Rising Above It All

“Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.” – Nelson Mandela

As we bid adieu to 2020, I cannot help but look back at where we were this time last year: Totally oblivious to the unbelievable events that would soon change not only our law practices, but the world around us.

In this very column last January, our then newly installed CAOC President, Micha Liberty, was preparing us for an important election year and, with a dedicated governor and legislative super majority in place at the statehouse, encouraged us with these inspiring words: “We have the opportunity and challenge, the right and responsibility, to build a better world for Californians in 2020.”

And then the bottom dropped out from under our world as we knew it.

Who could have guessed that a global pandemic would cause extended statewide shutdowns and threaten the fifth largest economy in the world? For better or worse, COVID-19 forever changed us last year: The way we worked and played, the way we raised and taught our children, the way we shopped, the way we traveled, and the way we celebrated our holidays. Throughout the year, it seemed as if we were waiting for the bad dream to be over and for us to wake up to our normal world.

But things were far from normal. We saw record-breaking wildfires. Signs and acts of political divisiveness and social unrest were everywhere. Hospitals in Southern California ran out of ICU beds and even body bags. We lost a beloved Supreme Court Justice who taught and
showed us what a brilliant strong woman could do. And then we voted in an unprecedented presidential election in which the outgoing president refuses to accept the results.

But even though we are exhausted from the events of this last year, we should also take heart in what the judicial system managed to do together to rise above it all. No matter how bad things got, there was always a voice in the wilderness making sure justice prevailed.

State officials who never craved the limelight stood up to a bully with a powerful presidential pulpit and millions of social media followers, holding firm to basic principles of democracy – even when more powerful enablers and followers refused to do so. The Trump-nominated federal judiciary refused to yield to his relentless lawsuits and unambiguous threats. Judges in local, state, and federal courthouses have steadfastly issued rulings based on the facts and the law. Even the shocking tapes of President Trump threatening the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, bullying him to “find” enough votes to reverse the president’s loss to Joe Biden in the Peach State, demonstrated a steadfast refusal by a fellow Republican to do the right thing and not cave to such tactics.

In a year of uncertainties, one thing was certain: our system of justice is still here, working to hold the powerful to account. And so are all of us who make up the greatest judicial system in the world. When the recent COVID-19 relief bill went through, it did so without legal immunities for businesses because lawyers and legislators, along with our friends at the AAJ, fought to maintain the legal rights of all. And since the pandemic came to California, CAOC has been here every day working night and day for all us. We made sure emergency judicial and other rules were put in place, and worked tirelessly with the legislature to make sure bad bills and immunities were not put into law.

We are so much wiser and better prepared for this coming year than we were last year. Will businesses, law firms, and courts be shut down during the year? Perhaps – but we will be ready and working. Masks? No problem. Can’t go into the office? I have every piece of equipment and technology that I need at home. I even have different green screens, lights, microphones, elmos, and different virtual backgrounds for any Zoom video conference call, deposition, hearing, or meeting.

We now know how to rise above it all, and we are smart enough and motivated to find alternatives in our cases that work for our clients, each other, and the court system. Instead of waiting for everything to get back to normal, let’s roll our sleeves up and find solutions for ourselves. At CAOC, we will work with our local trial associations to identify problem areas and solutions, and we will work with defense counsel, along with the Judicial Council and our legislature to find creative ways to ensure that cases keep moving toward resolution, jury trials are being held, and our system of justice will keep going – whether courthouses are open or closed to the public.

It is amazing what can happen when you find the ability to rise above the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. Don’t let it pull you down; instead, rise above it all. Some people have used this time to write books, meditate, create law firms, learn languages or new skills, become skilled with new technologies, read books, enjoy movies and great stories, attend free webinars, exercise, or create modern remote offices at home. Think of this strange time as your time; be committed to making it count in ways you never dreamed of. When we emerge from closed doors to reunite with one another at a future meeting or seminar, I cannot wait to hear how you spent your time.

And what a great time to get involved with the CAOC! We now have the luxury of attending meetings through remote virtual technology, which means no traveling in our cars or on planes to see each other. It is amazing how many things you can learn to do remotely: display slides and graphics and documents; you can annotate anything and zoom in with amazing precision. In certain ways, our meetings have never been more productive or interesting – without ever leaving the comfort of our home or office. As we strive to find novel solutions for unprecedented times, we would appreciate your input and involvement.

So let’s commit to 2021 being the year we rise above it all and succeed. We have survived 2020 and we can handle anything. Here’s wishing you a very successful and fulfilling New Year!

Written by Deborah Chang for the CAOC Forum Newsletter

Plaintiffs’ Attorneys Celebrate Wins in Virtual Conference

By Craig Anderson

The Consumer Attorneys of California usually gather each fall at a San Francisco hotel and get dressed up to celebrate their new president and honor plaintiffs’ attorneys for their big victories at a dinner that ends with a musical performance.

As with everything else in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, this year was different. The event, including several days of panel discussions, was virtual and included comments about how lawyers can deal with stress related to the virus and how much they missed getting together.

J. Gary Gwilliam, an Oakland-based partner at Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer, said, “What we’re feeling is a sense of loss. It’s grief.”

He urged attorneys to accept some compromises they would ordinarily shun, such as bench trials or private arbitration.

“What we may need to do is come out of this with some creative thinking,” Gwilliam said during a Saturday panel discussion.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys may have little choice. Judges from California’s largest counties said during their own panel discussion that while they hoped to resume civil jury trials in January, they might be postponed again by county health officials due to a resurgence of the coronavirus.

Most large counties have only held a handful of civil jury trials since March, when the pandemic shut down most courthouses for a while, the presiding judges said.

“It is going to take us time to get things under control,” Los Angeles County Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile said during a Saturday panel discussion, citing safety concerns. “Trials are going to take longer.”

Many of the honorees, as well as outgoing president Micha Star Liberty and incoming president Deborah S. Chang, got dressed up for the event — even if their speeches were made from their offices and homes.

Chang was sworn in by Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye. “You may be feeling isolated right now, but know that you are never alone,” Chang said during her acceptance speech.

Dale K. Galipo of the Woodland Hills-based Law Offices of Dale K. Galipo received the night’s top honor as 2020 Consumer Trial Attorney of the Year after winning a trial verdict and subsequent settlement for a client who suffered a torn retina while being beaten by a police officer in Rialto.

Galipo’s client, Jayd Schroeder, was blinded in that eye. He got a $3 million jury verdict in June 2019 and the case settled shortly thereafter. Schroeder v. County of San Bernardino et al., 18-CV00427 (C.D. Cal., filed March 1, 2018).

In his acceptance speech, Galipo recalled getting involved in such cases years ago because he was “so bothered by police misconduct and felt not enough was being done to stop it. It wasn’t always as popular as it is now.”

“This is a very important time for all of us to fight for everyone’s rights,” he added.

Conal F. Doyle of Doyle Law in Beverly Hills and Robert S. Gianelli and Joshua S. Davis of Gianelli & Morris in Los Angeles were honored as the organization’s Street Fighters of the Year in a case that led to amputees being able to get prosthetic limbs after being unlawfully denied by their insurer.

Doyle said the case “had a great impact on amputee health care nationwide.”

Deborah Chang to Take Helm of Consumer Attorneys Group

By Malcolm Maclachlan

When Brian J. Panish stood before an audience at the Consumer Attorneys of California Convention in 2014, he referred to Deborah S. Chang by a nickname she had earned around the office: Changzilla.

“It was just a combination of her energy and passion,” Panish told The Daily Journal recently. “She’s just a separate being, like a superhero. She was smart and tough and never gave up. She was just such a force.”

Panish was receiving a Consumer Attorneys of the Year Award on behalf of himself and his team at Panish Shea & Boyle LLP, where Chang is of counsel. But on Saturday, Chang will receive an even greater honor from the consumer attorneys: a one-year term as the group’s president.

The backdrop will be a global pandemic and the organization’s first virtual convention. But the famously intense Changzilla is taking it in stride.

“At first I was so devastated, like I don’t get my moment,” Chang said about the virtual convention as she succeeds Micha Star Liberty of Liberty Law Office in Oakland. 

But Chang said the virtual convention has allowed organizers to schedule speakers from around the state and the nation who wouldn’t be able to attend otherwise. These include actor Jamie Lee Curtis leading a tribute to late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The agenda for the year ahead is clear but difficult. The organization regularly fights for labor and sexual harassment protections, and laws limiting forced arbitration. But she said another cause will take precedence: fighting for court funding and getting the civil courts operating again.

Chang also noted that being stuck at home can have advantages for workaholics.

“One day I remember I had a hearing in the morning, three depositions, two board meetings and then a CAOC meeting at night,” she said. “No problem because I never left my house or took off my slippers. … Did you ever think you’d be living in LA and the last time you got gas was a month ago?”

And yes, she said, people still call her Changzilla.

“Yes, all the time,” Chang said. “They say, ‘Let’s put Changzilla on it…’ We went into a string of cases where we were winning eight-figure cases all in a row. We’d say we can sleep when the case is done.”

She even remembers Changzilla’s origin story. Opposing counsel told her a witness in a case was flying back to Florida the next day and would not come back. So Chang called three shifts of court reporters. By 2 a.m., she said, the other side offered to bring the witness back. Instead, the deposition wrapped up eight hours later.

“I said ‘We are now under a discovery referee’s order to continue this until it’s done. You shouldn’t have started this because I was willing to be reasonable.’ I would look up at times and my opposing counsel we’re sleeping.”

It wasn’t always this way. Chang remembers being a “black sheep” middle child in a family of “superstars.” Both her parents were doctors. Some of her siblings went to Harvard University or Stanford Medical School. For years she rebelled against being so studious. But then something happened.

“I fell in love with the law,” Chang said.

She quickly made up for lost time, clerking for Chief Judge Antoinette L. Dupont of the Connecticut Appellate Court and rising quickly through a series of firms.

Big verdicts followed: $17 million for the family of a blind man who fell through a gap at a Los Angeles train station, $37.5 million for the victim in a truck accident in Beverly Hills, and $160.5 million for a man who suffered a brain injury in a nightclub.

She might be best known for her roles in two cases. Chang, was part of the trail team in the wrongful death case of singer Michael Jackson. She, Panish and a colleague also represented a UCLA student slashed in the throat by a schizophrenic classmate. After an eight-year battle, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that universities have a duty of care to protect their students. Regents of the University of California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, 2018 DJDAR 2629.

For her “pandemic project” earlier this year, she joined with five other prominent female plaintiffs’ attorneys to create a “super firm” called Athea Trial Lawyers LLP. It also includes Bibi Fell of Fell Law in San Diego; Lisa Blue from Baron & Blue PLLC in Dallas; Randi McGinn of McGinn, Montoya, Love & Curry PA in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Zoe B. Littlepage of Littlepage Booth Leckman in Houston; and Charla Aldous of Aldous Walker LLP in Dallas.

While Chang says she missed being in court, she said even over Zoom her craft remains the same, helping clients turn their personal tragedies into a compelling narrative that a jury can connect with.

“Every case I work on people say, ‘This should be a movie,’” Chang said. “You’re the star of the show and the whole world stops to hear your story. It never gets old.”