Bloomfield Hills Lawyer Takes On The Big Dogs -- And Wins
By L.L. BRASIER
November 8, 2009
It might be said that attorney Deborah Gordon has an issue with authority figures.
She sues them all the time.
And most of the time she wins -- big.
Gordon, 59, of Birmingham is widely viewed as the best attorney around when it comes to taking on normally lawsuit-proof entities such as courts, police departments and county prosecutors.
Michigan's governmental immunity laws generally protect such parties. But Gordon, described by friends and foes as ferocious in the courtroom, successfully has sued police departments in Sterling Heights, Waterford and Sylvan Lake, and even pizza mogul Tom Monaghan.
She once even dragged all three Bloomfield District Court judges onto the witness stand and interrogated them, earning her client a $3-million jury award in a wrongful-discharge lawsuit.
Perhaps it's no surprise that Gordon is not afraid to take on authority, considering her lineage.
She is the daughter of Lou Gordon, the feisty host of a Channel 50 interview show in the '60s and '70s. Lou Gordon was beloved for sticking up for the little people.
Currently in Deborah Gordon's sights: Detroit City Councilwoman Martha Reeves, facing a wrongful discharge suit from an office worker; and former Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca, along with West Bloomfield police, who are accused of the wrongful imprisonment of a West Bloomfield Township couple -- Julian and Thal Wendrow -- who were accused of abusing their autistic daughter.
The Wendrow case fell apart and the charges were dropped, but not before the girl's father spent 80 days in jail. A trial is planned next year.
"Sometimes these people with all this power have to learn to behave," Gordon said. "And sometimes they have to know when to say, 'Sorry, we made a mistake.' "
Lawyer helps clients win tough disputes with governments
"You sounded taller on the phone," clients will often say.
At 5 feet 2, and not much more than 100 pounds, she seems unimposing.
But, turned loose in a courtroom, Deborah Gordon is anything but diminutive.
A ferocious and feared litigator, Gordon is arguably metro Detroit's premiere attorney when it comes to suing in cases of wrongful discharge and civil rights violations. And she is an expert in one of the trickiest areas of Michigan law -- overcoming governmental immunity issues that often stop citizens from suing rogue police departments, run-amok prosecutors and incompetent or vindictive local governments.
Such cases are notoriously difficult to win. Michigan laws give broad governmental immunity to law enforcement and other public officials, an acknowledgement by legislators that such agencies need wide discretion in how they handle cases. Those suing must prove that public officials were acting without regard to their constitutional rights or welfare, a tough sale in some courtrooms, legal experts say. Roughly two-thirds are dismissed before ever reaching trial.
But in her 30 years of practice, Gordon has taken on -- and almost always triumphed over -- some of metro Detroit's most powerful players, including sitting judges, chief executive officers, politicians, police departments and prosecutors. Among her targets: Pizza mogul Tom Monaghan, the Sterling Heights and Waterford police departments, the University of Michigan's Dental School and the entire three-judge bench of the 48th District Court in Bloomfield Township.
"The idea of going after things that are wrong, and unjust and egomaniacal, and having the ability to do something about it, it's just a phenomenal feeling," she said in her bright and cluttered office, decorated with photos and sketches of past courtroom battles and political signs -- she is a big Obama supporter.
Despite her high-octane personality, her full caseload and the drudgery of preparing for seemingly endless trial work, she is a contented lawyer in a field often filled with stressed-out and unhappy people.
"I am so grateful, so fortunate," she said, her feet tucked up on her crowded desk. "I love what I do, I take only the cases I want, the cases where I think I can bring my clients, and myself, some satisfaction."
Gordon's practice is so rarefied that she turns down almost every case presented to her, selecting only the ones that she is certain she can win. At any given time, she has 30 to 35 active cases, and a staff of three attorneys.
She also takes cases only on contingency -- meaning she never charges by the hour. Her pay comes from her cut of verdict awards, typically a third. Should she lose? She gets nothing.
"It gives me a lot more freedom," she said. "I don't want anybody to pay me by the hour."
Gordon's latest victory was a $1.1-million verdict against the Sterling Heights Police Department earlier this year. Gordon represented an animal control officer who claimed she was fired in retaliation for complaining to her bosses that a fellow employee was harassing her.
A Macomb County jury agreed.
Attorney Lawrence Scott, who represented Sterling Heights, declined to discuss the case, citing potential appeals. But he was quick to praise and lament Gordon as a foe.
"She is very aggressive, and she is effective," Scott said.
He said he thought his clients were sometimes manhandled by Gordon on the witness stand.
In 2003, Gordon represented four women employed by Tri-Chem, a Troy firm, who alleged that as saleswomen, they were required to send prospective customers photos of themselves seminude and to make sexually suggestive remarks during their sales pitches. It was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
"It would have been an incredible case to try," Gordon said. "We have this saying around the office: Just when we think we've seen it all, along comes something like that."
Then there was the Sylvan Lake police officer who was fired after complaining that the chief was making inappropriate sexual remarks to him. Gordon, in taking depositions, introduced a resident of the Oakland County city who also testified that the chief, who was married, showed up on his doorstep during a routine call, and commented on the size of the resident's genitalia.
The case settled for $300,000.
Lou Gordon's legacy
Gordon has crusading in her DNA. Her father, Lou Gordon, was a hugely popular, muck-raking broadcast journalist in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s. He once called out Bob Hope about his support of Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War, and in interviewing Alabama Gov. George Wallace, openly questioned his sanity.
His impact on Deborah, the middle daughter of three, was profound.
Her mother, ill, lived in another state, so it was up to her father to raise his daughters. He taught them to question authority from the time they could talk. And he taught them the fine art of debate.
"We were a Jewish family, so we grew up arguing all the time," she recalled. "And then, five minutes later, it was like, 'Hey, let's go shopping at Northland.' "
She was political, following the civil rights movement on the family's black-and-white TV set even as a child.
She trained to be a teacher and graduated from U-M with a teaching certificate. But in her first year of teaching, she heard about a woman in law school and was intrigued.
"We were teachers, or nurses, or we got married. But women didn't go to law school then," she said.
It was in the law that she found her passion.
Today she practices mostly in federal court, and in state courts in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
Avern Cohn, a longtime judge on Michigan's federal court bench in Detroit, has watched Gordon over the years. She has had many cases before him.
"She is like this skilled surgeon," Cohn said. "She knows how to get the best out of the case. Many of her victories are scored because of the obtuseness of the defendant, and their failure to recognize the shortcomings of their case.
"A lot of people have really misbehaved, and refuse to recognize it," Cohn said. "She has a good nose for discriminatory conduct. She doesn't lose a good case, and most of her cases are scored because of the foolishness of the defendants going to trial."
That, and sheer perseverance.
"I'm always impressed by her. It's a very specialized law, and she is one of the premiere attorneys in that area of law," Oakland County Circuit Judge Colleen O'Brien said. "She is a bulldog."
Highlights of Gordon's legal career
Deborah Gordon has had a string of successful lawsuits against powerful people and institutions. Among them:
•A $3-million verdict against the 48th District Court in Bloomfield Township in a wrongful discharge suit filed by clerk Michelle Horton. Horton claimed she was fired as a result of political pressure from a newly elected judge.
•A $1.7-million verdict against University of Michigan after dental student Alissa Swick was dismissed in her third year, the victim, a federal jury decided, of professors' political infighting.
•A $1.1-million verdict against Sterling Heights police, filed by animal control officer Ann Marie Rogers, who claimed she was fired in retaliation for complaining to her superiors that she was being harassed by a fellow employee.
•A $455,000 verdict against the Hazel Park School District in the case of a basketball coach, Geraldine Fuhr, who was passed over for a job to coach boys varsity basketball in favor of a male coach.
•In Rick Sitz vs. State of Michigan, a 1986 federal lawsuit, Gordon successfully represented the American Civil Liberties Union, free of charge, in shutting down the state's drunken-driving checkpoints, arguing they violated civil liberties.
pending cases include:
•She is suing former Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca, West Bloomfield Township police and others on behalf of Julian and Thal Wendrow, who were arrested and charged with abusing their severely autistic daughter. The case was based almost entirely on highly questionable statements the child, who is mute, reportedly typed with the help of a school aide. The case fell apart, but not before Julian Wendrow spent 80 days in jail.
•Carolyn Dianne Chambers, a former staffer for Detroit City Councilwoman Martha Reeves, who says she was fired for trying to stop payroll fraud.
•In settlement talks with a group of former professors suing pizza mogul Tom Monaghan and the Ave Maria School of Law. The professors claim they were fired for opposing plans to move the law school from Michigan to Florida. Monaghan spent about $1 million in legal fees in 2008 fending off Gordon.
Sources: State and federal court files