The Power of Marsha Kazarosian
How one attorney got a country club to play fair
Published in 2006 Massachusetts Super Lawyers magazine
By Jim Kaplan on October 23, 2006
How did Marsha Kazarosian become one of the top trial lawyers in the state? You might say she was trained for the job from birth.
Picture this. Vacationing with her extended family at Salisbury Beach, a wee Marsha sits at the window watching her Armenian-born grandfathers play tavloo (backgammon) on the porch. Paternal grandfather Karekin (Harry) Kazarosian, known to his relatives as Grandpa Hairig (“father” in Armenian), is dark, short, portly and jovial: Santa Claus without the beard. An ultraliberal, he’s a barber by trade who worked in the Haverhill shoe factories and Lawrence mills after coming to the United States. Grandpa Hairig kids incessantly with his grandchildren. Maternal grandfather Yeghiazar (Edgar) Movsesian is fair-skinned, tall, slim and regal. Called Grandpa Yeghia, he has owned the Dainty Maid shoe factory and the E&M leather company that made the artillery belts, cartridge belts and boots for the army in World War II. An ultraconservative, he rules the roost in a very traditional way. When Marsha walks with Yeghia to the store for a newspaper every morning, she must keep a straight back, take long strides and look straight ahead rather than at the ground.
The porch is a man’s world; the women and girls stay indoors, making lemonade, Turkish coffee and snacks for the men while cooking dinner. Periodically, the women bring refreshments to the porch, then return indoors quickly. But the girl watches her grandfathers from the window, fascinated. These men, polar opposites but good friends, never argue but speak animatedly. As their voices rise, they call out the roll of the tavloo dice in Arabic, slamming pieces down on the board.
“Senee gidi benee bilmedee, Karekin!” Yeghia yells. It’s a versatile Turkish expression meaning “You don’t even know my capabilities!” or “You have no idea how badly I can beat you or what I have up my sleeve!” Slam!
Hairig yells back the same comment but ends it with “bilmez,” meaning “You don’t know what I can do!” Slam!
Talking before she was 1, forming complete sentences before 2 and singing before 3, the precocious child wants to be involved in the conversation but knows it’s not her place. She doesn’t feel it’s wrong, just part of her culture. And she benefits from the exciting discussions, more fascinating and engrossing than anything else in her world. Marsha learns quickly. In her culture learning is universal. Victimized by the 20th century’s first genocide, forced to fight for their homeland, Armenians emphasize education above all else. If her grandparents agree on anything, it’s that they’ll spend their last dime getting their grandchildren good schooling.
Marsha’s father Paul, a lawyer, grills her and her younger siblings, Paula and Mark, with questions at the dinner table. What’s the difference between “Bring it here” and “Take it here”? Who was the 16th president? Who was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase?
“I idolized my father,” Kazarosian says. “I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was 4.”
As she grows older, Marsha learns to pick her spots to speak at the dinner table. She knows that if what she says isn’t articulate and defensible, she won’t last in the conversation.
The child grows into a girl ready for performance and competition. Her mother, Margaret, a former schoolteacher and concert pianist, starts teaching her to play the piano when she’s 2, and she learns it so well she teaches fellow students at all-female Abbot Academy. When Abbot merges with Phillips Andover Academy for her senior year, Marsha writes a mock epic poem about the union for the student newspaper, The Phillipiad. She also plays varsity squash.
In love with reading and writing, she majors in English and composes editorials for the Daily Collegian at UMass. In her spare time she works as a bartender and waitress, dodging pinches and obscene comments from male patrons. She enrolls at Suffolk University Law School. Her parents beam, then hold their breath as she takes a semester off to clear her head while learning and teaching racquetball in Waltham.
After graduation, Marsha joins her father’s law firm. Paul Kazarosian wants her to do titles and closings like the Yankee lawyers. None of the jury trials that suck the life out of you, he warns. But Marsha shares his mission to right wrongs and create lasting change. She sneaks off to the Essex County Bar Advocate program for pro bono defense lawyers. When she confesses her intentions, her father sighs, irritated. What can he do? He has already told her, “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.” His annoyance turns to pride when she shows juries what her mother calls the same “warm and inviting” qualities as her father.
And so we arrive at Borne et al. and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Haverhill Golf and Country Club, Inc., a case that got Marsha Kazarosian national attention. In April 1995, Haverhill member Sally Brochetti spends two and a half hours telling her what women members are enduring at the Haverhill golf club.
Dire scarcely describes their situation. Despite resolution of a 1989-1990 complaint to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), the club is reneging on its promises. Few women are being admitted as full members. Women are barred from the course at various times, including weekend mornings when they watch their husbands and sons, and occasionally no one, tee off.
The card room is off-limits. Women who complain are harassed. “I was verbally and physically threatened,” says Judy Borne, a retired physical education professor. “They said a golf ball would be hit at me and the club would be better off if I fell off its high porch.”
Kazarosian calls a lawyer she knows on the board. “We’ll look into that,” he says in a tone that implies “Don’t worry your little head.” It’s a family matter, he says, that will be handled within the club.
Nothing is handled, and 13 Haverhill women return to the MCAD in August 1995. A lawyer who is a club member takes the plaintiffs aside individually and says he’ll “drop a dime” on them with the IRS about unreported income. The club is represented by Henry Owens III, an attorney with a reputation for aggressive tactics in civil rights cases. He calls the complainants into his office.
“Why are you even here?” he asks, adding that there won’t be a settlement unless the women sign a statement that there has been no discrimination. They refuse.
“The problem isn’t so much older members as men our own age,” Kazarosian says. “They act like it’s a frat house. They say, ‘We have to work all week — why should they get tee times on the weekends?’ And we don’t have the support of many women members, who have never played on weekends.”
But there are men — important men — on their side. Some courageous male club members give support. And Congressman John Tierney gives Kazarosian hope. “You’re doing the right thing,” he tells her over lunch. “Don’t give up.”
Feeling there has been little discovery and no attempt to settle, three women drop out of the case. One woman dies. The remaining nine women file suit in Suffolk Superior Court in December 1996. The charges that survive summary judgment are gender discrimination and breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing. It is the first case of its kind filed against an American country club.
And all nine cases have to be tried separately. Owens fights successfully to limit women on the jury and include people of color. He evidently feels the eight men and six women (including two alternates), many of them nonwhites, will laugh at this suit filed by rich white women.
During the discovery phase, Owens sends more than 10,000 documents, including up to five copies of each one requested. When the keeper of the records is subpoenaed to put the documents into evidence, she goes on vacation. The trial finally begins in September 1999, and it’s shades of Erin Brockovich. Defense lawyers leave their mahogany-scented office with files precisely tabbed. Kazarosian and her associate Janet Dutcher arrive with boxes piled high. Sometimes Dutcher sits on the floor passing papers to Kazarosian. Each day the trial lasts until 5 p.m., after which the Kazarosian team routinely prepares witnesses and strategy until 3 in the morning, then rises at 5:30. The sedentary schedule pains Kazarosian, who, like most athletes, enjoys exercise and watches her weight. But there are compensations. The plaintiffs never lose faith. Leadoff witness Brochetti endures two days on the stand quietly telling herself, “If you’re doing the right thing, keep going.”
Facts pile up. One witness, Lorna Kimball, says members are canceling policies with the insurance business her husband operates in Haverhill. About a week into the 22-day trial, Judge John C. Cratsley urges the sides to settle, suggesting that the award could “very well” amount to $1 million in damages. The defense laughs at the prospect.
The men just don’t get it. The night before final arguments, an insurance adjuster for the club sees Kazarosian in the elevator and offers $250,000, when Kazarsian’s law firm has already spent $350,000. Kazarosian counters with either $1 million or $750,000 and an apology. The defense again says no.
Like many emotional cases, this one ultimately hinges on a dry but pertinent point of law. Though the Haverhill club is ostensibly private, it’s a public accommodation because facilities such as the pro shop and function room are available for use by non-members and the club is nonselective in accepting members other than women. Gender discrimination in Massachusetts is illegal in public accommodations, and discrimination is discrimination, even if you’re a rich white woman. After three days of deliberation, the jury unanimously agrees on every count and awards the plaintiffs $1.97 million. The judge adds $464,000 in attorney’s fees and issues an injunction ordering the club to adopt a gender-neutral policy within six months. The club doesn’t comply, and members resort to petty tactics like throwing plaintiffs’ husbands off their foursomes. By the time the defense loses two contempt trials and appeals that reach the state’s Supreme Judicial Court in 2003, interest and attorney fees swell the total judgment to some $3.3 million.
During the eight-year ordeal, Kazarosian mortgages her home and business, works on contingency, risks ostracism in the Haverhill legal community and puts on weight. But she says the experience was worthwhile, because it successfully attacked an institution where sex discrimination was endemic. Covered by outlets ranging from Sports Illustrated to NPR, the case was bound to make ripples. “We got hundreds of requests for documents around the country and in England,” she says. “A lot of clubs took notice and either went private or made sure they weren’t discriminating.” Unfortunately, one of those clubs was not Augusta National, the all-male Masters tournament site. When Kazarosian was asked to sue Augusta, she declined because the Georgia anti-discrimination statute doesn’t mention gender in regard to public accommodations.
Kazarosian delights in taking other sports-oriented cases. She successfully defended the manager of a local racquetball club sued by a wheelchair-bound player who wanted to play in the top league and get two bounces to reach each shot instead of one. The case turned on the same issue as PGA Tour v. Casey Martin: Does the accommodation change the basic nature of the game? The courts ruled that allowing the disabled Martin to ride in a cart while competing wouldn’t change the game, but giving the disabled racquetball player two bounces would.
Kazarosian’s associate Dutcher says, “Marsha has an amazing ability to remember facts. She uses bullet points and hardly looks at them. She’ll spend plenty of time with the client, walking you through the protocol so that you know what makes sense and preparing you for what’s going to happen in court. She also has an innate sense of people and can tell whether witnesses are hedging or lying or just stumbling along. She crafts and molds the question on crossexamination so that jurors empathize with her client’s case rather than the witness.”
In a rare moment of repose, Kazarosian, 50, relaxes in her office one summer morning. She runs the four-lawyer firm now that her father has Alzheimer’s. On her shelves are photos of her sons Matthew, 23, Marc, 22, and Jeremy, 17. A single mother, she must be doing something right, since Matthew and Marc are fine racquetball players preparing for their LSATs, and all three sons assist their mother at the firm.
In addition to serving as the new president of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys (MATA), she hosts an Internet radio program called “The Power of Attorney with Marsha Kazarosian” (legaltalknetwork.com). “I’m a microwave child,” she says. “Everything has to be immediate. That’s why I like jury trials. That’s why I play racquetball.”
Mainly a doubles player now, she tries to play Thursday nights and Sunday mornings, with an occasional tournament thrown in. “She’s very aggressive, won’t give up and plays a smart game,” says one of her regular partners, financial planner Jeff Lewis. “She’s one tough cookie, one of the toughest women I’ve seen on a racquetball court.”
“Law is just a means to allow me to play racquetball,” Kazarosian jokes. But what a means. Currently, Kazarosian is representing the family of a Verizon employee electrocuted by high-voltage wire and 10 taxpayers suing to stop development of land deeded for parks in the will of a John Adams descendant.
“You’re always learning something new,” she says. “It’s kinda fun.” And opponents cower when she says, “Senee gidi benee bilmedee.”
The little girl dreaming of a career in law couldn’t have asked for more.
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