It’s Not Over Till It’s Over
How Memphis attorney David Siegel learned to never give up on a case
Published in 2010 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
on November 5, 2010
Updated on November 8, 2010
David Siegel was sitting in his office, anxiously waiting for the chancery court in Memphis to rule on one of the most controversial cases of his life, when his 10-year-old daughter Stephanie called to tell him that the local television stations were about to announce the verdict. Stunned because no one had informed him of the decision, he cringed. Stephanie said softly, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
“I then knew we had lost, but I did not know how or why,” recalls Siegel, 50, a personal injury attorney with Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz, who represented Jack and Casey He in a bitter battle to win back custody of their daughter, Anna Mae, from a Memphis foster couple. “It was pure chaos. I was confused; everything was spinning.”
He recalls his trip to the press conference on May 12, 2004, “I can just remember talking to my girlfriend [Dana], now my wife, and telling her, ‘You know, I don’t know that this is something that I can do.’”
Siegel did make it through that gut-wrenching day, as well as the subsequent loss on appeal, and went on to claim victory for his pro bono clients when the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision and returned Anna Mae to her biological parents in 2007.
Long before the case catapulted Siegel into the national spotlight—the proceedings drew intense coverage from ABC’s 20/20, The New York Times and other media outlets—the tenacious attorney had strived to be a staunch human rights advocate. “I have always had an affinity for the underdog,” says Siegel, who oversees the firm’s catastrophic injury practice group. “I won’t hesitate to take a case to wherever it needs to go in order to obtain the proper outcome. I don’t like to quit.”
Jerry Potter, an insurance defense and medical malpractice attorney with The Hardison Law Firm in Memphis, has mediated a number of cases with Siegel. “I think most people view David as a fighter,” says Potter, who has also battled with Siegel in court. “But he is very courteous and very objective. He’s not dogmatic like some plaintiff’s attorneys. He never lets his personal ego interfere with what’s in his clients’ best interests.”
Born in Memphis, Siegel moved with his parents to Chicago, then to Shreveport, La., San Antonio, and, when he was 8, to Tachikawa, Japan, where for three years his father practiced medicine in the U.S. Air Force. On a clear day, Siegel could see the snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji from his bedroom window. “I can remember sitting in the train going from Tachikawa to Tokyo and how nice and kind the people were,” he says. “And I think it helped me in my practice because in Japan you see that there’s more than one way of looking at the world.”
His family’s “spirited” dinner table discussions—about politics, religion and more—further shaped his perspective. “I quickly learned the value of independent thinking and that challenging and questioning ideas is essential,” Siegel says. “At some point during those debates, it was not uncommon for my grandmother to say, ‘That boy should be a lawyer!’”
By seventh grade, he had decided to do just that. After graduating with a psychology degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a J.D. from UT College of Law, in 1986 he joined Memphis attorney Robert L. Dobbs and worked on everything from landlord–tenant disputes and wills to entertainment and criminal law. To de-stress on weekends, he played drums at clubs, private parties and weddings. “It is very therapeutic and relaxing,” says Siegel, who also plays piano and guitar. “You can easily get lost in the music.”
His first court appearance was at the Tennessee Court of Appeals, where he fought to reverse a jury verdict rendered against a client for more than $175,000. “I was about as nervous as I had ever been,” Siegel recalls. “One thing that compounded that nervousness was the fact that you’re looking at three judges. … There’s a lot of space between the podium and those three judges and it can be, for a young kid right out of law school, a very intimidating experience.” He won, and the case was remanded for a new trial.
Over the years, Siegel handled more family law cases––many pro bono––and eventually gravitated toward personal injury cases. For a client paralyzed when he was rear-ended by an 18-wheeler, Siegel wrangled a “very favorable settlement” despite the defense argument that the man was driving too slowly. In a highly publicized wrongful death case, he represented the family of a firefighter who went on a shooting rampage in March of 2000, killing his new wife and several others. Siegel obtained a confidential settlement from the psychiatrist who examined the firefighter shortly before the incident and failed to warn the man’s wife that she was in danger.
In 2002 Siegel joined Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz, the largest personal injury firm in Tennessee. That same year, Jack He, a college professor in China, walked into his office desperate to get his daughter back from Jerry and Louise Baker, with whom she had lived since a few weeks after her birth in January 1999. Initially, the Hes had asked the Bakers to temporarily care for Anna Mae while they dealt with Jack He’s job loss, impending deportation and charges of sexual assault––he was later acquitted. That summer, custody was transferred to the Bakers, and a year later the Hes filed a petition to have Anna Mae returned to them.
By the time He came to Siegel for help, he and wife Casey were facing contempt charges for not relinquishing their daughter’s passport. They had been ordered to pay $15,000 to Chancery Court to defray the cost of psychological evaluations and guardian ad litem, and were facing a no-contact order. “Sadness and disbelief are what first got me involved,” Siegel says. “I could not believe what I was hearing as this story unfolded.”
After the initial trial court ruling against the Hes, Siegel became encouraged by a judge’s dissenting opinion when he lost again at the Tennessee Court of Appeals in November 2005. “For the first time,” he says, “I saw a ray of light.” In January 2007, after “hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of hours” of Siegel’s donated time, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that Anna Mae be returned to her biological parents. “I really, really choked up when I heard the news,” he says. “It was like a dream. I was just in shock and disbelief that suddenly all those years finally had come to fruition. It was overwhelming.
“There is something new to learn every day,” says Siegel, who in 2007 received the American Bar Association’s prestigious Edmund S. Muskie Pro Bono Service Award for his vigorous pursuit of the He case. “The journey can be just as meaningful as the destination, whether that journey involves preparing for a trial or taking a road trip to the mountains. Enjoy and learn from the ride.”