The Louima Millions


[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 .

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 In one unpublished interview conducted two months after Louima was attacked in 1997, Thomas and Figeroux recalled how their relationship with Cochran and his sidekicks went from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.

Citing the gag order imposed on her by the magistrate, Roper-Simpson refused to discuss her long-running dispute with Louima, Cochran, Scheck, and Neufeld. Her attorney, K.C. Okoli, declined persistent requests for an interview. Neither Cochran, Neufeld, nor Scheck, who share an office in Greenwich Village, returned a Voice call for comment. But the Voice has learned that seven months ago Roper-Simpson notified Louima and his legal team that she had filed a lien against “any money” Louima intended to collect as compensation for being severely beaten and sexually assaulted by police.

Roper-Simpson is suing for “professional services rendered” to Louima in the aftermath of the attack. She and Figeroux were part of an original three-member legal team, led by Thomas, to whom Louima first told his horror story. It is the second such lien to tie up Louima’s millions. On March 3, 1998, a month after they resigned from Louima’s legal team, Thomas and Figeroux laid claim to money from any impending settlement or jury award. Their one-page document did not reveal details about their action, but at the time Thomas told the Voice that a conflict arose because he and his colleagues felt that Cochran, Scheck, and Neufeld had improperly entered the explosive case. Thomas described Cochran as a racial ambulance chaser who may have “broken ethical canons.” He said that Cochran was not entitled to a cut of any award or settlement.

“In my judgment, we did everything right,” Thomas asserted in an interview prior to the judge’s gag order. “We made Abner Louima a household name, and that’s how Johnnie Cochran knew about him. The sympathy Abner received was based on the campaign [we waged] for Abner Louima.”

The city agreed to pay $7.125 million, while the PBA will pay $1.625 million. Louima’s lawyers will claim about $2.9 million of the $8.75 million total. The remaining $5.8 million will be paid out to Louima and his children over the next 25 years. He originally sued for $155 million.

Reverend Al Sharpton, who helped drum up outrage over the torture, “has reservations” about the settlement. Sharpton, who is serving a 90-day sentence for his role in a protest against naval bombing exercises in Vieques, told the Voice that shortly before the case was settled, Louima visited him at the federal jail in Brooklyn and “asked for my blessing prior to agreeing to take the money.” According to Sharpton, Louima was skimpy on details about eleventh-hour negotiations, citing the judge’s gag order. He said he remembered Louima saying the settlement would be the largest ever paid out by the city in a police brutality case and that the PBA might crack under pressure from his attorneys and disavow the blue wall of silence.

Last March, black activists, including several leaders in Brooklyn’s Haitian community, criticized Louima for agreeing to an earlier settlement close to $9 million without insisting on reforms within the police system. Louima backed away from the deal. In his original lawsuit seeking the reforms, Louima charged that police officers “conspired to create a blue wall of silence and lied to obstruct justice” and that the PBA “condoned an environment in which police officers believed they would be insulated from prosecution.”

The blue wall of silence refers to police officers who protect each other by not cooperating with investigators. Louima also complained of the “48-hour rule,” which allows officers under investigation not to speak to anyone except their attorneys for two days. The rule is part of the NYPD contract with the PBA. Opponents of the 48-hour rule have said the period gives officers time to get their stories straight and confer with counsel while the investigation cools.

Before Louima left the jailhouse, Sharpton told him that “the goals of the lawsuit seem OK to me.” Sharpton said that he gave his approval, “anticipating a favorable outcome.” Now Sharpton thinks that “Abner should have stood his ground, because it appears that the PBA has conceded nothing” in response to his demand for changes in the way cops handle black and Latino suspects.

Louima’s lawyers claimed victory, taking credit for extracting reforms from the city and the union to eliminate what Louima’s suit called an “environment in which the most violent police officers believed they would be insulated” from prosecution. Sounding almost like a lawyer, Louima himself told reporters that his case prompted the city to pull the ’48-hour rule off the table in pending contract talks with the PBA. (The NYPD has ended the 48-hour rule for sergeants, lieutenants, and captains, and has said it is attempting to take it out of the contract under negotiation for police officers.) He also said his case pushed the PBA to hire outside experts for formal training of its union officials and adopt a system for protecting the anonymity of whistle-blowers. Attorneys for the city and the PBA argued the reforms would have been implemented anyway. But it was not clear exactly what would change concerning officers accused of abuse as a result of the settlement.

Despite efforts to downplay the fact, it is the first time a police union has been forced to compensate a victim of police brutality, Cochran, Neufeld, and Scheck continued to hail the case as “mechanism for social and legal reform” that could be used in other cities where brutality is an issue. “This case is a watershed for police brutality and how to remedy it,” Neufeld said at a news conference. “You use the case as a bully pulpit.”