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”.