Public Justice Announces Finalists for 2021 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

Public Justice Announces Finalists for 2021 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

The three finalist cases for Public Justice’s 2021 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award include landmark cases taking on police brutality and corruption in the City of East Cleveland, a historic breach-of-trust class action lawsuit granting thousands of Native Hawaiians their long-awaited homesteads, and holding a major prison technology corporation accountable for unfairly charging thousands of incarcerated individuals in New Jersey.

The award celebrates and recognizes the work of an attorney or team of attorneys working on behalf of individuals and groups that have suffered grave injustice or abuse. It will be presented at the organization’s 2021 Virtual Gala and Awards Presentation online on July 21, 2021. Here are the three finalist cases for the award:

Black v. Hicks

In the late-night hours of April 28, 2012, Arnold Black, a 42-year old African-American landscaper and resident of Cleveland, Ohio, was arrested while driving home, beat up by police, and locked in a storage closet for four days before being placed in jail, because East Cleveland police thought Black’s truck allegedly looked like one that belonged to a drug dealer.

Little did Black know at the time that his whole experience was part of an unwritten policy and custom of using violence against community members, promoted by former police chief Ralph Spotts, who also made sure that all police reports, evidence, internal affairs documents, and dashboard camera video of Black’s arrest and confinement were “lost” by the City. The plan was that Black’s prosecution would go forward, the drug case would likely fail because there were no drugs in the first place, and no one would suspect East Cleveland’s police had done anything wrong.

However, through the investigative efforts of lead trial attorney Robert F. (Bobby) DiCello—and his brother, Mark DiCello and Justin Hawal of DiCello Levitt Gutzler LLC—the attempted coverup of Arnold Black’s violent attack and his shocking confinement was uncovered. They also exposed one of the most graphic examples of department-wide police misconduct and corruption.

Counting the time lost to multiple appeals, Black’s case against the city of East Cleveland took eight years to work its way through the criminal and civil justice systems since the case was first filed in April 2013. DiCello took the lead, re-telling Black’s ordeal in front of eight jurors in two separate trials—one in 2016 and one in 2019—while uncovering a history of organized violence and attacks on ordinary citizens in the city of East Cleveland that was the moving force behind what happened to Black, which was endorsed by the chief of police and other policymakers within East Cleveland.

The first trial, resulting in a $22,000,000 jury verdict, was overturned by the Ohio 8th District Court of Appeals on jurisdictional grounds following the city of East Cleveland’s appeal. However, thanks to the continued efforts of the legal team, a second trial occurred in August 2019, further exposing the police department’s unwritten policy and culture of violence and resulting in a verdict of a $50 million award to Arnold Black, including $20,000,000 in compensatory damages against all defendants and $15,000,000 in punitive damages each against the co-defendants Randy Hicks and Ralph Spotts.

During the trials, testimonies of police officers revealed that many of them felt powerless in holding Hicks accountable. There were three infamous approaches to police work in East Cleveland: the right way, the wrong way, and “The East Cleveland Way.” In his testimony during the second trial, Hicks revealed his participation, along with other officers, in a group of officers called the “Jump-Out Boys,” in which they would ride together in the back of an unmarked vehicle looking for “possible drug dealers”, targeting young men, old men, some women—almost always black people—without probable cause. Hicks testified that he would never become a supervisor if he did not follow along with “The East Cleveland Way.”

Black’s unbelievable story of abusive confinement and his perseverance in obtaining accountability for himself and all others who had been impacted by the police force’s corrupt ways captured the nation’s attention, cementing this case as one of the most significant civil rights verdicts in U.S. history and the catalyst for much-needed change.  DiCello continues to work with community leaders within the city of East Cleveland to drive police reform and improve the relationship between police and the community.

Team: Robert F. (Bobby) DiCello, Mark A. DiCello, and Justin Hawal of DiCello Levitt Gutzler LLC, Mentor, Ohio

James v. Global Tel*Link Corp.

In 2002, AT&T won a contract to provide all telecommunications services to incarcerated individuals in New Jersey prisons and correctional facilities. Later that year, AT&T sold the contract rights to Global Tel*Link (GTL), a prison technology company that provided inmate calling services and held a monopoly in prison phone rates.  The State of New Jersey received a $4.4 million share of GTL’s revenue each year as a result of a public bidding process, which plaintiffs alleged encouraged high phone rates to maximize the State’s revenue sharing.  As part of the call service, the friends and family of prisoners were required to set up a payment account to talk with their loved ones in prison using GTL’s Advance Pay system.

In this class action, the plaintiffs claimed that from 2006 to 2016, GTL allegedly charged thousands of inmates and their families up to 100 times the market rate for phone calls during the class period, while also failing to disclose the exorbitant charges. In August 2013, seven plaintiffs filed the putative class action against GTL and its subsidiaries, alleging GTL’s exorbitant charges were unconscionable. In August 2015, the defendant asked the District Court to compel the plaintiffs to arbitrate the rest of their claims. The court denied the motion to compel arbitration, and the defendant subsequently appealed the decision to the Third Circuit. In February 2016, the Third Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

Following years of litigation, the District Court granted class certification for the thousands of incarcerated individuals in August 2018. Despite GTL’s numerous appeals filed with the Third Circuit over a span of seven years since the lawsuit was filed, the two parties came to an agreement on the eve of the trial date.

On May 28, 2020, the legal team secured a final $25 million settlement with GTL, which was granted final approval by the district court in October 2020. As part of the settlement, GTL will reimburse its over 55,000 current customers in account credits and payout the hundreds of thousands of former GTL customers through cash payments of up to $5,000.

After more than seven years of litigation, the legal team obtained justice for the large class of incarcerated individuals and their families in the state of New Jersey who had been unfairly charged GTL’s exorbitant fees. This case represents an important recovery for the country’s incarcerated individuals and their families who had no choice but to be controlled by a company that held a monopoly in setting up phone rates for prison inmates. Moreover, prisoners’ ability to communicate has been shown to assist reentry to society as law-abiding citizens and help reduce recidivism.

Team: Justin P. Walder (Co-Chair, Litigation), James A. Plaisted, Dennis T. Smith, and Matthew E. Frisch of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden in Hackensack, N.J.; and James E. Cecchi and Lindsey H. Taylor of Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstien, Brody & Agnello in Roseland, N.J.

Kalima v. State of Hawaii

This historic breach-of-trust class action lawsuit, tracing back to this country’s colonization of Hawai’i in the early 1890s, vindicates the generations of Native Hawaiians who are not recognized as Indigenous people by the government, and without a sovereign land base, are denied most of the social, educational, and health benefits provided to other Indigenous peoples living in the U.S.

In 1921, Congress established the 203,000-acre Hawaiian Home Lands Trust to “rehabilitate” and provide residential, agricultural, and pastoral homestead lots to those of 50 percent or more Native Hawaiian blood. While most of the land was in inaccessible locations and infertile, it provided the only means to give Hawaiians a land-based stake of their own.

Currently, the state has nearly 10,000 beneficiaries on Hawaiian homestead lands with another 27,000 more on the “waitlist.” However, for over 60 years, the state of Hawai’i violated its fiduciary duty by withdrawing thousands of acres from the trust, leasing the lands to private companies, using trust lands for state facilities, and most egregiously, losing thousands of pages of beneficiary application files. Thousands of Native Hawaiians have died waiting for a homestead award, an injustice that echoes across generations.

This case—beginning in December of 1999 and spanning generations—addresses the state government’s unchecked abuse of power and breaches of trust. The plaintiffs—the majority over the age of 75—had been waiting for their homesteads, during which many spent decades either homeless, some families living on the beach, in poverty, or living with family members.

The legal team filed the lawsuit against the State of Hawai’i on behalf of all the beneficiaries who had filed claims with the Hawaiian Claims Panel between 1991 and 1995—an effort that now spans over 20 years, involving two trials and two appeals.

Because of the individualized nature of the breach of trust claims, the legal team sequenced class certifications to resolve as much of the case as possible on a class-wide basis, before resolving individualized damages claims. Instead of 2,700 individual trials, the team devised a novel method of damage computation by calculating average fair market rental value for the 1960 to present class damage period.

Finally, in June of 2020, the Hawai’i Supreme Court ruled that the state had breached its trust duty to Native Hawaiian beneficiaries of the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust program by not awarding homestead lots in a timely manner. In a unanimous opinion, the Court rejected arguments that the state had made for two decades in its attempt to avoid paying for delays in homestead awards.  At last, the 2,700 elderly class members now can claim compensation from the state of Hawai’i for being denied the homesteads guaranteed to them.

Team: Thomas Grande of Grande Law Offices; Waimānalo, Hawai’i; Vivien Akiyama Lopez of Grande Law Offices; Waimānalo, Hawai’i and Carl M. Varady of Law Office of Carl M. Varady in Honolulu, Hawai’i

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