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Even More Funny Things That Happened On the Way to the Courthouse Print E-mail
by John Browning    Fri, Nov 1, 2013, 10:13 AM

          The legal system isn’t always about high-minded serious notions about justice, empowering the powerless, punishing the guilty, and righting wrongs.  It has its lighter moments, too, as the following examples illustrate.

 

Must Be Present to Win

 

          It’s a pretty basic concept, drilled into us from the very first church raffle (where you “must be present to win”) to the wisdom of Woody Allen (who said “90% of life is showing up”) to basics of litigation, which dictate that to recover money damages for being in an accident, you had to have actually been there (for starters).  But that concept was lost on attorney John Bruster Lloyd and his clients, Luke Cash and Ami “Summer” Gallagher.  Lloyd filed suit on behalf of Cash and Gallagher against Carnival Cruise Lines alleging that they were among the roughly 3,000 passengers stranded at sea amidst challenging sanitary conditions and limited food in February 2013 when the Carnival Triumph lost power.  There’s just one problem: the couple was never on board.  Lloyd admits that he “screwed up,” and has since filed an amended pleading in which the couple is still asserting claims against the cruise line for breach of contract, but which omits all that “suffering on board” stuff.  Carnival representative Jennifer de la Cruz stated “That this lawsuit was even filed, alleging the plaintiffs suffered injury and mental anguish during a cruise they weren’t even on, is truly shameful and reprehensible.  Further, the fact that the suit also alleges misrepresentation and fraud is quite ironic.”

 

Getting In the Last Word

 

          The Dallas Cowboys are still embroiled in litigation over the Super Bowl ticket fiasco, but even the wins come with a drawback.  After seeking nearly $200,000 for the costs of having to produce documents in the pending federal lawsuit, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones came away with only $25,025.  Then the plaintiffs’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, added insult to injury when he stated that “Hopefully, Jerry will take the $25,000 and hire a G.M. so the Cowboys have a shot at playing in the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly 20 years.”  Ouch!  Flag on the play for unnecessary roughness.

 

A Drink by Any Other Name Still Gets You Drunk

 

          I’ve written before about “trademark bullies”—the companies and their lawyers who send overzealous, heavy-handed letters to small businesses accusing them of trademark infringement.  One recent example is CH Distillery, a popular bar/restaurant/micro-distillery in Downtown Chicago’s West Loop.  After their popular “OxyContin Cocktail” (a mix of London dry gin infused with Lapsang Souchong tea, ginger, honey, and lemon—no pharmaceuticals included) began attracting buzz, the distillery received a cease and desist letter from lawyers for Purdue Pharma, the Stamford, Connecticut-based drug company that makes the potent painkiller.  Choosing to make lemonade with the lemons they received, CH Distillery has renamed the drink the “Cease and Desist” cocktail.  And apparently, with all the publicity, the drink and the bar are more popular than ever.  Thanks, big impersonal pharmaceutical company and your humorless legal toadies!

 

Speaking of Names

 

          I’ve also written before about unusual case names, many of which are derived from government seizure cases, where the practice is to name the item or animal seized as the “defendant”—see, for example, U.S. v. Article Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes, More or Less, Each Containing One Pair of Clacker Balls, 413 F. Supp. 1281 (D. Wisc. 1976).  One recent one, which went all the way to the South Dakota Supreme Court, involved an officer’s decision to impound a bunch of cats he found roaming around the car in which a woman had been living.  The officer, noting “a strong pet odor emanating from the vehicle,” impounded the felines, resulting in a case that now lives on in the annals of justice: South Dakota v. Fifteen Impounded Cats, 785 N.W.2d 272 (S.D. 2010).

 

There’s Always Room for Jell-O

 

          From crazy cat ladies, we move to another figure many of us have encountered—the lunchroom food thief.  The bane of any workplace, the person who steals the food of others from a communal workplace refrigerator has a special place in Hell reserved for him.  While some of us deal with such a problem in one way (say, lacing a “bait” dish with liberal amounts of laxatives, placing it in the fridge, and waiting for hilarity to ensue), others take it very seriously.  Like “calling the cops” seriously.  On October 11, 2013, a Pennsylvania warehouse employee of Wakefern Food Corporation called police to the scene of a crime—the theft of his strawberry Jell-O snack by “a person or persons unknown.”  According to Pennsylvania police, “the incident remains under investigation.”  What, no CSI team?

 

You Drove Me to This

 

          Romanian Radu Dogaru, one of six individuals on trial for a 2012 $24 million art heist from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, has admitted his guilt in the theft.  But Dogaru and his defense lawyer now want to pin the blame on the Dutch art museum itself.  They are threatening to sue the museum for negligence and failing to adequately protect the works by Monet, Picasso, and Gauguin, saying the museum made the robbery “too easy.”  Now I’ve seen everything.

 

A Punny Judge

 

          Finally, it’s time to revisit the topic of judges who like to include humorous references in their judicial opinions.  The latest is U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington, D.C., who recently ruled on whether a nonprofit group, Scenic America, could challenge the Federal Highway Administration’s authority to issue guidance on the construction of digital billboards.  Ruling that Scenic America did have standing, Judge Boasberg decided to have fun writing the opinion, peppering it heavily with roadway references.  He pointed out that the FHA “shifted gears” and “gave the green light” for issuing guidance that “paved the way” for digital signs, while Scenic America “bypassed” some legal routes before it “collided head-on” with federal law.  The judge noted that the nonprofit group wanted “to put the brakes” on certain sign regulations, while critical motions were “throwing up roadblocks” to it efforts.  Although the case was “at a crossroads,” the court ruled that Scenic America’s arguments were “fueled by concrete harm,” bringing an “end of the road” for federal highway decision making.  Accordingly, Judge Boasberg ruled, the Court “declines to take either exit proposed by [the government] and orders that the case should speed on to its next turn.”

 

          I guess this case got Judge Boasberg’s motor running.

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When Funny Things Happen On the Way to the Courthouse Print E-mail
by John Browning    Mon, Oct 14, 2013, 10:59 AM

In case the government shutdown has you worried about missing out on all the strange happenings at our nation’s courthouses, fear not; there’ enough weirdness going on in the legal system to keep you happy for quite some time.  Consider the following strange tales from our justice system:

 

Justice is Blind—Really

 

David Holton is a district judge in Jefferson County, Kentucky.  By day he calls the shots in his courtroom, presiding over a wide variety of legal disputes.  But on most Friday nights this time of year, you can find Judge Holton in the press box at local high school football games, where he serves as the stadium announcer calling the contests.  While that may not be all that unusual, consider this—Holton is blind.  That’s right: Kentucky’s only blind judge (who played football as a boy until a tumor caused him to lose his sight) is up in the press box for Western High School in Louisville, announcing the plays and keeping the stadium crowd excited.  Judge Holton is always accompanied by his guide dog Buddy as well as his “spotter,” Louisville attorney and friend Thomas Patteson, who acts as Holton’s “eyes” and whispers the play by play into his ears.  The result is seamless, and most people attending the games have no idea that Holton can’t actually see the game.  Judge Holton says, “I can’t see anything at all.  I try to get across what I would need to know, if I were there in the stadium.”  When you think about it, it’s not that strange to have a blind judge acting as a stadium announcer for football games; after all, judging by some of the calls I’ve seen lately in college and pro football games, blind men have been serving as referees for years.

 

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

 

In New York, the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics fines lawyers for ethical lapses like not renewing their law licenses.  The Commission’s director of ethics and special counsel, Robert S. Cohen, should be more aware of this than most lawyers.  Yet that didn’t keep him from the very embarrassing mistake of letting his own law license lapse in 2012—oops!  As soon as the oversight was pointed out, Mr. Cohen promptly renewed his license like everybody else.  Leadership by example is apparently a concept they’re still struggling with in New York.

 

Can I Have Your Autograph?  And a Mistrial?

 

Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks is a very down-to-earth guy.  He recently showed up for jury duty in Los Angeles, serving out his civic obligation by serving on the jury of a domestic violence case.  But during a break, a recent law school graduate serving as a volunteer prosecutor with the L.A. City Attorney’s Office (but who was not prosecuting the case Hanks’ panel was considering) approached the actor in a stairwell and gushed over what a great guy he was for serving on the jury.  Oops—lawyers aren’t supposed to have contact with jurors outside the courtroom.  The defense lawyer sought a mistrial, the judge wasn’t happy, and the case ended with a plea deal for the defendant.  The L.A. City Attorney’s Office is “reviewing the incident,” and maybe they’ll realize that by using free labor fresh out of law school, sometimes you get exactly what you pay for.

 

Now Blow Out the Candles

 

A woman in Washington state recently had to stop by the local courthouse before continuing on to her child’s birthday party, and decided that the cake would be safer with her than left in the car with her dog.  As it turns out, that was a bad move.  After entering the Cowlitz County courthouse, the woman put the chocolate cake down on a table while she went through the metal detector.  Unfortunately, the cake proved to be too big a temptation for 50 year-old Robert Fredrickson, who was on his way to a court appearance.  Fredrickson attacked the cake, grabbing handfuls of cake and frosting before sheriff’s deputies grabbed him and forced him to the ground.  All’s well that end’s well—a local grocery store provided a replacement cake, and “cake molester” Fredrickson has added an arrest for 3rd-degree theft to his growing criminal body of work.

 

Really Alternative Dispute Resolution

 

There are a lot of ways to resolve business disputes, and the legal system provides many of them.  But Seattle-area business owner Mike Hanson is proposing a novel way to settle things between his company and San Francisco-based classifieds website Craigslist.org—put it all on the upcoming showdown between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers.  Lawyers for Craigslist have issued a cease and desist notice to Hanson, claiming his business Craigstruck.com (a Seattle-based company that connects people who need a truck with someone who has one so they can pick up or deliver items purchased off Craigslist) infringes upon trademarks owned by Craigslist.  Hanson issued his novel challenge to the classifieds giant in a recent video posted to YouTube: he’ll hand over everything—his trademark, the company’s phone number, even the Craigstruck shirt off his back—f the Seahawks lose to the 49ers on December 8 in Candlestick Park.  But if the Seahawks win, Craigslist has to drop the lawsuit, as well as fly Hanson to San Francisco for dinner on it.  There’s been no work on whether Craigslist will accept the unusual challenge, but imagine how the legal system would change if everyone adopted an approach like this.

 

A Case of Blue Balls

 

Get your minds out of the gutter, folks.  I’m talking about the recent lawsuit filed by Stan Michelman against Blue Man Group, claiming that he was grievously injured by a “large blue plastic or rubber ball” that was allegedly thrown into the audience at a June 2011 San Francisco performance by the comedy/musical troupe.  The Novato, California man alleges that he was not warned in advance that “items would be thrown into the audience,” and that he suffered “great mental, physical, and nervous pain and suffering” and incurred over $40,000 in medical bills.  I’m not particularly a fan of Blue Man Group, but this seems pretty silly to me—especially since the group’s website features footage from performances where they do a lot of strange stuff, like throw blue rubber balls into the audience.

 

Let the buyer beware, and duck when those blue balls come hurtling toward you.

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The Lighter Side of the Legal System Print E-mail
by John Browning    Tue, Jul 23, 2013, 10:17 AM

We’ve been deluged lately with weighty, thought-provoking cases in the legal system: the George Zimmerman trial over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and what it says about race relations in America; the fight over abortion legislation in Texas; and a series of potentially far-reaching U.S. Supreme Court decisions on everything from voting rights to affirmative action to same-sex marriage.  At some point, the mind practically begs for some relief—isn’t there anything out there to lighten things up just a bit?  Well, search no more, faithful readers: here is a roundup of the cute, the funny, and the just plain odd of the legal system.

Wackiest Warning Labels

In June, the Center for America selected their finalists for the Wackiest Warning Label of the Year.  My favorites include the label on a common indoor extension cord—“Wash hands after using” (for those of us for whom the interaction between water and electrical outlets is still a mystery); the warning on a package of rubber worms made for fishing—“Not for human consumption” (thanks for the tip—I thought they were like Gummi Worms, just chewier and without flavor); and the warning on a bottle of spray-on anti-fog cleaner—“Not for contact lenses or direct use in the eyes.”

Having Fun with Lawyers

Perhaps the best way to get back at angry lawyers is to do what Chris Shepherd recently did.  The Houston chef operates Underbelly, a local restaurant that until recently offered a burger called the “UB Double Double.”  When lawyers for California-based fast food chain In-N-Out sent him a letter threatening litigation over the similarity to In-N-Out’s “Double Double,” Shepherd decided not to play David and try to fight Goliath and his army of humorless lawyers.  Instead, he complied with the cease and desist letter by re-naming the burger the “Cease and Desist Burger.”  It consists of two hamburger patties (all of Underbelly’s meat is butchered on-site at the restaurant), two slices of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles (Underbelly’s vegetables are locally grown), and just a bit of wry (humor, that is).  Since the controversy, the Cease and Desist burger has become one of the most popular items on the menu.

The Happiest Court on Earth

A family court judge in Arizona recently found the best way to deal with an ex-husband who opposed his ex-wife’s request to take their children out of state to Disneyland.  In granting the mother’s request, the judge wrote “The Court cannot think of any good reason why any parent would refuse to agree in writing for his or her children to go to Disneyland . . . . If in fact Father has refused Mother’s travel requests, then Father’s refusal for the sake of refusal is nothing more than a Mickey Mouse litigation tactic, and just plain Goofy.”  Well said, judge!

I Don’t Know Why She Didn’t See This Coming

Self-professed psychic Jennifer Williams and her Los Angeles company Psychic Readings by Yana have been sued.  The lawsuit by Klarissa Castro claims that the self-styled medium fraudulently took $11,000 from Castro, promising to lift a “love curse.”  The purported psychic was the one who alerted Castro to the “curse” on her love life, and offered to fix it with a series of psychic sessions and the commissioning of a $5,000 painting (to be done by Williams) that would aid in lifting the curse.  Unfortunately, according to the lawsuit, the only thing that got lifted was money from Ms. Castro’s wallet.

 Too Stupid to be a Criminal

There are entrance exams for a lot of jobs, setting a minimum standard of proficiency.  Maybe there needs to be one for would-be criminals as well.  Zachary Tentoni of Southington, Connecticut was recently arrested for the theft of a woman’s wallet in Dorchester, Massachusetts.  How did the police track down the alleged thief—forensic investigation like “CSI,” old-fashioned detective work, or an anonymous informant?  Nope.  It seems that in snatching the wallet, the thief dropped a bag he was holding; in it was the birth certificate of 26 year-old Tentoni and a letter addressed to him from his mother.  Don’t worry, Zachary; you may be too stupid to be a thief, but there’s always the TSA.

I’ve Heard of Taking a Haircut on Fees, But This is Ridiculous

Have you ever needed to get legal advice, but also needed to stop by a barbershop?  Then search no more, my friends, “Legal Cuts” is open for business as a combination barbershop/law office in New Britain, Connecticut.  Attorney Don Howard, who does criminal defense and personal injury law, has an office in the back of the shop.  The Chicago native went to barber school in Illinois before his studies took him to Mississippi State and Wyoming, where he cut hair while studying.  After relocating to Connecticut, he decided to combine his two passions.  Howard says “I love cutting hair and people often talk about their problems in a barbershop.  I think the barbershop is the perfect place to marry law with hair cutting.”  Good luck, Mr. Howard—hopefully no clients will ask you to trim back your legal fees.

Coincidence, or Shrewd Business Development?

The stereotype of the sleazy lawyer is the one who chases ambulances and shows up at accident scenes, pressing business cards into the hands of victims.  But what if the accidents keep coming to you?  For the seventh time (over the past 10 years), the small Iowa City, Iowa law firm of Bray & Klockau has been the victim of a traffic accident.  In the latest incident, an errant taxi cab swerved onto the law firm’s property and crashed into its front porch, damaging it and the foundation.  Previous incidents have resulted in pedestrian injuries and power outages.  The building itself was built in 1902, and sits at what has become a busy intersection.  While the law firm partners have asked the city to put in a four-way stop sign, the city to date has declined.

Now That’s Dedication

How far would a lawyer go to make sure he doesn’t miss a crucial hearing where his client’s interests are at stake.?  Well, if you’re Toronto attorney Howard Levitt, the answer is “pretty far.”  The prominent Canadian employment lawyer was on his way to catch a flight for an important hearing in Ottawa in early July.  Driving through heavy rain that quickly led to a freak storm and flooding, Levitt tried to follow several other cars through an area that looked like a puddle.  Unfortunately, because his $200,000 Ferrari California rides extremely close to the ground, it took just a few inches of water to stop the beautiful machine dead in its tracks.  As the flood water rose, and realizing the tow truck he’d called wasn’t going to arrive in time, Levitt abandoned the vehicle and took a cab to the airport.  After finding out that all flights had been cancelled, Levitt went to a different airport where he got “the last seat of the day” to Ottawa.  He won the next morning in court, though.  Levitt said, “It’s a good ending, except for my poor car.  I guess that’s what insurance companies are for.  But the bottom line was, I had a case to get to.  You can’t let the client down, no matter what personal emergencies you might have.”

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The Dogs of War Still Slipped Print E-mail
by Bob Reagan    Sun, Jun 30, 2013, 03:16 PM

 

 


 

 

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The Case of the Teeny Weeny Bikini, and Other Legal Weirdness Print E-mail
by John Browning    Wed, Jun 5, 2013, 09:23 PM

          Any job can get a little boring, doing the same thing day in and day out—even when you’re a federal judge.  I recently wrote an article about a federal judge who issued an order riddled with “Star Trek” references; I guess it was a slow day at the courthouse.  Apparently, he’s not the only judge recently to liven up his opinion with amusing wordplay.  In April, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery in San Antonio creatively confronted a gentleman’ club’s challenge (on First Amendment grounds) to a San Antonio city ordinance requiring dancers to wear pasties to cover their breasts.  Judge Biery had a lot of fun with this opinion, liberally sprinkling it with double-entendres and cheeky references (he also notes that while there were no amicus curiae  briefs filed, “the Court has been blessed with volunteers known in South Texas as “curious amigos” to be inspectors general to perform on sight visits at the locations in question”).

 

          Among other risqué turns of phrase, Judge Biery notes that “Plaintiffs clothe themselves in the First Amendment” seeking to prevent another “naked grab of unconstitutional power.”  The Plaintiffs, according to Judge Biery, warned that the ordinance would “strip them of their profits” and impact “their bottom line,” while the city wanted these businesses “to be girdled more tightly.”  What the Plaintiffs were seeking, said Judge Biery, was the “erection of a constitutional wall separating themselves from the regulatory power of city government.”  In considering the clubs’ argument that they would be negatively impacted by being forced to choose between having dancers wear bikini tops (or pasties) and not be regulated, or go topless and be considered a sexually-oriented business, Judge Biery opined “To bare, or not to bare, that is the question.”  While he doubted that “several square inches of fabric will stanch the flow of violence and other secondary effects emanating from these businesses,” Judge Biery nevertheless sided with the city and denied the clubs’ request for an injunction.  However, he held out hope for a settlement, saying that if the parties happened to “string” the bikini case out (Judge Biery even entitled his order “The Case of the Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Bikini Top vs. The (More) Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Pastie”), “the court encourages reasonable discovery intercourse as they navigate the peaks and valleys of litigation, perhaps to reach a happy ending.”  Time for a cold shower, judge.

 

          From a judge dealing with dancers exposing too much to a judge ordered to show more than she wants, we come to the case of Joan Orie Melvin.  Melvin, a former justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, was convicted of using public resources—her staff workers—in her political campaign.  The former judge was spared prison time, but has to serve 3 years of house arrest, pay a fine, and work in a soup kitchen 3 times a week.  But the most interesting part of her punishment is a public shaming for what Judge Lester Nauhaus called “stunning arrogance.” Melvin will have to write a letter of apology to every judge in the state—on a photograph of herself wearing handcuffs.

 

          And if public humiliation is your thing, consider this recent exchange in a high-profile sex trafficking case in New York.  Howard Greenberg was vigorously defending his client, accused pimp Vincent George, maintaining that the women weren’t victims, but instead were happy “hoes” who considered themselves part of George’s “family.”  The prosecutor called a “trauma bonding” expert, Chitra Raghavan, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to testify about why prostitutes might put up with and even defend their pimps.  Greenberg suggested that the women’s decision to sell their time was no different from, say, the expert witness herself—bought and paid for by the prosecution.  I’ve referred to experts “whoring themselves out” before, but this takes the cake.

 

          Some lawyers or witnesses are valuable because of their insider knowledge of a company; as the expression goes, they “know where the bodies are buried” (in New Jersey, that saying is sometimes meant much more literally).  At one British law firm, they really do know where the bodies are.  In May, the body of a 42 year-old man was discovered in the chimney at Moody and Woolley Solicitors in Derby.  Builders called in by the firm to fix a hole on the roof found signs of an attempted break-in and then, in the chimney, the body of 42 year-old Kevin Gough; the body was believed to have been stuck there for several weeks.  Not surprisingly, concerns were raised by staff about flies and a smell at the office, leading to the grisly discovery.

 

          Moving from the dead to the walking dead, Jerimiah Hartline must watch a lot of TV—maybe too much.  The Tennessee man had a creative defense when he was caught after stealing a big-rig truck in California, causing several accidents and ultimately overturning.  He said he had to speed and swerve because of the zombies that were pursuing him.  The “zombie defense” ultimately didn’t work, leading Hartline to plead guilty; he faces up to 5 years in prison.

 

          And finally, here’s yet another sign that society feels it is okay to despise lawyers.  Columbia University recently made the newswires with the report that it was trying to get rid of a longstanding scholarship that many perceive as racist.  The Lydia C. Roberts Graduate Fellowship was established at Columbia after its namesake died and left most of her $509,000 estate to the school in 1920.  Up until recently, the fellowship was given out to candidates who met its restrictions, including that the recipient must be from Iowa and must be “of the Caucasian race.”  While the “whites only” aspect is the only part of the fellowship that Columbia administrators now have a problem with, one other restriction in the fellowship’s restrictions apparently was okay with the university and the media: Roberts Fellows are prohibited from studying law.  Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be lawyers!

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