The three black attorneys who trumpeted Abner Louima’s cry of police brutality in the aftermath of the attack on him in Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct last year have filed a lien against the potential millions the Haitian immigrant might receive from a settlement or jury award, the Voice has learned.
On March 3, a month after they resigned from Louima’s legal team, Carl Thomas, Brian Figeroux, and Casilda Roper-Simpson notified the city comptroller of their intention to stake the claim. Their one-page document does not spell out a reason for the action, but Thomas told the Voice that a conflict arose when he and his colleagues felt that O. J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran and two other members of the “dream team,” Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, had improperly entered the explosive case.
“At the conclusion of the criminal and civil cases, we expect a judge to adjudicate the issue of fees and at that time we will lay all our cards on the table,” says Thomas, who was Louima’s lead attorney. Joe Cooney, a spokesman for Cochran, said Cochran was unavailable. Scheck also did not return a phone call for comment. Neufeld told the Voice “there was nothing improper” about the way he, Cochran, and Scheck entered the case, and that a lien is routine for lawyers who want to ensure that they get paid. He then accused the reporter of being “a hired hand” who is being used by “the frustrated and disappointed Carl Thomas.” The notice of lien was also sent to Sanford Rubenstein, a personal-injury lawyer who was one of Louima’s original attorneys and now is working with Cochran. Rubenstein says his former colleagues are within their right to mount a challenge to the fees.
Last year, Louima filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city. But on August 6, Cochran, Scheck, and Neufeld–who were among the attorneys who won a murder acquittal for Simpson–amended the suit to include the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents most of the 40,000-member force.
The lawyers targeted the union partly because of the controversial “48-hour rule,” which gives police the right to wait two business days before answering questions about shootings or alleged misconduct. Critics charge the rule gives police time to coordinate their stories or tamper with witnesses. Scheck said the lawsuit will “deal a death blow to the blue wall of silence.”
On August 9 last year, Louima got caught up in a fight with police outside of Club Rendez-Vous, a popular East Flatbush nightspot for Haitians, where officers were trying to disperse a crowd. That confrontation allegedly led to the beating and sexual abuse of Louima by officers in the 70th Precinct station house and a cover-up. Five officers have been charged in the attack, which left Louima hospitalized for months with a perforated colon. Prosecutors say Louima was sodomized with the handle of a toilet plunger.
At the heart of the money dispute is Thomas’s argument that Cochran is not entitled to a cut of any award or settlement on grounds of “tortious interference with a contract.” Thomas described Cochran as a racial ambulance chaser who may have “broken ethical canons” when he allegedly sidestepped Louima’s original legal team to solicit the role of lead attorney.
Thomas insists that Cochran never contacted him or his group about joining the team. He claims Cochran told him he was contacted by someone in the Haitian community who pleaded with him to look at the case. Cochran then called Samuel Nicolas, Louima’s cousin and spokesman, who arranged a visit with Louima so that Cochran could wish him well. Thomas maintains that two days before the visit, he appeared on Cochran’s cable TV show, Cochran & Company, and at no time did the famed attorney broach the subject of working with him.
Nicolas, according to Thomas, contacted Brian Figeroux and they accompanied Cochran to Louima’s bedside at Brooklyn Hospital Center. Thomas recalls that he decided to allow Cochran to see Louima since the alleged police brutality victim had seen a stream of celebrities, including boxing promoter Don King and former mayor David Dinkins.
“We regarded him as just one in a long list of personalities who desired to see our client,” Thomas says. “And all who came to see Louima first contacted us, the attorneys.” He says that after seeing Louima, Cochran asked to join the legal team as a consultant. Within hours of the visit, Cochran had a signed retainer agreement with Louima.
“As far as we know, Louima’s family never called Cochran,” Thomas says. “A reasonable person could conclude that his original intent was to take over the case.”
Marie Brenner, who wrote a lengthy article about Louima for Vanity Fair last December, gave a different account of Cochran’s initial entry into the case. According to Brenner, “Johnnie Cochran’s role… was initiated on the cell phone of a car speeding down the Belt Parkway toward Brooklyn Hospital, to which Louima had been transferred. It was August 21. That morning Louima had asked King Kino [the Haitian political singer and leader of the band that played at the club the night Louima was arrested], to visit him at the hospital, and Kino stopped by his record store to pick up some of Abner’s favorite tapes.” Brenner was in the car with Kino.
Louima had failed to stem the infighting among his legal team, which was spurred after Thomas referred to Sanford Rubenstein as a “bloodsucker” and an “obsequious piece of shit” who cut a deal with Louima’s family to get in the case. In the car, Kino trashed the blunt and outspoken styles of the less experienced Thomas and Figeroux, immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago who’ve retained their sonorous accents and were formerly assistant prosecutors in the office of Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes.
“Those lawyers do not know what they are doing,” Kino told Brenner. “They mumble. You cannot even understand them on TV. I don’t know why Abner doesn’t get [lawyer and media mogul]Percy Sutton or Johnnie Cochran in this case. All this conflict! It seems like they are amateurs! This does not send the right message to the world about the Haitians. We are not stupid people!”
Kino, according to the writer, felt that the contretemps among the lawyers had harmed a grassroots movement by Haitians to use the case to focus attention on the larger issue of police brutality. “They would settle for $50 million just to be done with it,” said Kino, apparently referring to the original $55 million notice of claim Rubenstein had filed on Louima’s behalf–which he would later raise to $465 million.
“Who could be a better lawyer for Abner, Percy Sutton or Johnnie Cochran?” Kino ruminated as they drove to the hospital. “Whites,” he added, “hate Johnnie Cochran because of the O. J. Simpson case, but he is a brilliant lawyer. He takes this case to another level… You need Johnnie Cochran to get this on the world stage.”
According to Brenner, Kino used the car phone to call his manager, Jamie Washington, the general manager of WLIB, one of the radio stations owned by the Sutton family. “You have to find me Johnnie Cochran on the telephone,” the writer remembers Kino imploring. “I am going to introduce him to the family.”
Brenner reported that Kino called her the following weekend and said that “a rich friend” had put him in contact with Cochran, who at the time was based in California. During a conference call that included himself, Cochran, and Sam Nicolas, Kino said he told Cochran he “did not like the way the other lawyers were handling the case” and that Cochran responded, “All right, if you would like me to handle the case, I will do it.” He said that before hanging up Cochran told him, “Thanks, Kino, for putting me on the case.”
Big fees are a subject of controversy among lawyers involved in high-profile cases and expecting windfalls. Some attorneys have not been allowed to pursue contracts because they have violated rules prohibiting excessive fees. With that in mind, Abner Louima may want to consider the novel argument that he does not have to share a dime with his dueling lawyers.
The matter was raised in Bronx Surrogate Court last year by attorney Harold J. Reynolds, who had conducted an investigation into so-called “lawyer overreaching”–the practice of exacting exorbitant contingency-fee agreements from personal-injury clients when it is likely that they will receive substantial settlements or awards. Under suchagreements, attorneys receive a third of any cash award.
According to documents filed in court, Reynolds invoked the Louima case as an example of overreaching, declaring that some attorneys never tell unsuspecting clients that it is not always necessary for them to agree to contingency fees. That may not be apparent to “the impoverished widow and infants of a poor man killed in the night on a highway, or by the worker who, having lost three fingers, watches his lawyer skip down the courthouse steps with the economic value of one of them,” Reynolds asserted in a case involving another lawyer who had claimed more than $60,000 in legal fees in a wrongful-death suit.
“To [these clients] will fall the honor of having fattened a lawyer’s wallet for a risk that, in fact, he never undertook,” Reynolds wrote. He added that 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.”
Carl Thomas begs to differ. He points to the immense risks he, Figeroux, and Roper-Simpson undertook to force Louima’s plight into the spotlight and then persuade federal prosecutors to try the case.
For example, shortly after the attack, Louima was being portrayed by his assailants as a victim of “abnormal homosexual activity” and the lawyers’ initial task was to circumvent this attempt to blame the victim. A nurse at Coney Island Hospital, where Louima was taken after his ordeal, said cops tried to convince doctors that Louima was found injured with his pants down lying in the street in front of Club Rendez-Vous, which they initially described as a “homosexual club.” But the nurse suspected his injuries could not have resulted from gay sex, and called Louima’s family.
“The risk was always that the story he told us was not true and that the story police had outlined was true,” Thomas explains. “We went out on a limb and got people like Reverend Sharpton, Mayor Dinkins, and Sonny Carson to throw their unequivocal support behind Abner and his story. These people took tremendous risks in a political season.
“When we first saw Abner he was handcuffed to his bed. We got Mike McAlary of the Daily News. He didn’t believe Abner initially; we had to convince him to come down and write a story. We had to get the word out, and in doing so we could have been accused of perpetrating a hoax. That was always in the back of our minds. Next, we forced police to drop criminal charges against our client. We protected this man.”
Defending Abner Louima put the lawyers personally at risk. Thomas and Figeroux, who live in the 70th Precinct, say they received death threats, and late-night phone calls warning them to back off their allegations of police brutality. Patrol cars from the embattled station house frequently drove by their homes. Then Figeroux’s teenage daughter was attacked twice on her way to school. In one assault, she was beaten up by four teenagers, and in the other her jacket and bookbag were stolen. Thomas says police at the station house had refused to file Figeroux’s complaint about the attacks. Detectives later arrested three 14-year-old girls and one 16-year-old for the incidents.
“We took personal as well as professional risks,” Thomas maintains. “We stood up to the PBA. We petitioned the U.S. attorney’s office to conduct a ‘pattern and practice’ investigation of the NYPD. All that was left was for the city to give Abner Louima the money for his suffering. By the time Johnnie Cochran and his ‘dream team’ came on the scene, the risks were taken. The people who took the risks and made the case should ultimately benefit from the case.”
Research: W. Michelle Beckles and Vicki Shiah
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 22, 1998