell plaintiffs ready access to administrative remedies, in disregard of the rights of respondents, is likely to result in over-corrective reforms that allow perpetrators of this despicable magnitude to escape accountability.

The case is Spagnuolo v. Holzberg, No. 19-P-778 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 21, 2020).  The opinion was authored by Justice Peter J. Rubin for a panel also comprising Justices Milkey and Massing.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Law students embrace bad lawyering

My colleague Amy Vaughn-Thomas gave a terrific assignment to students in her Professional Responsibility (Legal Ethics) class this summer:  Make a bad (unethical) lawyer ad, then write a paper about its faults under the rules of professional responsibility.

Students ran with the assignment, including the team that invented bad lawyer "Jeb Dundy."  From content producer Fatiga Mental (friend of the blog: Ig, Tw) and law students Noah Aurelio, Ricardo Serrano, Sebastian Garcia, and Samantha Tuthill, here is a lawyer for our times. See if you can spot the ethics issues.

Credits:

Suffice to say, the paper practically wrote itself.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Gruesome bone-in-burger case: verdict remanded for reconsideration of 'reptile,' 'golden rule' arguments

Willis Lam CC BY-SA 2.0
Reversing and remanding an order for new trial in a personal injury-product liability case over a $5 Wendy's hamburger, the Massachusetts Appeals Court today issued an opinion on jury argument fit to serve as a teaching tool in trial practice.

Plaintiff's counsel made improper "golden rule" and "reptile" arguments in closing, the Appeals Court concluded.  But the trial court did not fully and fairly assess whether prejudice resulted before rejecting the jury verdict and ordering a new trial.

In 2011, the 34-year-old plaintiff suffered a gruesome dental injury while eating a $5.64 small plain hamburger from the Wendy's fast-food restaurant in Medford, Massachusetts.  Skip this block quote (footnotes omitted) if you don't feel strong in the stomach today.  But if you're into this sort of thing, there's more in the opinion.
On the third or fourth bite, she heard a loud crack and crunching, and felt a pain shoot up into her upper left gum. She spit out the half-eaten food and discovered that her mouth was bleeding and one of her upper left molars (tooth 14) was split in two. The injury was caused by a piece of bone in the hamburger.
The bone had split tooth 14 well below the gum line, and the dental nerve was sheared, bleeding, and exposed. The bone also caused minor damage to the opposing lower molar (tooth 19), which was easily repaired with a filling. But repairing tooth 14 was not a simple matter and required at least twenty-three trips to various dentists over the next two years.
In its 38-page opinion, the court gave a blow-by-blow of the entire trial, just two half-days, from opening to closing arguments with ample quotations.  That rendition in itself is a great teaching tool.

The salient problems arose for the plaintiff in the closing argument.  Long quotes are given in the opinion, but the trial judge summed it up.
[S]he concluded that plaintiff's counsel's closing argument (1) improperly created an "us versus them" dichotomy designed to distinguish "'us,' the average people" from "'them,' the big corporations"; (2) "improperly suggested that the jury decide the case as 'the voice of the community' to 'send a message' beyond the courtroom," and sought "to arouse in the jury a sense of duty to safeguard the community" from generalized safety concerns; (3) improperly invoked the "golden rule" by asking the jurors to place themselves in the plaintiff's shoes; (4) improperly interjected counsel's own personal opinions and beliefs; and (5) resorted to rhetorical principles "described in the book [D. Ball & D. Keenan,] Reptile: The 2009 Manual of the Plaintiff's Revolution" (book).
Oddly enough, I just this week read in the ABA Journal about how that Ball & Keenan book is vexing the defense bar.

The court recited the Massachusetts Guide of Evidence, section 1113(b)(3), listing prohibited closing arguments (and tracking multistate norms), and located plaintiff counsel's arguments within paragraphs (C) and (D):
(A) to misstate the evidence, to refer to facts not in evidence (including excluded matters), to use evidence for a purpose other than the limited purpose for which it was admitted, or to suggest inferences not fairly based on the evidence;
(B) to state a personal opinion about the credibility of a witness, the evidence, or the ultimate issue of guilt or liability;
(C) to appeal to the jurors' emotions, passions, prejudices, or sympathies;
(D) to ask the jurors to put themselves in the position of any person involved in the case;
(E) to misstate principles of law, to make any statement that shifts the burden of proof, or to ask the finder of fact to infer guilt based on the defendant's exercise of a constitutional right; and
(F) to ask the jury to disregard the court's instructions.
Nevertheless, the appeals court faulted the trial judge: "The judge acknowledged that she had given curative instructions but deemed them inadequate without explanation."  When the jury returned a verdict for $150,005.64, the lowest amount suggested by plaintiff's counsel, plus the cost of the hamburger, it came without evidence of prejudice.  The Appeals Court admonished "that a judge is not to 'act merely as a "13th juror" [to] set [the] verdict[s] aside simply because he would have reached a different result had he been the trier of facts'" (quoting precedent).

At minimum, the trial judge applied the wrong procedural standard, holding over the defense motion for mistrial from before the verdict to after, rather than requiring (or raising sua sponte) and analyzing a motion for new trial after the verdict.  Thus the Appeals Court vacated the new-trial order and remanded for proper consideration.

The case is Fitzpatrick v. Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers of New York, Inc., No. 18-P-1125 (Mass. App. Ct. Nov. 7, 2019).  Wolohojian, Blake, & Shin, JJ., were on the unanimous panel, the Hon. Gabrielle R. Wolohojian writing.  The trial judge was the Hon. Heidi E. Brieger, who teaches adjunct at her alma mater, Boston University Law School.  Matthew J. Fogelman appeared for the plaintiff.  In the 1990s, he was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper Argus at Wesleyan University.  Christopher A. Duggan and Pauline A. Jauquet represented defendants Wendy's and beef producer JBS Souderton, Inc.