Husband-and-wife team Randolph McLaughlin and Debra Cohen are building a new kind of civil rights practice
Published in 2017 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on September 20, 2017
Updated on September 21, 2017
“She was a pain in my ass,” says Randolph McLaughlin.
“You can say neck,” suggests Debra Cohen.
“No, I’m going to be frank,” McLaughlin says. Then he concedes the point: “Maybe tuchus.”
The civil rights attorneys are sitting in a 27th-floor conference room at Newman Ferrara, a boutique firm near Herald Square, where they’ve been working since 2013. They’ve been married since September 2001, practicing law as a team since 1996, and the story they’re telling is how that life and career together almost didn’t happen. It’s their meet-cute.
Cohen was 39, and a one-time salesperson and marketer, when she applied to Pace University School of Law in 1995. She was interested in civil rights law, and the school’s catalog promoted Professor McLaughlin as a social justice lawyer. She signed up for his class.
“The first day was about federal statute 42 U.S.C., section 1983, under which you can sue a local government individual that you think has violated a constitutional right,” she remembers. “That was my epiphany. You can have a career doing cases under that statute. That’s what I wanted.”
A few weeks into the class, McLaughlin announced he had a new civil rights case and needed interns, so she sent him her résumé. She assumed she was a lock. “I thought, he’s going to say, ‘That student is very engaged.’ It never even occurred to me that he wouldn’t. I figured: I’m smart, I’m dedicated, I’m mature. It’ll happen.”
But McLaughlin had a different point of view. “She sat directly in front of me and she always had her hand up,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘No way I’m going to hire her.’ She was annoying. But I had to give her an interview.”
He made it a quick one. Before Cohen knew it, McLaughlin was perfunctorily thanking her for coming.
“In the distance from the chair to the door,” she says, “I’m feeling despair. What am I going to do? This is the only person at this law school who can teach me to do what I want to do, and it’s clear he has no interest in doing that, now or ever.
“Then I’m angry. That arrogant ass, who does he think he is? Even if he doesn’t like me, I’m a student here. I’m showing a commitment to this work. I’m obviously not the stupidest person in the world, so suck it up and give me an opportunity.”
She stopped at the door. “I turn to him and say, ‘Oh, Professor, I’m just curious. Have you heard about the case involving the shooting of the African-American man in a deli parking lot in Dobbs Ferry?’”
He perked up. The family of the victim had already contacted him about representation. “What do you know about that?” he asked.
“I live in that village,” she said. “Every weekend, family and friends of the man who was shot go and demonstrate in front of the deli to keep visibility on the case and put pressure on the district attorney to prosecute the police officer who shot him. I go every Saturday and march with them.”
“Miss Cohen, come back in,” he told her. “Sit down.”
And that’s how it began.
Cohen is now the professor of that civil rights class at Pace. “When I teach Loving v. Virginia,” she says, “it never ceases to reach me … that when that Supreme Court case was decided, where I was living then, it would have been a crime for us to have been married.”
They came to the law through different paths.
Cohen’s father was a psychiatrist whose interests included the impact of racism on mental health. During the 1960s, he was the director of the psychosomatic medicine division at Duke University, so the family moved to North Carolina. In one of her earliest memories, her parents pulled into a gas station, and through the garage bay she saw a red door marked “COLORED.” Both parents, she says, made it “very clear to us how that was unacceptable.”
McLaughlin, who was born in 1953, says racism didn’t directly affect him much growing up. “I’m from New York City,” he says. “Worrying about what some white kid was going to do to me, it was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I had no fear of that.”
But he was fascinated by the law. By age 10, he was reading law books. “William Kunstler was a hero to me,” he says. In high school, the Chicago Seven trial was all over the news. “It was the binding and gagging of Bobby Seale in the courtroom that made me say, ‘Well there’s something seriously wrong with this country. … I’ve got to get involved.’”
During his second year at Harvard Law, Kunstler himself came to speak. “He’s saying stuff like, ‘I need black lawyers to get involved in this kind of work with us because we can’t do it on our own.’ The whole room just drained away [for me]. … Bill’s up there on the stage with all these Black Panther types and Native Americans with him. And little old me. I was a really shy kid. But I inch my way up and say, ‘Mr. Kunstler? I’ve been following your career ever since I was a kid and I want to do what you do.’ He looks at me and says, ‘Here’s my card. Look me up when you get back to New York.’”
McLaughlin did just that and wound up working with Kunstler at the Center for Constitutional Rights, starting in 1978. The two men traveled the country handling murder cases.
In 1982, some African-American women were out on a Saturday night in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when three Klansmen shot at them. More than 100 shotgun pellets were found in one woman’s legs. “Two of the Klansmen were acquitted of all charges,” McLaughlin says. “One of them who basically confessed was convicted of simple assault, served nine months of a sentence and got out on good behavior. I was part of the National Anti-Klan Network. So [CCR] came in to sue these people.
“I was in Chattanooga [off and on] for years. I lived in this open-air hotel/motel, black-owned, on East Ninth Street, now Martin Luther King Boulevard, same street where these women were shot. … And we find this statute that was passed in 1872. It was called the Ku Klux Klan Act. It was passed to give a federal lawsuit cause of action to victims of Klan violence. We tried the case and won—got over half a million dollars and a judgment. It was the first case using that statute to get a money judgment against the Ku Klux Klan. It was my career case.”
After their fateful interview at Pace, Cohen and McLaughlin worked together on the Dobbs Ferry case. On Sept. 1, 2001, they were married; they hung a shingle in the Bronx the following May.
In one of their first cases, they represented a group of New Rochelle homeowners and business owners who were resisting IKEA’s plan to level a block in the City Park neighborhood to build a store; IKEA eventually abandoned the project. They represented a group of business owners who were fighting a proposed baseball stadium in Yonkers. “It was the stupidest idea I ever heard,” McLaughlin says. “First, the plan was to eliminate several viable businesses in the downtown area by eminent domain. Second, they planned to build the project on top of a building in downtown Yonkers.” This proposal, too, was abandoned.
Along the way, they made a few enemies. “We had someone break into our offices,” McLaughlin says. “All of our files were rifled through, but our computers were still there. They were professionals. The police found impressions of fingers, but they were wearing gloves. The police said, ‘This is not a robbery, this is a burglary. They were looking for information.’”
Cohen continues: “I drove home from the office back to our house where the kids were, and there was a big white Cadillac parked across the street with two goons inside. I knew that they were there to send a message. I went right up alongside them, facing the opposite direction. I rolled down my window and they didn’t turn and look at me. I asked, ‘Can I help you?’ … I knew it was stupid. But at that moment, the fact that they were making me feel frightened made me angry and fueled me to want to confront them. You can come after me, but don’t come to where my children are. That’s a line you don’t cross.”
She pauses, and adds, “We hate bullies.”
“We hate them,” repeats McLaughlin. “They abuse power.”
The burglary was never solved; who the goons worked for was never confirmed.
Not only does this kind of legal work make enemies, it costs money. “You could spend up to 50-to-100 thousand dollars on one case,” McLaughlin says. “That’s not cheap. So whenever we took a case, we had to make sure that we were involved with some group or entity that could afford to front it. It was very haphazard.”
Enter Lucas A. Ferrara.
While Ferrara, the co-founder of Newman Ferrara, had been practicing real estate law for more than 25 years, some part of him wished to be more than a landlord-tenant lawyer; he wanted to be an advocate for the people as well. “I thought Deb and Randy would help me realize that goal,” he says. “They’ve spent their entire lives empowering the powerless, affording people a voice.”
McLaughlin remembers the conversation thus: “They said, ‘We’d like you to co-chair the civil rights practice group here.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ ‘That’s the two of you.’” He brought up the controversial nature of some of their cases. “They said, ‘We love controversy. The more the better.’
“It’s been a happy marriage,” he adds with a smile. “Lucas and Jon [Newman] have both assisted in some civil rights cases with us. Their insight has been invaluable.”
One category of cases they’ve been handling involves police responses to 911 calls in which a household member is having a mental health crisis.
“We have three cases where the person who was the subject of the call for assistance ended up dead,” says Cohen. Such cases affect all sides. “There’s the person who was killed; there’s the family members who are living with, in some cases, tremendous guilt; and there are the police officers who have been called when they’re really not well-equipped to handle those situations.”
She adds, “I’ve probably deposed 15 police officers who’ve been involved in shootings. I’ve never taken the deposition testimony of a police officer who shot someone and not had them choke up. Police departments have to acknowledge—and some police departments have—that they need to partner with mental health professionals.”
There’s also the broader issue of mental health and alcohol abuse among police officers. Cohen says, “There are cases of police officers drinking in the precinct parking lot after work, then getting in their cars and going home. I don’t think it takes a psychiatrist to know that people turn to alcohol to alleviate stress. And it’s pretty darn dangerous when that population—”
“—has guns,” McLaughlin finishes.
For victims, the legal process itself can be a form of therapy. “When I see a client who first comes to us really almost in post-traumatic stress, and can’t get through a conversation without crying,” says McLaughlin, “and within a matter of months, they’re giving it back to us, and saying, ‘Well, what about this?’ and ‘I want to do this,’ I know they’re starting to feel empowered and engaged, and the hopelessness is dissipated. Whether we win or lose the case, they feel at least a modicum of closure.”
The couple hope they’re creating a model for a new type of civil rights practice: handling cases that traditional civil rights firms or personal injury lawyers might shy away from because they present challenging or novel issues.
“If you can create a workable business model,” McLaughlin says, “then the good work can expand.”
Adds Cohen, “There’s more than enough injustice to go around.”