For Abusive Employers, The Dai Has Been Cast

Cornelia Dai, along with her good karma Pasadena law firm, doesn’t just hate injustice; she changes its course

Published in 2007 Southern California Rising Stars — July 2007

Cornelia Dai is a second-generation Chinese American, so when a case came her way that involved the exploitation of immigrant Chinese workers, she had a personal and immediate reaction. She relished the chance to help a new generation of immigrants fight back.

The face of discrimination has changed from the days when Dai’s immigrant grandfather was turned away by a barber who wouldn’t cut the hair of a Chinese man. For some of the most vulnerable newcomers these days, abuse is likely to come at the hands of employers from their home country, who know how helpless they are, and take advantage of their inability to understand their rights under U.S. labor laws. And that was exactly what the Chinese Daily News seemed to be doing to its employees, since a majority of them didn’t speak English.

The Chinese Daily News is a newspaper published in nine North American cities and owned by the same media conglomerate that runs the United Daily News in Taiwan. According to the evidence assembled by Dai and her co-counsels, Randy Renick and Virginia Keeny (both named in the 2007 Super Lawyers list), the Chinese Daily News ran its Monterey Park outpost by its own rules. The paper didn’t pay many of its employees proper overtime, or even keep records of their work hours, or give them lunch time or other breaks as required by law. Dai sued the paper in a class action brought on behalf of many of its employees—and the jury rendered a $2.5 million verdict.

A lawyer for the newspaper has vowed to appeal, but Dai says the verdict “will send a message to other companies. Just because you are not based in the U.S. and are employing people from a community that is fairly insular, you can’t get away with failing to comply with U.S. law.”

In 1999, Dai joined Hadsell & Stormer, a prominent left-wing law firm in Pasadena, straight out of USC Law School. A San Francisco Bay Area native and University of California at Berkeley undergrad, Dai worked as an intern with the firm one summer during law school, a job she landed through an interview at the public-interest law job fair held each year at UCLA. There, Hadsell & Stormer stood out from the other hiring entities, which are largely nonprofit organizations. Hadsell & Stormer is a rare private, for-profit law firm in the progressive public-interest world. Fewer than 10 percent are private law firms, says Catherine Mayorkas, director of public-interest programs at UCLA, and most of those are firms that represent labor unions. Hadsell & Stormer is regarded as one of the best private firms in the nation in the public-interest employment and civil rights sphere.

The firm has just 10 attorneys, but as Renick, a former Hadsell & Stormer attorney who now runs a solo practice with one associate, puts it, “in the civil rights and employment law world, they’re huge.” It has learned to leverage its resources by teaming up with other like-minded law offices, including some of the four small firms (including Renick’s) that share an office building with Hadsell & Stormer on Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena. The art decorating the firm’s walls, celebrating a global array of labor and human rights struggles and denigrating the likes of “Secretary of Offense” Donald Rumsfeld, makes it clear at a glance that these lawyers don’t cater to a corporate clientele. Employees harassed, fired or passed over for promotion because of their race, sexual orientation, or whistle-blowing activities make up many of the firm’s clients. Hadsell & Stormer lawyers insist that the main goal of all their cases is justice, but they have also won a lot of money over the years. The firm’s Web site lists 37 notable verdicts and settlements it has obtained for its clients since the 1990s, and the total exceeds $300 million.

One of founder Dan Stormer’s (named on the 2007 Super Lawyers list) first big verdicts came in a case that put the firm, then known as Litt & Stormer, on the map. It was a long battle on behalf of former Black Panther Michael Zinzun. He had already won a $1.2 million settlement in a police brutality case following a melee that left him blind in one eye. An organization he founded, the Coalition Against Police Abuse, was lead plaintiff in a lawsuit over police infiltration of the group, a case that led to the dismantlement of a controversial police domestic spying unit and a substantial monetary settlement. In the police misconduct case handled by Stormer, a police official had illegally plumbed electronic police files for information that was leaked to the press while Zinzun was running for a seat on the Pasadena City Council in 1989. The newspaper stories that ensued insinuated that the police had information about Zinzun related to terrorism.

Stormer took Zinzun’s case to trial and won a $3.8 million verdict in 1991. It was later overturned on appeal, and Zinzun ultimately accepted a settlement of $500,000.

Over the years, Hadsell & Stormer has developed an expertise in international human rights cases. One of the first big cases that Dai pitched in on was the firm’s landmark suit against Los Angeles-based Unocal on behalf of Burmese villagers who were allegedly abused by soldiers securing a pipeline project in which the oil company was a co-venturer. Hadsell & Stormer, along with several other firms and nonprofit human rights law groups that participated in the litigation, settled for an undisclosed amount with Unocal in 2005. It was one of the first cases in which a U.S. company compensated plaintiffs in a lawsuit for human rights abuses abroad, and it has breathed life into the field of alien tort claims litigation. Hadsell & Stormer now has a case against Chevron over similar issues relating to human rights violations in Nigeria.

The Unocal case was under way when Dai arrived at Hadsell & Stormer. She contributed legal research on the issue of whether Burma, Bermuda (where one of the Unocal subsidiaries was incorporated) or California law should govern the case. What most impressed Dai, from her perspective as a newly minted litigator, was how such an “amazing team of co-counsel,” including small firms and nonprofit groups employing some of the “creators of the field of international human rights,” joined forces to take on a multibillion-dollar corporation and its mega law firms.

Teaming up with other small firms is Hadsell & Stormer’s primary modus operandi. “About 60 or 70 percent of the cases I’m working on have co-counsel,” Stormer says. One advantage of that approach is that the firm can stay lean and yet still take on very big cases, and win.

“We are not afraid to go up against any defendant or any firm,” says Dai. “We’re fierce advocates, and frankly, a lot of firms are afraid to go up against us. We’ll litigate every point and we’ll oppose every motion. We put in the hours. We’re committed to our clients. That’s how we stay in the game.”

The firm’s collaborative approach to litigating cases has benefited other like-minded law offices in the building and around town, says Renick. “Hadsell & Stormer is unique in the way that it continues work in collaboration with other law firms and public-interest groups,” he explains. “If you look at any of their major cases, there is always another law firm with a significant role. They share with co-counsel and teach others how to litigate a civil rights case the right way. They are an incubator. They have created this community of progressive plaintiffs’ firms in Pasadena.”

That has undoubtedly cost the firm business opportunities, and hence money, that Hadsell & Stormer could have kept for itself. But Stormer insists that making money isn’t the main point.

“We of course have to make money to survive. We don’t have money from any other source. We don’t get grants or anything like that,” he says. “But the fundamental premise of the firm is to engage in cases that have a basis in social justice, or the public interest, or human rights. Making money on the case is only one of many factors we consider in taking cases.”

A long-running case that Hadsell & Stormer has handled on behalf of a group named South Central Farmers Feeding Families illustrates that the firm doesn’t “look at cases as money factories,” Stormer says. The firm fought a fruitless battle for years to keep a 14-acre parcel of land in operation as an urban farm and community garden, against the wishes of the developer, Ralph Horowitz, who lost the parcel to the city through eminent domain and later won the right to get it back. “We put in significant resources knowing full well that if we didn’t win there would be certainly no compensation.”

For its client and the firm alike, the case turned out to be something of a debacle. The court upheld Horowitz’s right to buy back and develop the land. The Hadsell & Stormer lawyers used all their ammunition to stave off the inevitable and succeeded in winning nothing more than a preliminary injunction. Some of the farmers found space in the city-managed community gardening program. Those who remained were caught up in an increasingly politicized melodrama, replete with celebrities and eyewitness news crews.

With bulldozers preparing to move in on the heels of sheriffs who were going to evict the last resisters, Stormer announced that the Annenberg Foundation was “drawing up legal papers” to acquire the parcel and keep it as a community garden. That turned out to be a fantasy. In the end, actress Darryl Hannah was unchained from a tree amid a blaze of TV camera lights and led away by sheriffs along with the last of the farmers, just before the bulldozers moved in.

Dai, who pitched in on the South Central farm battle with other Hadsell & Stormer lawyers, declined to comment on the case because it’s still on appeal. But she insisted that the brouhaha was worth it. “We only take on cases that have merit,” she says. “We wouldn’t have taken it if it didn’t have merit. The goal of the movement was to gain support for more than 300 low-income families that raised food on that land. As part of the effort to regain the property for the farmers, we wanted the public to be aware.”

Litigation “isn’t the only way” to fight injustice, Dai says. “But it is one way.” Whether a lawsuit succeeds in winning every last measure of redress or not, it can ensure at least one thing: that those who are marginalized and outmatched by the forces arrayed against them will at least have a voice.

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