Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Courageous Stoic

Earlier in my career as a trial lawyer, I thought all of my clients had to express their emotional distress in emotional ways in order to get damages from a jury. The problem is, we don't all express our emotions in the same ways. In my family, my daughter and I are more openly emotional, while my son and husband are more restrained. In my experience, men express emotions differently then women. Sometimes I think it is harder for men. Women cry while men hold in their emotions.

My partner Kristi and I represented a man in an age and retaliation discrimination case and I needed help to see his pain. I hired John Nolte, a psychodramatist, to help me and I had an agenda. I wanted my client to emote. It took me awhile, with John's assistance, to see that my agenda was misguided.

My client, I'll call him Phil (not his real name) was in his late 50s. He had worked as the general manager of a business for ten years when he was brought into the office and fired. He then had to exhaust the money he had saved for retirement to start his own business. At the time Phil was fired, his boss told him that it was nothing personal and he had done a good job, it was an economic decision. However, when Phil asked for a letter with the reasons for his termination, the employer claimed, for the first time, that Phil was a sexual harasser, was lazy, yada yada yada. Phil appeared to take this in stride.

Phil was a very interesting man. He was a jokester, never appearing to take things seriously. Sometimes, Phil would make off the cuff comments that we found to be offensive, jokes that I didn't think were funny. I let him know and he stopped. Phil was "a good ol' boy," who had a good heart. He was devoted to Kristi and I and constantly gave us positive feedback. But, "good ol' boys" don't whine and complain. It's not in their nature. They are the strong, silent types when they are hurting. The phrase "Don't let them see you sweat," was coined with people like Phil in mind. But, Phil was really hurting.

I hired Nolte to help with re-enacts with Phil, but John Nolte helped with so much more. Nolte gave me ideas for opening statement. He told me to set the scene and reenact Phil going into his boss' office and what Phil was really thinking and feeling when he got fired. I did that and I was drawn into Phil's world, the world of the tough guy in pain. And Phil could see that I understood what he was going through.

The defense made a point that the other younger employee who was vulgar and awful and who was fired but then rehired because he begged for his job back. In closing argument, I explained to the jury that Phil did not beg for his job back, that Phil had too much pride to beg. That wasn't who he was. Phil was proud. I could tell immediately from Phil's muted grin that I got him, I knew him, and Phil was pleased. He wouldn't plead or beg, he would not degrade himself. He had too much character and pride.

The jury rendered a verdict for the defendant on the age discrimination case, but gave Phil a good sum for emotional distress and punitive damages on the retaliation case because of the letter Phil got claiming he was a sexual harasser. Phil was pleased. He gave us a gigantic Honey-baked ham that Christmas.

The defendant appealed the case, a federal case, to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and, of course, the verdict was reduced. Phil didn't seem to mind. He was gracious and kind to Kristi and me, told us what a great job we did and I think he meant it. Phil was a class act. I don't know if he still tells the ethnic jokes I found offensive. I hope we learned from each other. I know I learned a lot about dignity from him.

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