Righteous Rebels

California Law Business
April 24, 2000

"We never lose sight of our clients' humanity," Benjamin Schonbrun says of his Venice-based law firm, which represents the disenfranchised and mentally ill.

The practice of law is supposed to have a high moral and ethical component. But at the Venice, Calif.-based firm of Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman, the shared commitment to redressing civil harm goes beyond professional duty. Particularly where the disenfranchised and the mentally ill are concerned, the five partners of the six-lawyer firm are bound together by their personal ideologies regarding human rights - and their feelings about patterns and practices of law enforcement officers.

The firm's newest partner, Paul Hoffman, refers to another police shooting in Porterville, Calif., in which the mother of a mentally ill man called 911 because her son was mutilating himself with knives. The incident ended with police shooting him. "It doesn't just happen in L.A.," says Hoffman. "Porterville police shot this man in his own front yard, on his birthday," he says - his face twisting with emphasis on the words "front yard" and "birthday."

"There's no regard for the civil rights of mentally ill persons, as evidenced by the lack of training these officers have in responding to emergency situations," says Michael Seplow, Hoffman's co-counsel on the lawsuit brought by the family against the city of Porterville, which settled in 1997.

Each partner mentions a similar case - past or pending - which stirs up the bile in their stomachs.

One might expect a five-partner firm (with only one associate) to be ego-driven, but founder Benjamin Schonbrun suggests otherwise. "We all have strong personalities in our own right, but we work as an ensemble," he says.

Sitting in the firm's beach front office, it's easy to wonder how this ensemble stays focused on the law though, when roller bladers, pizza joints and sidewalk freak shows abound. "I actually feel that our location keeps us rooted in the community," says Schonbrun. "We're at street level and it feels that way. We never lose sight of our clients' humanity."

Service to humanity is what brought Schonbrun, De Simone and Seplow together in the first place.

De Simone was a staff attorney at Westside Legal Services, in 1990, when he met Schonbrun, a sole practitioner who was volunteering at Westside Legal. The two initiated a partnership that year and took on their first excessive force civil rights case - resulting in a $1 million settlement for the family of a mentally ill man shot and killed by the Hawthorne Police Department.

Seplow had been a volunteer law student at Westside Legal with Schonbrun and De Simone. After graduating from UCLA School of Law, in 1990, he became a litigation associate with Los Angeles' Blanc, Williams, Johnston & Kronstadt, an intellectual property, trademark and copyright firm.

But, in 1992, he joined his former colleagues and made a quick jump to civil rights litigation, bringing a wrongful death suit against the Los Angeles Police Department for the 1992 shooting of an alleged gang member. That suit also yielded a seven-figure settlement.

"I took a pay cut and threw my hat in the ring with these guys," say Seplow. "They did plaintiffs' work, which I found more interesting than business litigation, and they weren't taking orders from some corporation.

The partners showed faith in one another from the start. Unlike most firms who require a book of business or a lengthy association prior to becoming a partner, joining the firm meant joining as a partner.

"We all basically believed in the same things and were prepared to commit to those things as partners," , adding that the firm has gotten by with support from law clerks and an occasional associate.

Harris worked for two years as a business litigator at Blanc Williams before joining the Law Firm of Johnnie Cochran in 1994. Like Seplow, Harris got a taste of civil rights litigation and never turned back - it remains his exclusive focus to this day.

"The disparity of income in our country is getting worse," Harris says, talking about what he sees as the root of civil injustice. "There's a caste system for blacks and Latinos who are always seen as the "muscle in the corporation."

"It's hard to believe that in 2000 there is race discrimination in the work place," adds Seplow, bewildered. "People still use the "N" word.

With the firm's addition of Harris, in 1995, the group continued to rack up large settlements against the police for excessive force and wrongful death, and against employers for sexual harassment and various forms of discrimination. Soon after joining the firm, Harris posted two settlements in excess of $1 million - one in a race discrimination case and one in a sex discrimination case.

The firm's formula for fighting social ills, the partners say, is a combination of their individual talents, common ideologies and complementary personalities.

When it's time to settle a big case, Schonbrun is the firm's "closer." Born in Israel to Holocaust survivor parents, he's also a spiritual leader. "This office used to be a Jewish temple," he says with pride.

Currently, Schonbrun is involved with a lawsuit against the Friant Water Users Authority, a public water supplier for the Tulare County agricultural community, for their alleged failure to maintain guard rails on a bridge traversing the treacherous Friant-Kern Canal. Six people, including a seven-month pregnant woman, were killed when their car went off the bridge, into the canal.

"Every time I'm schedule to go to Tulare to speak with the families of these people," he says, "I go through days of feeling the magnitude of their pain."

Talk of Schonbrun's employment discrimination work also touches a raw nerve - particularly when it's within the entertainment industry. "At-will agreements are abused," he says. "The casting couch is a perfect example that speaks volumes about the ongoing conduct in the entertainment industry."

Schonbrun negotiated a confidential settlement for the plaintiff in a heavily publicized sex harassment lawsuit, in 1991, against music mogul David Geffen's record label - DGC Records.

The case involved sexual harassment charges against DGC record promoter Marco Babineau, who allegedly tried to stick his penis in the ear of secretary Penny Muck. Although Schonbrun cannot discuss the case or the settlement, he points out that employment law defense practice and corporate employee conduct protocols now reflect a heightened liability awareness as a result of Penny Muck v. Geffen.

"If you go to one of these employment law seminars, it's the first case everyone mentions," says De Simone.

De Simone supplies the firm with added emotion, as he rails against sexual harassment and abuse of power in general. "It's arrogance," he says. "Recently obtained wealth has made people shortsighted."

Seplow and Harris are known as the "braintrust," for their research and analyzing ability. "That is," says Harris, "until Paul came along."

Hoffman's arrival infuses the group with a new vision. Schonbrun speaks in reverential tones as he discusses the firm's November 1999 decision to make the former executive legal director for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California their fifth partner.

"We weren't even thinking of bringing anyone in, but when someone of Paul's stature becomes available, you don't think twice," says Schonbrun. "He's a renowned civil rights lawyer who agreed with us about what's going on in the city, and in the world."

"These guys took a leap of faith in taking me," says Hoffman, who sits on the executive committee of Amnesty International and spends every July teaching at Oxford University. "I have an unusual work schedule and lifestyle which they were willing to tolerate."

Hoffman appreciates the air of collegiality among the Venice ensemble. "We're interested in each other's cases," he says. "At the ACLU, we always had lots of people to bounce ideas off. It makes you a better lawyer."

Given his penchant for First Amendment cases and high-profile international human rights cases, Hoffman's chief contribution could be to raise Schonbrun De Simone's visibility - which is fine with his new partners.

The firm has always had its eye on "impact litigation," says Schonbrun, referring to cases founded as much on principle as on an individual's recovery. Hoffman and the firm, he says, already speak the same language.

Hoffman's involvement with two international cases in particular bring an added dimension to the firm's practice.

Through an affiliation with New York's Center for Constitutional Rights, along with International non-governmental organization Earthrights International and the Pasadena firm of Hadsell & Stormer, Hoffman is lead counsel in a slave labor case filed against Unocal in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, related to human rights violations in Burma.

And he is currently involved with another international case, filed in federal court in the Northern District of California against Chevron and the Nigerian military, for alleged human rights violations in connection with retaliatory attacks against environmental protesters in Africa.

These cases illustrate, Hoffman says, "the complicity of the international human rights community to hold American corporations accountable for civil rights and employment-related violations abroad."

From a societal standpoint, Hoffman is in awe of the evolution and availability of mechanisms in our civil justice system, which are available to implement human rights. "You know something is happening when the big class action lawyers start showing up," he says. "When lawyers started in civil rights 25 years ago, we made precedent, but we weren't doing it for the money."

These days, however, at a little civil rights boutique in an old Jewish temple on Venice Beach, the partners at Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes, LLP are both making money and redressing harm.

"It goes to show there has to be a price tag for violating human rights," says Hoffman.