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Stormer v. System

Dan Stormer likes fighting for people who need help

Published in 2015 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Michael Estrin on January 21, 2015


Standing guard just inside the reception area to Hadsell Stormer & Renick, a 12-lawyer, civil rights firm located just off the main drag in Old Town Pasadena, is a giant statue of Bart Simpson wearing a devilish grin. It’s the first clue as to the type of person you’re coming to see. Upstairs the firm’s walls are covered with an art collection of left-wing political posters, including Shephard Fairey’s famous “Hope” poster from Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. That’s the second clue.

The third clue is the dozens of personal checks covering the doorway to Dan Stormer’s office. They’re for small amounts, the result of successful bets Stormer has made with colleagues over quotidian matters such as “Which prospective juror is most likely to ask for a hardship to get out of jury duty?” Inside the office, stacks of papers spread in a semicircle behind Stormer’s desk constitute the fourth clue. They’re from his latest big case, in which he’s challenging the city of Los Angeles’ 46 permanent anti-gang injunctions and asking this legal question: Can the LAPD label a person a gang member without due process and then jail them if they fail to comply with a mandatory 10 p.m. curfew specific to that label?

Put all of those clues together and you get Stormer himself, a scruffy-looking hippie type who wears jeans around the office and only puts on a suit when he has to go to court.

“I think he intentionally wears bad ties because he doesn’t buy into the whole system,” says Susan L. Guinn, a San Diego lawyer who has worked on at least 40 cases alongside Stormer. “Lawyers are supposed to wear ties, but Dan doesn’t care what people think he’s supposed to look like.”

Stormer’s practice runs the gamut from employment issues to international law, while his clients range from minimum wage workers to scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. If there’s a common denominator, it’s this: He tends to represent individuals at odds with a powerful system.

“Our society treats people who don’t fit the norm poorly,” Stormer says. “Police treat people of color poorly. Our bureaucracy treats poor people poorly. I love being a lawyer because I like fighting for people who need help.”

That’s why he chose the law in the first place. He knew what it was like to need help.

On Christmas Eve 1959, in Wayne County in northeastern rural Pennsylvania, Stormer’s older brother was behind the wheel of the family car. His mother was in the passenger seat, while Stormer, 12 years old, sat between them. On a dark country road, their car collided with another vehicle. The other motorist was clearly at fault, Stormer recalls, but the man decided to file a lawsuit to recover damages. Today, Stormer views it as a rather naked attempt by a wealthy person to use the law as an instrument to bully the poor.

Without the money to pay a lawyer, the Stormers could have incurred serious debt. But they eventually found a local legal aid lawyer who represented the family at trial pro bono and saw to it that the Stormers paid no money in damages.

“I was totally impressed by her,” Stormer recalls of the only attorney he ever met growing up. “She had this magnificent office—or at least that’s how it looked to me as a kid. It probably wasn’t all that impressive in retrospect. But the main thing that really struck me was that this person could actually help us. I was just overwhelmed by that concept.”

After graduating from Wagner College in 1968 with a degree in medieval European history, his path to law school took a detour specific to the time: He was drafted. Despite his current outlook, the young Stormer wasn’t particularly political—neither supporting nor opposing the Vietnam War. But he discovered he was a pretty good soldier. “I had played sports in school and as a rural kid I had learned to shoot at an early age,” he recalls. “So basic training was a piece of cake.”

Then came his political awakening.

The barracks at Fort Jackson near Columbia, South Carolina, he says, were “basically divided in half. On one side you had white kids who had joined the National Guard, Dan Quayle types. They were relatively wealthy and they had gone to college. They weren’t going to be in long enough to go to Vietnam.”

On the other side of the barracks, where Stormer bunked, there were mostly poor and minority kids who didn’t have the connections to join the National Guard and lacked the money to attend college. “They were all going to Vietnam,” he says. “And the worst [off] were the Puerto Rican guys. Most of them could barely speak English, and they couldn’t vote, but they were the ones who were going to have to go to war and get killed. The manifest unfairness was just crazy to me.”

Off base, it wasn’t any better. “In the office for the commanding officer,” Stormer says, “there was a map which indicated where white and black soldiers could go.” Once, military police officers stopped him and his friend, who was African-American, because Stormer was in an African-American area. “That was really my first experience seeing racism up close,” he recalls.

Trying to get his military service over with as quickly as possible, Stormer dove into the deep end. “I volunteered for combat,” he says. “My brother was on his way to Vietnam, serving with a long-range reconnaissance platoon. I thought I’d either do that or go to Vietnamese language school and be a translator attached to the infantry.”

The Army didn’t give him what he wanted. Instead, he was sent to Germany. He spent his tour of duty in an office, playing on military sports teams, and working on an underground anti-war magazine. By the time he was discharged and enrolled at NYU Law School, he had become tuned in to issues of race and class in American life. He had also narrowed his career focus: He was determined to become a legal aid lawyer.

In 1974, Stormer arrived at the Colorado Rural Legal Services office in La Junta, a small farming community in the southeastern part of the state. During law school summers, he had worked in the Colorado public defender’s office where he was allowed to represent clients charged with misdemeanors. The experience made him something of a veteran among his relatively green colleagues.

“We were young, dumb and really vigorous,” Stormer says. “We just had a blast. It really was the perfect job for me.”

Stormer focused primarily on criminal matters. “Most of it was petty stuff because the local authorities used the criminal law as a tool for picking on brown people,” Stormer says.

Early on, he hit upon a winning tactic. His clients may have been poor, but the local legal system wasn’t exactly rich. County judges in La Junta worked part time, which meant the town wasn’t able to try all of the cases brought by local law enforcement. So rather than plea bargain, Stormer demanded jury trials whenever possible. His tactics gummed up the works and infuriated one local judge who literally quit the bench rather than face a docket of endless trials with Stormer.

“He just said, ‘You win, I quit,’” Stormer says with a laugh. “The system was making life hard for my clients, but I won a lot of cases by making life hard for the system.”

After Colorado, Stormer moved to Washington state, where he worked on prisoner-rights issues. “Dan’s always seen his work as being about more than just the individual case,” says Wayne Lieb, now a workers’ compensation lawyer whom Stormer supervised. “He’s trying to make society a better place.”

Then it was on to California, where he joined the Western Center on Law and Poverty. In one case, he filed suit against Tulare, alleging racial discrimination in the city’s hiring practices, and winning almost half a million dollars for several clients who had been denied access to civil service jobs. In another case, Stormer represented families with dependent children who had stopped getting assistance checks when the state Legislature failed to pass a budget on time. The fight went to the California Supreme Court, which sided with Stormer and ordered the state controller to send the checks regardless of whether or not the Legislature had passed its budget.

By then, the Reagan revolution was in full swing, legal aid budgets were being slashed, and Washington, D.C., placed new limits on legal aid lawyers—making it difficult to represent illegal immigrants or bring class action lawsuits. So in 1984, Stormer and Barry Litt formed Litt & Stormer, a civil rights firm that has since become Hadsell Stormer & Renick. In a sense, private practice was a huge shift for Stormer, who had always worked without the financial pressures of a for-profit model. But it was also a natural progression because it gave Stormer the financial freedom to put his resources where he thought they would do the most good.

“Dan uses his skills and resources because he sees an important principle at stake,” says Lieb. “He doesn’t care if that principle is unpopular or unprofitable.”

Case in point: former LAPD Sgt. Mitchell Grobeson, an openly gay officer who resigned from his job in 1988 and sued the department, alleging sexual orientation employment discrimination. That case settled in 1993. After he rejoined the department, Grobeson faced retaliation from supervisors and filed a second suit in 1996. The city and Grobeson finally reached a partial agreement in 2007 when the city agreed to strengthen its administrative code guidelines against sexual-orientation discrimination. The city also agreed to pay $636,000 in legal fees. But it took another six years to resolve the question of Grobeson’s back pay. Last year, the matter was finally resolved—25 years after it had begun.

The Grobeson case wasn’t just a legal marathon; it put Stormer at odds with other public interest lawyers who couldn’t fathom the idea of representing a cop. Stormer shrugged off the criticism.

“Cops are no different,” he says. “Anyone can be wronged by the system. That’s what happened [in the Grobeson case]. We fought and we ended up changing the LAPD’s hiring practices, and at the same time society changed dramatically on gay rights. The LAPD is by no means perfect today, but it’s 300 percent better.”

In a more recent case, in 2008, Stormer filed suit on behalf Denise Steffens, who claimed that her employer, Regus Group, a Texas-based firm that rents office suites, fired her because she raised concerns over possible wage-and-hour violations within the company.

“It was a pretty typical he said/she said employment case,” says Guinn, who worked as Stormer’s co-counsel. “But while the facts were certainly egregious, it was a tough fight because employment law cases like these don’t tend to get a lot of sympathy from juries—especially in conservative San Diego, and especially post-recession.”

For Stormer, the case boiled down to personalities. On the one hand, his client was “a really nice woman from Kansas”; on the other side, Stormer argued the evidence showed “an arrogant snake in the grass,” who told Steffens’ supervisor that she was a problem five minutes after she notified him that the company wasn’t in legal compliance. During cross-examination, Stormer says he “pretty much let [the executive] hang himself with the jury.” But to Guinn, the real turning point was how Stormer handled closing arguments.

The lawyer for Regus gave a summation built largely on The Emperor’s New Clothes, punching hole after hole in the plaintiff’s case by referencing the famous Hans Christian Andersen tale that has become a cultural shorthand for widespread logical fallacies. It was persuasive stuff. Then Stormer stood up.

“Dan didn’t prepare remarks in advance,” Guinn says. “He just got up, took one of the key defense exhibits, and one by one refuted each point. And each time he did, he put a Post-it note on the exhibit saying, ironically, ‘No clothes here, no clothes there.’”

The jury came back with a $4.6 million verdict for Steffens.

Just as important, says Guinn, $3.5 million of it came in the form of punitive damages, after the jury found that Regus acted with fraud, oppression or malice when it terminated Steffens. “Employers take notice of verdicts like that,” says Guinn. “Dan has tremendous skill, and I think cases [like Regus] are important because he can win a righteous verdict for the client; and in the process there are positive ripple effects throughout society.”

To be sure, Stormer has seen his share of disappointment. Cases have been lost, political agendas stalled or reversed. But he is an eternal optimist. He points out that society has come a very long way on racial and gender matters, gay rights and a host of other issues he’s been a part of litigating. He also counsels against cynicism: “the demon of a young lawyer’s commitment,” he calls it.

“The real change,” he adds, “doesn’t happen in the courtroom. It happens out in the street every single day.”

In 2008, the editors of the Los Angeles Public Interest Law Journal asked Stormer to write an open letter to its young lawyers for the publication’s inaugural issue. He wrote the following:

“I have had a wonderful career. I cannot remember a day when I wasn’t both proud and happy to go to work. What has made me happy these last 30-some-odd years is that I could get up in the morning, go to work—and someone would benefit from that.”

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