Hyatt Legal Services Inc. provides more legal advice to more Americans than any other law firm. But if the company’s behavior in a recent AIDS discrimination case is any indication, Hyatt’s own legal judgment isn’t always so sound.
In an opinion issued here earlier in April, Federal District Judge Raymond J. Broderick ruled that Hyatt, a pioneer in low-cost legal clinics, had illegally removed the head of its Philadelphia office, Clarence B. Cain, after learning he had AIDS.
By making ”absolutely no effort” to accommodate Mr. Cain, Judge Broderick ruled, Hyatt had mounted a ”corrupt assault” on his dignity. The firm’s conduct, he said, ”was not merely inexcusably insensitive” but ”so outrageous” that punitive damages were warranted.
Judge Broderick issued his ruling quickly, so quickly that he and his law clerk are still polishing it up. The reason: The winner of the case is about to die.
In February, the 38-year-old Mr. Cain, draped in an old suit several sizes too large, testified. His voice was weak, his gait halting, his features emaciated. In March, his doctor said death was imminent. ”It’s going to be any day now,” he told his lawyer, Richard Silverberg of Philadelphia.
Two top Hyatt officials, both lawyers, were responsible for dismissing Mr. Cain. Joel Z. Hyatt, the firm’s founder, concurred. So did his firm’s outside counsel, Andrew C. Meyer of Duvin, Cahn & Barnard in Cleveland. Mr. Cain was offered an entry-level position at half the pay or a $12,000 severance package.
The Hyatt firm eventually sweetened its terms, but never to Mr. Cain’s satisfaction. Then it spent much of the five-day trial attacking him. Judge Broderick hit the firm with a $157,000 judgment, a sum it would have taken Mr. Cain three years to make. Hyatt has opted not to appeal his ruling.
”In retrospect, Hyatt Legal Services may have mishandled this matter, and we are sorry that it happened,” the firm said in a statement.
Because its trial counsel, Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis of Philadelphia, does not offer the same cut rates that Hyatt itself does, the firm also incurred legal costs approaching, or even exceeding, the judgment. Then there is the bad publicity -particularly unwelcome for the 39-year old Mr. Hyatt, a son-in-law of Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio and a man with political aspirations of his own.
In the past decade, Mr. Hyatt and his operation have been widely promoted in the legal and business press. By his own count, there have been ”upwards of 700 articles” on him, tracing his evolution from Joel Hyatt Zylberberg, idealist and admirer of Robert F. Kennedy, to Joel Zylberberg Hyatt, entrepreneur.
His firm has grown from a single office in Cleveland in 1977 to about 170 offices today, employing more than 450 lawyers. Before a recent retrenchment, Hyatt was the nation’s second largest law firm.
Hyatt’s mission of bringing law to the people appealed to Mr. Cain, one of 10 children of a poor Newport News, Va., couple. Mr. Cain paid his way through the University of Virginia Law School and went to work for the Legal Services Corporation.
In April 1986 Mr. Cain joined Hyatt’s executive training program. Shortly after, the company’s in-house newspaper noted how Mr. Cain, having instilled ”strong team commitment and high morale” at its office in Falls Church, Va., had been named head of operations in Philadelphia.
Even before he became ill, Mr. Cain fought with his superiors. Once he uttered obscenities about Mr. Hyatt at a firm dinner. But he lost his post only after the AIDS diagnosis in July 1987.
Mr. Cain spurned Hyatt’s offer of other work. ”I was not going to disgrace myself by being demoted to the lowest position in the firm,” he testified. In any case, doctors say he could have worked only another year.
Mr. Cain promptly declared bankruptcy, but not before losing his car and condominium, and moving from a trendy apartment in Philadelphia to what he called a ”roach-infested” efficiency in a ”ghetto section” of Washington. Suddenly, a man who had always provided for his parents and siblings faced fears of having to borrow money for his own cremation. That, at least, has been remedied. Mr. Hyatt conceded in an interview that the case was ”a black eye” for his firm, and that while Mr. Cain had to be replaced, it would have been far better – and cheaper – to have kept him on the payroll.
But what pained him most, Mr. Hyatt said, was the notion that his firm discriminated. He noted how it had, after all, named a gay black man to run one of its major offices, something no law firm its size has ever knowingly done. ”What’s totally lost in the shuffle is that this is an organization in which anyone can succeed,” he said. ”No one has written about that.”