Public Justice Announces Winners for 2021 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award
Public Justice’s 2021 Trial Lawyer of the Year award was awarded to two legal teams who each won landmark cases – one of which involved taking on police brutality and corruption in the City of East Cleveland, and the other involving a historic breach-of-trust class action lawsuit granting thousands of Native Hawaiians their long-awaited homesteads.
This year’s award was presented to the two winning teams – Black v. Hicks and Kalima v. Hawai‘i – during Public Justice’s 2021 Virtual Gala and Awards Presentation, held the evening of Wednesday, July 21.
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.
“Arnold, thank you for your courage with us, and thank you for fighting with us to preserve your dignity,” said Robert F. (Bobby) DiCello in accepting the award on behalf of the Black v. Hicks team.
Team: Robert F. (Bobby) DiCello, Mark A. DiCello, and Justin Hawal of DiCello Levitt Gutzler LLC, Mentor, Ohio
Kalima v. State of Hawai‘i
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.
“We want to thank our class representatives and our trial witnesses,” said Thomas Grande in accepting the award on behalf of the Kalima v. Hawai’i team. “They have sustained us for the past 22 years. ‘Onipa’a’, which means steadfast in the pursuit of knowledge, is what describes our clients as they are faced with repeated injustices.”
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