From the Memoirs of Alvin Dorfman: Civil Rights Lawsuits, part 2: Long Beach Pennysaver

In the summer of 1982, upset that the Long Beach-Island Park edition of the Pennysaver was not being distributed in the predominantly Black community bounded by Reynolds Channel, Long Beach Boulevard, Park Avenue, and Park Place in Long Beach, some black clients of mine asked me if I thought a lawsuit would be appropriate. For a few weeks, I thought about it, and concluded that a legal attempt should be made to end this invidious discrimination. My clients and I met to select plaintiffs for the case. We chose a black minister of the Soul Stirring Church of God in Christ, located on Park Place; a white person living in the targeted area; and a child along with her father, who were Black residents of the targeted area. We named the Pennysaver Corporation and its two officers as defendants. In our complaint, we alleged that though the Pennysaver advertised that it went to every single home and business in Long Beach and Island Park, this was obviously not the case, and that the sole reason for the boycott of the subject community was that the residents were predominantly Black. Such a commercial boycott and blacklisting of the plaintiffs and the class they represented was, we alleged, motivated by race and was thus a violation of the New York State Constitution, the New York Human Rights Law, and a section of the Federal Civil Rights Law.

From the very start, the defendants treated our lawsuit with imperiousness and contempt, as if to ask what right “these people” had to seek out lawyers and complain to and seek redress from the courts. They seemed to think they could run my office off the case. Two officers of the Pennysaver Corporation, possibly sent by their lawyers, went to the home of the church minister and interrogated him for almost thirty minutes, asking him how he had come to my offices and whether he had come to me or I to him. They must have thought that if I had solicited this case, I would somehow be in trouble. I hadn’t solicited the case, but even if I had, it seemed to me that the law made solicitation of a civil rights case absolutely kosher, and that the bar was not interested in taking action to prevent it. Moreover, I was not charging my clients anything for bringing this lawsuit; it was just another labor of love, an opportunity to fight for what seemed to me only right. In any case, barging into a plaintiff’s home without the consent of their lawyers is completely unacceptable. These successful businessmen surely had lawyers, only a phone call away, who knew this quite well. Had my clients been white, I am sure that this visit to the plaintiffs in an attempt to intimidate me would never have taken place.

Before answering the complaint, the defendants chose to file a motion to dismiss, claiming that the exclusion of the Black area in Long Beach was not racially motivated but was based purely upon business reasons. They asserted this with generalities, never really explaining their non-racial economic reasons for the boycott. We strenuously opposed their motion and, instead, asked for summary judgment on behalf of the plaintiffs. Both their motion to dismiss and ours for summary judgment were denied, and Judge Vincent R. Balletta of the Nassau County Supreme Court wrote that the complaint was sufficient on its face to set forth a cause of action alleging a violation of the plaintiffs’ human rights under the Human Rights Law of New York State. It took a certain amount of guts for the judge to write this decision, and I applaud him for it.

The defendants appealed to the NYS Appellate Division, consisting of four judges, one of whom, Judge Thompson, was Black. In those years, Black judges were a rarity, and there was a good chance they had been chosen because of their willingness to “tow the line.” Judge Thompson fulfilled those expectations and then some: He was our “Clarence Thomas” and his views could have been expressed by any white rightwing, racist judge. He referred to the defendants’ arguments as unchallenged and “thoroughly convincing,” and was not even bothered by the white Pennysaver officers’ unannounced visits to the Reverend’s home. Judge Thompson reminded me of a Black judge in federal court who, having suffered from segregation and discrimination during the Second World War, looked me straight in the eye and essentially said words to this effect: “Young man, if I was willing to accept the racism heaped upon me and my fellow Black soldiers in World War II, then what are these people complaining about in this bug-bite case?”

Luckily the three white judges saw the racism in the case and wouldn’t let it go by the boards. Judge Balletta’s decision was affirmed, and everything else then fell into place. Discovery was to go forward and hearings were to be completed in preparation for a trial, but the defendants wanted to settle, if for no other reason than to avoid the continued negative publicity. I always had it in the back of my mind that the courts might decide that the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights prevented a lawsuit like ours, and we could have lost the trial for any other number of reasons, so we decided to accept the settlement offer: The Pennysaver would pay $10,000 in attorneys’ fees and within thirty days would begin to distribute the Pennysaver throughout the entire City of Long Beach, including the Black community. The attorneys’ fees didn’t begin to cover the hundreds of hours I and an associate had put in on this case, but I felt more than compensated by the joy of having successfully processed a case representing a tiny step in the direction of racial equality.  It might sound corny, but whenever I represented people for human rights or anti-war positions, I would become elated with a successful result.

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