Leading the Class Action Cavalry
How Richard Shevitz put his class action know-how to use for Holocaust victims
Published in 2016 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
By Steph Weber on February 12, 2016
In 1995, 50 years after the end of World War II, the U.S. government began declassifying war-related documents. They revealed that some of the institutions in Switzerland, a neutral country, had profited from questionable financial transactions with the Nazis.
“When I say profited, I mean they profited from the harms inflicted on the victims of the Holocaust,” says Richard Shevitz, a partner at Cohen & Malad in Indianapolis.
After the Nazis made it illegal for Jewish Germans to transfer money out of the country, Swiss banks maintained that those same refugees could safely and discreetly deposit their money with them. They promised the refugees anonymity under the umbrella of Switzerland’s legendary numbered bank accounts.
Such promises resulted in a significant amount of money flooding into Swiss banks. Of course, a large number of the depositors didn’t survive the war. “When their heirs made attempts to recover the funds, the Swiss banks rebuffed them and essentially said, ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about’ and held onto the money instead,” says Shevitz.
That was the experience of Estelle Sapir, one of the class representatives in the eventual Swiss bank suit. When the war started, her father, Louis, deposited the family’s money into a Swiss account. He died during the war, but Estelle survived, despite being placed in a concentration camp. When she attempted to recover the funds in 1950, she was denied access by the bank because she couldn’t produce her father’s death certificate. It was an impossible request: The Nazis, of course, didn’t issue such documentation.
“As a young woman barely coming back on her feet from the tragedy, horror and trauma of losing her family, she just left because she didn’t think she could take on the system,” says Shevitz. “Estelle always said, ‘My father was able to protect our money from the Nazis, he just couldn’t protect it from the Swiss.’”
In the wake of the declassified war documents, Sapir approached lawyers about taking legal action. A class action suit was filed shortly thereafter, with Shevitz—who grew up around Holocaust survivors living in Indianapolis and knew their stories well—and his firm becoming one of several appointed to the executive committee. “We had begun to investigate the claims of local Holocaust survivors,” he says. “When we learned that lawyers were initiating class action litigation against Swiss banks on the East Coast, we joined forces with them.”
Because Switzerland had banking branches in New York, the legal team was able to file claims in federal court there. They argued that the statute of limitations should be tolled—or suspended—since the Swiss banks were intentionally deceitful in withholding the disbursement of funds to the depositors’ heirs.
When it came time for the settlement conference in 1998, the judge opted for a unique location. “I’ve never had this happen in any other case, but because the media was following this so carefully, the judge had the wisdom to choose a secret location,” says Shevitz. The involved parties ended up in a private banquet room of the famed Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn.
After hours of late-night negotiations, a resolution was reached: The Swiss would pay $1.25 billion. Funds were distributed over the next few years to nearly half a million claimants. The remaining funds, because not all class members could be located, were donated to several Holocaust survivor organizations.
“It was one of those moments,” Shevitz says, “that you achieve something that you just can’t believe.”
With his slight build and gracious disposition, Shevitz cuts a particularly easygoing figure. Jim Riley of Riley Bennett & Egloff describes him as “almost civil to a fault.” But behind the mild-mannered look is a fierce interest in justice.
“Although I grew up after the end of the civil rights movement, I had older siblings and family members who were connected to it,” says Shevitz. “The courts were a place that could level the playing field in society and provide a form of justice that the other branches of government weren’t providing.”
After graduating from law school in 1985 and working briefly for a small bankruptcy firm, he landed a position with the Anti-Defamation League in New York City.
“I worked on various First Amendment cases and actually represented a client in the United States Supreme Court on one of the nativity scene disputes, regarding whether religious symbols could be placed on government property,” says Shevitz.
Then, in 1990, while still employed with the ADL, Shevitz had the opportunity to co-counsel with Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The case involved a race-related murder that had occurred in Portland, Oregon, in November 1988. Mulugeta Seraw, a 28-year-old Ethiopian immigrant and student, was beaten to death by three young white men armed with a baseball bat. The perpetrators were apprehended shortly thereafter and criminally charged.
After additional investigative work, it was discovered that the defendants were linked to a prominent hate group called the White Aryan Resistance. Tom Metzger, the group’s leader at the time, had not only encouraged the men to seek out a victim that night, but had also supplied them with hate literature and baseball bats with swastikas carved in them.
“Back in the pre-Internet days of fundraising, Metzger had a specific bank account where his racist supporters could donate money to the organization,” says Shevitz. “Dees and I filed a civil suit against the perpetrators, as well as Metzger and the White Aryan Resistance, and were able to get a court order seizing those funds.”
In the end, Shevitz and Dees obtained a $12.5 million verdict—the biggest civil judgment in Oregon history at the time—which was sent to Seraw’s son, who was still living in Ethiopia. “It was a hugely satisfying experience, and we were able to put the White Aryan Resistance out of business,” says Shevitz.
After getting married, Shevitz moved back to Indianapolis, then worked a stint at the attorney general’s office before joining Cohen & Malad in 1995—the same year that the World War II documents started being declassified.
It was a complex suit, but colleagues say that’s where Shevitz thrives. “Richard and I have been opposing counsel on two class action cases, and if it’s a case that he elects to take, then it’s one that needs to be taken seriously by others,” says Kathleen DeLaney, managing partner at DeLaney & DeLaney in Indianapolis. “He tends to identify with the proverbial ‘little guy,’ and is very adept at finding those cases that at first appear small, but then turn into really significant cases.”
Here’s another example.
Swiss banks weren’t the only ones profiting from a relationship with the Nazis. Documents revealed that major German manufacturers—VW, Krupp and Bayer, among several others—were using concentration camp inmates as slave labor.
“Their nation is at war, destroying minorities of people, yet the private sector says, ‘Hey, before they die, we can use their labor for free.’ And that’s exactly what they did,” says Shevitz.
Unlike the banking case, these class members weren’t primarily heirs. “Basically everyone who survived the Holocaust had to have worked for someone in a concentration camp, either for the German government or the private sector,” says Shevitz. “So virtually all of the Holocaust survivors became part of the suit.”
This meant the class members were much older, and there was pressure to get through negotiations as quickly as possible, because a portion of the client base was passing away each day.
Despite their advanced age, the survivors’ memories of being marched to these German manufacturing facilities, and pressed into work, were extraordinarily distinct and compelling. That’s why the suit was successful, says Shevitz.
“People were able to come forward and say with fairly clear presence of mind that, ’They took me to this factory on that street and I did this for x number of days,’” he says.
While the banking case was resolved on U.S. soil, the private sector claims involved roundtable meetings at German foreign ministry and in the U.S. ambassador’s office.
“This was completely new for me,” says Shevitz. “How does one ever think a lawyer from a medium-sized firm in Indianapolis is going to be sitting here, engaging in negotiations just like you see the United Nations doing, including a translator and the little earphones?”
The incessant travel—between a dozen trips to Germany, he was also flying to Washington, D.C., and New York City—presented challenges. Once, after a delayed flight, and without a chance to clean up at the hotel, he arrived late for a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Cologne. Due to Embassy security, the cab driver was unable to drop him off at the door and he was forced to walk the remainder, which meant a lengthy jaunt up a steep hill. Carrying both his suitcase and briefcase, Shevitz was soon drenched in sweat. Then, when the guard asked him who he was meeting with, Shevitz drew a blank.
“I’ve never before gone to a meeting with someone where I didn’t know the person’s name,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ve travelled here, spent all night on the plane, got into this cab, walked up this hill, am now drenched in sweat and late for the meeting, and they are not going to let me in because I can’t remember the name of the U.S. ambassador in Germany.’” Turns out it was Shevitz’s lucky day—the guard let him inside anyway.
About a year after the banking suit was settled, an agreement was finally reached in the slave labor suit. The German companies agreed to collectively pay $5 billion. A separate fund, called the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation, was created to handle the disbursement to class members.
“Both Holocaust settlements were regarded as a symbolic gesture, or rough justice, because there is absolutely no amount in the world that can possibly compensate for the horrors that these individuals experienced,” says Shevitz. “No other cases I’ve ever worked on come near the moral, historical and political significance of these suits.”
Shevitz has made a career out of class action litigation, serving as the chair of the practice group at Cohen & Malad. But he has ventured into other roles within the industry as well, including serving on the Indianapolis Bar Association Professionalism Committee.
“Until that point, we’d always been on opposite sides, but this was a chance to collaborate and get to know him on a less adversarial level,” says Riley, who also served on the committee. “He’s a true professional, a gentleman. Although in the courtroom, you better believe he’s ready for the fight—most definitely a formidable adversary.”
Shevitz has taken on a variety of personal causes outside of the office, too. He serves on the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis and is secretary of the local chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a board he joined after his eldest daughter was diagnosed with Type I diabetes.
“I’m actually going to Death Valley to do a fundraiser for JDRF. I’ve never ridden a bike there, but I hear it’s hot,” says Shevitz.
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