In another memorable case I handled, the opposing lawyer not only gave his client bad advice, but made things a lot worse for him than they needed to be. My client, Patricia, worked at the United States Redemption Center, one of the many purchasing centers owned by U. S. Redemption, and she had discovered that some of her most intimate conversations there had been recorded because the phones were “bugged.” At the time, she was in the middle of a divorce and had a boyfriend, and one of her children was going to counseling. Patricia learned that her employers had listened to her conversations about all these matters and replayed the tapes to other persons to the amusement of all. It goes without saying that she felt her privacy had been violated and, as we stated in the formal complaint, that she had suffered extreme embarrassment, humiliation, anxiety and mental anguish.
We did an extensive investigation and discovered from former employees of the Redemption Center who had installed the bug how and where it was installed (in the ceiling). To my surprise, they admitted that they had heard the recordings and knew that had been repeatedly played for others. So we brought a lawsuit in federal court against U.S. Redemption Center, Inc. and the individual defendant, who ran the business (although we discovered that his wife was the nominal president and sole shareholder of his business). We alleged that the activities of the defendants were in violation of anti-bugging statutes contained in federal law and in New York State penal law, and constituted an invasion of privacy and defamation. Initially, the defendants were represented by an attorney (let’s call him “Attorney A”), but eventually he represented only the company while another attorney took over the representation of business owner as an individual.
Attorney A impressed me as quite bright but lacking common sense. It didn’t take a mental gymnast to realize that the charges in the summons and complaint could also lead to criminal charges in both the state and the federal courts. If I had been in his position, I would have rushed to make the best possible deal for my client and settled the matter as quickly as possible. Instead, Attorney A never cooperated, rarely returned a phone call, and referred to my client in the most derogatory manner, using just about every sort of epithet a “street guy” could think of. He had to have known I’d repeat this all to my client and, of course, she was furious. She wanted to go straight to the Nassau County District Attorney’s office to file a complaint alleging criminal violation of the anti-bugging laws of the State of New York. Up to that point, I had restrained her from doing this, but in light of the defendant’s attorney’s behavior I now made no attempt to stop her.
Meanwhile, nothing in the civil case went smoothly. Agreements and promises meant nothing. During depositions, the defendant produced invoices and other documentation purporting to show that my client could not have been wiretapped because she wasn’t in the Merrick store on the days in question. I told Attorney A to make sure to hold on to those documents because I wanted a documents expert to examine them; I suspected they were forgeries. Early the following week, Attorney A contacted me to tell me that he had gone to court in Brooklyn, parked his car in a municipal garage with the papers and documents in question in the trunk of his car, and returned to the car to discover them all missing. Frankly, I didn’t believe him, but since I had no proof to the contrary I commiserated with him. What followed was almost unbelievable and reflects the tone of the litigation and what I had to deal with. A few hours after this phone call, I received another call from a police sergeant in the Seventh Precinct in Seaford, who told me he had been contacted by Attorney A who had told the sergeant his tale of woe. Attorney A, he said, had hired a private polygraphy expert to confirm his tale, passed the polygraph, and then alleged that I was responsible for the theft of the papers! The sergeant now wanted me and my client to submit to polygraphs and give our statements in the matter. I told him we would do no such thing. There was no end to Attorney A’s perfidious surprises.
It was in the criminal case that my client had instituted that Attorney A’s behavior most damaged his client, who was caused to plead guilty to a class A misdemeanor in the Nassau County District Court and was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment, which he served on weekends. I can say categorically that but for his attorney, the business owner would never have had to suffer the pain of incarceration.
The civil case finally came before federal Judge George C. Pratt, a distinguished-looking gentleman whose reputation was that you couldn’t just “jerk him around.” I knew that the law in this case was far from clear; there were few civil suits based on this criminal law, and I kept this in mind in negotiating a settlement. We agreed on the figure of $32,500, but like everything else in this case, this wasn’t the end of things. Unbeknown to me and Judge Pratt, the defendants (with the help of their attorney, I believed) had denuded themselves of any assets before the settlement by transferring title to their expensive waterfront home in Massapequa so as to try to keep it out of reach of the plaintiff. I therefore had to institute additional proceedings in the Nassau County Supreme Court to void that transfer. Eventually, we succeeded in securing the relief we sought, and my client collected the settlement monies.
From the Memoirs of Alvin Dorfman: Civil Rights Lawsuits, part 5: Disabled person’s rights in public
An earlier lawsuit involving a tenant dispute and prejudice of a different sort came to me in June, 1983, when Miriam K. Lurie, a 79-year-old widow confined to a wheelchair because of a neurological disorder, consulted me about a threat of eviction from her co-op building. She had been living at 1 Kensington Gate in the Village of Kensington, Long Island, since the building had been built fourteen years earlier. It faced Middle Neck Road, a major north-south artery on the Great Neck peninsula, and had a circular driveway with an adjacent sidewalk and canopy. Since taking ill, Mrs. Lurie would occasionally sit outside the front entrance of the building in her wheelchair, accompanied by her African-American attendant (who wore a white uniform), for perhaps fifteen minutes at a time, just to get some fresh air. Although her wheelchair in no way impeded pedestrian or vehicular traffic, the building manager had told my client that she could no longer sit there because other tenants had complained that her presence there “made the building look like a nursing home.” She next received a letter from the co-op’s attorney, threatening her with eviction if she continued her practice of sitting in front of the building. That’s when Mrs. Lurie and her son asked to see me.
They were people of means, and the case was a matter of principle for them. Mrs. Lurie’s father-in-law had published the Yiddish language newspaper Der Tog (The Day) which I remembered my father reading every day. Her deceased husband, who had owned a very successful real estate mortgage business, had been the founder and first president of Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Great Neck, and Mrs. Lurie was a past president of that synagogue’s sisterhood. The clients were not anxious to start a lawsuit, but wanted to receive a letter telling them it was alright for Mrs. Lurie to continue to enjoy the fresh air in front of her building. Not only were we unable to secure such a letter, but the co-op added another claim and threatened her with the imminent commencement of eviction proceedings.
The co-op asserted that my client’s wheelchair fell under the rubric of “velocipedes,” which the house rules prohibited from the elevator, public halls, passageways, and any common areas in the building. Such a claim was not only unreasonable but cruel and insensitive. If a wheelchair was to be barred from the building, that should have been specifically set forth in the lease, which it wasn’t. Clearly, however, the co-op intended to act quickly, so we decided to seek a temporary restraining order and injunction to prevent the co-op from moving forward with eviction proceedings. We also knew that the news media could prove helpful to us, so I sent them copies of the summons and complaint, along with 8×10 glossy photographs depicting my client in her wheelchair with her attendant beside her, all of which they published. The co-op made a motion to dismiss our complaint, but the court ruled in our favor. As a practical matter, this concluded the eviction. Never did the co-op’s attorneys seek an additional hearing.
Mrs. Lurie’s son-in-law then wished to pursue the personal injury aspect of the case. As part of our original filings, we had asked for money damages for the mental and emotional harm done to this plaintiff. The theory of our case was that the co-op had itself violated their proprietary lease guarantee to tenants of “quiet enjoyment” of their apartments and the building’s premises, and that the actions of the co-op also violated the disability provisions of the New York State Human Rights Law. Actually, the law was not clear and we found no cases as precedent, although an analogous case had just been brought by the New York State Attorney General against the owners of an apartment building that contained a medical office where HIV/AIDS patients were being treated and tenants were ignorantly afraid of catching the disease. When I called the Attorney General’s office to see if they had any more information that might prove helpful in my case, I was told theirs also was a case of “first impression” and that they, too, were trying to “make law.”
Mrs. Lurie had never seen a physician, psychiatrist, or psychologist in connection with her claimed injuries, and therefore our case was weak. When the case was about to be called for trial, I received a call from a claims adjuster for the co-op’s insurance company. I had never spoken to him or heard his name, so it startled me that he said he wanted to settle the case. Knowing that my case was weak, I could not understand his motives, but when I asked him why he was so intent on settling, he simply said, “You just listen to me; we gotta settle this.”
We started negotiating, and eventually settled for $19,500. Had my case been dismissed in the Mineola Supreme Court I would have had nowhere else to go with it, so any sort of settlement was a victory of sorts. After the settlement, I got back to the claims person and asked him, out of curiosity, why he had been so anxious to settle a case that really didn’t look like much of a threat to the insurance company, and he told me a most interesting tale. He referred me back to a case I once handled for an African-American woman who had been referred to me by the Nassau County Commission on Human Rights. She had been looking for an apartment for herself and her husband in Farmingdale, and when she visited one apartment that had been advertised she had been told that it was already rented. She didn’t believe it and went to the Human Rights Commission, and they tested whether or not the apartment was still available by sending a white applicant to the apartment. This white tester was offered the apartment — whereupon the Commission referred the client to me.
As it turned out, I settled the matter in less than fifteen minutes, and didn’t charge the client because it was a civil rights matter. I don’t believe I even created a file for the case: I simply phoned the building manager, who happened to be the daughter of the owner of the building, and told her that I was representing the African-American woman to whom she had lied about the apartment no longer being available. I told the building manager that she had half an hour to offer that apartment to my client or else call her lawyer. Within a few minutes, she called back and said the apartment was available for my client, who moved in with her husband —and I never gave the case any more thought.
I was beginning to get the creeps when the insurance adjuster brought this case up, but he quickly explained that he was the husband of that applicant for the apartment, and that he and his wife were still living there. What a small world! It just shows that you never know how such a case will turn out. In fact, I could never figure out what the co-op’s lawyers had been thinking when they brought the case against Mrs. Lurie in the first place. The co-op’s law firm was heavily connected with the Nassau County Republican Party and should have read the riot act to their clients, telling them how foolish their position was and advising them to cut their losses ahead of time.
Racism was at the heart of another memorable case I handled, in the Town of Oyster Bay, this time directed against Mexican immigrants. On the evening of November 15, 1996, the Town of Oyster Bay raided a group of commercial office buildings in Hicksville that had been used for many years as residential facilities after the landlord had been unable to rent them profitably as commercial properties. The government came out in full force for the raid: There were at least two dozen policemen and a number of Town of Oyster Bay employees, including the superintendent of the Division of Buildings and the chief deputy town attorney.
They claimed that the tenants, primarily Mexican immigrants, had not objected to the raid and had welcomed them into their apartments. In fact, the tenants later told me that the Nassau police had pushed open locked doors and given the tenants no alternative but to submit for fear of the consequences were they to do otherwise. The raid confirmed that these buildings were being used illegally as residential properties, and the tenants were ordered to leave immediately. It was claimed, as well, that certain conditions in the building, such as fire hazards, made it dangerous for the tenants to remain.
In December, I attended a Christmas party hosted by the Central American Refugee Committee (Carecen), for which I was the treasurer and had been a board member for at least ten years. A staff attorney told me that Carecen had been asked to provide attorneys for the ousted tenants, and although she had skills in the area of immigration, she had no experience handling general litigation and had not been able to find an attorney willing to undertake representation of these tenants. So I offered my services pro bono.
It seemed to me that more was going on in this case than met the eye. In the ordinary course of events, the Town would have brought a lawsuit in the Nassau County District Court against the landlord without even naming the tenants in the lawsuit. After all, the tenants were there at the behest of the landlord, and he had been taking their illegal rent and security deposits for years. The history of the premises revealed that multiple violations had been issued and multiple lawsuits had been brought against the landlord in the Nassau County District Court, but these matters had all been treated as if they were of no particular moment, with repeated adjournments and a minimal settlement of $2,000. These buildings could have been worth millions of dollars, and it seemed to me that the landlord was now trying to get rid of the tenants so he could conclude some sort of deal, but was also trying to avoid a landlord/tenant proceeding in the District Court, where all sorts of time-consuming defenses could have been made. Was the Town doing the dirty work of the landlord in bringing this Nassau Supreme Court lawsuit and ousting the tenants?
I retained my brother, a licensed professional engineer with a specialty in structural engineering, to investigate the buildings pro bono. He concluded they were all structurally sound. Any needed repairs could be done at once and would entail minimal costs. From an engineering point of view, there was no reason to have evicted the tenants. We therefore asserted in our papers, among other things, that the Town of Oyster Bay was doing the dirty business of a private landlord and had acted in an unacceptable, immoral, and racist manner. What we also had in our favor was the fact that the case was to be tried just two days before Christmas and had received enough publicity to ensure media coverage. No judge wanted to be the one to keep these tenants homeless at this time of year. To make sure everyone would be fully aware of the timing of the proceeding, I had a few priests in clerical garb and a few nuns who supported the tenants attend the hearing. The only thing I was missing was a nursing mother or two.
I was right that the presiding judge, Judge Bucaria, didn’t want to look like a son-of-a-bitch during the Christmas season. He said, in effect, “Fellas, let’s make a deal.” In addition, the town attorney seemed to be aware of my reputation as someone who was willing to take on the issue of racism, which other lawyers were often afraid to mention, and he seemed nervous. Everyone was ready to find a way to settle the case.
Of the initial hundred or so tenants, only about thirty or forty remained, the rest having returned to Mexico, probably because they were undocumented. We couldn’t ask the court to allow these people to live on the premises indefinitely, so we worked out a deal that allowed them to stay there for another two months, rent- and utilities-free. They were to be forgiven any back rent due and reimbursed any security monies they had paid. This seemed to us a victory.
One of the buildings was unaffected by the settlement because it had been in use as a residential facility for more than thirty years and had been “grandfathered in” to the zoning code. I never really found out what happened with this building, but I suspect nothing much. It probably remained a residential facility or, possibly the landlord paid the tenants off so that he could use it for whatever other purpose he had in mind.
Several months later, at the Carecen annual fundraiser, I was given an award as the “Pro Bono Attorney of the Year.” It might sound corny, but it meant a lot to me. This case had given me a sense of accomplishment, of having done the right thing. At the party, everyone bought fundraising raffles with half the money going to Carecen and half to the winner of the raffle drawing. As luck would have it, I won the drawing — but business was good at the time and it was my pleasure to donate the money back to the organization.
In 1987, the leadership of the Tenants’ Council Association along with some individual tenants from the Moxey A.Rigby apartments, a low-income housing project of 100 apartments in three six-story buildings in Freeport, came to see me. The 310 residents, most of them Black, were up in arms. There had been a series of violent incidents, including assaults, shootings, and stabbings of the residents in their apartments, in the common areas of the buildings, and in the areas adjacent to the apartment complex. There was a regular drug business being carried on in their buildings. The tenants and their families were in morbid fear for their lives and wanted to know if anything could be done from a legal standpoint. If they were a white constituency, they believed, the Village and its police would be falling all over themselves to provide security. Could we force the Village to care as much about these defenseless African Americans?
My visit to the First Precinct in Baldwin confirmed the tenants’ sense of the enormity of the violence to which they were subjected; the Moxey A. Rigby Apartment Complex was in competition with an address in Hempstead for the questionable honor of being the most dangerous and lawless area in all of Nassau County! I prepared and served a complaint that stated, among other things, that if the court didn’t come to the tenants’ assistance they would be doomed to continued victimization and fear for their lives, health and safety. We explicitly stated that were it not for the fact that the tenants were Black, the Freeport Housing Authority would have taken appropriate ameliorative actions. The proceeding was brought pursuant to the New York State Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law, and we asked the court to appoint an administrator with the power to receive the rent and apply it, or a portion thereof, for security purposes. Pending further consideration, the court ordered my office to collect rents and to keep appropriate books. Fortunately, my wife came to the rescue and became the bookkeeper for this rent strike.
As soon as all of this made the newspapers, the Freeport Human Relations Commission sent me a letter signed by its executive director, in which he said, “whether they are consciously thinking in terms of race or not,” my statement of complaint was racist. “It is disappointing, however,” he added, “that a person of your standing in the community, with your knowledge of Freeport and of what has been accomplished here over many years, vis a vis race relations, should by such remarks cheapen what is undoubtedly a serious problem — not racism but drug dealing. In doing so, you did a serious disservice to the Freeport Community.” It should be noted that the chairman of this commission was my rabbi, and that, in fact some of the members of the Human Relations Commission were Black. These people had been in such a hurry that they hadn’t even contacted me first to find out the facts of the case.
I responded the same day I received the letter and, in a frankly aggressive manner, argued that the Commission had abdicated its obligations and responsibilities and was trying “to isolate and, by trial in absentia in deference to some higher authority, condemn a single person of standing in the community.” I pointed out that I had been involved in the struggle for racial equality in Freeport for thirty years while persons of “standing” in the community had been absent or reluctant to take a stand. I strongly resented being made a scapegoat, and pointed out that the existence of crime (drug dealing) didn’t mean that racism was not involved. Next I received a phone call from the director saying that they would withdraw their letter if I did the same. Obviously they were ashamed of what they had done.
Mayor Dorothy Storm soon sent a letter to the Tenants’ Council, many individual tenants, the attorney for the Freeport Housing Authority, and some public officials calling for a meeting to seek “reconciliation in the community.” The letter was not sent to me, but I gave the mayor and her office the benefit of the doubt because I couldn’t believe that anyone with half a brain would see it as proper to deal with my clients and have them discuss the issues of a pending lawsuit in the presence of the Housing Authority’s lawyer but without their own counsel. When I showed up for the meeting, however, I discovered that my non-receipt of the letter was no mistake: The mayor and the Village attorney asked me to leave! En masse, my clients got up and left with me, refusing to participate in the meeting without their lawyer. It felt like I was in the deep South, with Black people were being told they couldn’t have their lawyer represent them. There is no doubt in my mind that if these tenants had been white, no one would have had the chutzpah even to suggest this.
Just before my clients and I were about to leave the building, Assemblywoman Earlene Hill showed up, and when I told her what was happening she went into the meeting with the aim of “straightening things out.” Within a few minutes, my clients and I were invited back in, but the meeting really proved to be worthless. Nothing much happened.
In very short order, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development made an application to have the case removed from the Nassau District Court to the Eastern District Federal Court in Brooklyn, and the case was assigned to Judge Jack Weinstein who, of course, had been my law professor and sponsor into the New York State Bar. The Housing Authority made a motion to dismiss, but it was denied. Judge Weinstein ordered that some discovery take place (documents exchanged and sworn testimony taken) so that the court could make a more informed judgment as to whether to dismiss, whether in fact it was the court’s job to order security protection in a housing project.
I don’t recall if Judge Weinstein suggested it, or if I simply decided that I should retain the services of an attorney more experienced than I in federal civil rights matters, but through my friend at Hofstra Law School, David Kadane, I secured the assistance of Professor Leon Friedman, a constitutional law authority. We went over the case, and Professor Friedman prepared a succinct amended complaint covering the areas I already expounded upon and adding that the failure to provide security for the tenants at the Moxey Rigby Apartments was a violation of the Civil Rights Law and the Constitution of the United States. Our hope was to extract a settlement offer from the Housing Authority and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), because we were afraid that if we pushed Judge Weinstein to make a decision as to whether there was any legal merit to our lawsuit we would end up losing the case. Even though our legal position may not have been as strong as we liked, the bad publicity for the respondents proved most helpful, and the Housing Authority and HUD were anxious to cut a deal.
They and the Village of Freeport came up with the money to pay for security, and on April 9, 1992, Leon Friedman and I appeared before a magistrate, advised him of the conditions of the proposed settlement, and agreed to a dismissal of the lawsuit. The clients were energized, having seen what unity and “militancy” could accomplish, and a number of significant improvements were actually made: the Village police provided the apartment complex with a patrol from 8:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon, and a Muslim group was retained to provide security from 4:00 in the afternoon until midnight. Although the apartments didn’t have ’round-the-clock security, the situation was a hell of a lot better than it had been before. In addition, the tenants retained a former Freeport police officer, Julius Pearce, as an advisor.
The locks on the doors leading into the buildings, the intercom system, and the doors leading to the roofs were among items repaired, and the tenants began to breathe more easily in the new secure atmosphere. The Moxey Rigby Apartments were soon no longer in competition for the “honor” of being the number one crime area in Nassau County. We might have lost the battle in that we agreed to a dismissal of the lawsuit, but we won the war by substantially increasing security for our clients.