By Donna Domino
Daily Journal Staff Writer
“I just thought it was wrong,” said Dolan, who recently received the Trial Lawyer of the Year Award from the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association.
Two Lebanese-American FedEx drivers complained that a manager at the company racially harassed them for years, using epithets like “sand nigger.” Issa v. Roadway Package System, 841208-9 (Alameda Super Ct., June 2, 2006).
The case surfaced in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when public sentiment had turned against Muslims.
What’s more, plaintiffs Kamil Issa and Edgar Rizkallah were contractors, not full-time employees, and the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act did not apply clearly to harassment in that context.
Dolan, who heads the Dolan Law Firm in San Francisco, found the slurs particularly insulting because, far from being extremists, the two men came to the United States as children during the early 1980s, when their families were fleeing persecution from Hezbollah. The father of one of the men was killed by a terrorist’s bomb in Lebanon.
Sweeping changes to the fair-employment act in 2000 included the extension of anti-harassment protection to independent contractors, but Dolan said liability in the case of Issa and Rizkallah was unclear because most of the harassment had taken place before those amendments took effect.
Because Issa and Rizkallah were members of a new protected class under the law, the case was one of first impression.
Calling it a “landmark civil-rights case,” Dolan presented testimony from seven FedEx employees who said they had witnessed the conduct and complaints made to management. Potentially damaging records, including notes to management by supervisors about racist statements by the drivers’ manager, disappeared.
Another supervisor was accused of making fun of Rizkallah’s Lebanese accent by questioning whether “this is English or fuckin’ chicken language.” Issa claimed that the supervisor sent him pager messages, asking whether the driver was gay and referring to homosexual acts.
FedEx’s defense was “essentially blanket denial,” said Dolan, 43. The company offered each plaintiff $100,000.
After listening to seven weeks of testimony, submitting 46 follow- up questions and deliberating only two hours, an Alameda County Superior Court jury reached a verdict in June.
Dolan recalled saying to his partner, “This doesn’t look good.” But his gamble had paid off, in spades.
Dolan had asked for $2.5 million in compensatory damages for each client. The jury awarded more than twice that amount: FedEx was ordered to pay the plaintiffs $5 million each, and the supervisor was ordered to pay them $500,000 each, for a total of $11 million in compensation.
“It was a moment like you would see in a movie,” Dolan told a large group of attorneys upon receiving his Trial Lawyer of the Year honor.
Judge Stephen Dombrink gave the jury a week off before considering punitive damages, hoping its members would “cool down.” But they came back and awarded the drivers $25 million each in punitive damages – again, more than Dolan had requested.
The result was a stunning $61 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
FedEx called the verdict “excessive,” and Dombrink agreed, whittling the total to $12.5 million after noting in his post- trial opinion that the supervisor’s conduct, though offensive, amounted to “simple name-calling.”
Bobbie J. Wilson, an attorney hired to represent the FedEx supervisor for the punitive phase, said Dolan “had a very good rapport with the judge and the jury – though I think he was a little over the top at times, and they sometimes laughed or rolled their eyes.
“He’s a showman, and he had a sense that he ruled that courtroom,” she added.
Although Wilson, a partner at San Francisco’s Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin, characterizes Dolan as a “scrappy street fighter,” she notes that he shook hands with her and co-counsel Kenneth G. Hausman outside the courtroom after their jury arguments, congratulating them for doing a “nice job.”
“He had times when he could be exceedingly charming and times he was not so charming,” Wilson said.
Hausman, also a partner at Howard Rice, calls Dolan “a very tough, hard-nosed type of guy who rubs some people the wrong way.” He notes that Wilson managed to persuade the jury to level only $28 in punitive damages against the FedEx supervisor.
FedEx’s other attorneys declined comment or did not return phone calls seeking comment for this report.
John M. Feder, president of the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association, said Dolan received his award from the association in recognition of his “tremendous skill and dedication, passion and creativity in his handling of this case.”
The group, whose 800 members are predominantly plaintiffs’ attorneys, seeks to “improve the quality of representation and to educate attorneys on how best to protect their clients’ interests,” said Feder, a partner at San Francisco’s Rouda, Feder, Tietjen & Zanobini.
According to his Web site, Dolan founded his firm in 1995 as a sole practitioner, and the firm now has eight attorneys.
In addition to sitting on the board of the San Francisco trial- lawyers’ group, Dolan is a board member of the Consumer Attorneys of California, which gave him its Consumer Attorney of the Year honor for 2006. An avid motorcyclist, Dolan also works for the San Francisco Motorcycle and Scooter Coalition.
As for his tough-minded attitude, Dolan offers a simple explanation.
“I grew up hard,” he told the lawyers’ group during his acceptance remarks. “I had the shit kicked out of me as a kid; I remember being small and powerless. But I am Irish, I am stubborn, and I didn’t give up.”
His response to the idea that one can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar?
“Hit the fucking [hive], and you’ll have lots of bees,” Dolan said tartly.
Dolan’s favorite book? Not surprisingly, it’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
The Alexandre Dumas adventure classic tells the story of a man imprisoned wrongly and his quest for justice and vengeance against those who have wronged him.
During the awards dinner, Dolan recounted vividly how he handles opposition. To get back at the boss at his first law-firm job, Dolan said he urinated in the boss’s plant at 2 a.m.
“When you come to my office, you’ll see there are no plants,” he said.
When an opposition attorney threatened, “I’m going to kick your ass!” Dolan shot back, “The last guy that said that made me a millionaire – I’m a highly educated juvenile delinquent!”
During an interview, Dolan described how he nearly flunked out of high school in New Canaan, Conn.
“The highest thing on my report card was the number of absences,” he said.
His father was a small-town attorney who did “anything that came in the door – kitchen-sink plaintiffs’ work,” Dolan said.
His father had “problems with alcohol,” though, and when his parents separated, Dolan lived with him in his law office.
“The only place I really saw where he was respected was not in his family but in the courtroom,” Dolan said. “That was significant to me.”
Dolan remembers the greatest compliment his father gave him: “Boy, you’ve got balls!”
Dolan still has his father’s shingle and gavel, one of his prized possessions.
Dolan turned himself around academically and earned his bachelor’s degree with honors from Boston University. He was rejected by six law schools, though, when he said the university sent erroneous transcripts reflecting grades lower than those he had earned.
Determined to attend Georgetown University Law Center, his father’s alma mater, Dolan knocked on the door of its admissions director.
“I told him I would sweep floors, doing anything to prove my determination,” Dolan said.
He graduated cum laude in 1992.
For his first trial, two years out of law school, Dolan took another case “that nobody else would,” suing the California Department of Transportation on behalf of a motorcyclist injured near Bolinas, a coastal town in Marin County. Martin v. Franklin, 163114.[Kate Lee] Chris
Dolan claimed that Caltrans negligently had allowed vegetation to grow near the roadway. But the agency claimed that the rider had been speeding and produced photos of his motorcycle adorned with a “Fuck 55” sticker, referring to the speed limit.
Dolan persuaded a judge to use digital technology to mask the sticker so jurors would not be prejudiced, the first time such technology had been used in a courtroom.
Dolan won a $2.5 million verdict for his client.
William R. Morrisroe, a Caltrans attorney for 31 years who handled another injury case involving a plaintiff represented by Dolan, describes him as such: “He’s honest, extremely intelligent, and he has a very high level of integrity. Unlike some lawyers, you can shake hands and not worry about it.”
Morrisroe describes a disagreement with Dolan about the case.
“It took me a nanosecond to realize I was dealing with a fighter,” Morrisroe said. “Frankly, he’s extremely gregarious and fun to be around, unless you happen to be fighting him.”
Morrisroe added this tribute to Dolan: “He’s as hardworking a lawyer as I’ve ever seen. If I had a case, I’d hire him.”
One opposing attorney, who requested anonymity, described Dolan’s courtroom tenacity as “pretty cutthroat.” Another simply called him a “very able lawyer.”
Dolan is moving his offices near San Francisco’s Civic Center. In the new space, a mock courtroom will be used to train young lawyers.
“I think the plaintiffs’ bar needs to be strong and educated,” he said, noting that defense firms send associates to the National Institute for Trial Advocacy to hone their skills. “This is a vehicle to help the local plaintiffs’ bar, as well as my own associates, to make them severely effective trial lawyers.”
The building also will feature gymnasiums and locker rooms for Dolan’s staff.
“I’m trying to take care of my people,” he said. “They work hard.”
Joseph A. Long of Walnut Creek’s Long Blumberg represented an attorney who worked for Dolan and sued him for breach of contract. The case settled in favor of Dolan.
“I think he’s a wonderful attorney – very effective,” Long said.
Dolan also prevailed when a former secretary sued him in an overtime dispute. The lawyer described those cases against him in his usual take-no-prisoners style.
“I could have rolled over and ponied up the dough to get rid of them, but I don’t like frivolous lawsuits,” Dolan said.
Said Long, summing his assessment of Dolan, “If Chris has his teeth in a case, I don’t want to be on the other side.”