Sunday, February 27, 2011

Missouri at a Crossroads: HB 205 and SB 188 - Do Legislators Really Want to Mess With a 50 Year Old Civil Rights Law?

Living in the state of Missouri has always made me proud. We're the "Show-Me State," home of Harry Truman, the man who integrated the military, among many other honorable decisions. Our discrimination laws have been fair, letting Missouri juries filled with Missouri citizens who have the Show-Me wisdom decide not only whether a worker has suffered from unlawful discrimination, but also what the monetary compensation should be to try to make that worker whole.

And Missouri juries get it right most of the time, using their innate intelligence and common sense. Plaintiffs lose something like 40% of the time. Punitive damages are awarded in rare cases only. Missouri judges follow a law that was passed almost 50 years ago during the Civil Rights movement. As the song from"Oklahoma" goes, "Everything's up to date in Kansas City ..." (and St. Louis, and Springfield, and Columbia and everywhere else in Missouri.)

Now, some in the Missouri legislature want to strip Missouri workers of some of this state's hard fought civil rights. The proposed changes do the following:

1. Throw Missouri citizens into federal courts because judges in the federal courts have consistently thrown cases out of court. By eliminating individual liability in the law, non-Missouri corporations, who benefit from the change, can force all lawsuits into federal courts headquartered in Kansas City or St. Louis, providing no local control for Missouri citizens.

2. Require caps on damages modeled after caps in federal courts that were set and have not been adjusted since 1991, some twenty years ago.

3. Gut workers' ability to bring necessary whistleblower cases by subjecting them to the caps and requiring unreasonable proof.  This law is proposed and backed by one particular company because it's lawyers are upset that a verdict was rendered against the company some eight years ago.

It's hard to talk about these changes in the abstract, so I'll try to illustrate the impact these changes would have on one of my clients.

My client is a 17 year old girl who at age 16 went to work at a restaurant to help save money for her dream to attend art college. She did not know what danger she was walking into when she accepted the job. Her supervisor was a serial sexual molester. The owner of the restaurant knew that the supervisor had raped a girl who was previously employed, but kept the molester supervising young women. My client, young and naive, knew nothing of her supervisor's past problems. When he sexually molested my client, my client did not know what to do or to whom to turn. She did what most young girls do, nothing -  because she was so afraid of losing her job and that she would be blamed as somehow enticing this pervert. Finally, when it got to be too much for her to bear, she told the owner's daughter, who said, "Oh, he's done this before." When the bosses found out, they told my client not to tell anyone. Ultimately, several months down the road, she did tell her parents.  It was not until my client's parents found out that anything was really done.

My client's parents took their daughter to the police station and this supervisor ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor battery, with a suspended imposition of sentence. No registering as a sexual offender, no jail time, and his record is totally cleared as if he was never found guilty as long as he gets through his probation .

In the meantime, my client has suffered as a victims of sexual assault do. If this law passes, she will be limited in damages to $50,000 to repay her for the attacks because of the size of the company; she will not be able to sue the man who molested her for sexual harassment since he is an individual; and she may have the entire case thrown out of court because of peculiar twists in federal law.

Is this how Missouri really wants to treat it's citizens? I know businesses do not like to get sued. No one likes being sued. But, the citizens of Missouri have the intelligence and common sense to decide when someone has been done wrong. Our jury system is the underpinning of our democracy. In Missouri, we need not distrust our citizens to do the right thing.

Monday, February 21, 2011

New Orleans - a city of contradictions

I am in the New Orleans airport waiting for my plane to take me home.  I have been at a wonderful seminar on Psychodrama for Lawyers, put on by my friends Joane Garcia-Colson, Fredilyn Sison and Mary Peckham.  It was an innovative and creative experience.  However, I want to talk about what I saw in New Orleans while we were there.

This is the first time I have been back to New Orleans since Katrina.  The French Quarter is filled with revelers, people celebrating and letting loose.  Wherever you walk down Bourbon Street, music fills the air.  I am imagine some people engage in behavior that they later regret, and sometimes hardly remember.  In two candy stores, women bickered over who was next in line, making snide comments to other candy buyers.  The streets are filled with people, some sober, some not, some pushing baby carriages.

However, on Sunday, Joane, Fredi, Mary and I have an experience that I will not soon forget.  Joane wants beignets, so we wait while she stands in line with scores of others.  After she gets the fried treats, we decide to walk along the Mississippi River toward our hotel.  It is a little chilly, with the wind blowing.  We are bombarded with smells, most of which are unpleasant.  Homeless-looking men sit on benches, playing musical instruments with guitar and horn cases open at their feet for donations.  The music is beautiful, but most people, including us, do not stop.

As we walk along the sidewalk, past a Holocaust memorial, a man, shabbily dressed, runs up to us, shouting, "Help! Help!  Please give me a phone.  She's having a seizure and I need to call 911!" People are ignoring him.

I look over to where he had run from and a short, squat African-American women is trying to leave the sidewalk, as she sways and stumbles and sits.  Across from her is an older man, named Jesse, shabbily dressed with a long white beard and yellow mustache, drinking a large can of beer.

Joane immediately responds, "I'll call 911."  She pulls out her phone and starts talking into the receiver, "We need an ambulance here at Riverside Park by the Holocaust Museum.  No, the Holocaust Museum.  Holocaust.  H-O-L-O-C-A-U-S-T.  By the aquarium.  In Riverside Park.  By the river.  In the park.  Near the aquarium.  Holocaust museum.  I don't know the address. . .  In Riverside Park."

In the meantime, the man who accosted us goes back to the bench where his friend is. "Tell them her name is Marsha and she is 52 years old.  She is having a seizure.  She is not taking her Dilantin."

He grabs Marsha and holds her down on his lap.  "Marsha, I am not letting you go.  You need to go to the hospital.  You are my best friend, Marsha.  I am going to take care of you.  I know what I am doing.  I was in the 82nd Airborne.  I am not letting you go.  You are my best friend and I love you."

Marsha, an African-American woman dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, struggles to free herself.  "I d-d-d-don't want to go to the hospital.  They hurt me."  She holds up her left arm, where there is a large bump.  "Th- th-ey couldn't get the IV in."

The man holds Marsha securely. "Marsha, you have to go to the hospital.  You made me promise that if you had a seizure that lasted three minutes, that I would get you to the hospital.  This seizure was more than three minutes.  You are my best friend and I am going to take you to the hospital."

Jesse chimes in, "Marsha, you need to go to the hospital."

A tourist couple tells us that they will go to the end of the street and flag down the ambulance.  A man in a golf cart drives up, and looks at the the scene and tells the homeless people, "You all are going to have to leave."

We shout at the man, "She's having a seizure, she's sick.  We called an ambulance."

The man in the golf car looks at us, obviously tourists, and it dawns on him this situation is different, "Oh, oh, okay.  Is this the woman who's sick?"

We wait.  I am afraid to leave because I am fear that the homeless woman will be blown off by the paramedics.  Marsha is still struggling to free herself from her friend.  When she talks, the right side of her mouth is drooping.  The man, a white man in is 40s wearing a ball  cap with a fleur de lis over his shaggy dishwater brown hair holds Marsha tight.  I can't help but notice how blue his eyes are and how, under different circumstances, he might be a handsome man, this war veteran who lives in the park.

The paramedics arrive.  To us untrained tourists, it doesn't look  like Marsha is having a seizure, it looks like a stroke since the right side of her face is drooping.  The man tells the paramedics that Marsha is not on her medication and Marsha struggles to free herself.

The man again Marsha, "I am not going to leave you.  You are my best friend.  I will make the paramedics take me with you."

Marsha relents and they strap her to the gurney as Marsha surrenders.  The man follows close behind, holding his belongings in a green recyclable bag.  "I won't leave you, Marsha."  And they disappear into the ambulance.

I , and my friends, have been standing on the bench making sure that Marsha gets the attention in the park that she needs.  Jesse remains seated, looking like a homeless Santa Claus and engages Joane in conversation.  I turn around and see the sculpture of a Menorah behind us, to signify the Jews killed in the Holocaust.  The scene is overwhelming and I begin to weep.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

3 SISTERS!!!! and Psychodrama

I am so excited that I am going to be on the staff of the 3 Sisters seminar next week in New Orleans! The seminar is about the use of psychodrama as a trial lawyer. The 3 Sisters, Joane, Fredi and Mary are all certified psychodramatists. I am also a certified practitioner The guru/mentor of psychodrama, at least for me, John Nolte, will also be there.

I was first exposed to psychodrama in 1994 when I attended the Trial Lawyers College. That summer changed my life. I was in John Nolte's group at the Trial Lawyers College. I watched as a group of strangers had the courage to become vulnerable in front of each other. In psychodrama, instead of describing events of one's life, they are put into action. The method is extraordinarily powerful, as a tool for trial and prep, and as a way to discover oneself. My exposure to psychodrama, initially through the Trial Lawyers College, jump started me onto a path of self-discovery, both professionally and personally.

Through the years, as a lawyer, I began to take risks that broadened my horizons and helped me succeed for my clients. I left the firm I was working at and started my own, with my law school friend Marie. When a judge seemed to be biased against me or my client, I assertively confronted the judge and his attitude changed. I don't think I would have had the courage to do that before 1994. I became a much better trial lawyer. I got my personal life in order. I may have made these changes had it not been for psychodrama. Who knows? But one thing I am sure of, psychodrama was the impetus.

When the time came, after the 3 Sisters left the Trial Lawyers College, I eventually resigned from the TLC staff. I left mainly because I perceived unfair treatment of one of my friends. I also left, because I felt that I had become stagnant. I did not feel that I was growing creatively. I will forever be grateful for what I learned through the Trial Lawyers College, but it was time for me to leave. There are many people who are innovative and creative on the TLC staff. It is a very good program and I recommend it unhesitatingly to others. My friend Rafe Foreman, one of the greatest trial lawyers I have ever seen in action and a fabulous teacher, is moving to Kansas City to take over as a professor at my law school to make their trial advocacy program one of the best in the country. And, I bet he will do it, too.

Now back to 3 Sisters. The 3 Sisters are taking what they learned over the past decade and continually improving upon the past. These three women are three of the most innovative, brilliant and compassionate people I know. They wrote a book, Trial in Action, about psychodrama for trial lawyers. The book is superb. I am so excited because of the innovation of these women and the chance I am going to have next week to be a part of the magic. I can't wait. If you are interested in finding out more about the 3 Sisters, check out their website,

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Next Civil Rights Movement - GLBT (and it's about time)

I predict that within a few short years all over America we will finally protect gays, lesbians, bi-sexual and transgender people from discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and eventually marriage. And, it's about time.

When I was an adolescent, gays were called "queers" and they rarely were open about their sexual orientation. I had a cousin that evereyone whispered was "queer" and people giggled. In high school, tough guys (probably with concerns about their own sexuality) bragged about "rolling the "faggots" at Liberty Memorial. By then, the late 1960's and early 1970's, the civil rights movement had begun, but it did not apply to anyone in the GLBT community. Nope, they were still weird, still scary and deserving of ridicule.

I look back at that time and wonder, what caused everyone such fear? Was it that kernel of attraction, or maybe that boulder of attraction the bully felt towered someone of the same sex? Was it the fear of ostracism by family, friends, or religious zealots? Was it the uncomfortable feeling that flirting would not get you what you wanted, that you might be rejected by someone of the opposite sex? Fear, fear of something different and unfamiliar may have driven this homophobia.

Whatever it was, people of my generation and older treated gays and lesbians despicably. They, we, were afraid. We were taught by our parents to fear something so different, or maybe not so different, maybe sometimes intriguing. It was messed up.

Then something revolutionary happened. My generation had children. Many of our children were dumbstruck by the attitudes of their parents to the gay and lesbian community. GLBT people were courageous and came out. They loved themselves and demanded to be respected. And views of society as a whole began to shift and grow.

That is not to say that gays and lesbians are fully accepted and free from discriminatory treatment. It is legal in most states to discriminate against gays and lesbians in most states, including Missouri. In fact, the ways some people treat gays and lesbians is sometimes despicably demeaning and degrading and we need our discrimination laws to included our gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender brothers and sisters. It's long past time. I am tired of rejecting potential clients who are treated so abominably while waiting for the law to catch up with decency. On occasion, I have found creative interpretations of the law by using city ordinances to fashion a viable cause or action. We should not have to be creative to protect our brothers and sisters from injustice.

Please write your legislators, both state and federal, to put a stop to this despicable disparity. It's time to stand for justice. Gandhi once stated, "First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win.". It is time that we as a society make it unpopular to discriminate. We have been through the first three phases of Gandhi's paradigm. Now it's time ot win.