Twitter from the jury box in Brooklyn

My sleepy Monday started with full-on Twitter commentary emanating from a courtroom in Brooklyn. It seems that Ryan J. Davis (@RyanNewYork), a Brooklyn social media-active guy had gotten pulled into court for jury duty.

Mr. Davis was live-tweeting voir dire–AKA jury selection–from the court room. That’s to say, he was broadcasting his observations on Twitter while sitting on a case. He explained:

Ryan J. Davis

@RyanNewYork Ryan J. Davis

“Nobody had told me not to tweet, everyone can see me clearly on my phone.”

Some of his tweets were amusing and harmless, but at least a few crossed the line, including one regarding the merits:

Ryan J. Davis

@RyanNewYork Ryan J. Davis
“Apparently the woman suing the nursing home has been in like 6 accidents and is always suing. Raises some flags.”

And then there was this somewhat ominous appraisal of one party’s attorney:

Ryan J. Davis

@RyanNewYork Ryan J. Davis

“Plaintiff’s attorney said “you won’t see me on any late night tv ads'” I don’t believe him.”

Ryan, being a skilled social media user, quickly saw that a small group of trial lawyers were talking about what he was doing. He was eventually told by the judge that he should not be posting on Twitter, and he wondered whether one of us had complained to the judge.

Through the limited space of Twitter posts, I explained that I had not and promised to elaborate on the complicated problems of jurors and social media.

So now we’re caught up, and Ryan this is for you.

Our civil justice system stands and falls on the jury and the integrity of the process. The injured woman sought access to justice because she believed that the nursing home should be held accountable for maintaining its facility in a way that was safe for those entering the business. Whether she is right or wrong, injured or not, it is up to the jury selected to hear the evidence and render a verdict. My worry is that Twitter and social media disrupt that process.

You engaged in the very human process of forming impressions on things that mattered (the woman’s credibility based upon someone’s claim that she had made prior claims) the credibility of her counsel (based upon his appearance and conduct). You did that without the benefit of actual evidence.

I imagine that happens to many potential jurors, so you’re still in an unremarkable position. But then those are broadcast to tens of thousands of people who follow you and beyond. Until earlier today, I did not follow you; I only picked up on the stream because someone flagged it for me.

So we’ve taken the initial impressions that aren’t based on evidence and broadcast them outward from the courtroom. I imagine some of your 30,000+ followers responded, retweeted, etc. and next thing you know the merits of a case in Brooklyn are grist for the social media mill.

Now if it seems like I’m picking on Ryan, that’s not my intention. Assuming Ryan accurately heard all and correctly tweeted the lack of instructions regarding use of Twitter, the problem is upstream with the court and counsel. But it is a problem.

It goes back to the foundation of the civil justice system–the jury. The parties need to know that their case will be tried on evidence in the courtroom. Put another way, if I am trying that case, I know how to put on a case, challenge through cross-examination witnesses who are adverse, and analyze and argue the evidence. But I can’t argue with information and influence that enters the jury room through Twitter and other social media.

Some in the social media world may say, “Tough luck, pal. This is the new world; get used to it.” To which I say, “Not without a fight.” Because the civil justice system is what levels the playing field between oligarchs, corporations and consumers. Do you have any doubt about a large, institutional corporate nursing home’s chain ability to influence via social media jurors who are willing to listen during trial? Do we doubt for a moment the power of protected corporate interests to exploit these channels?

So at the risk of sounding pompous (or worse), we need to figure out how to divorce social media from the jury box. To do otherwise is a loss for consumers who count on the integrity of the civil justice system as a uniquely American means of leveling the playing field between the oligarchs and the rest of us.

Ryan, if you catch this, thanks for the teachable moment. Hope that I’ve explained my concerns and the stakes adequately. Happy to discuss in detail if this is of further interest.

David

 

 

Our fabulous Portland Timbers ticket giveaway contest

So this is it. Two home games left for the Portland Timbers’ inaugural Major League Soccer season, and we want to use the opportunity to thank readers of our blog and Facebook and Twitter friends by doing a totally random drawing.

We’re giving away two tickets to the Timbers match Wednesday, September 21, 2011, 7.30 pm at Jeld-Wen field.

The rules are pretty simple.

1. You have to like us on Facebook at our law firm Facebook page; and

2. You have to send us an email using the contact information from this web page or the Facebook page to let us know you’re in.

Deadline: You have to have hit the like button on Facebook, and we have to receive your email by Tues. Sept. 20, 2011 at 10:00 a.m. Pacific. We’ll conduct the drawing and announce the winners between noon and 1:00 pm Tuesday and make arrangements to get tickets to the lucky winner before the Wednesday match.

Imagined FAQs:

1. There’s a catch, right? No. Someone will get the tickets.

2. Who are the Timbers? (aka the @AmyDerby question) This is definitely not for you. Last match–Friday night–against New England was awesome. There are only two more home matches this season, and there aren’t a lot of spare tickets out there. They’re in the playoff hunt, and Portland loves the Timbers.

3. These are dawg seats? Seriously? It’s the Timbers at Jeld-Wen, which means there are no bad seats. And by the way, these are club level, Section C5, Row I. There is a separate entrance for KeyBank club ticket holders, a roof in case of rain, and–if that’s not enough–free food, including Voodoo doughnuts at the end of the match.

4. And you’re doing this because? Good question. I would blame it on the kids in the social media department, but we have no social media department. Truth is that I can’t make the game. We wanted to do something for people who read our blog and follow us using social media.

#RCTID. Good luck to all!

David

Reviving the plutocracy–U.S. Supreme Court ends consumer class actions

 

A win for the plutocracy*

Yesterday’s decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion represents a breathtakingly bad opinion that does profound harm to consumers. It’s a bit geeky, but the takeaway is that this is a huge win for the rich and powerful.

The problem-One of the favorite great business abuses of consumers is the nickel and dime charge. It’s no doubt happened to you. Your bank, credit card company, phone provider, utility, car dealer or cable company has incorrectly charged you a few bucks. Maybe it was a one-time $10 fee on your checking account, or maybe the cable TV company illegally collected a six dollar late fee. But of course, in this era of massive corporate sizing, you are one of a million customers. So at the same time you got billed ten bucks, so did a million other customers. And zotz…just like that…the bank has collected $10 million illegally from its customers.

Here is the tally for those keeping score at home: Bank illegally enriched $10 million. Consumers hosed. That’s why consumers have class actions. With capable counsel and a willing representative, consumers had the tools to fight the nickel and diming problem.

The ruling: The Court effectively ended future consumer class actions with yesterday’s decision. The Court broadly interpreted federal preemption under the Federal Arbitration Act. The Federal Arbitration Act requires courts to enforce valid arbitration agreements. State courts have been ruling that arbitration agreements that limit consumer remedies and ban class actions are not valid under state law. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that those state law rulings were entitled to no deference and were of no effect. Here is the bottom line: No state law may prevent a corporation from: 1) requiring arbitration of all disputes between the consumer and the business; and 2) from prohibiting class actions for those disputes.

What it means for consumers. The problem is that now there will be no class actions for nickel and diming cases, so when a bank, cable company, cell phone provider or car dealer illegally charges a million customers $10, their arbitration clause will be upheld, and consumers will not be able to band together into a class to recover the money.

This will take place soon with emails and letters from cable companies, credit card providers, banks, cell phone companies and the like. It will start with revisions to your credit card agreements, cell phone terms and conditions, and cable terms of service. Buried in that long document will be a change in terms that will add or change the arbitration clause. They will all contain class action bans. Thanks to the Supreme Court, they will likely be enforceable.

Consumers have now been stripped of their abilities to enforce state consumer laws by an over-zealous Supreme Court. Consumer protection will stand and fall on state regulation and state enforcement. Have you seen the state budget lately? I’m sure there’s plenty of extra cash available for consumer protection enforcement. Even with those states that can afford enforcement, the Supreme Court has forced states to increase regulation if states want to have consumer protection. Because God knows–or at least the Roberts Court knows–that private enforcement by consumer class action lawyers is bad for business.

We will either see more regulation, or–more likely–we will see no control. Most businesses operate rationally. If you tell someone that ripping off consumers for $10 million may subject them to a class action case that will cost them that much or more, they will act to avoid facing that liability. But if bending the rules gets you $10 million without consequences, we all know how it ends.

Load up the troughs and get out of the way. Those hogs are hungry!

It’s a win for the plutocrats.

____

*Plutocracy: “[Gk ploutokratia, fr. ploutos wealth] 1: government by the wealthy 2: a controlling class of rich men.” Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 878 (1979)

 

Our own worst enemies-lawyer ads, solicitation letters and internet marketing

Via Twitter, the law blog world and a few local lists, I’ve spent the better part of a week thinking about lawyer advertising. First thing: I am biased. I believe that the law is a profession.  As such, our clients come first, the justice system next, and we come third.

The U.S. Supreme Court long ago said that truthful lawyer advertising is subject to First Amendment protection. There is good reason for that rule. But–and this may seem like heresy–too many believe that the inquiry ends there. The rights secured by the First Amendment are critically important. But so are the 5th amendment rights of equal protection, the 6th amendment rights of the accused, the 7th amendment right to trial by jury, and the 14th amendment right to a fair trial.

The problem is not advertising, but the content and methods that lawyers use to reach prospective clients. A recent discussion with a nameless younger lawyer highlights the problem. He proudly sends accident solicitation letters to Oregon drivers who have been in motor vehicle collisions. He defends the process by saying that he provides important information to consumers, that insurance companies will take advantage of unsophisticated consumers, and that he is sticking it to the man.

The same young attorney trumpets on his website his aggressive and hands-on approach to handling motor vehicle collisions. The same young attorney recently posted on a local list a question about motor vehicle collisions that revealed a stunning lack of mastery of the subject matter area.

In discussions about lawyer advertising, the one thing that lawyer advertising advocates invariably mention is that they have to make a living, too. Sometimes they add that we who criticize are really just trying to squelch competition because we got ours.

Whatever success I’ve had in building a law practice has come through years of hard work. It took me nearly a decade to attain basic mastery in the practice of law. I am in my 25th year of practice now. My particular areas of practice are such that some years I earn a lot of money, and some years I do not. There are simply no guarantees of fabulous income.

So there are a few things nagging at me here. The problem is the advertising lawyer who resort to ads that make you and me wince do not recognize any obligation to the justice system.

Here are some not-very-far-fetched examples. How about screaming, boosted volume TV ads: CALL 1-800 LETS SUE!!! Or how about the snake-oil peddlers who sell internet marketing for lawyers and then spam the firm web page across the internet. Or there’s the unsolicited letter mailed or emailed to people who have been in motor vehicle accidents about how “I can help you and/or your loved ones in this time of need” for a mere third of the recovery.

Don’t get me wrong. I see fabulous web pages out there. I know attorneys who provide great information about their practices and their areas of law by use of advertising. I see some of my colleagues’ use of media and think that they are doing great work. But none of them are racing to the bottom through the bad ads.

Invariably, those who are running in the race to the bottom use one or all of the following excuses: 1. “Everyone is doing it.” 2. “It’s perfectly legal.” 3. “I’m just trying to make a living.” The problem is that each one of these “legal” marketing approaches cheapens the justice system.

Trial lawyers wonder why the public holds them in low regard. Part of the answer comes from the work of very powerful and wealthy interests dedicated to making sure that consumers surrender their rights to trial by jury. If you’ve heard the phrases, “frivolous lawsuit,” or “lawsuit lottery,” you’ve been exposed to their handiwork.

And we who dare to represent consumers know this. We know it in our bones. Still the advertisers are so intent on getting theirs that they simply do not care. Because that’s what it’s about at the bottom: Getting theirs. So the mass marketers run ads to collect cases that they will never try and in doing so give the Cato Institute and various anti-consumer forces great material for their campaigns to lock consumers from our courthouses.

For those of us dedicated to the proposition that this is a profession, every bad, screaming ad, every invasive solicitation letter, every SEO spam comment is another nick in a badly damaged system of justice. Even so, those of us who dare to demand higher standards will not go quietly into the night.

 

Comcast Oregon late fee class action settlement–cable TV

We are starting to get calls and emails about the class action settlement with Comcast.

Here is the link to the settlement information

A few recurring questions:

1. The settlement applies to Oregon Comcast subscribers

2. It is limited to subscribers who paid late fees on Cable TV bills.

3. The link above takes you to a claim form which you must open, print, fill out and mail.

4. The mailing address for claim forms and deadline information for filing the claim are also in the link posted above.

More questions?

Contact us here. I am class counsel and will do my best to answer your questions.

Smoking gun in toxic injury case against KBR and Halliburton

In today’s Oregonian, Julie Sullivan reports here about a document provided to the soldiers in discovery that is one of those classic smoking guns. In our case, Bixby v. KBR, KBR and Halliburton claim that they didn’t know about the sodium dichromate until late July or August, they claim that they told the Army immediately, they claim that they never used sodium dichromate, and they claim that no one was injured from the exposure.

Against those claims, this pdf document,  Team RIO Mtg Min 02 Oct 2003 MCM00739, tells a very different story. The document is a summary of a meeting in Oct 2003 of members of Team RIO (Restore Iraqi Oil). Representatives from KBR, the Army Corp of Engineers (“USACE”) and Iraq’s Southern Oil Company (“SOC”) were discussing the sodium dichromate contamination of the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant.

Qarmat Ali is where our troops provided security to KBR employees as they worked under their secret, no-bid, $7 billion, cost-plus contract to rebuild Iraqi oil production. The document raises a few questions.   No doubt the soldiers’ legal team will be exploring those questions when we get to trial.

Thinking about our veterans today

I’m not a flag waver.  Never have been. Like the vast majority of Americans, I have treated Veterans Day as one of those days in the fall that I might have off from work. No thought to the meaning; no thought to the sacrifices that lie beneath.

That changed in a profound way last year when I agreed to help sick soldiers and vets from the Oregon Army National Guard’s 1/162. These men were poisoned by exposures to sodium dichromate while providing security to KBR and Halliburton employees. They came back hurt and sick.

In working on their legal team, I’ve come to learn about the soldiers and vets and their families.  Their sacrifices are so great. They served for all the right reasons.  And now they are wounded and hurting.

Seems to me that every vet deserves our appreciation today. For those who have come back from service broken and hurt, we the people owe them.  And for those who are broken and hurt because a greedy contractor violated safety rules in pursuit of profits, well, let’s just say that I’m doing my best to make sure your day of reckoning comes.

Thanks vets.

KBR update: Halliburton joined in Bixby v. KBR

Yesterday, we filed an updated complaint in Bixby v. KBR. Here’s a copy Bixby Fourth amended complaint. The new complaint adds Halliburton defendants.

For those interested, here’s what happened. The legal team representing the sick veterans made Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Army. It took a long time to get the requested documents, but we did. Once we reviewed them, we learned that Halliburton had been at the site pumping water at Qarmat Ali.

Additional documents produced at the same time suggest that Halliburton and KBR were actually bringing sodium dichromate to Qarmat Ali and using it for water pumping. That would be a big additional problem for them.

There is much more to the update, but I wanted to post this for those who are interested.

Live in Doha–chasing KBR and Halliburton

So there are many advantages to chasing KBR witnesses around the globe. One is getting out to see new and different places. And that’s part of my mantra as I get oriented on the ground in Doha.

I left Portland Friday morning our time, and traveled for about 24 hours, arriving in Doha, Qatar Saturday night. I was a bit dazed, but that’s to be expected.

The heat here is remarkable, but the humidity even more so. I’ve been in the tropics, and I can say that this is probably more uncomfortable.  But of course, the legal team is surrounded by comforts, as we lay in at the Sheraton. Still, the distance, time changes, and climate give the legal team a minor taste of what our soldier-clients faced when they came here.   

My driver told me on the way from the airport that we’re staying at one of the oldest hotels in Doha, having opened in 1981. The skyline here is impressive. It’s a profoundly wealthy city. Reminds me a lot of Midland-Odessa, Texas, which, in the 1970s had its own oil boom and wealth.  There’s a sense here of busy-ness; lots of ex-pats going about the business of working and dealing; vast and obvious wealth. 

Today is a day off. I managed to sleep last night and even got to workout this morning in a very well-equipped fitness facility. Mike Doyle and I will probably catch a few sites and then sit down to talk about Monday and Tuesday depositions. Mike’s got it well in hand–my role is mostly to help steer the boat and listen to the witnesses.

Meanwhile, we have a lot of work on this case besides these next two days of depositions.  More on that in the coming weeks.

If the travel gods remain kind, I’ll be back on the ground in Oregon Wednesday afternoon. I imagine I’ll be a tad worse for wear….