The Whistleblower’s Best Friend
Clayton D. Halunen aims to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted
Published in 2015 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine on July 7, 2015
Clayton D. Halunen grew up in Virginia, Minnesota, the son of working parents: His father was an electrician for a railroad, and his mother taught and worked for St. Louis County.
Both dealt with workplace issues: Halunen’s father faced pressure to quit after a 42-year career, while his mother was repeatedly passed over for promotions that went to less-qualified male colleagues. Those experiences made an impression on Halunen, who eventually set aside his ambitions to be an architect to follow his brother-in-law into the law. Once he graduated, his dad’s case was the first one he took, and he later represented his mom as well.
The experience taught him to think twice about representing family members—“It’s too emotional,” he says—but Halunen was also struck by the gratifying feeling of helping plaintiffs in employment issues. Following a stint in-house at a U.S. Steel facility near where he grew up, he formed his own one-horse employment firm in 1998. (A Chicago office, run by Halunen’s brother-in-law, opened in 2006.)
Now Halunen Law, which plans to ramp up to 15 attorneys by the end of the year, gains recoveries for its clients in approximately 95 percent of its cases, racking up more than $2 billion in total recoveries.
“I realized very quickly that I wasn’t meant to work on the management side,” he says. “In mining, it’s labor against management. It’s like they’re enemies. My sympathies were much more with labor and trying to improve their working conditions rather than trying to help management improve the bottom line.”
“Clayton is tenacious but not overbearing,” says one of Halunen’s most famous clients, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. “He has a good idea of how he wants to achieve his goals, yet he welcomes input from his clients.”
The Kluwe case was signature Halunen work. Kluwe threatened to sue the Vikings in 2014, claiming discrimination on the grounds of human rights, religion, defamation and “tortious interference for contractual relations.” In short: Kluwe maintained that the team had cut him in part because of his activism on behalf of same-sex rights.
Working alongside attorney Susan M. Coler and law clerk Nathaniel Smith, Halunen brokered a settlement stipulating that the team would donate to five charities benefitting LGBT and anti-hate groups, and sponsor a national symposium on LGBT issues. Kluwe took no money from the settlement.
From an employment law perspective, the Kluwe matter might have seemed to some like a standard case of a hostile work environment. The venue, of course—not to mention Kluwe’s spicy Jan. 2, 2014 article about the situation on Deadspin.com—garnered headlines.
“A lot of people said he was just a washed-up punter who had an ax to grind because he got cut,” Halunen says, “which was a claim that was unfounded by his history with the Vikings. Chris Kluwe gave up an NFL career and spoke up about something he thought was wrong involving marriage. He was warned while he was under contract with the Vikings, but he didn’t [stop speaking up] and he was fired. I’ll believe until the day I die it was because he spoke out.”
For Halunen, who is gay, the case was also valuable in starting an examination about homophobia in professional sports.
“Teams have been allowed to get away with [a homophobic culture], but as a result of recent dialogue about the subject, that culture seems to be changing,” he says. “Even in professional sports, it’s no longer acceptable to discriminate based on someone’s sexual orientation or identification. The point of the case was to effectuate change, and that was the most important part of what happened.”
Kluwe agrees. “[Clayton] came highly recommended from people who knew the legal side of same-sex rights,” he says. “We were very much on the same page.”
Halunen’s focus on whistleblower cases extends to a number of industries. Three years ago, the firm represented an employee of Abbott Laboratories in a $1.5 billion settlement stemming from illegal sales of Abbott’s anti-epilepsy drug in violation of federal and state False Claims Acts. The settlement reflected the second-largest payment by a drug company in the history of the False Claims Act.
“He has a passion for the people he represents,” says Minnesota First District Judge Cynthia McCollum. “And I like how concerned he is about training the younger lawyers at his firm. He really cares about making them better litigators.”
More recently, Halunen and company sued Woodbury-based for-profit educator Globe University, challenging what he described as the organization’s deceptive marketing with respect to placement data and transferability of credits. A judgment in excess of $1.2 million was upheld by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The whistleblower in that case was Heidi Weber, a dean who reported the school’s pattern of misleading students to enroll them. The firm is also currently representing Globe students in a class action suit.
“We were able to expose publicly this for-profit school that in my estimation was more about money than education,” says Halunen. “We alleged that the owners had guaranteed financial aid as long as they could sign people up. The money tree kept growing.”
Weber, who was turned down by two other attorneys before finding Halunen, says, “When Clayton and I first met, I felt like he got it. He cared about the issue, not just the logistics of the suit.”
Initially, the Halunen firm only did employment law, but now about half its practice is consumer class action litigation and False Claims Act litigation—and that percentage is growing. Still, the firm gets thousands of calls per year from disgruntled employees, and it works solely on a contingency basis, which creates a pressure cooker of risks.
“We have a pretty good idea of the risk that’s involved in a given case, so we’re cautious about the cases we take,” Halunen says. “I have friends who are defense lawyers, and they wonder how we do it. They get their guaranteed hourly rate and they get paid every month.”
The firm’s track record is in the process of being tested in another high-profile case. They’re representing former Minneapolis police sergeant Jesse Garcia III in a suit against the city. Garcia claims he was transferred to a less prestigious assignment after being critical of the police investigation into the man standing next to Mayor Betsy Hodges in the infamous photo that led to last fall’s Pointergate scandal.
Halunen won’t be surprised if the city wants to go to court.
“Even when you have the best possible facts, it still surprises me how often people want to fight,” he says. “But that’s what we do—we enjoy litigation. We’re not in it to get a quick settlement. Sometimes the only way you can get a fair recovery for your client is to go to trial.”
Away from work, Halunen and his partner of 20 years, David Duddingston, love to exercise when they’re in the Twin Cities and ski when they’re at their lake home near Ely. Halunen and Duddingston were married two years ago following Minnesota’s legalization of same-sex marriage. The fact that Halunen’s previous work on behalf of the LGBT community helped lead to that change isn’t lost on him.
“It’s been an amazing experience to be a part of it,” he says. “When I was working in Duluth after getting out of law school, I remember not being able to tell a judge or a colleague that I was gay. Now, it’s not even an issue. It was all about talking to your neighbors and your family about who we are and what our aspirations are, and the main one is just finding someone to love.”
As he has throughout his career, Halunen continues to take the pain felt by those treated unfairly—including himself and his family members—and transform it into a focused effort to even the scales on their behalf.
“To me, it really is right versus wrong, which is something that people just understand,” he says. “It’s wrong to retaliate against a person for doing the right thing, and that’s an easy story to tell to a jury.”