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'They All Started Calling'

L. Chris Stewart never anticipated being a civil rights lawyer; now he’s a face of the movement

Published in 2022 Georgia Super Lawyers Magazine

Photo by: Stan Kaady

If you ask L. Chris Stewart how he became one of the nation’s most renowned civil rights attorneys, he says, “That’s a question I ask myself daily, because I really have no clue.” 

Turns out it began with a phone call from a heartbroken mother in 2014.

“She told me her son had been killed by the police and no one would believe her,” says Stewart, CEO of Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys, the Atlanta firm he launched in 2020. “The truth is, I didn’t want to take the case.”

He’d made a name for himself as a personal injury lawyer, particularly in premises liability and sexual assault cases. But he didn’t know how helpful he could be to Claudia Towns, a hospital administrator, whose son, Gregory, 24 and a recent father, died after being tased repeatedly while handcuffed by police officers in East Point, a suburb south of Atlanta.

“I felt bad for her—how could anyone not feel bad for her? I wanted to help that family if I could. That’s how it started,” Stewart says. “So I called her back and said I’d look into it.”

The more he looked, the worse it looked for the police. Two officers—both Black, like Towns—had not only killed the man, they’d tortured him. 

“They electrocuted him to death. We found pictures and video of them actually doing it,” Stewart says. He pauses to reiterate: “This was not an area of the law that I was looking to get into.”

Stewart combined police records with eyewitness accounts and video of the April 2014 incident and discovered that the two officers triggered their Tasers 14 times. In August, Stewart filed a wrongful death suit against the city of East Point on behalf of the Towns family. In November, the city settled for $1 million. 

Two years later, one of the officers was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison; the other got 18 months for involuntary manslaughter. By then, Stewart was fully immersed in this kind of work. It wasn’t hard to find clients.

“There aren’t a lot of civil rights lawyers,” says Stewart. “One family sees what you did and they call, then another. Then they all started calling.”

And now Stewart is a leading voice in the national debate over police brutality. He’s represented the families of Walter Scott, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, among others. They’re high profile, difficult, emotional cases, well-suited to Stewart’s even-handed nature. 

“There is no area of law as mentally and emotionally and physically demanding as fighting civil rights cases,” Stewart says. “We must be the voice of reason yet demand justice. We must call out those who abuse others, but not accuse those who serve the community with honor. I fully support law enforcement and the work of good police officers, but I also stand up for people’s civil rights. You can do both.”

 

Stewart was raised in Southwest Atlanta, a mostly Black neighborhood, the youngest of four children; he went to high school in north Atlanta at a mostly white private school. Stepping outside of his neighborhood comfort zone expanded Stewart’s perspective and prepared him for a wider world.

But he never expected to be a lawyer. That just wasn’t on his radar. 

“That’s another one of those things—becoming a lawyer. I have no idea how it happened,” he says. This time you can hear a wink in his voice.

After earning a bachelor’s in psychology from Xavier University of Louisiana, he decided to stay in New Orleans and get a master’s in public health from Tulane. He joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago, working for a task force that inspected environmental damage caused by corporations. 

“We would look for the source of a pollutant, where it was coming from, how it was getting into the river or the community,” Stewart says. “And I interacted with the legal team a lot. I remember feeling fed up and powerless about really stopping some of these companies from doing some major pollution.” Which is when one of the lawyers told him that if he was really fed up, he should become a lawyer.

While at Howard University School of Law, Stewart led its mock trial court team to victory in the 2005 National Criminal Justice Trial Advocacy Competition. It was the first time a historically Black college claimed the national title. Stewart received the Outstanding Advocate Award, the equivalent of the tournament’s MVP. He also got a taste of what it’s like to be a celebrity lawyer while interning with legendary Florida attorney Willie Gary, “The Giant Killer,” known for taking down corporations on behalf of his clients and winning some of the largest jury awards and settlements in the U.S.

“Talk about a mind-blowing experience for a law student,” Stewart says. “He was one of the most successful lawyers in the world—and he’s an African American. You know you’re in a new world when your boss says, ‘We have a meeting in New York,’ then get on his Boeing jet. That was a whole different experience.”

After the moot court championship and the impressive internship, Stewart landed a job with the Atlanta trial law firm Nix, Graddock & Crumpler. Stewart remembers Keenan Nix telling him, “‘You can go to another firm and make a ton of money and never see a courtroom for five years, or you can come work in our small shop and you’ll be trying cases.’ Keenan was a man of his word.”

Nix’s firm wasn’t even hiring at the time, but he didn’t want Stewart to get away. “I knew he was destined for greatness for three reasons,” Nix says. “First, he knew that trial law was his calling; second, and most importantly, he was teachable and hungry to learn; and third, his God-given communication skills were already formidable. When you combine Chris’s innate talent as a communicator with his indefatigable work ethic, unparalleled success was almost a forgone conclusion.”

Stewart was trying automobile accident cases when the firm was absorbed by Morgan & Morgan, the largest personal injury firm in the country. “They were just opening in Atlanta and I was lucky to get in on the ground floor,” says Stewart, who became a partner in the firm’s Atlanta office in 2009.

He secured some of Morgan’s largest Georgia jury verdicts—including the largest ever for a daycare premises liability case in 2010. But he wanted to see what it was like to run his own shop, so he took the risk and launched Stewart, Seay & Felton in 2013. By then he’d already represented more than 2,500 people, taken more than 500 depositions and tried more than 25 cases.

Before long, he was getting national attention, and not just for the civil rights cases, which are still a relatively small part of his workload. His representation in sexual assault cases has netted several multimillion-dollar settlements and one jury award that went even further.

In October 2012, Hope Cheston attended a friend’s birthday party at a Jonesboro apartment complex, where she was raped by one of the building’s security guards. Stewart filed the case in 2015, and during the trial he asked jurors to put a value on the young woman’s pain and suffering. They came back with $1 billion. It’s believed to be the largest jury verdict ever awarded in a sexual assault case and it earned him the sobriquet “Mr. Billion Dollar Justice.” (He has since trademarked it.)

“Chris really connects well with a jury,” says Madeleine Simmons, who joined Stewart and Justin Miller to launch SMS in 2020. “His charisma and passion get a jury to buy into our client’s side of the case. It really comes across during a closing argument. He is able to make a jury feel the pain and the journey our clients have experienced. He captures jurors’ attention and makes them care.”

Simmons and Miller both talk about the emails Stewart sends at one or three in the morning, the 20-hour workdays, the nonstop pace of their colleague.

“His preparation is ridiculous,” says Miller. “People who don’t know him think he’s very affable, a cool guy, and he is. But when he’s working a trial, any case, he turns into a monster. In the office 20 hours with laser focus, riding his Segway through the halls, reading depositions. In court he makes it look easy. But no one sees the preparation.”

Judges recognize it. “Chris is an excellent trial lawyer in part because he prepares so well,” says Robert Benham, former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. “Sometimes trial lawyers enjoy the limelight, enjoy the presentation, but they don’t like to do the grunt work. Chris is one of those lawyers who does the grunt work, too.”

Benham adds: “Judges know that if he’s taking a case to trial, he’s done everything he could beforehand to settle. He doesn’t have to try too many cases because he’s so well-prepared; and when you’re well-prepared, the other side will see your point of view.”

 

Stewart has spent a lot of time in front of TV cameras—becoming a nationally recognized figure in the civil rights movement and the debate over police violence—but he knows the movement has been aided by the ubiquity of another kind of camera.

When Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer in South Carolina, someone caught the horrifying scene on video. Stewart got the footage and released it to the world. That helped him secure a $6.5 million settlement from the city of North Charleston for the Scott family, as well as get the police officer convicted.

That case got Stewart thinking about the time before everyone was carrying digital cameras in their pockets: the Black people who were victims of brutality; the white people who got away with it. 

“It was just complete injustice,” he says. “Today, if you’re African American, your best shot at justice is through video. Sometimes it’s your only shot—and it’s not always guaranteed. Even with the George Floyd case, when it seemed obvious, we were shaking in our boots until we heard the verdict, because all it takes is one person on the jury who doesn’t care.”

Instead, last April, the police officer who killed Floyd was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter, receiving a sentence of 22.5 years in prison. A month earlier, Stewart’s team, representing Floyd’s daughter Gianna, won a $27 million civil settlement from the city of Minneapolis. 

For Atlanta lawyer Scott Masterson, managing partner at Lewis Brisbois in Atlanta, the Floyd case was an opportunity to work alongside Stewart. Previously, they’d represented opposing parties in premises liability and trucking cases. “We joined forces to represent Gianna Floyd, and working on that case and the surrounding issues was an amazing experience and one of the highlights of my career,” says Masterson. “Chris works himself nearly to death for his clients. He sleeps soundly on airplanes and during car rides, but as far as I can tell he spends the rest of his time fighting for justice on behalf of his clients.”

Less than a year after Floyd’s death, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a reform bill that bans chokeholds and makes it easier to pursue claims of police conduct. (The bill currently languishes in the Senate.) Even so, Stewart views the experience through pragmatic eyes.

“The pandemic definitely was a large factor in that case because you just couldn’t escape the news,” he says. “It was everywhere, on TV, day and night. So many people who usually don’t pay attention to these types of cases were paying attention for once: white, Black, Hispanic. People in other countries. Everyone. It was one of those rare situations where everybody seemed to come together and say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

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