Husband-and-wife duo Michael Haddad and Julia Sherwin play to their individual strengths
Published in 2021 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine on July 7, 2021
Michael Haddad and Julia Sherwin both began their careers in the early ’90s in Detroit, at Goodman, Eden, Millender & Bedrosian. They bonded over a shared passion for civil rights—and the challenges of carrying workloads of 50 cases apiece. Six months later, they broke Sherwin’s personal rule about not dating anyone from work.
“I thought we were going to a political lecture, and it turned out to be fancy dinner and a concert, to which I arrived two hours late. At the time, I was chronically late for social engagements. Michael made it clear to me early on that I needed to stop doing that,” Sherwin says.
Now married for 23 years, Haddad, 54, and Sherwin, 52, practice civil rights law at Haddad & Sherwin, the Oakland firm they launched in 1998. They represent plaintiffs in cases involving police and jail misconduct, and wrongful death. It’s a partnership that allows them to play to their individual strengths.
“One of the things that makes me happy is to be able to do this really great work, and to do it with Julia, my life partner,” says Haddad. “It’s really a blessing. People ask, ‘How can you work with your wife so closely?’ I think we both humbly recognize what we are not good at, and are totally comfortable deferring to the other in those areas.”
Sherwin adds, “When we first started out, we each tried to do everything. Then we learned to go with our affinities and personal strengths.”
Haddad, a past president of the National Police Accountability Project, focuses on police liability issues, including conducting depositions with officers; and writes most of the firm’s legal briefs. He also handles the appellate side of the practice. Sherwin documents the extent of physical injuries, dealing with reports from doctors, pathologists and medical examiners; and works up the damages claims. Much of the individual client support falls to her.
“We have a level of trust and almost psychic communication,” Haddad says.
Sherwin agrees: “We can be in a mediation or a deposition and someone will make a statement, and all we have to do is look at each other to know what the other is thinking.”
Their practice is really “trauma stewardship,” Sherwin says. “When our clients come to us, it’s as a result of literally the worst thing that has happened in their lives. In helping them navigate the legal process, it’s important to help them navigate their own emotional process.” The team uses a psychotherapist to help clients recall details about events in a safe manner.
Outside the office, they spend time with their two large rescue dogs, Kela and Luna, who need a lot of exercise. They are regulars on the trails at Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, which is steps from their home. “It’s really healing,” says Sherwin, who also volunteers with the Save the Redwoods League. ”Just getting out in nature and being out in the woods is stress-reducing.”
The pair have won millions of dollars for clients who died or were catastrophically injured while in jail, including $11 million for an inmate left paralyzed from the neck down after having an adverse drug reaction, suffering injuries in his cell that left him unable to walk, and being moved without the protection of a cervical collar. They are representing two families of inmates and a prison sergeant who died after contracting COVID-19 in San Quentin, and they negotiated a $7.3 million settlement for the family of a man killed by a carotid hold. Sherwin and Haddad also find time to write about police violence cases and trends on their blog, including on topics such as “excited delirium,” which is sometimes used as a defense by police when a suspect dies in custody, but has not been recognized by the mainstream medical community.
“I’ve been trying to debunk excited delirium for years,” says Sherwin, who is regularly contacted by plaintiff’s attorneys around the country, and has set up a DropBox with detailed instructions for deconstructing this defense. “We try to help lawyers who are encountering these cases whenever we can.”
In late spring, they had several cases waiting for federal court to reopen post-quarantine. In one of them, Murrietta-Golding v. City of Fresno, a police officer shot and killed a 16-year-old boy in 2017 after he jumped a fence, fleeing police who were investigating a shooting that occurred the previous day. He was unarmed.
The couple is writing a book to help other attorneys learn how to better investigate and litigate police misconduct cases, with the working title Straightening Bent Badges: A Path to Police Accountability and Reform. The name comes from a case in which the firm represented a man killed by Vallejo police. It was later revealed that the officer was among those in the Vallejo PD who would bend the tips of their seven-point star badges to “commemorate” an officer-involved shooting. Their case resulted in the largest civil rights settlement—$5.7 million—in the city’s history.
Cornell v. City and County of San Francisco
Haddad & Sherwin represented a rookie police officer who was jogging in plain clothes in Golden Gate Park when he was chased by police at gunpoint and arrested. Their client was given a ticket for resisting arrest, though never charged, and was fired. The firm won over $500,000 for him in 2017.
Slusher v. City of Napa
In the neglect, abuse, torture and wrongful death of 3-year-old Kayleigh Slusher, the firm negotiated a $5 million settlement in 2019 for Kayleigh’s father and paternal grandmother, as well as reforms in how Napa police and child welfare officers respond to cases. The court noted, “The horrific murder of Kayleigh likely could have been prevented had the police officers and social workers involved in this case performed their jobs with any semblance of competence.” Kayleigh’s mother and her live-in boyfriend were convicted of murder, and are each serving 25 years to life in prison.