The Louima Millions

Warring Louima Lawyers Tie Up Cop Torture Victim’s Money

 [The Louima case is] a silhouette of the contingency-fee problem. So ingrained and unexamined is the notion of the one-third contingency fee that it has taken on the character of a natural law. Hence, it is doubtful that any lawyer, reading of the barbaric attack on Louima, considered whether a contingency fee in the millions could be lawful when the city's liability and Louima's recovery of a substantial sum were certain. On the other hand, even a reflective frankfurter vendor standing outside a courthouse under a Sabrett umbrella might reason that, if liability and recovery were certain, then there is no contingency that Louima's lawyer is risking since his receiving a fee is certain from the beginning, and if that is so, then the Appellate Division's rule would have done nothing except guarantee to that lawyer a freight train of money that should have been paid to Abner Louima.
—Attorney Harold J. Reynolds, predicting Abner Louima's money woes, September 1998

The battle for Abner Louima's millions rages .

Johnnie-come-latelies: Abner Louima, left, and his lawyers, Johnnie Cochran, Peter Neufeld, and Barry Scheck
photo: AP/WideWorld
Johnnie-come-latelies: Abner Louima, left, and his lawyers, Johnnie Cochran, Peter Neufeld, and Barry Scheck

In the wake of last week's historic settlement, Louima's original attorneys—Carl W. Thomas, Brian Figeroux, and Casilda Roper-Simpson—are eager to speak out. But they can't. Acting on a complaint from Johnnie Cochran and his "Dream Team," that Thomas and company were bad-mouthing them, federal Magistrate Cheryl Pollak has muzzled Louima's former advocates.

In rebuffing Voice requests for comment, the usually talkative lawyers repeatedly referred to Pollak's warning they would be penalized for violating her order not to discuss their row with Cochran, Barry Scheck, and Peter Neufeld in the media.

But in previously published interviews with the Voice, Thomas, then lead attorney, portrayed Cochran, Scheck, and Neufeld as carpetbaggers who snatched the Louima case away from them. In one unpublished interview conducted two months after Louima was attacked in 1997, Thomas and Figeroux recalled how their relationship with Cochran and his sidekicks went from bad to worse. They said that after Cochran became involved with Louima, the Haitian immigrant insisted that they cooperate with the celebrity attorney. For a while, they grudgingly did as Louima asked. Thomas said that one day as they sat around a table, Scheck and Neufeld expressed frustration at not being able to get Cochran admitted to practice in the federal court system in New York. "I told Cochran, 'I would get you admitted tomorrow,' " Thomas said.

Figeroux said that he even tried to win Cochran over to their side by appealing to his blackness. "Our offer to him was, 'Drop these shmucks and work with black attorneys.' " Several days later, Thomas petitioned his contacts on the bench, who wasted no time approving Cochran's application. He said during another meeting when the thorny issue of who was to be lead counsel came up (Louima had insisted that Cochran take over the legal team), he "humbled" himself, and asked Cochran to meet with him in private. "We are black men," Thomas recalled telling Cochran. "I am not fighting with you in front of the white man. Let's talk." Thomas proposed that he remain as lead counsel, since he knew more about the case than Cochran, but that Cochran would take over in the event of a civil trial because he had more experience in that arena. Cochran, he said, promised to help "build us up" and agreed with Thomas's plan.

But their fragile truce fell apart. Thomas recalled that during one meeting with Scheck and Neufeld in the Brooklyn office of attorney Sanford Rubenstein he showed up in battle fatigues, indicating he was prepared to fight the Johnnie-come-latelies to the end. "I told them, 'I have more respect for a homeless crack addict with AIDS than I have for you,' " Thomas said.

"Why would you say something like that?" he quoted Scheck as saying.

"Y'all ain't shit!" Thomas responded, adding that he was born in Trinidad, a place where blacks don't kowtow to whites.

When Scheck opened a laptop, placed it on the table, and began to take notes, Figeroux interpreted that as an attempt to intimidate them. "Close that fucking laptop!" Figeroux shouted. "What are you trying to do, impress me with your fucking technology?"

Thomas recalled reaching over the table to restrain Figeroux. "I told Brian, 'Sit down! Sit the fuck down, Brian!' " He said Scheck appeared to be frightened and "began to turn red." Figeroux accused his white counterparts of trying to take money away from black lawyers. "Take your share and go the fuck home," Figeroux offered. "Y'all are not doing anything for black people. We've been here from day one in this community."

Thomas then berated Scheck and Neufeld for defending O.J. Simpson. "O.J. Simpson should be in jail for killing these people," Thomas said. Their opponents, according to Thomas, "sat dumbfounded." Scheck said Cochran's presence in the case would attract the kind of people who could pressure the Giuliani administration to settle. But Thomas said he denounced them as "Upper Westsider" white boys. Later, Cochran allegedly told Thomas: "By the time this case is over, you'll fall in love with these two guys."

Johnnie Cochran was wrong. They're still fighting like cats and dogs. Last week, after the Giuliani administration and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association agreed to pay Louima nearly $9 million to settle his police brutality lawsuit, Louima said he did not feel like a rich man. That's because Louima cannot touch one dime until he settles a bitter quarrel with Thomas, Figeroux, and Roper-Simpson.

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