Q&A With Murray Schwartz

Murray Schwartz of Schwartz & Perry has been practicing for 60 years. He currently focuses exclusively on all facets of employment law, including employment discrimination.

Published in 2009 New York Metro Super Lawyers — September 2009

You graduated from Brooklyn Law School ... in 1949?

I guess you don’t know anyone else who did, am I right? True story. They wrote an article about me in one of the bar association newspapers, and [afterwards] I called up and said to the writer, “You have it wrong. You have it down as though I’m 57 years old. I’ve actually been practicing for 57 years.” She says, “Oh, I’ll change it, Mr. Schwartz!” I said, “Don’t you dare.” (Laughs)

 

The LSAT was first administered in February 1948 so I assume you didn’t take it.

I don’t remember taking the LSAT. But I don’t think any of these exams would’ve bothered me because I was one of those lucky people who did well on exams.

 

I also assume you were in World War II?

I fought in the Pacific. I was drafted in ’43 and was discharged in ’46. We ended up in the Philippines because we were on our way to Japan, but President Truman, of course, dropped the bomb and ended the war.

[After the war] all the students went back to the colleges they left but St. John’s had already started its term [when] I was discharged, so I applied to New York University. I was told that I had to go to the school I left, and I said, “Well, I just tried.” I wanted to get back as soon as I could. They were very nice. They asked me if I had my report card from St. John’s and again I was fortunate because I had straight A’s and so they took me at NYU.

 

You were persuasive even then.

It brought me—do you know New York? NYU is right down in Greenwich Village. I guess I fell in love with the Village and eventually settled there until my wife was pregnant with our second child, and we moved up to Westchester. When our children were both in college, we then returned to the Village.

I took the bar exam in ’49, then started practicing law, never having worked for anyone in my life.

 

Except the U.S. military.

That’s right. Well, I worked as a caddy when I was 13, and I worked at the New York World’s Fair.

 

In 1939?

That’s the one. We sold what we called viewbooks: magazines about the Fair, pictures of all of the different exhibits and all of the sites.

 

What drew you to the law in the first place?

I was on the debating society in high school [Evander Childs in the Bronx]. And I always enjoyed a good argument. I had three brothers, and, as you can imagine, you’re going to do a lot of arguing.

 

What happened once you started practicing?

I enjoyed being in the courtroom. I seemed to have some sort of rapport with the jury. And the practice grew. My daughter joined me in 1991, and we became partners in 1994.

On or about that time, we became involved in a case called Thoreson v. Guccione and Penthouse. The case involved a young lady who went to Los Angeles in the hope of making a career in movies. She was pretty and articulate, and [Penthouse publisher Bob] Guccione took her under his wing. Sadly, the relationship became abusive. As a condition of her employment, she said he forced her to have sex with a business associate.

We brought an action for sexual harassment under the New York State Human Rights Law—which had not been used in this type of case before. When we tried the lawsuit in Manhattan, the judge issued a $4 million award in punitive damages. Now the section of the law did not specifically provide for punitive damages. It provided for “damages and such other remedies as may be appropriate,” but the trial judge concluded that “any other such remedies” would include punitive damages. Penthouse appealed the decision and the Appellate Division reversed, concluding that the state law did not provide for punitive damages, although there was a modest award for $60,000 in compensatory damages. That case has been cited many times.

On or about the same time, the New York City Council passed its own law, which was called the New York City Human Rights Law, and it specifically provided for punitive damages. The first case that was brought under that law was one of our cases, called Bracker [v. Cohen], that involved a claim of sexual harassment. The defendant made a motion to have the law declared unconstitutional because the defendant claimed that the federal government and the state of New York pre-empted the field, and New York City had no right to pass the law. I argued that motion in the trial court in Manhattan, and also at the Appellate Division. We were successful. Both courts found that the law was constitutional.

 

And for Manhattan, right? You argued for the city of New York.

Right. For the city as well. We were fortunate again because the court sustained the validity of the law. Since that date, almost every case that’s brought for someone who has a discrimination case in the city of New York will use the New York City law. Because it provides for punitive damages, uncapped compensatory damages and attorney’s fees.

After the law was validated, one of the first cases brought under the city law was another case in which we were involved. I tried that case to completion and the jury came back with a $6.6 million award.

 

This is McIntyre v. Manhattan Ford?

Right. The amount that was finally paid was somewhere over $3 million. And with discrimination law relatively new, my daughter and I decided that we were prepared to limit our practice to cases that just involved employment law.

It’s a fascinating field to be in. You get such a significant feeling of helping people. There are people in their 50s who are losing their jobs because of age discrimination. A female client of ours was in a situation where everybody received a bonus in the year in question and her bonus was reduced. And when she went to see her supervisor and said, “Why is my bonus reduced?” he said, “Why don’t you look in the mirror.”

How do you handle that?

 

Well, I guess you contact you.

(Laughs) Well, I suppose that’s what happened. But it’s sad. What do you do with folks when they get a little older and feel that they want to continue to work?

 

Do you not only argue the law but use yourself as an example? You, after all, didn’t develop your current area of specialization until you were 65.

Obviously it’s not difficult for a jury to know I’m not 34 or 41, and they’ll draw whatever conclusions they want. [But] it would be inappropriate if I ever used myself as an example.

 

What’s the most common form of employment discrimination these days?

Age discrimination. [But] nothing has gone away. The most recent statistics from the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] indicate that discrimination has increased. In addition, more people are now willing to come forward because of the laws against retaliation.

So you’ve got a combination of people living longer, and wanting to work longer, but you also have people saying, “My friend asserted a claim and was not terminated.”

 

And some people will have to work longer—because retirement savings and 401(k)s have been depleted recently.

I don’t know what the answer will be. One of the problems that exists is the method companies use when they terminate employees. It needs drastic restructuring.

 

Example?

Someone’s been with the company, they’re 57 years old, and they’re called in and told there’s a reduction in force and they’re going to be let go. They’ve performed miraculously well—they’ve just been given positive evaluations, citations—but someone tells them, “We don’t think you’re a fit any longer.” Now, to add to it, they take him from the desk of human resources and march him out with the security guard. By the time he gets to the exit, he’s already thought of every lawyer he knows.

 

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the practice of law during your career?

The technology of it all. Probably the first one that hit me was being able to fax. The ultimate end result is that we exchange information at a speed that we never did before. And we exchange the information more fully and in greater detail.

 

Your parents—what did they do?

My dad worked, at one point, in a hospital, in the culinary department. My mom did the same thing. Ultimately they created a restaurant. They worked together for as long as I can remember.

 

What was the name of the restaurant?

Regina’s Kitchen, up in the Bronx. Off the Grand Concourse.

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