Hogue & Belong Named 2017 Litigators of the Year- Breaking News
Litigators of the Year
One lawyer took on Trump — and helped make the man who famously said he never settles, settle. Another took a $2 million bite out of Apple. Still another helped a former San Diego State basketball coach score more than $3.35 million.
San Diego’s lawyers are as aggressive and determined as any, despite our region’s laid-back attitude. And while San Diego’s bar is often over-shadowed by Los Angeles, most say that’s not fair.
“I’d put our lawyers against anyone in the state,” said Loren Freestone, president of the San Diego County Bar Association.
Most people outside the bar have little idea of the breath of cases San Diego attorneys tackle, he said.
To shed light on some of San Diego’s outstanding litigators, we focus your attention on the biggest legal wins of the past year.
Jason Forge, Michael Dowd, Debra Wyman and Darren Robbins
Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd
Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd had a particularly strong year.
Forge was one of the lawyers representing students from Trump University, who claimed they got a rotten education and paid handsomely — as much as $35,000 — for the privilege.
As many as 7,000 former students joined in the class-action suits that dogged Trump as he ran for president. During his campaign, he often said he refuses to settle lawsuits and had no intention of doing so this time. He even said he was prepared to come to San Diego to defend his school in court.
But he ended up agreeing to pay $25 million. That decision came after he won the presidency, with his lawyers saying he had to turn his attention to running the nation.
Trump did not accept blame as part of the settlement.
Forge didn’t get paid a dime. None of the lawyers working for the students did. All the money went to the students, many of whom had taken out loans to pay for their education.
Next is Dowd. He was the lead attorney going against HSBC Finance Corp., formerly known as Household International. Remember the mortgage crisis? Household International was accused of helping fuel the mortgage crisis by offering subprime mortgages to unqualified borrowers, along with a host of other lending misdeeds.
A class-action suit against the lender was filed in 2002. That’s how far back the predatory loan practices dated. Many of the plaintiffs were pension funds, which had invested heavily in the loan company. It would take 14 years before relief came
The first trial took place in 2009, with the jury ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. However, that verdict was appealed, and the case was ordered to be retried.
That was supposed to happen in June of last year. Dowd moved a team of support staff — including more than a dozen attorneys — to Chicago, where the case was being tried.
But on the eve of the trial, the parties reached a settlement of nearly $1.6 billion — one of the largest ever for a securities fraud case.
Then, there’s Robbins. Like Dowd’s, his case stretched on for years, nearly a dozen. And like Dowd, he was relentless. The case, filed in Toledo, Ohio, was a class action against an auto parts supplier, Dana Holding Corp., whose top officials were accused of painting a rosy picture of the company’s finances to lure investors.
When the investors — again, pension funds — saw their investments shrivel, they sued. Last year, the former executives finally agreed to settle for $64 million — one of the largest payouts ever in the Northern District of Ohio.
Debra Wyman also took part in that suit for the firm. She, too, had a remarkable year and was named Gladiator of the Month in February by the firm. Part of the reason was her role in a $215 million recovery for investors in HCA Holdings last April. HCA, a healthcare concern, launched an initial public offering in 2011 but did not alert investors of revenue stream problems it was having. It managed to raise a whopping $4.3 billion in that IPO. However, soon after, the financial problems surfaced and the firm’s stock fell 40 percent.
Wyman and a team of lawyers got investors between 34 percent and 70 percent of their damages, which is between 10 and 35 times greater than the median recovery, the firm said.
In an interview by the firm, Wyman was asked what she considered to be the most overrated virtue. She answered: “Aggressiveness. Too often it is used to excuse acting like a jerk.”
Robbins said protracted court cases such as the ones the firms handle can be par for the course. There are protections built into the law to protect companies from frivolous lawsuits. So you have to be prepared to meet those legal challenges and do battle for the long haul.
Even if companies know they are in the wrong, it hardly matters, he said. They will fight.
“They don’t say, ‘Oh, you got us. Here’s the money,’” he said. “You have to pry it out of their hands.”
His law firm is well known for doing so. It’s the firm that went after Enron, the Houston-based energy company that was riddled with corruption. That was a seven-year battle.
Robbins said he respects clients who choose to settle early, even if the settlement is just pennies on the dollar. It can make financial sense if the case is expected to be long and drawn out. Clients can get worn out emotionally.
However, he likes it when they fight.
“I like to go the distance,” Robbins said. “I think it’s good to push it.”
Ed Chapin of Sanford Heisler
When Beth Burns got canned from her position as the head coach of the San Diego State University women’s basketball team in 2013, she did more than cry foul.
She got a lawyer.
Burns was accused of being tough on subordinates and even forcibly elbowing one during a game. But she had a different story. She said she was let go because she blew the whistle on SDSU for not adhering to Title IX regulations.
Enter Chapin, an attorney with Sanford Heisler, who offered to settle with the school if it honored her contract, worth about $880,000. He said the school came back with an offer of $165,000.
“They rolled the dice,” he said.
Chapin is a Vietnam War combat veteran. Going into a courtroom?
“I approach it with the same resolve,” he said. “But no one is shooting at you.”
He felt for Burns, who had to wait three years to get the chance to clear her name. It’s an agonizing wait, he said.
Chapin scoffed at the elbowing episode. He said all the coaches were crowded together on folding chairs on the sideline during the game.
“She was maligned,” he said.
And it was not easy on the firm. To make money, it had to win, because it was a contingency case. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in hours had been invested, Chapin said. When it was all said and done, the jury awarded a judgment of $3.35 million.
He feels good about his victory, but he doesn’t gloat.
“It’s about helping people,” he said of his work. “For them, this is real blood and guts drama. It’s everything.”
Jeffrey Hogue of Hogue & Belong
A lot of people love Apple because of all the cool gizmos it produces. The company doesn’t have the same shine for Hogue, an attorney with Hogue & Belong. His firm went after it for ripping off employees.
His firm represented Apple Store employees in San Diego who said they weren’t given meal and rest breaks. State law says companies need to do so or pay employees for the time instead. Some employees went as long as eights hours without a chance to eat, Hogue said.
He filed suit.
“We like to stick up for the little guy,” Hogue said. “And this is the law. Companies have to follow the law.”
Hogue is sympathetic toward employees who have sales goals to meet so they push themselves hard. The case evolved into a class-action suit, with as many as 21,000 people onboard.
The case has not gone easily. Normally, class-action suits take between two and three years, Hogue said. This has gone on for more than five years. Just recently, a judge ordered Apple to pay $2 million, and it may have to pay more if the judge so decides, Hogue said. He’s still waiting for that determination. However, whatever the outcome, he expects Apple to appeal.
Apple has played hardball throughout, and Hogue said he has been surprised by the company’s tough tactics. However, Apple did change its policy regarding meal and break allowances, so employees now get those benefits.
“We feel good about that,” he said. “That’s something.”
Michael Sullivan of Michael Sullivan and Associates
Sullivan knew going in that this case was going to be widely watched. He was defending Thomas Jefferson School of Law, which was being sued by a former student who claimed the school pumped up graduate employment rates. Even if they were working as pool cleaners, they were counted as employed. The former student said it was those gaudy numbers that led her to apply, she said.
She ended up in debt and couldn’t find a job, she said.
The case a novelty. It was the first of its kind in the nation to make it to court. So, it was going to be watched and scrutinized by the legal community, including just about every law professor in the nation.
That’s a bit of pressure.
“You make triple sure you’re dotting all of your i’s and crossing your t’s,” Sullivan said.
For Thomas Jefferson, the stakes were obviously high. Its ethical conduct was in question. Other schools faced similar suits, but most were quickly dismissed. This case was receiving a lot of media attention — The New York Times reported on it — because of the plight of many recent law grads who couldn’t find jobs after investing in costly educations.
However, Sullivan was able to dispute the plaintiff’s claims soundly, he said. For one, she was offered a legal job after graduation but turned it down. Second, her claims that the school had publicized misleading employment numbers were not founded, he said.
The school did include all types of employment, but there was no evidence that it altered the numbers appreciably, he said. Once the American Bar Association ordered schools to note whether grads had legal jobs or not, the school complied, he said.
Interestingly, a number of grads who sued the school later found legal work, he noted.
“It was just taking them longer to find jobs,” he said.
Mike Bomberger of Estey Bomberger
This one is a tearjerker, no question. Bomberger, of Estey Bomberger, represented the family of a premature newborn who was overfed because the hospital’s nursing staff didn’t properly monitor the feeding machine. The baby girl was bombarded with glucose, which stopped oxygen from getting to her brain.
The baby suffered severe brain damage as a result. The hospital later settled for $20 million, which is the largest medical malpractice settlement in California history.
For Bomberger, this was a tough case from an emotional standpoint. He handpicks cases and subsequently spends a lot of time with his clients. In this case, the agony the mother was going through was enormous.
“It’s impossible not to be impacted,” he said.
The other challenge of the case, as with many he handles, was to understand fully the medical issues at play. Having that knowledge is key when facing expert witnesses who have medical degrees and many years of experience.
“I really enjoy the more challenging cases,” Bomberger said. “I like learning.”
When it came to explaining how the baby suffered her injuries, the hospital was not exactly forthcoming. “The hospital didn’t deny it,” he said, “but it was very vague about how it happened.”
Through discovery, Bomberger was able to piece the story together. Either the machine was not calibrated correctly or the baby was being fed directly from the bag, resulting in overfeeding, he said.
Bomberger was prepared to go to trial, but a settlement agreement was reached three years after he filed suit. The large settlement came after Bomberger had consulted with many medical experts regarding the level of care the baby would need moving forward.
As part of the confidential settlement agreement, the hospital was not named.
Bomberger learned only after the settlement had been reached that it was a record for the state. He felt good about it, but more importantly, he said, the child’s mother felt good about it as well.
Brian Watkins of Brian E. Watkins & Associates
High schools are known for having some pretty rigid rules. Take Patrick Henry High in San Carlos, for instance. Students couldn’t use the bathrooms during class time.
In 2012, a 14-year-old freshman girl, had to go. She was on medication that caused frequent urination. The teacher didn’t think the bathroom break was permissible under school rules, so she came up with an alternative.
Use a bucket …
The girl was told to do so in a small utility closet and then empty the contents into a classroom sink. Sounds like something from a Dickens novel.
Watkins, of Brian E. Watkins & Associates, represented the girl. When her parents told him the story, he was in disbelief.
“I get a lot of people coming through my door, telling me outlandish things that have happened to them,” he said. “This one turned out to be true.”
It wasn’t just the humiliation of the actual event, he said. This is high school. Word spread fast. The girl was teased. She later changed schools, and she attempted suicide.
“Here she is, a freshmen going into a big high school for the first time. As if that’s not nerve-racking enough,” Watkins said.
Mental injuries can be more damaging than physical ones, he said. If you suffer a physical injury, you may be able to heal relatively quickly. Broken bones mend. A mental injury can play havoc for years, he said.
This case also garnered national news, which is something that Watkins thrives on.
“I like the pressure,” he said. “It makes me perform better.”
San Diego Unified School District offered $35,000 to settle, which Watkins said he turned down because he felt it was ridiculously low. The jury agreed. It awarded the girl $1.25 million in damages and $41,000 to cover medical bills.
David Casey of CaseyGerry
Casey is battling for the family of Mr. Padre. He’s the lead attorney in a lawsuit against the makers of smokeless tobacco, claiming the product led to the early death of Padres great Tony Gwyn.
The suit was filed last year against Altria Group, formerly known as Philip Morris, and other defendants. Another national newsmaker, this suit alleges that the tobacco giant induced Gwynn to use smokeless tobacco through marketing efforts and giveaways when he was a star baseball player at San Diego State University.
Gwynn used smokeless tobacco for 31 years. In 2010, he was diagnosed with cancer in his right parotid salivary gland, near where he dipped. He died four years later at the age of 54.
When Gwynn began using smokeless tobacco, there were no warnings on the cans. However, the industry knew the dangers of smokeless tobacco, said Casey, of the law firm CaseyGerry.
Gwynn was one of San Diego’s most beloved athletes, winning eight National League batting championships. While the case is yet to go to trial, the family hopes the suit will bring wider attention to the dangers of dipping.
Irwin and Alex Zalkin of The Zalkin Law Firm
Law firms run the gamut when it comes to specialties. You likely know the staples: labor law, criminal defense, personal injury, banking and finance …
Here’s a relatively new specialty, and it’s a sad reflection of our society: sexual abuse law. The Zalkin Law Firm in Carmel Valley, headed by the father-and-son team of Irwin and Alex Zalkin, has become the go-to firm when it comes to victims seeking legal help in sexual assault and harassment cases.
Last year, a former Harvard University student sought their services. Alyssa Leader, who graduated in 2015, claims she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student. The school dragged its feet in investigating the matter, forcing her to continue to live in the same dorm as her accuser. She was so scared that she carried pepper spray with her.
The Zalkin Law Firm got its reputation from taking on the San Diego Catholic Dioceses and representing victims of sexual abuse by priests. It also represents victims in university settings, such as the Harvard case. Earlier this year, it filed suit against Columbia University. A female Columbia student claims that she was raped twice on campus and that the school didn’t protect her from harassment afterward.