“Fortune helps the intrepid and abandons cowards.” – Catarina Sforza
One of my favorite historical figures is Catarina Sforza. Among many feats, she reacted to the kidnapping of her children by standing on a castle wall, lifting her skirt, and stating, “I have the mold for making more.” Since her enemies figured Sforza’s kids weren’t pawns after all, they returned them–playing into her hands (again).
You can read all about Caterina here:
Tigress of Forli
Generally, I avoid exposing my junk in court (although I suppose all attorneys show our nether regions through inadvertently bad behavior from time to time). However, I find courage severely lacking in the legal community. Perhaps we are a conservative lot by nature–we spend a lot of time analyzing everything that could go wrong until accepting a cup of coffee from a friend seems like a date to meet at the courthouse to discuss gluten poisoning.
In 2013, I found myself at a time where I was either going to have courage, or I was going to die. I began the year enthusiastic and hopeful about my most-loved legal theory: those who take advantage of people in foreclosure by promising to “save” homes and then doing nothing are liable–and this liability can extend to the Fair Housing Act if the scammer targets people based on protected class (race, national origin, gender, religion, familial status . . . ). (Previously blogged about here: Forbidden to Talk to My Own Client for 16 Months and here: Last, Let’s Scare All the Lawyers . . . Intimidation of Fair Housing Lawyers .) I filed my first two cases advancing this theory, and one settled fairly quickly. The other went down an unexpected road–the lawyer for the other side sued me for defamation and won an injunction that prohibited me from talking to my own client, my co-counsel or the community. The injunction loomed over me for nearly 16 months. Despite the injunction, I still had to fight in Federal court for the fair housing case even though I could not talk to my clients or prepare witnesses. My opponent urged the case toward arbitration, knowing full well I could not prepare my case because of the injunction.
At about the same time, I met a group of homeowners who would change my life. (Read about the case here: Much Ado About Disparate Impact . . . Or, Much About Doing Nothing ) Although I planned to retire, I could not ignore the plight of 50 homeowners in a suburb who were being squeezed out of their increasingly-Latino manufactured housing community by a Village that issued building code violations following a flood. I began representing 50 people in what grew to 38 administrative-hearing cases, 1 fair housing case with 50 plaintiffs, 28 administrative reviews in state court, 18 civil rights complaints, 10 appeals to the Human Rights Commission, and 10 remanded civil rights cases. This case alone involved more work than a small law firm–much less one lawyer–could reasonably handle. The clients couldn’t pay, and I had to give up virtually all my paying clients to serve them. However, when the litigation became contentious (as lawyers should expect litigation to do), the well-funded non-profit community not only ran, but threw rocks at me (actions such as absconding with paperwork). I stood alone to face threats of sanctions, motions to dismiss, and confused and frightened clients. At least twice, judges questioned why the non-profit “legal services” weren’t there to help. It wasn’t my place to air the politics of these cowards in open court at the peril of hurting my clients’ image, so I swallowed my anger. I have faith that most judges are pretty smart. I hope that comes to be true of funding sources, as well.
I survived this time. Ultimately, the injunction was lifted and I was able to speak freely about foreclosure and fair housing once again. It was a joyous occasion when I met with my client to resume work on her case. The manufactured housing case settled in a way favorable to both sides.
Hopefully, most lawyers–and most people–will never face this alignment of hostile opponents, unusual court decisions, and fickle colleagues. If one faces these circumstances, though, one thing is certain: you will come out standing, a stronger advocate for yourself and others, or you will join the chorus of naysayers who think fair housing, the Constitution, human dignity, or other principles are for dreamers. In other words, you will join the long line of people who are so eager to avoid inconvenience, lost income, or suffering that they have died long before they quit breathing.
Caterina was a huge source of inspiration to me as I survived and fought. I think she is indispensable reading for those of us who are gathering our skirts to waist level as we climb the ramparts, prepared to face down our enemies.