Business executive Alan Jackson knew he had a smart lawyer.
Still, he recalls a moment when he was stunned by the brainpower of Elaine Charlson Bredehoft. It came during closing arguments in his defamation and breach of contract lawsuit against his former employer, as the defense replayed part of a videotaped deposition for the jury.
“It was like a look of surprise I saw on Elaine’s face,” Jackson says. “Suddenly she jumped up and ran around in front of the table where we were seated. She had about 20 boxes of paper there. And she went to one particular box and dug through these papers and pulled out a single sheet of paper and came back and sat down again.”
What Bredehoft had found so swiftly was a transcript. When it was her turn to speak, Bredehoft told jurors that the defense had cut the video short. Left out was the crucial next sentence — evidence that supported Jackson’s claim that he had been fired as president and CEO and then falsely blamed for the company’s loss of $3 million.
It was “absolutely amazing,” Jackson says. The jury awarded him $6.2 million.
Amazing perhaps, but not surprising to those who know Bredehoft. Colleagues, opposing counsel, clients and even a former juror describe her as exceedingly tenacious, imaginative and a master of detail — right down to knowing the page and line number of key evidence. Bredehoft is so focused during trials that she barely eats. To compensate, she drinks massive quantities of diet Mountain Dew.
“You just know Elaine will leave no stone unturned,” says Steve Robinson, a partner with McGuireWoods in McLean, who estimates they’ve been on opposite sides 100 or more times over the past 20 years. “She’ll just keep coming at you, coming at you, coming at you. You have to be very careful. You cannot make any procedural errors. You really have to be prepared in a case with Elaine, and frankly, you have to try to stay two or three steps ahead of her, and that’s very hard to do.”
It’s this determination and mental dexterity that has made Bredehoft, 47, the lawyer to call for aggrieved employees in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia. Her jury verdicts include $2.2 million for a sales manager fired during her pregnancy leave, $3.5 million for a top executive fired after a defamatory performance evaluation, and $3.1 million for a police chief fired after exposing misuse of town credit cards.
Bredehoft sees herself as representing the good guys. “I take a case because I genuinely think that person’s been wronged,” she says. “They’ve been treated badly and I really want to do something to help them.
She made partner by age 30. Then she founded her own firm in 1991 in Fairfax and stumbled into employment law “almost by accident,” with a phone call.
When Bredehoft’s phone rang, she had to dig around all the unpacked boxes and piles of paper to find it. On the other end of the line was Sandra Shope, a referral from former partner Rick Adams. Shope had been a housing official in Loudoun County. She resigned because her boss had been verbally abusive in his comments about her and about women in general. Bredehoft took the case. When a federal jury awarded Shope $675,000 a year later, The Washington Post reported the verdict on its front page.
“The calls just started flooding in on employment law,” Bredehoft says. “All kinds of people complaining about being sexually harassed, discriminated against, terminated … it just overtook anything else I was doing.”
It was fortuitous timing for both Bredehoft’s career and the development of employment law. A few years previously, in 1985, in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the U.S. Supreme Court held that sexual harassment creates a hostile work environment, making it illegal employment discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But it wasn’t until 1991 that Congress gave employees the right to a jury trial and the ability to seek compensatory and punitive damages. President George H. W. Bush signed the amendments into law just weeks after Anita Hill riveted the nation with her charges of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Supreme Court in 1985 carved the first exception to Virginia’s “at will” employment principle. In Bowman v. State Bank of Keysville, the court recognized that there were some circumstances in which people could claim they were wrongfully discharged.
Bredehoft and then-husband John M. Bredehoft quickly became employment law specialists. (The Bredehofts parted both personally and professionally in 1998.) Despite Virginia’s reputation for being far more favorable to employers than employees, Bredehoft says she prefers state courts to federal courts. “The state courts are not nearly as conservative as the federal courts,” she says. “I try to be in state court as much as I possibly can because I know I’ll get my right to a jury trial and because I know judges will let juries make those decisions.”
It is much more likely for federal courts, particularly the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, to scale down the amounts awarded by juries, Bredehoft says. Unfortunately, much of her work involving discrimination complaints is based on the federal law. Even if she does bring the action in state court, the defense can move the case to federal court.
So Bredehoft tries to look for torts or other causes of action she can bring in state court — like negligent retention, defamation and fraud. For a few years in the 1990s, the Bredehofts and other lawyers convinced Virginia courts to consider discrimination as a wrongful cause of termination. But the Legislature subsequently moved to close that avenue in most cases.
When she does end up in federal court, Bredehoft pushes hard to move cases quickly, and the Fourth Circuit’s famous “rocket docket” works to her advantage. From the time a case is filed to trial is about six months in that circuit.
“You’ve got to push hard,” she says. “I make a lot of enemies out of defense counsel because their whole perspective is delay, delay, delay.” Bredehoft was doing so many trials in both state and federal courts that sometimes they overlapped. Robinson, her friend and frequent opponent, says he suspects Bredehoft has tried more cases in the employment arena than anyone else in Virginia, “certainly in the last 10 years.”
Bredehoft says she went to trial so often partly because this area of law was new, and partly because of a defense perception that she was a “young, dumb female.”
“They would never settle anything with me,” Bredehoft says. But she also admits to being a terrible settlement negotiator then. She was all too ready to say: If you won’t talk to me, that’s fine. Let’s just try it.
And trying it — getting in front of a jury and making her case — is the former debate champion’s favorite part of the law.
“I’m a different human being in trial than I am normally,” Bredehoft says. She says that she is usually a disorganized person with “the attention span of an ant.” That changes when she is in court. She prepares notebooks for jurors highlighting key pieces of evidence. Clients aren’t allowed to talk with her while the defense is questioning witnesses so she doesn’t miss a word or nuanced expression.
Client Gary Davison, who won a stock options battle against his exemployer, says a running joke in Fairfax County is that if Bredehoft gets four minutes in front of the judge, she’ll pack in eight minutes worth of bandwidth. “Literally, I’ve seen judges tell her, ‘Elaine, you need to slow down because I can’t listen that fast,’” Davison says.
And she really does not eat breakfast, lunch or dinner. She might have a snack on the way home, Bredehoft says, but that’s it.
“It’s great. By the end of trial I can fit into any suit in my closet,” she says. “It’s not a nervousness. It’s just some kind of energy that keeps me going and I have no desire to eat.”
Her diet Mountain Dew habit, however, is legendary. She brings coolers of the citrus-flavored, caffeinated soda to court, drinking it in the hallway during breaks. As a surprise, Davison brought cases of soda to her office and stacked the cans on top of a table to create a diet Mountain Dew Christmas tree.
“If someone took diet Mountain Dew off the market, she would be a ruined woman,” says client Alan Jackson. “It keeps her going.”
Her ability to relate to a jury — and explain incredibly complicated material — is another of her trial strengths. Bredehoft says she asks the questions the jury would want to ask, and respects jurors’ time by being prepared and moving the case along.
“She’ll sometimes sort of suggest to the audience that she’s just a country girl from Thief River Falls, Minnesota. She still has her accent intact,” says Cy Smith, a partner with Zuckerman Spaeder in Baltimore, who has worked with her on several cases. “But in fact she is a highly organized, incredibly capable trial lawyer who can basically face off against anyone in the country.”
Fifteen years after Sandra Shope’s call, the phone keeps ringing. Her practice in Reston, now known as Charlson Bredehoft & Cohen, gets 50 to 200 calls every week. Peter Cohen joined the firm in 2003 and became partner in 2004. She also has two associates. Her 80-year-old father, retired in Texas, is listed as a consultant on selected matters.
“He’s very much a mentor, and I take his advice very seriously,” Bredehoft says. Seven or eight years ago, Bredehoft’s father even watched her try a case, helping make up for the fact that she never saw him do the same. “By the second or third day of trial,” she says, “he was giving me little pointers.”
Bredehoft also jealously guards time with her kids. She coaches both daughters, now 16 and 17, in soccer and basketball. She remarried in 2002, and completed ground school in February with her husband, Keenan Frank, to learn how to fly a plane. It was his dream, Bredehoft says, so she decided to learn as well. She looks forward to the day they can throw golf clubs in a plane and take off.
That day might be soon. In the last two years, only three of her cases have gone to trial, including Jackson’s in 2004. Those verdicts averaged about $4 million each, but the awards were subsequently reduced, partly because of statutory caps juries don’t know about. In January, though, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the jury’s decision to give Jackson $5 million in compensatory damages for defamation.
Bredehoft attributes the lighter trial load to cases settling more often. She’s become a believer in mediation services and has made significant use of them. She says her own skills in settlement have improved significantly. Plus the defense is now more willing to settle with her.
“When you do have a track record and they know you’re not afraid to go to trial,” Bredehoft says, “they’re a lot more reasonable about coming to the table.”