‘Coach Benny’ Fights Injustice
Microbiologist-turned-lawyer Benny Agosto Jr. is devoted to kids, soccer and underdogs
Published in 2013 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
By Michael Corcoran on September 9, 2013
He’s won landmark cases in Texas appellate courts and served as an adviser to President Barack Obama on Latino issues for the 2012 State of the Union address. But on this Saturday, on the green fields of his alma mater, he’s just Coach Benny.
It’s soccer day for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Houston, and Benny Agosto Jr., a partner at Houston’s oldest plaintiff’s firm, is spending four hours teaching fundamentals and overseeing two matches simultaneously. When the games are over, Agosto leads the kids to the end of the main field, talking as he goes. “I came from Puerto Rico to this college back in the ’80s to play soccer,” he says, gesturing to the campus of Houston Baptist University, which he attended on scholarship. “I was the goalie.”
As Agosto takes a position in the middle of the goal, one of the college’s players, who has been helping run the scrimmages, takes the ball about 12 feet in front. “Who has more pressure in a penalty kick situation: the goalie or the kicker?” Agosto asks the kids. Looking at all the space between the two posts and the short distance the ball has to travel, they shout out, “The goalie!” Agosto shakes his head. “The kicker has the advantage, so everyone expects a goal.”
As the college volunteer approaches the ball, Coach Benny makes the slightest head gesture to the right, then dives to the left. It’s a fierce line-drive kick that caroms off Agosto’s forearm and bounces away from the goal. “The goalie is the underdog,” Agosto says, picking himself up, as the kids applaud. “Don’t count out the underdog.”
A personal injury attorney with Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend, Agosto has made his name in Houston—and nationally—as an advocate for those who have no one else standing up for them. Many don’t speak English and some are in the country without necessary papers; it’s Agosto’s mission to ensure their basic human rights.
He leapt to prominence with a January 2011 victory in Republic Waste Services, Ltd. v. Martinez, when the 1st District Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court ruling. Agosto, 50, had argued successfully that the illegal status of immigrants was irrelevant to the case and, therefore, inadmissible in court. Elida Martinez—whose common-law husband, Oscar Gomez, was killed when he was run over by a garbage truck at work—sued, along with their daughter and Gomez’s father. A jury awarded Agosto’s clients $1.4 million, but Gomez’s employer appealed the decision, claiming that because he was an undocumented worker who had falsified work papers to get the job, he would likely have been deported. Therefore, the employer argued, his earning projections should be based on the $1,000 a year he would have earned in El Salvador, not the $33,000 a year he made with Republic.
The appeals court found Republic’s deportation scenario speculative and ruled in favor of Agosto’s clients, saying “the probative value of Gomez’s immigration status was far outweighed by its prejudicial effect.” Since immigration is such a political hot button, this legal victory for undocumented workers made headline news in several Texas newspapers and hoisted Agosto as a Latino champion.
“If you look at my career, there are two parts,” says Agosto. “There’s Before Martinez and After Martinez.” Agosto was voted president of the Hispanic National Bar Association for the 2011 to 2012 term and was honored, during a Houston Texans game at a sold-out Reliant Stadium, as the NFL Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award winner. The walls of his high-ceilinged office in downtown Houston bear various community service honors, including two Presidential Awards from the Houston Bar, mixed in with photos of favorite baseball players from Puerto Rico: Roberto Clemente, Jose Cruz, Orlando Cepeda and more—plus memorabilia from his beloved Houston Dynamo soccer team.
Another landmark case, Harris County v. Eluid Hinojosa, was also affirmed by the 1st District Court of Appeals and changed Texas law. Agosto represented, on a pro bono basis, an off-duty police sergeant injured in a motorcycle accident on the way to a call. Before the court’s decision, off-duty officers were not eligible for workers’ compensation. The judge ruled otherwise, meaning Agosto’s disabled client qualified for $1 million in medical coverage and benefits.
“Benny is a hardworking, self-made American success story,” says former Texas Supreme Court Justice Dale Wainwright, who first encountered Agosto in a courtroom while a district judge in 2001. “He’s sincere and can relate to people of all social status, which allows him to communicate his point to a jury very effectively.”
Agosto didn’t think about becoming a lawyer until he was 28. His graduate degree from the University of Houston was in microbiology. “I taught high school biology and I coached Division I soccer,” he says. “I was ecstatic. I was ready to do that the rest of my life.”
An experience with personal injury, fittingly, set Agosto on his legal course. A gymnast at Houston Baptist University suffered a paralyzing neck injury, and the school, facing major liability issues, reassessed its sports departments. The soccer program was one of the cuts. Agosto was devastated. His ideal situation, balancing jobs as high school teacher and college soccer coach, was knocked off track.
Randy Sorrels, a former soccer teammate who is now a partner at Abraham Watkins, suggested Agosto give law school a shot. “Benny is super-analytical and detail-oriented, plus he genuinely cares about people,” says Sorrels. “That combination makes for a great lawyer.” Although Agosto says he wasn’t originally sure the legal life was for him, he followed Sorrels’ advice. “My thinking was that, if I got a law degree, it would further my teaching credentials, like a Ph.D.” But Agosto was hooked from his first mock trial.
“I discovered that I’m really good at communicating my point,” Agosto says. The adversarial nature of trials brought out his competitive instincts. He had found his calling.
The soccer-coach-turned-lawyer discovered he had another useful asset while clerking at Abraham Watkins in 1991: Agosto speaks Spanish fluently, meaning the firm no longer needed translators.
After he joined the firm as a lawyer, Agosto won a settlement for a client in an automobile accident case. “He asked me if I took on wrongful-death cases,” Agosto recalls. The man’s sister-in-law, who couldn’t speak a word of English, had been left with four children to raise after her husband was killed in an industrial accident. Agosto won the case—and a $4.75 million settlement for the family.
While the state’s Hispanic population is nearly 40 percent, only 8 percent of attorneys are Hispanic. “It could be a cultural thing,” Agosto says. “As a Latino, I can speak from my own perception [that] … Latinos are encouraged to be strong and quiet: Don’t stand out.” In 2006, Agosto founded the Mexican-American Bar Association of Texas Foundation, which gives scholarships to Hispanic law students in the Houston area.
Agosto says he and his wife, Nichole, have a “yours, mine and ours family.” Both had sons from a previous marriage. In 2002, they added a daughter. “Victoria has always kept a journal, and one day she announced, ‘I want to write a book,’” Agosto says. “So we worked on one together.” The children’s book, Victoria Goes to Court, uses the civil rights era as an example of how lawyers have helped right the wrongs of society.
“When my kids were young and asked me what I do, I said, ‘I fight injustice,’” Agosto says. He acknowledges, with an air of disappointment, that personal injury attorneys sometimes get a bad rap. “I’m not a superhero, believe me. But I work hard because there are people who need my help.”
“I’ve seen this attitude, when a worker is badly injured or killed on the job, of just ‘Get me another Mexican,’” Agosto says. “You can’t treat people that way. Making money is great. This is America. But when you’re making money at the risk of the workers, we all should have a problem with that.”
Agosto’s father, the senior Benny Agosto, also worked hard, providing for his family of five kids (Benny Jr. in the middle). A native of Puerto Rico, the senior Benny was a sharpshooter for the U.S. Army, then settled his family in New York City, where Benny Jr. was born, after the Korean War. “Neither of my parents went further than the sixth grade,” Agosto says, “but my father always told us that a great education was the way to become successful in life.”
While working as a costume jewelry-maker in the Bronx, his father developed his skills and set up his own factory. When Benny was 6, his family returned to Puerto Rico, where his father moved the factory. Now his old bosses became his customers. “My dad worked seven days a week. He’d open the doors at 7 a.m., then lock up for the night.”
The Agosto children went to private school in San Juan, where Agosto excelled in baseball. He played on Puerto Rico’s 1976 world championship team in the Sandy Koufax League (ages 13 to 14). But when he went to high school, Wesleyan Academy was a powerhouse in soccer, not baseball. Agosto found a way onto the varsity team as a goalie, which didn’t require the ball-handling skills his teammates had been perfecting while he was learning to hit a curve ball.
Though he’d never played goalie before, he became so good that he got a scholarship offer and moved to Houston.
On that soccer field at Houston Baptist, Agosto is telling the kids from Big Brothers Big Sisters that life gets better with an education. And that sometimes the things you don’t plan for are the things that help you make a difference.
“All I ever wanted to do was play soccer and be a coach,” he tells his audience, “but sometimes life throws you a curve.”
“Why did I become a lawyer?” he asks the kids. Well-primed, they answer, “To fight injustice!”
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