Qusair Mohamedbhai tackles civil rights and employee rights in post-9/11 America
Published in 2016 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine
By Steve Knopper on March 14, 2016
The University of Wyoming isn’t the most diverse campus in the world, and Qusair Mohamedbhai was one of the few Muslim students at its law school. He thrived. “My classmates were obviously great,” he says. But after September 11, 2001, things changed. Laramie locals spotted him and called the university to confirm he was an enrolled student. “There were times when you got a lot of looks,” he says. “Anyone who looked Middle Eastern was becoming profiled, and that was serious. I’m like, ‘This is terrible.’
“That’s where it clicked,” he adds.
At a glass conference table in the Denver law offices of Rathod Mohamedbhai, the 37-year-old attorney downshifts his voice as he switches from amiable recollection to determined declaration: “I’m going to find discrimination everywhere and anywhere and make it my life mission to just destroy it, every single time I see it. And I’ve been doing it.”
Bald, with a perfectly trimmed goatee and thin beard, Q, as he’s known to friends, has just finished giving a tour of his firm’s expanding headquarters north of downtown. The one-story building doesn’t look like much from the outside—the corner façade is faded pink and red, and marked “laundry” in bold white letters, a remnant from an older era in this historically African-American neighborhood. Inside, it seems to go on forever. This is good, since, within the 22,000-square-foot space, Mohamedbhai and partner Siddartha Rathod plan to house 20 offices, an event room and a rooftop patio. As Mohamedbhai walks and narrates, a worker asks, “Qusair, you want the television here?”
It took a few years, but Mohamedbhai has turned his focus areas, constitutional civil rights litigation and plaintiff’s employment discrimination, into the rare combination of doing good and making bank.
His client Jamal Hunter, who was arrested on misdemeanor charges, claimed a Denver jail deputy ignored his screams when fellow inmates brutally attacked him. In 2014, Hunter settled with the city and county of Denver for $3.25 million—which The Denver Post, in one of many front-page stories on the case that Mohamedbhai keeps framed in his office, called “the largest pre-trial settlement in the city’s history.” Last October, a jury awarded $3.9 million to client Amanda Wilson, a former exotic dancer who filed a sexual-assault lawsuit against a Stoneham rancher.
“Sometimes we get big settlements and big verdicts—like the last one, with Amanda, an exotic dancer with a criminal history and mental-health issues, and no one was taking her seriously because of who she was,” Mohamedbhai says. “We see people at the worst times in their lives, in their misery and despair.
“We’ve found the more we give, the more comes around.”
Mohamedbhai’s parents wanted him to be a doctor, and as an undergraduate he got a biological science degree from the University of Alberta. But then he bombed the MCAT and did well on the LSAT, and that was that.
At 25, after getting his J.D. in Laramie, Mohamedbhai moved to Denver and landed a job at Riggs Abney. The firm assigned him plaintiff’s employment cases, and he represented, among other clients, a pharmacist who faced severe workplace discrimination after undergoing male-to-female transgender surgery. “Oh, man, the hate,” Mohamedbhai recalls.
He also experienced some discrimination of his own. Essentially he was branded a terrorist.
Denver’s alt-weekly newspaper, Westword, covered the incident at length in 2006. After picking up his first paycheck from Riggs Abney, Mohamedbhai walked into a Commercial Federal bank to set up an account. “And I was just getting a lot of red tape,” he recalls. “A lot of red tape.” The bank officials requested identification, which led him to return home to fetch his passport, but it still wasn’t enough. Finally, unable to open the account, he took his business to First Bank down the street.
Later, through a friend, Mohamedbhai learned the convoluted reasoning behind the Commercial Federal red tape. It seems the bank had been working with a background-check company that delved into his background: unusual, Muslim-sounding name, Florida Social Security number due to a brief stint at a small Florida law school, Canadian background, Wyoming student ID. “TERRORIST,” the company concluded, and stamped Mohamedbhai’s name on a list. His friend, a comptroller at the local Brown Palace hotel, learned of this information during a National Association for Credit Management meeting.
What could he do? “I thought hard about it,” Mohamedbhai says. He has dual citizenship but according to friends he’s still very Canadian. “He doesn’t get, sometimes, the American colloquialisms,” says Gina Rodriguez, a Denver attorney who opposed Mohamedbhai in the Jamal Hunter case. “You think you’re being funny and it’s completely lost on him.” His parents are practicing Muslims, but he downplays his own religion, other than to say: “I do a lot of work for the Muslim community. My personal faith, it’s more complicated than that.”
So he thought hard about what he wanted to do about being labeled a terrorist. Finally, he said, “I gotta do something.” He hired an attorney, Darold Killmer of Killmer, Lane and Newman in Denver, and sued the bank.
The jury hung in 2007, but Mohamedbhai and his attorneys later resolved the case. Then Mohamedbhai asked Killmer for a job and soon started at one of the city’s most experienced civil rights firms. There he learned “litigation judo”—the art, he says, of “using people’s body weight against them.” A client with a criminal history, for example, might appear to have a disadvantage, but a good attorney might use that background to generate sympathy and understanding from the jury. David Lane, of the same firm, was impressed with how quickly Mohamedbhai mastered the art.
“He’s fearless. He’ll drill down into the minutiae of every case and will be absolutely fully prepared,” Lane says. “He was obviously very interested in righting the wrong that was done to him, and he showed great compassion for our client base: minority-group members, the oppressed.”
Mohamedbhai and Rathod were also fearless five years later, when they opened their own shop in downtown Denver. Mohamedbhai, whose wife, Andrea, was pregnant, had a few clients of his own, but most of the people he’d worked with stuck with Lane. “We had a little bit of money saved up,” Mohamedbhai recalls. “Most of it was tied up as equity in our houses. We had probably two and a half months of living and operating expenses.” Then serendipity: The day they opened the firm, three women showed up for representation in an employment-discrimination case, and they asked for mediation immediately. The settlement came fast. Within 24 days, the new firm had a six-figure check. “Well, this is going to pay some bills,” Mohamedbhai remembers thinking.
The new firm, which has grown to seven attorneys, limits its caseload; but it represents a diverse range of clients.
There were the four women who sued the city of Denver after two police officers billy-clubbed and maced them outside the Denver Diner; in 2013, four years after the incident, the women received a $360,000 settlement. “We were able to demonstrate to the court, before they settled, that there was a systemic and cultural issue of violence in the Denver Police Department,” Mohamedbhai says. “That resulted in a lot of change.”
There were the four Wyoming same-sex couples who sued the state, prompting a federal judge to strike down its long-standing gay-marriage ban. “I like to go back there and just mess with the state as much as I can,” says Mohamedbhai, whose firm was one of three that represented the couples and fellow plaintiff Wyoming Equality.
In 2014, Mohamedbhai also worked on a frightening case involving three suburban Colorado girls, ages 15 to 17, recruited online to join the Middle Eastern terrorist group ISIS. (They never made it to Syria; the FBI intercepted them in Germany and returned them to their homes.) They came from East African families, and Mohamedbhai’s family belonged to the local mosque they attended. As an attorney, he represented the mosque, which was initially suspicious of getting involved in any way. “Whenever it’s a Muslim who’s in the press: ‘What mosque did they go to?’” Mohamedbhai explains. “It’s a very unique media reaction to Muslims that doesn’t happen anywhere else. No one asks where [Aurora movie-theater killer] James Holmes’ parents went to pray or what church they went to.”
In this case, the mosque leaders agreed to participate in educational programs for the community, mostly run by the FBI and the U.S. government. “This is a serious, scary matter,” he says, referring to the dangers of American kids making contact with ISIS. Agreeing to the programs, he says, was “sort of a pandering-type thing, but we embraced it.”
The embrace hasn’t always been returned. After the November 2015 Paris attacks, Mohamedbhai felt the profiling begin again. He recently visited a client in a Limon prison for a federally ordered deposition, a routine part of an upcoming civil rights case. But even though he’s the attorney of record, men in military fatigues stopped him and asked “excessive questions” about who he was and why he was there.
“This is just the reality of being a Muslim attorney,” he says. “The discrimination is about as bad as it’s ever been—arguably even worse than after September 11, because of the rhetoric of the GOP candidates.”
At the conference table in his office, Mohamedbhai produces a hefty stack of papers containing press clippings and letters of commendation from colleagues. “I’m not used to talking about myself,” he says. “I’m used to talking about other people.” But he’s especially proud of a letter from John Walsh, the U.S. attorney in Colorado, who called him a “critically important bridge between law enforcement and that broad Muslim community.”
“[He] truly is a diplomat along with being a superb litigator,” says Marco D. Chayet, a Denver elder law attorney with Chayet & Danzo. “He is the kind of personality that would make a very good ambassador or secretary of state.”
On this sunny Wednesday in late October, Mohamedbhai’s parents are visiting for a week—their first Colorado excursion in two years. (“They’re here to see their grandkids,” Mohamedbhai says with a smile, referring to his children, ages 6 and 4. “I’m less important.”) Growing up, his mother worked as a medical secretary and his father was a university lab technician. They were not supportive of his early decision to switch from medicine to law. “Lawyers are not liked,” they told him. “This is not a reputable profession.” But today, wandering around Mohamedbhai’s expanding offices with his wife as a guide, they smile constantly and seem impressed.
“The important thing, growing up, was my parents worked really hard to make sure kids have what kids shouldn’t go without,” Mohamedbhai says. “They’re obviously ecstatic now.”
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