The One Armed-Lawyer
By John Merriam
(This is a true story. Names have been changed for obvious reasons.)
One fine spring day, more than 25 years ago, I was sitting at my desk munching on a tunafish sandwich for lunch. I was a brand-new lawyer, just admitted to the bar, and had landed my first paying legal job the previous fall. The man who had hired me was a sole practitioner trying to juggle more than 200 cases by himself. His specialty was personal injury, with an emphasis on injury to merchant seamen and commercial fishermen. Civilian seamen, including fishermen, don’t qualify for state-based systems of workers’ compensation. Instead they must seek redress through the legal system under the federal maritime law. My new boss was way behind and it was a good thing he hired some help. I rapidly became an expert on why statutes of limitation should not apply to given fact situations—i.e., making excuses for my employer missing the three-year time-limit for filing suit.
Just before I was hired, my employer had filed a lawsuit on a Jones Act case (the remedy for seamen injured on the job) one day before the statute of limitations expired, then handed the file over to me to deal with—ostensibly to get experience in the maritime law. Our client, Mohammed, had been hurt on a ship. I dutifully wrote a demand letter to ‘Maritime Corporation’ back in New York, the employer of our client, asking if whomever handled claims was interested in settling the case.
A ‘Smith’ from Maritime Corporation wrote back saying that a New York lawyer had settled Mohammed’s claim six months before, and asked me what the hell I was doing. I wrote a letter to him indicating that I no knowledge of Mohammed having settled his claim, and that Smith should send me proof if he had any. Smith soon afterwards sent me a photocopy of the signed Release (the document that gives up one’s rights under the law), notarized in New York, stating that Mohamed had settled his case for $7,500. It looked bad. I wrote Mohammed a letter asking him what he was doing by hiring a Seattle lawyer, when he had retained a New York lawyer to settle his claim. Mohammed responded that he had not settled his claim, that he was not in New York on the date of the Release ostensibly executed by him, and sent me a Coast Guard discharge to prove it. The Coast Guard discharge showed that on the date the Release was notarized, our client was aboard a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
After receiving this information from Mohammed, I proceeded to wade through the file to check on the similarity of signatures. The other signatures from Mohammed in the file did not seem to match that on the Release. I wrote back to Smith and told him that I didn’t care what kind of document he had, our case would proceed in the federal court in Seattle. The letter to Smith was sent the previous week and had likely arrived in New York a day or two before I sat at my desk that day with a tunafish sandwich.
Just then a phone call came in. I delayed another bite into my sandwich and picked up the receiver. The caller was on the ground-floor lobby of our Belltown office building. The man said he was from the East Coast and wished to retain a lawyer in the state of Washington. I told him to come on up and talk.
The would-be client appeared within minutes. His name was Bernie Friedman, a lawyer from New York. He was missing one of his arms, I surmised from the empty sleeve pinned to his sport coat, and carried a briefcase in the hand of the one remaining. Bernie said he wished to retain me as counsel to rectify a “horrible misunderstanding”. Although he never actually told me, I got the distinct impression that there was $12,000 in cash in Bernie’s briefcase. He essentially offered me the contents of his briefcase for my retainer—the largest retainer (in fact the only retainer) I’d ever been offered. Once I accepted a retainer from a client, or had the prospective client sign a fee agreement, an attorney-client relationship would be established and I then had a duty of confidentiality to not reveal anything detrimental about the client. I asked what Bernie wanted to retain me for and he said something about Mohammed v. Maritime Corp. I pulled out the file.
I thought that $7,500—the amount stated on the Release—was a pretty good settlement, if the case really had settled. I had analyzed the case, in my inexperience, at having a value of about $2500, or a third of that. Mohammed had been washed to the deck by a wave hitting a freighter, with no incapacity beyond a brief period for which he was not-fit-for-duty. ‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘Cases in New York must be worth a lot more money than they are in Washington!’ Mohammed, of course, had already told me that he did not receive any amount of money whatsoever from the ‘settlement’ of this claim. I wondered what Bernie’s involvement with the case was.
Then the phone rang again. I told the receptionist that I was not taking calls since I was with my prospective new client, Bernie Friedman. After a few moments, the receptionist burst into my office waving her arms and said I had to take this call since the caller claimed an emergency.
I took the call. It was Smith from Maritime Corporation. Smith spoke excitedly: “My tit is in a wringer. I’ve lost the Mohammed file. This has never happened to me before in my career. I need your help.” Smith asked for a copy of Mohammed’s release that he had sent me. That meant the only copy of the release was on my desk, within easy reach of the one-armed lawyer. I told Smith I’d call him back.
The coincidence was too great. It suddenly dawned on me why I was chosen, out of all the lawyers in this state, for Bernie Friedman to retain. Bernie started begging. Although never, in my recollection, getting down on his knees; he did tell me that if I would not let him “retain” me, I would be wrecking his legal career and his life; that his son had just passed the bar exam in New York; and other reasons I am not able now to recall.
My head started spinning. I excused myself “to go to the bathroom”—taking the Mohammed file with me—and paced the hall. ‘What to do?’ When I came back I told Bernie that there was a conflict of interest and that he should not talk about the situation to me anymore. Bernie asked to talk to my boss. Having not worked for my employer long enough to be able to gauge a reaction to Bernie’s briefcase containing—I am, then and now, convinced—$12,000, I did not want to let that happen. Instead, I sent Bernie packing to a reputed lawyer in Pioneer Square for separate representation.
After a few phone calls the case settled for—you guessed it—$12,000.
Looking back, I wonder who was behind this scam. Was it the one-armed lawyer alone, or in concert with Smith? Was Bernie Friedman’s lead on Mohammed’s injury, and the fact that no other lawyer had surfaced almost to the time the statute of limitations was to run out, obtained from Bernie’s mole—if he had one—in the office of Maritime Corporation? I could not figure out who was clean and who was dirty. To simplify this dilemma, I filed a bar complaint with the New York Bar Association, hoping they could figure it out back East. Informed that their disciplinary proceedings were confidential, I have no knowledge of the outcome of that complaint. All I know is that both Mohammed and my boss got more money than they probably would have from a Seattle judge or jury. Whether or not the one-armed lawyer is still out there, I do not know.
John Merriam is a former merchant seaman, now practicing law at Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle. His practice is restricted to the representation of claimants for maritime wages and injury.