Ravens fullback on defense for accused businessman

Lorenzo Neal can throw a block with the best of ’em.

The Baltimore Ravens fullback has been making big-name NFL running backs look good since the early 1990s, clearing their road to yardage and touchdowns with his stocky 255-lb wrecking ball body.

With his team’s season cut short one game before this weekend’s Super Bowl, Neal found himself in a different supporting role Tuesday: testifying in Boise on behalf of Idaho businessman Dick Phillips, who is accused of having sex with underage girls.

Neal is not happy that Phillips, his friend and partner in producing and marketing an energy drink, is embroiled in the scandal but described the defendant as honest and trustworthy and said he would still do business with him in spite of the seedy allegations.

Neal’s testimony seemed to cast more blame on the state’s witness — the man who introduced Phillips, age 64, to the teens, ages 15 and 17.

After Phillips’ arrest on lewd-conduct charges, “Cord Massey said, ‘Look, I know these young ladies. I know what these b—–s want; it’s about money. I’ll take care of you, but your boy’s going to owe me. Your boy’s gonna owe me big time,’” Neal testified, according to an article on MSNBC’s Web site.

BRENDAN KEARNEY, Legal Affairs Writer

A public defender for Sheila Dixon?

1a-dixon-sheila-8558rd_web.jpgThe Baltimore Sun has this story about the possibility of the city picking up Mayor Sheila Dixon’s attorneys’ fees if she’s found not guilty on the 12 counts in the criminal indictment against her.

The city’s proposed ordinance would mirror a similar provision for state employees, but even so, it seems the idea has struck a nerve. One talk-radio program I’ve heard blasted the idea as a “blank check” for Dixon’s attorneys, Arnold M. Weiner and Dale P. Kelberman. Of course it’s not — under state law, the fees have to be reasonable and go through a vetting process that ends with a vote in the Board of Public Works. If you think that’s a blank check, just ask Stephen P. Amos, who didn’t even get a vote until the administration changed hands.

Around here, the idea that’s drawing the most buzz came from the Maryland Taxpayers Association’s Dee Hodges, who proposed that Dixon should be represented by a public defender. It’s not likely that Hodges really wants to shift the cost to the state (which funds the OPD), and of course, Her Honor would have to give up her job and hock her fur to meet the indigency requirement, but it’s an interesting idea. After all, the prosecutors are on the public payroll; why not the defense?

Of course, assuming Hodges’ real goal is to keep a lid on costs, the proposed ordinance could accomplish the same thing by defining “reasonable” fees as those that would be payable to the panel attorneys the OPD uses when it has a conflict of interest. That might have the unintended side effect of increasing political support for a raise for panel attorneys.

What do you think?

BARBARA GRZINCIC, Managing Editor/Law

Nomination window closes Tuesday

Know any overworked, underpaid government or public interest lawyers who deserve recognition?

It’s not too late to submit nominations for the Bar Association of Baltimore City’s “Government & Public Interest Lawyer of the Year” Award. The deadline was extended until Tuesday, Jan. 20, with the award to be presented at a free reception one week later at the Baltimore Bar Library in the Mitchell Courthouse.

The nomination form is available online. And no, membership in the BABC is not required.

BARBARA GRZINCIC, Managing Editor/Law

Law firm layoffs confirmed

A couple of firms with Baltimore offices have confirmed that they have made layoffs due to the economy.

Ballard Spahr and Saul Ewing both say they have laid off employees this month.

Ballard’s spokeswoman, Eileen Kenney, sent me a statement that was short on specifics: “The firm has reduced its support staff in several offices.  Like many law firms, we are not immune to the effects of the economy’s downturn.  We regret taking this action, but by doing so we will achieve a responsible balance between staff size and the anticipated needs of our clients and lawyers.”

She would not say if Baltimore was affected, but word has it that it was. She also declined to say how many people lost their jobs.

Saul’s spokeswoman, Leslie Gross, was a little more forthcoming. She said the firm laid off 12 staffers (as in non-lawyers) at the beginning of the month. The layoffs affected four of the firm’s offices, including Baltimore. She declined to give the job titles of those who were fired but said the layoffs eliminated certain redundancies.

Further layoffs are “not planned at this time,” Gross said.

The layoffs were first reported by Philadelphia’s Legal Intelligencer newspaper today.

If you hear about layoffs at your firm or elsewhere, please shoot me a note at caryn.tamber@mddailyrecord.com. I’ll keep the source confidential.

CARYN TAMBER, Legal Affairs Writer

Hating harassment in the worst way

In any argument, especially a righteous argument, it’s important to be careful in how you present your points, or you risk causing further damage to that which you are trying to solve. I’m afraid that’s what happened (for me, at least) in a recent blog post at The XX Factor, from Slate.com.

The original post, by “Who’s Sexually Harassing Whom?” by Susannah Breslin, delved into the writer’s own past in the restaurant industry. In addition to what she described as a rampant drug culture, both men and women used sex in the workplace to get themselves more money and better standing. Breslin walked away with this conclusion:

When it comes to sex—or sexual harassment, for that matter—the situations are often neither black nor white but decidedly gray. The idea that it’s possible to eliminate or police human sexuality in any context is a fantasy.

In the post “Why, Exactly, Is Sexual Harassment—er, Sexual Terrorism—OK?,” blogger E.J. Graff took issue with Breslin:

But I have to say, reading your post, I’m not exactly sure why you think sexual harassment is OK. Because it’s the least of it? Um, not always. And why should anyone have to tolerate the kind of sexual harassment that’s brutal, grinding, daily terrorism?

To me, these are two intelligent, reasonable points of view that should be considered and debated. That’s the only way we can hope to learn and improve, I feel.

My problem comes with Graff’s examples: holding a knife to someone’s throat in a demand for sex, then saying “just kidding”; throwing someone to the ground in advance of a rape, only stopping because another coworker interrupted; forcing a woman’s face toward an unzipped crotch; being grabbed and lifted by the crotch; and being stalked and threatened.

Sexual harassment is horrendous, but labeling these acts as just “harassment” (even “harassment that’s…daily terrorism”) belittles their more serious nature.

These are not the sort of acts I think of when I hear the term “sexual harassment” — they are acts of violent and sexual battery. They are criminal assault, and I feel that holding up such acts as examples of harassment in a dialogue about the dangers of sexual harassment risks trivializing the other, far more common forms of harassment.

Are they harassment? Yes, technically. However, by highlighting the worst end of the spectrum on this problem we increase the chance that people — such as judges, juries and especially the offenders themselves — won’t see what’s so bad about garden-variety harassment. After all, “it could have been worse…”

I understand the need in an argument — especially on such a passionate argument — to try to make your point with the most serious examples possible. However, in this particular case I feel that countering a tale about restaurant workers playing sexual games with a story about holding a knife to a woman’s throat accomplishes nothing besides enflaming the argument.

JOE BACCHUS, Web Specialist

Grudging respect devolves into grudge match

Lawyers in the Exxon case have focused non-stop on the same case going on four months now. Preparation begins early in the morning and some days ends near midnight. Exxon’s lead lawyers fly back and forth from their home in Nashville. The word “grind” comes to mind, as lawyers from both sides get their exercise during the day by popping out of their seats to object.

Throw in seeing the same people in the same courtroom day after day, and it’s probably more surprising the blow-up I saw during a recess Tuesday hadn’t happened sooner.

Stephen L. Snyder and James F. Sanders, lead counsel for the plaintiffs and Exxon, respectively, were walking back from a bench conference at the start of a recess. The two have been legally sparring the entire trial, but it had become more pronounced and frequent the last two days during the testimony of Joseph Mocsary, a key Exxon employee in the plaintiffs’ case. Sanders was chuckling to himself for reasons I do not know, although I have seen him laugh previously during the trial out of incredulity. Snyder loudly asked Sanders to stop laughing.

Suddenly, the grudging respect I had observed between to the two legal teams dissolved into a grudge match, with obscenities and accusations being shouted and fingers being pointed. Several lawyers stood toe-to-toe as if ready to fight in their finely-tailored suits before they were separated.

“There’s too much testosterone in this room,” said one of the lawyers attempting to play peacemaker. “How old are we, 14?”

To their credit, the lawyers grew up quickly, and acted as if nothing happened when the recess ended and Mocsary continued his testimony. But it will be interesting to see how this spat impacts the lawyers’ conduct for the rest of the trial.

DANNY JACOBS, Legal Affairs Writer 

Snider’s ‘Ciao to Chao’ party

A Baltimore plaintiff’s-side employment law firm paid for Labor Department employees to hold a party celebrating the imminent departure of their boss, Secretary Elaine Chao, complete with a “Ciao to Chao” cake and a round of “Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, goodbye.”

The fête was reported in the Washington Post this morning. Columnist Joe Davidson wrote that the employees feel Chao, a Bush appointee, has been way too pro-business.

The law firm is Snider & Associates L.L.C., and the WaPo says it paid $6,000 for the affair. Davidson notes: “A Snider advertisement on the back page of the local’s newsletter notes the firm’s representation of federal employees and says “Local 12 trusts us . . . So should you!”

I’m waiting for a call from Mike Snider of the firm to find out more.

Incoming Secretary Hilda Solis had better hope she rates better than Chao did with career Labor staffers, or she may be looking at a “Solace from Solis” cake in four or eight years. (It’s OK, you can groan.)

CARYN TAMBER, Legal Affairs Writer

Lucky for Exxon the Titans lost

Talk about your home-field advantage.

Stephen L. Snyder began Monday’s proceedings in Jacksonville residents’ lawsuit against ExxonMobil Corp. for a January 2006 gas leak with a brief recap of where the trial left off Friday. Snyder noted the court adjourned early so “Mr. Sanders could fly home to see his beloved Tennessee Titans lose to our Baltimore Ravens.”

“Mr. Sanders” is James F. Sanders, Exxon’s lead lawyer in the case, who lives in Nashville.

As the pro-“Wacko for Flacco” jury and onlookers cheered in Baltimore County Circuit Court, Sanders stood up, laughed and waved his hands.

“No excuses here,” he said.

DANNY JACOBS, Legal Affairs Writer

This week in Maryland Lawyer

01_12_09_exav2.jpgON THE COVER:  While the death penalty and police surveillance may be this year’s hot topics, legislators also plan to tackles issues such as development controls and victims’ rights during the 2009 General Assembly session.

Through foot patrols, community meetings, media awareness and security details, the Guardian Angels aim to deter crime in Baltimore. Read about the organization and watch a video of the Guardian Angels raising awareness about a recent hit-and-run accident. 

In Breaking News, the Court of Appeals hears arguments on whether legal representation at bail hearings should be required; the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals strikes down a federal sex offender law allowing for civil commitment beyond offender’s prison term; and a Baltimore County jury awards Miles & Stockbridge P.C. more than $18,000 in its fee dispute with Howard County homebuilder Vincent S. Serio.

Joe Surkiewicz discusses the grim, yet hopeful, outlook for legal services in 2009 in his column Of Service.

In Verdicts & Settlements, the city of Baltimore has agreed to pay $80,000 to a New Era Academy student who tripped over a raised man-hole cover while running to catch the bus.

Read about how Paul Day and Jennifer K. Squillario provide legal services to the SPCA in this week’s Pro Bono.

Stay up-to-date by checking out the Law Digest, with cases from the Court of Appeals, Court of Special Appeals, U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Court, Maryland.

CHRISTINA DORAN, Assistant Legal Editor

Law blog round-up

Happy Monday! Here are some legal links for the beginning of your week:

The Sun had an obit Saturday for William Zantzinger, as in Bob Dylan’s song beginning, “William Zanzinger [sic] killed poor Hattie Carroll/With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger/At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’.

Pillage Idiot, an anonymous lawyer from outside D.C. who blogged about politics, the law, Maryland and other topics from a conservative perspective, has decided to give up blogging. He writes, “writing under a pseudonym turns out to be more stressful than I’d anticipated. It’s sort of like being a spy, but without the glamor [sic], without the money, and without the treason. On the other hand, if I’d used my real name, people would have known I was a total idiot instead of merely suspecting it.”

Patent lawsuits in Maryland rose in 2008.

“I do not select overweight people on the jury panel…,” a prosecutor says, explaining why he struck a heavy black woman from the jury. It was OK by the judge in the case, but not by the Second Circuit.

Laid-off attorneys are turning to contract lawyering, but even that field is in trouble.

CARYN TAMBER, Legal Affairs Writer