The Atlas of Legal Aid
If Salvador Mungia had his way, ‘justice for all’ would be a given
Published in 2021 Washington Super Lawyers Magazine on July 12, 2021
In the living room of a small house in the blue-collar Lakewood suburb of Tacoma, a black-and-white TV sits on a coffee table. Sprawled on the couch is a 7-year-old kid. On the screen, the judge hands the verdict to the clerk. “In the Superior Court of the State of California, the jury finds the defendant … not guilty.” The camera cuts to a shot of Raymond Burr, whose mouth registers a slight smile. The boy on the couch smiles, too. Another injustice righted.
“I knew since second grade that I wanted to be a lawyer,” says Salvador Mungia, who grew up to practice primarily plaintiff’s personal injury at Gordon Thomas Honeywell in Tacoma. “And I never wavered.”
That childhood dream also inspired him to carve out a large portion of his time for pro bono work.
“There’s an alphabet soup of legal aid organizations he’s been involved with,” says longtime friend Mark Johnson, a plaintiff’s litigator at Johnson Flora Sprangers in Seattle. “I don’t know if there is any private practice lawyer who has done more to advance civil legal aid in Washington state than Sal. I like to say he’s kind of like the Atlas of legal aid—carrying the world.”
Mungia’s credentials include serving as president of the Washington State Bar Association in 2009-’10 and co-chairing the Campaign for Equal Justice. He’s the former chair of the Washington State Access to Justice board and has served on the boards of ACLU of Washington and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. He was also on Tacoma’s Human Rights Commission.
Mungia was the third child of immigrants—his father, also Salvador, from Mexico; and his mother, Sumiko, from Japan. The couple met while his father was stationed in Japan after the end of World War II. “My mom was working in the motor pool on base—he didn’t speak much Japanese and she didn’t speak much English,” he says, “but they fell in love and got married.” They came back to Fort Lewis, and eventually bought the house in Lakewood. Mungia was born in 1959.
He became aware early on that his family was different. “This was not the age of inclusivity, where you made a goal of understanding other cultures. Japanese were called ‘devious and sneaky,’ and Mexicans were ‘dirty and lazy.’” The prejudice and racism of mid-century America took an especially harsh toll on his mother, who worked at a fabric store. “She had a heavy accent and wasn’t formally well-educated,” Mungia says. “I remember knowing by the second grade that she was being mistreated. I would look at her face and see that look of both hurt and anger.”
The kid on the couch took note. “Perry Mason could defend the people who were accused of doing something they hadn’t. I told myself that what happened to my parents was never going to happen to me or my family.”
Mungia majored in political science at Pacific Lutheran University, then went on to Georgetown University Law Center, his first real venture outside the Puget Sound region. “The diversity was astounding,” he says. “I met people from all over, and all of them seemed so smart.”
By the time Mungia graduated in 1984, Perry Mason notwithstanding, he had decided against criminal law: “Knowing what a criminal defense lawyer does, I realized I’d be losing a lot of cases. I like to win.” He was drawn to civil trial law “because you get to be creative, trying to tell a story—a true story. I have to think about what tools I have to tell this story to those 12 people in the box. I really love that.”
He returned to Tacoma and spent two years clerking for state Supreme Court Justice Fred Dore and U.S. District Court Judge Carolyn Dimmick before joining Gordon Thomas Honeywell. There, he was mentored by future U.S. District Judge Ron Leighton and prominent plaintiff’s personal injury litigator Jack Connelly. “They were kind of like the two drill sergeants in Platoon. Different political philosophies, different views of the law, but both demanded excellence.”
Connelly, who worked with Mungia for two decades at GTH before founding his own firm, says, “It was important to us to have excellent litigators. We had to hone their skills, and Sal was very open to that.” He was immediately impressed with Mungia, who “was always evaluating creative ways to approach and present a case. And he always was fighting for the underdog.”
Mungia was drawn to medical malpractice law because of the complexity and the chance to help people. According to Connelly, that empathy reverberated throughout the firm. “He pushed us in that direction. We developed a pretty strong plaintiff group, even though GTH had been primarily a defense-oriented firm.”
Most of Mungia’s clients are patients and their families, and nursing home residents. He has brought actions against MultiCare, CHI Franciscan, Harborview, Children’s Hospital, Valley Medical Center and Swedish Health Services.
“You’re trying to figure out what happened,” Mungia says. “Was there a mistake? And did it make a difference? It’s really hard. Sometimes people get a bad result and they think it must be malpractice. But sometimes I’ll say, ‘No … it was just bad luck.’ It just happens. You have to have a baseline of medical knowledge, and then specifically understand what each case is about.”
He describes a 2013 case involving a new mother who died after there was a delay in treating her post-partum infection from necrotizing fasciitis—a flesh-eating bacteria.
Even though a number of experts he consulted were hesitant to term the doctor’s actions as negligent, Mungia says, “I knew something was wrong. I talked to a number of obstetricians, but they didn’t know, and even general surgeons couldn’t help, because it is a pretty unusual case. But finally I found a surgeon in New York who said, ‘Yes, this is a breach—she should have made the diagnosis much earlier.’”
The case produced a substantial settlement for the woman’s husband and child. “The son will never know his biological mom, which is tragic … but at least he will be set up, at least financially, when he reaches the age of majority,” Mungia says. But Mungia says nothing happened to the doctor, which frustrates him. “Plaintiffs say, ‘I want to do this to make a change.’ But it doesn’t necessarily make any changes. … Maybe I am too cynical.”
Mungia says his highest achievements are his pro bono representations of individuals in state and federal court, both singly and in class actions. “This is how I am trying for systemic changes,” he says.
One class action in which he was involved pro bono demanded a radical improvement of conditions at the Pierce County Jail. The suit, filed in 1995, detailed problems with overcrowding and sleeping conditions for inmates, and working conditions for corrections officers. “Pregnant women were sleeping on the floors with a mattress; others were waiting for a mattress while still being forced to sleep on the floors; there was not enough medical care,” Mungia says. “It was unsafe for everyone.”
It wasn’t that the county refused to recognize these problems, he adds. “The county knew conditions were really bad, but politically didn’t feel that it could spend millions of dollars to build a new jail. They had to be compelled by the courts.”
It has been a lengthy process. The new jail was completed in 2003, and Mungia was recently involved with the ACLU to improve screening and care for the mentally ill incarcerated at the jail.
“As a profession, you owe a duty to the public; that is what is in the Washington Bar Association’s mission,” says Mungia. “My concern is some lawyers want their professional licensing fees cut so that money is not spent on access to justice, or combatting racism or implicit bias. ... They just want the association to be purely regulatory, like we were engineers or accountants.”
“Sal’s got such a big heart—that’s why he’s motivated,” says Johnson. Mungia, Johnson and others are trying to recruit younger lawyers to get involved in legal aid organizations. Mungia wants the emphasis to start even earlier. “People who go into law school have a lot of idealism,” he notes. “That can be drained out of them during school. We need to put an emphasis on understanding how our own legal system has been corrupted by racism. That should be woven into legal education.”
Mungia grew up understanding the unseen struggles of many immigrants. Both his parents were isolated from their families. Mungia’s paternal grandfather left Michoacán, Mexico, in the early 1920s for the U.S. with his wife and Mungia’s dad and uncle. He brought them to Texas, then returned with his wife to Mexico, promising to return with their baby sister. He never came back. Mungia’s father ended up living with a farming family in Grafton, Ohio.
“My dad never found out what happened, and he never talked to us about his family. What I learned later,” Mungia says, “was that, after my grandfather returned to Michoacán, he was murdered in the town square … but my dad never knew that.
“My mom didn’t like talking about her background, either. I am not sure her family liked her marrying an American soldier,” he says. As an adult, Mungia, who has four children of his own, has gotten to know some of his cousins in Japan.
“When I was young, I identified more with being Japanese than being Mexican,” Mungia says. “It was hard being brown. I’d get it from the Blacks and the whites.” But on the couch in the living room in Lakewood nearly six decades ago, the boy was absorbing a profound lesson in dealing with the corrosive impact of injustice. “The highest calling of any lawyer is to give voice to those who have no voice,” Mungia says. “To stand up for those who society has pushed down, to give hope to those who have forgotten what hope looks like.”
Subtitles and Subtleties
Mungia is an avid runner and kayaker. But it’s not surprising that someone who found his path watching television drama would have turned into a film buff. Two of his favorites are To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). This passion for film led Mungia to join the board of The Grand Cinema, a nonprofit movie venue for independent, local and foreign films in downtown Tacoma.
“This was one of the most fun boards I’ve been on,” he says. “I learned so much about film and how to run a theater. I love foreign and indie films; I respond to the storytelling. They’re different from Hollywood blockbusters. A lot of them have ambiguous endings. That’s what I like—the subtleties.”