August 25th, 2016

Starbucks Iced Coffee Suit is (Shocker!) Dismissed

Starbucks Iced OffeeBad lawsuits would be bee in my bonnet, if I wore bonnets. And that is because bad lawsuits injure good lawsuits.

The bone-headed suit makes news because it is an outlier, but then because it is in the news, helps to form negative opinions about lawyers and lawsuits that negatively effect the perfectly reasonable legal action by tainting the jury pool.

And that was my opinion back in May when suit was brought against Starbucks because there was too much ice in the iced coffee, thereby (so the claim went) leaving the consumer with less coffee than he paid for.

My response at the time was a parody post, wherein Dunkin’ Donuts was sued for not enough jelly in its jelly donuts, and it contained one of my favorite paragraphs:

The class action lawsuit in New York’s Supreme Court accuses the doughnut maker of false advertising, fraud, and unjust enrichment. It calls Dunkin’s jelly doughnuts “defective and deficient due to their skimpy, scanty, paltry, pitiful, meager and otherwise insufficient quantities of jelly within each said doughnut unit.”

In my follow-up post, I’d written how easy it is to “have it your way” and simply ask for less ice.

And now, as expected, the iced coffee lawsuit has been tossed out. (Decision – Forouzesh v. StarbucksFor the same reason that I wrote. And for that matter, the same reason that countless others no doubt had written. Even a child knows you can ask for less ice:

But as young children learn, they can increase the amount of beverage they receive if they order “no ice.” If children have figured out that including ice in a cold beverage decreases the amount of liquid they will receive, the Court has no difficulty concluding that a reasonable consumer would not be deceived into thinking that when they order an iced tea, that the drink they receive will include both ice and tea and that for a given size cup, some portion of the drink will be ice rather than whatever liquid beverage the consumer ordered.

This conclusion is supported by the fact that the cups Starbucks uses for its Cold Drinks, as shown in the Complaint, are clear, and therefore make it easy to see that the drink consists of a combination of liquid and ice.

As I (and countless others) had indicated, an iced drink contains ice as an obvious ingredient. The court (shocker!) concurs on the obviousness of it all:

When a reasonable consumer walks into a Starbucks and orders a Grande iced tea, that consumer knows the size of the cup that drink will be served in and that a portion of the drink will consist of ice.

Case dismissed.

The problem with bad suits is that they form public opinion based on anecdotes, not empirical evidence. Empirical evidence can be boring. But an idiotic suit — even if it is one in ten thousand — sells papers.

Updated with posts from elsewhere:

No, You Can’t Sue Starbucks For Putting Too Much Ice In Your Drink, Judge Rules (LAist, including interview with the litigant.)

Class action: too much ice in Starbucks iced drinks (Overlawyered, earlier)

 

August 23rd, 2016

Should Trump’s Doctor Be Sanctioned for Fraud?

Dr. Harold Bornstein

Dr. Harold Bornstein

With the health of the two presidential candidates, aged 68 and 70,  in the news, it’s worth revisiting the statement given out by Donald Trump’s gastroenterologist, Dr. Harold Bornstein. You may remember this from last December for its comical and very Trumpian statement:

“If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”  (Full letter)

Yeah, that Harold Bornstein. Dr. Jen Gunter did a full, line-by-line, deconstruction of the letter at the Huffington PostI’m A Doctor. Here’s What I Find Most Concerning About Trump’s Medical Letter.

Well, it turns out the letter was even worse than Dr. Gunter thought. And that is because of the signature block, where Dr. Bornstein signs his name with “F.A.C.G.”

Bornstein Signature block

That stands for Fellow of the American College of Gastroenterologists. In order to be a Fellow, one must be board certified and pay your dues to the organization. And being board certified is a very big thing for doctors, since it entails taking a grueling test to show that you have the knowledge to be an expert in your field.

The gastroenterology boards are a subspecialty of internal medicine.

But as Rachel Madow learned, after being tipped by one of her viewers, that membership in ACG actually lapsed in 1995 — 21 years ago. And according to the American College of Gastroenterologists, he shouldn’t be claiming he is a member of the organization if he is no longer a dues paying member of the organization.

Yet Dr. Bornstein continues to use those initials after his name.

Dr. Bornstein, incredibly, responded to Madow’s request for comment and said that:

F.A.C.G. is a title that they sell for a fee; in reality it has no value.

He then went on to explain to Madow that he would continue to use this title that “has no value.”

Now that I have given you the past, let me stand on the shoulders of Gunter and Madow to go further with some facts and opinion: What he is doing is fraud.

The website for the New York State Department of Health, gives examples of medical fraud:

Examples of Medical Fraud

  • False and intentionally misleading statements to patients.
  • Submitting false bills or claims for service.
  • Falsifying medical records or reports.
  • Lying about credentials or qualifications.
  • Unnecessary medical treatment or drug prescription.

You can see the one that I highlighted. I posted all of the ones listed so that you can see the significance of the infraction. Not significant to me as someone tossing around opinions, but to the Department of Health.

Is this something that the Department’s Office of Professional Medical Conduct (OPMC) should be investigating? Maybe.

I called Douglas M. Nadjari for an opinion, he being an attorney who represents physicians primarily involving matters of professional misconduct before the Office of Professional Medical Conduct and the Office of Professional Discipline.

While not discussing Bornstein/Trump in particular, since he doesn’t have knowledge of the facts, he said that investigation and charges of professional misconduct could theoretically be pursued regarding a physician with a false credential for:

  • False advertising; and
  • Practicing the profession fraudulently
  • Lack of moral fitness

If the doctor were indeed board certified, OPMC would not pursue discipline unless it received a complaint or if a patient was injured.  If one of those two things happened, he would likely be asked to consent to an interview and be asked to change his ways.

The kicker for me, though is that he apparently already knows what he is doing is wrong. And has refused to change it.

 

 

August 2nd, 2016

Trump and Lawyers and Privilege, oh my! (Updated)

wells

Thomas M. Wells, photo from his law firm website

I’ve said before that Donald Trump is a one-man bar exam, as his candidacy seems to touch on roughly six bazillion different issues. One could easily create a law blog devoted solely to the legal issues he is involved with that come up on a daily basis — from matrimonial, to contracts, to fraud, to defamation, to torture and war crimes and more.

But today, just for kicks, I’ll tell you how he may have been inappropriately slimed.  Beating up on Trump, you see, is easy pickings. But defending him from inappropriate conduct? You be the judge.

We turn, now to one of his former lawyers, and since Trump has been involved in 3,500 lawsuits, in addition to godknowshowmany banking and licensing deals, there are many of them around.

This one is about Thomas M. Wells, who was hired  by Trump for a New Jersey real estate deal regarding a mall.

On July 31st, he published a nice, juicy article in the Huffington Post with this headline:

Donald Trump Hired Me As An Attorney. Please Don’t Support Him For President.

Wah? Inside scoop?  Let’s read!

This was the basic background where Wells establishes his credentials to write with authority:

In 1987, when I was 35 years old and he was 41, Donald Trump hired me to be his attorney on a major northern New Jersey project, a shopping center, which like everything else, was to bear his name, Trump Centre. It was a big deal that he picked me and a high honor for me just a couple of years after I started my law firm, which is now over 30 years old. This was at a time when Trump still built things, having recently finished Trump Tower.

OK, he was one of the lawyers. But what kind of information can he possibly spill if he was Trump’s lawyer? There is, after all, the subject of client-attorney privilege.

Well, off the bat, Wells gets right to it, giving personal stories to lede into the rest of the piece. (The rest of the piece appears to be based on public information.)

First, there is this bit about bad deals, which is odd since Wells was helping him with a deal:

He seemed to me smart, business savvy, decisive. He had a very impressive office, a fancy and very big boat, an airline, a helicopter shuttle and several casinos. Within a few years, virtually all of this would be lost because of bad business decisions.

Second is this piece about Trump claiming that women wanted him:

After the initial interview, my client contact with Donald was actually not very much. One low point I do remember (actually will never forget) is a limousine ride to a meeting with the editorial board of a New Jersey newspaper in which my married client sought to regale me with the number and quality of eligible young women who in his words “want me.” I was just plain shocked and embarrassed, but I kept smiling. I wanted and needed this client happy.

And third, Wells takes on Trump’s well-known braggadocio and lust for publicity in discussing the size of his apartment and the varying press stories on just how big it is:

While I was working for Donald, various press reports had Trump and his then-wife Ivanna living in a personal apartment in the Trump Tower of 8, 16 and even 20 or 30 rooms. Genuinely curious, I once asked him how many rooms the apartment actually had. I will never forget his response to me: “However many they will print.”

Zing! The story confirms your bias against Trump, leaving you wanting to read the rest of the piece for any other juicy tidbits.

But, but, but.

Were those three pieces fair game for an attorney to discuss? Clients, after all, share all kinds of information about themselves. Lawyers often need to know what they are, so that we can represent them the best. Sometimes the information is useful, sometimes it’s garbage.

Wells is licensed in New Jersey, and that state’s Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct would control. In this case, it would be section 1.6 relating to confidential information. With few exceptions,  “A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to representation of a client…”

Did any of these three stories relate to his representation? I think it goes against Wells. The comments were made in the course of a client meeting. The client may reasonably expect the such communications would be privileged — even if it is Donald Trump.

I’ve written before about lawyers that want to capitalize on being associated with those in the public eye, such as Lindsay Lohan, or as part of puff pieces. This stuff is almost always verboten.

It seems to be that if an individual can’t keep a secret, then representing clients may not be the right line of work.

I’ve reached out to Wells for comment and he gave this initial response:

The only references made were to conversations approximately 30 years ago, not on business or legal matters and no legal advice was sought or given in same.

There is, of course, no part of the client-attorney privilege that simply expires based on the passage of years. There is no statute of limitations with regard to confidentiality.

As to whether the information must be strictly related to “business or legal matters” or “legal advice,” that is not an easy line to draw. Clients talk, in confidence. And they deserve to know that the confidences will be kept.

Even if a client hires a lawyer to do a closing, and then volunteers in private that she killed someone 20 years ago, or that she cheated on her husband with a few dozen others, I don’t think it means the lawyer gets to blab the stories later. The stories may not be related to the subject for which the lawyer was hired, but were still uttered within the quiet bubble representation.

If you think I’m wrong, have at it in the comments.

Update: Mr. Wells gave me a further comment by email:

 this conversation did not deal with a legal or business matter and no legal advice was sought or given.  There are other issues in this instance as to who the actual client was, who was present etc. but that could be argued to be confidential so I will not go there.

 

July 28th, 2016

Trial Lawyer Tips From Politicians

Watergate jury, by John Hart. The original hangs in my office.

Watergate jury, by John Hart. The original hangs in my office.

I’ve been watching the political conventions off and on these past two weeks, and it occurs to me that there are a couple good tips in there for trial lawyers.

Two speeches stood out to me as good lessons.

The first was Bill Clinton. Why? Because he is a master story-teller. This isn’t about whether you agree or disagree with his politics, but the manner in which he engaged listeners with stories. He wasted no time in starting with a good old-fashioned boy-meets-girl story and kept coming back to it.

Once upon a time — September 2007, which is 63 years ago in dog years and 200 years ago in internet years —  I quoted Mark Twain on this subject, in discussing the need for the trial lawyer to engage the jurors and tell a story. And the most important thing to do is make sure the listener doesn’t fall asleep. You need to engage the listeners.

The second was that of Mike Bloomberg, who I think gave the best speech so far. How can that be when he stands where Bill Clinton just stood as well as both Obamas?

Because he bluntly stated that he wasn’t speaking to the people in the hall and that he often disagreed with Hillary Clinton. That is enough to make any viewer sit up and take notice (and to get many boos from those in attendance).

The fact that he wasn’t a typical cheerleader, and has supported both Republican and Democratic candidates, gave him credibility to address Trump supporters. He wasn’t there to simply yell Rah, Rah, Hillary. He audience was, perhaps, the most important one of all: The undecideds. That meant there was no reason at all to pander to those seated in front of him.

There is a powerful point here for those that stand in the well of the courtroom. When you give up issues to the other side (that you know you will likely lose anyway) your other arguments gain credibility with judges and juries. If you are respected, your arguments are more likely to find a receptive ear.

But not everything works. Because, for many parts of many speeches, people were merely preaching to the choir. Rousing up the folks in the convention halls. While this may be good to motivate those in attendance to work hard over the next few months, they do little to reach the critical undecided vote.

Tim Kaine was also important, but for altogether different reasons. He started out waving his hands around over his head and wasted all of his initial time with shout outs to his friends.

And that is an awful idea. The moments that people are most likely to listen to you, and most likely to remember, are the opening couple minutes of your remarks. And the closing ones. This is the concept of primacy and recency. The most important moments that should never be wasted are the very start and the very end.

After a few minutes of listening, he lost me, and I went upstairs to write this post. I heard later that the middle of the speech was amusing with his parody of Donald Trump, but I never heard it live.

Given that so much time, money and effort is put forward for these conventions to communicate, it’s worth sitting up to take notice of not just what they say, but how they say it. And to remember that when trying to persuade a judge or jury.

 

July 16th, 2016

The Summer of ’16 (And it isn’t going well)

KijoBpBRT♫Summertime, and the living is easy.♬

So goes the song. It’s a time to relax at a beach, hike in the mountains, take in a few ballgames, or just kick back generally with family and friends. The practice of law slows down a bit, as lawyers, judges, witnesses taking vacations makes the scheduling of depositions and trials a “problem.”

And it’s the time of year for news organizations to hunt down “summer stories,” that are usually light, and frivolous, or are strictly local but the national news picks them up and runs with them. A story like Pokemon Go taking off like a bat out of hell, for instance, is classic summer fodder. To be followed by people getting hurt or killed due to aggravated acts of stupidity as they turn a blind eye to their surroundings and chase digital fantasies.

But not this summer.

Yesterday, a bloody coup attempt in NATO ally Turkey.

Just one day after a horrific terror attack in Nice, France.

Which had followed in short order the killing of five Dallas cops (on top of many shootings of black men by white cops).

Which had followed in short order the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

This is all interspersed with the continuing horrors of a civil war in Syria, bombings in Iraq and elsewhere that our news organizations pay scant attention to in relation to the significance of the damage done.

And, of course, a presidential campaign with one candidate seeming to do do all that he can to be racially divisive.

It makes it tough to write about personal injury law. I’ve wanted to, for sure, but each time I sit down at the keyboard I get sidetracked by the latest misery and lose my inspiration.

In my mind, for instance, I had a piece written in my head about the Tesla car on auto pilot that slammed into a left turning truck. Everyone wrote about the car, with few mentioning that the truck was making a left without the coast being clear.

The summer of ’16 is not shaping up well, my friends. Whether or not this goes down in history as a momentous time or not isn’t something I’m smart enough to say, but at the moment it sure doesn’t look good. No one will ever brand this the Summer of Love.

I could issue a little prayer that things get better, but such hopefulness will, in all likelihood, simply leave me disappointed. Another option is to simply disconnect from the digital world, under the ignorance is bliss philosophy, but that will not achieve anything either.

So if the blog is quiet for awhile, you’ll know why. It’s because I’m watching the news.