On the Side of the Angels
N. Robert Stoll fights the good fight for the downtrodden
Published in 2008 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
on November 7, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
You might expect the walls of N. Robert Stoll’s corner office to be lined with Italian art or framed photos from his treasured semi-annual Roman holidays. After all, the flag of Italy flutters outside his building. At the moment, Stoll, a top securities and class action lawyer with Stoll Berne, seems to have one foot in Rome and the other in Portland, having recently returned from a sojourn of several weeks with his wife, Barre, to the Italian capital.
Rome is his favorite city—after Portland, that is. But because he is at heart a Northwesterner—he was born here and moved back after graduating from Harvard—maybe it’s not surprising that his office walls are graced by carved wooden masks typical of Northwest coastal Indian art.
As it turns out, there’s a family connection here. Stoll’s sister, artist Julia Stoll-Smith, is married to Fearon Smith, also known as Chief Tsungani, who carved most of the painted cedar masks on display. They cover most of two walls of the fifth-floor office. Only a small framed photograph of Stoll and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski hints at another important aspect of the man: his dedication to the Democratic Party. The office itself, in the former headquarters of the Portland Police Bureau, offers another glimpse: Stoll was involved in rehabilitating the 1912 structure. “I’m sort of a frustrated architect,” he admits. Stoll has been involved in renovating a number of historic Portland buildings.
Stoll, 65, once tried his hand at journalism, too, as publisher of the University of Wisconsin (Madison) student newspaper, while he worked on a degree in economics. During a summer visit to Europe in 1963, Stoll had the moxie to request press credentials from Press Secretary Pierre Salinger so he could accompany President John F. Kennedy to Berlin for his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. He stood 20 feet behind Kennedy and snapped a photo of the president facing the crowd. Between college and law school, Stoll worked in Paris as a stringer for about 20 publications, including Knight Ridder and Dow Jones newspapers.
All he knew for sure, he says, was “I wanted to change the world.” While at Harvard Law School, a stint working for legendary defense attorney F. Lee Bailey in Boston made a criminal defense lawyer out of him. One of Stoll’s professors happened to be Alan Dershowitz, who had been writing briefs for Bailey. When Dershowitz started working on a new book, he referred his student to “Flee,” as Stoll fondly calls Bailey. “Everything I learned about cross-examination I learned from Flee,” he says.
In 1997, Bailey honored Stoll by taking a break from the O.J. Simpson trial to fly to Portland to speak at a benefit for the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association.
A few twists and turns over the years led Stoll to a different arena. He is regarded as one of the top lawyers in employment law on the West Coast.
“Bob operates on a scale that truly is way beyond what most of us even think about,” says Stoll’s longtime friend, lawyer Mark Bocci of Lake Oswego. “We all like to think that, at the end of the day, we’ve made the world a better place. Bob does that with more regularity, because he changes conduct on a much grander scale. Truth is, he has been in that pond for decades, and he just does it better than about anybody in it.”
Stoll can certainly list many cases that make him proud, though there has been one major disappointment: the class-action suit against Exxon Mobil Corp. Stoll led the Oregon state trial team and served on the committee that organized suits filed by more than 32,000 plaintiffs after the 1989 grounding in Alaska’s Prince William Sound of the Exxon Valdez supertanker, which resulted in an 11-million-gallon oil spill.
A 1994 jury verdict of $5 billion in punitive damages was reduced in 2001 to $2.5 billion—an amount upheld in a 2006 appeal. But Exxon appealed the case to the nation’s highest court. “I find it remarkable that the U.S. Supreme Court even got involved in the issue after all the review,” says Stoll.
In June, the court rendered its decision, slashing the award yet again, ordering Exxon to pay $507.5 million, or what Stoll estimates to be about four days’ worth of the corporation’s cash flow. To make things worse, more than 20 percent of the plaintiffs died while waiting for the case to be resolved.
“I was at the argument [before the Supreme Court] in February,” Stoll says, “and it was pretty apparent that the court was divided and there was real hostility. This Supreme Court has been very pro big corporation. I wouldn’t say pro business, because a large number of the plaintiffs were businesses. Most of them were small businesses, including fishermen.”
When he got word of the court’s ruling, he says, “I was disgusted.”
A review of his successes in civil rights cases is more heartening, as he tells how longstanding abuses of the helpless were brought to a halt in cases against mental institutions and nursing homes. A number of years ago, he prevailed against a nursing home operator in Wood Village who had stolen residents’ money. Based on Stoll’s investigation, the federal government stepped in and prosecuted the man, who ended up in prison.
Stoll also stood up for residents of the Fairview Hospital and Training Center, who continued to be institutionalized past the age of 18, while the hospital ignored a statute requiring reevaluation at 18 and possible release. He also took up the case of state hospital patients who were left with no financial resources upon release, after the state laid claim to all their Social Security benefits.
“We changed those practices,” says Stoll. “I’m really proud of both of those cases.” He also cites important wins in securities fraud and antitrust cases and millions of dollars recovered for injured parties. “I feel like I’m on the side of the angels,” he says with a grin.
Another point of pride is the Stoll Berne law firm itself, which he founded in 1978. It now boasts 10 partners—eight of whom were named to this year’s Oregon Super Lawyers and Rising Stars lists—and nine associates. Until recently, there were two Stolls in the firm’s name, one to honor Stoll’s father, Norman A. Stoll. The elder Stoll, a New Deal intellectual who focused on public power policy, kept an office at the downtown firm until his death at age 85 in 1998. Father and son had in common their roles as stalwarts of the Democratic Party.
None of his four children—Collin, 39; Andra, 37; Meghan, 29; Nick, 22—has followed Stoll to a legal career, believing, he says, that “Dad worked too hard.” However, he is quick to note, “They are all ardent Democrats.”
“When Bob got involved in the party, it was sort of like his heritage,” says former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts. “I would venture to guess that I have attended literally hundreds of events where he’s been—receptions, fundraising events, party activities, county conventions—the whole gamut of party activities. He’s always there and he never asks for anything back.”
“Bob is a well-grounded, common-sensical legal expert,” says Oregon Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Durham, “to the point where people as high up in our system as the governor seek him out for personal counsel on complicated legal issues and political matters.”
Probably Stoll’s most unusual case grew out of his abiding love for Italy. Having vacationed in Italy every year since 1983, Stoll and his wife have many Italian friends. In February 1998, they arranged to meet some of those friends in the Northern Italian ski resort of Cavalese. They arrived just a week after a low-flying U.S. Marine fighter jet from the nearby Aviano NATO base sliced through a ski gondola cable, causing 20 skiers of various European nationalities to fall 370 feet to their deaths.
A local businessman, who had joined Stoll and friends for skiing, was lamenting the fact that in addition to loss of life, the incident had caused loss of financial viability for the now-isolated village. Unless the gondola route could be restored, the village faced bankruptcy. The U.S. government was denying responsibility for the cost.
One of Stoll’s friends piped up: “You should hire Robert. He’s handled some large cases.” Stoll demurred: “Look, I’m just here on vacation.”
The next day, the town mayor came to call. Suddenly Stoll’s vacation was a working vacation. He tackled the problem with his usual vigor. After learning which U.S. congressional districts were heavily populated by emigrants from the region, he lobbied lawmakers and succeeded in getting the $20 million needed to rebuild the ski gondola added as part of a rider to the defense-appropriation bill.
It was as the result of unfortunate circumstances that the Stolls became such Italophiles. On that first visit with his wife in 1983, she fell ill and required emergency surgery. In the eight-woman hospital ward in Rome, with its constant, noisy traffic of generous and effusively caring visitors, the Stolls came to adore Italians and wanted to be around them as often as possible.
The beautiful 1,600-square-foot apartment that is their home during visits to Rome was featured in a 2006 New York Times article, “An Italian Home Away From Home.” Earlier this year, the Stolls offered a week’s stay in their sumptuous apartment as an auction item for The Carter Center, President Jimmy Carter’s human-rights undertaking. The “Rome Adventure” package, which included airfare, was valued at $13,800. (The winning bid was $22,000.)
“Despite the fact that he’s been financially successful,” says his friend Steven Ungar at Lane Powell, “he’s never strayed from his progressive political roots.”
Fellow Harvard Law alum Susan Elizabeth Reece recalls that Stoll treated her as an equal when she moved to Portland and started practicing law in 1973, when women attorneys were a rarity.
“He took me around the courthouse and introduced me to judges and got me on the court-appointed list and gave me some overflow cases and a lot of good advice,” she recalls. “One of the most interesting things I got to do with him was co-counsel on a murder case involving an insanity defense. I remember the judge in chambers saying, ‘That young lady must be learning a lot,’ as if I was there just to carry the briefcases.”
In the courtroom, Stoll is the picture of preparation and confidence. “If you wanted to define what’s good about him as a trial lawyer,” says Dan Skerritt of Tonkon Torp, “he’s comfortable in his own skin, and he makes the jury comfortable with him. That’s a high compliment.” Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Henry Kantor admits to having observed Stoll in court when he was a young lawyer, in hopes of emulating him. “I wanted to become a better lawyer, so I watched him,” he says.
Stoll gives back to his community in many ways, including serving on the boards of the Portland Urban League, Oregon ACLU, Oregon Art Institute, Portland Center for Visual Arts and Pacific Northwest College of Art. He is a tireless volunteer for many causes, and he and his wife have established several scholarships for Portland State University students. He contributes time, money and expertise to help provide legal aid for low-income Oregonians.
After attending several national Democratic conventions since 1960, often as the Oregon chairman for the candidate’s campaign, Stoll was named this year an alternate delegate to the convention in Denver.
“It’s my only elected office,” he quips.