Life imitated art at the Stanley Mosk courthouse downtown Friday morning December 20th. The art I refer to is perhaps my favorite movie of all time, "It's a Wonderful Life" directed by Frank Capra.
One of the perks of my frequent work assignments in downtown courts standing-in for fellow attorneys at hearings they are too busy to attend, is the occasional chance I get to observe civil trials involving major disputes.
Two weeks ago I happened upon one that hearkened back to my one and only jury trial in San Diego Superior Court in December 1996. My client David Ku (then a USC medical student) and I took on (David v. Goliath style) the Mossy Automotive car dealership, the personnel of which had reneged on a "done deal" with my client for new car. The facts clearly gave rise to a cause of action under the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), a robust consumer protection law which, among other provisions, mandates candor in pricing and further enables prevailing consumers to obtain their attorney's fees from the defendants in addition to damages.
That latter feature of the CLRA was included to deter offending businesses from stone-walling the claims of wronged consumers. However the dealership rejected my demand letter and precipitated a 2 year litigation war, one my client partly paid-for as we went along by (as he later told me) skimping on meals by "eating Top Ramen". Long story (for another time) short, 23
long holiday seasons ago, the San Diego jury returned with a verdict in my client's favor.
Flash forward to December 9, 2019: I was heading for the courthouse exit following my "long" workday (8:30 - ~10 am.) when I saw potential jurors assembled outside the Dept. 15 courtroom on the third floor. I entered and took a seat as Judge Richard L. Fruin Jr. and 4 attorneys (rather testily) discussed some final matters prior to the start of the trial.
I learned from Neer Lerner, an attorney associate of the Plaintiff's law firm sitting nearby in the audience, that the case involved a hellacious real property and contractual dispute over essential parking spaces at a venerable Burbank business, Milt and Edie's Master Dry Cleaners. This piqued my interest initially because my wife Jasmine and I both loyally patronize Milt and Edie's and are partial to their business best practices including but not limited to their environmentally-responsible cleaning methods, staying open 24 hours, easy-access parking, friendly counter personnel, very quick turn-around times, on-site expert tailors (also present around-the-clock), and their community-minded "common touch."
I was reminded of the latter when picking up dress shirts from Milt and Edie's a few days later, on Dec. 12th: A (seemingly professional) singing quartet was serenading customers with Christmas carols. See my brief video here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Wh2BA8_zeRLq-v5XDwxtckkJLCXeKyB1/view?usp=sharing and the store's own longer Facebook video here: https://www.facebook.com/miltandedies/videos/2810631255668405/?v=2810631255668405 . It's how they roll.
When Judge Fruin genially greeted the assembled jury pool, he read them an agreed-upon short statement of the case: It was, he explained, a lawsuit principally between the Plaintiff and Cross-Defendants Shadkor, Inc., the owner and operator of Milt and Edie's, a company run by Michael Shader and his wife Beth Chortkoff-Shader, Milt and Edie's son-in-law and daughter, and Milt's widow Edie Chortkoff, on one side, and the Defendants and Cross-Complainants Pass Avenue Partnership, Vollstedt Alameda Building and Volwood Management Company—the owners and operators of the land and 2 office buildings directly adjacent to Milt and Edie's ("the Vollstedt Defendants") on the other side.
During the trial it became evident that the Vollstedts are dynastic (father and sons) owners of several commercial properties in the Burbank and Glendale area whose ambitions to enlarge their near- or over hundred-million dollar real property empire had begot this mini-epic lawsuit. Although no one on Milt and Edie's side was "eating Top Ramen" to finance the litigation I learned that the Plaintiffs' had incurred nearly M in attorney's fees over the past 3 years in their quest to save their family business as they and their customers knew it.
As a whole, the land and buildings that comprise the entire northeast corner rectangle at the Pass Ave. and Alameda Street intersection in Burbank comprise a "dream" parcel for a developer seeking to build a major hotel and/or a medium- or high-rise residential building. The Vollstedts own and operate 2 of the 3 buildings and the land on which they are situated. The rest of that prized rectangle consists of the land on which Milt and Edie's sits, property owned by Shadkor which includes a thin strip of parking spaces along the dry cleaner's west entrance.
The lawsuit arose when the Vollstedts attempted to nullify a lease agreement that entitles Shadkor to use 10 parking spaces on the Vollstedts' property in a spacious alley directly across from the north entrance of the dry cleaners, spaces that Milt and Edie's had leased from the Vollstedts since the mid-1990s and which convenient parking had been integral to the spectacular growth and success of their dry cleaning business. As a long-time customer who had only ever used the 10 spaces at issue and presumed them to have been located on Milt and Edie's own property, I understood intuitively why the lawsuit had become as contentious, long and drawn-out as it had.
The back-story revealed during the opening statement by Plaintiff's counsel Raymond Hamrick, an articulate veteran local Burbank trial lawyer, was that the Vollstedt and Chortkoff-Shader families and their personnel had gotten along reasonably well until 2015-2016, when first Marriott and then another deep-pocketed company in the hotel business approached the Vollstedts to purchase their 2 office buildings and (most importantly) the land on which they sit. This precipitated a Potter-versus-Baileys feud between the two families. The hotels and their real estate agents offered the Vollstedts a million windfall profit for their properties contingent upon the willingness of the Chortkoff-Shaders (owners of Shadkor) to also sell their land to the developers and relocate (or shut-down) their Milt and Edie's dry cleaning business. The latter negotiations quickly failed and the Vollstedts' retaliated by attempting to renege on their side of the lease agreement that entitled Milt and Edie's to continue to use the 10 parking spaces on the Vollstedts' Pass Ave. alley property.
Witnesses from both sides testified during the lengthy trial that when Milt Chortkoff first heard about this (obviously) retaliatory move by the Vollstedts to deny his dry cleaning business these crucial leased parking spaces, he (in sum) "went ballistic" and gave unshirted hell to one of the Vollstedts' property managers. The dispute momentarily abated when this manager responsible for parking operations sent Milt an email admitting that the lease agreements entitled Shadkor to retain the parking spaces at issue at their election until the 2020s. But the conflict became ugly again and ultimately required Shadkor to sue the Vollstedt Defendants for breach of their lease agreement for the 10 spaces. And Mary H. Strobel, the LA Superior Court first judge who heard the case, entered a preliminary injunction freezing the status quo (in Milt and Edie's favor) pending a trial on the merits, and transferred the case to Judge Fruin.
The Vollstedts however wouldn't take the hint and attempted to use their far greater financial resources to outlast the well-heeled (but, unlike the Vollstedts, not super-rich) Plaintiffs. This arrogant Mr. Potter-like behavior of the super-rich-and-powerful is typical of the might-makes-right norms of what I call our Not-Great society and (alas) is usually (but thankfully not always) reflected in the outcomes in our civil justice system. I first wrote about this phenomenon in a 1997 op-ed here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5ilXuTzT1mlejlQUjVfbGRENWs/view?usp=drivesdk .
All the semi-complex (but morally simple) legal nuances at issue in this case made for an at times dramatic, at time tedious 10 day trial. All tolled, I observed a third of it, receiving a free trial practice refresher course from both Mr. Hamrick, the Plaintiffs' well-spoken, methodical, unflappable lead attorney, and Gregory B. Gershuni, veteran trial counsel for the Defendants. Most importantly to me, given the obvious equities in the case favoring the Plaintiffs, I was pleased to meet and lend moral support and some light legal observations and (I thought well-taken) encouragement to attorney Hamrick and his client family members, all of whom were clearly under considerable stress.
The capacity to maintain grace under pressure is a hallmark of the best professional trial attorneys (as here), a byproduct of focus and grit honed through years of courtroom experience. For "civilian" clients whose fate hinges on the outcome of a single (sometimes rough-and-tumble) trial in which they are witness participants and stakeholders, bearing the strain and uncertainty is a less natural aptitude. And while Edie, Beth and Michael maintained their aplomb on the surface they could not fully hide the emotional crucible they were laboring under during this now dramatically-concluding long-running high stakes ordeal. In one of our lunch-break hallway walks to the elevators Edie explained the indispensability of the 10 parking spaces to her family's business, saying that the spaces provided convenient access to the dry cleaners for some 800 customers per day!
At times slightly reminiscent of George Bailey's momentary despondency in It's a Wonderful Life, brought about by Mr. Potter's diabolical guile, the emotional toll on Michael Shader was increased by a back ailment that plainly caused him pain when he sat for too long and required him to stand in the back of the courtroom for regular spells throughout the 10 day trial. Edie, who told me with pride of her late husband Milt's internationally recognized achievements and innovations in the dry cleaning business world, sat gallantly next to her daughter Beth daily in the courtroom during a trial that Beth quipped felt at times like Groundhog Day.
As happens in these types of cases, the parties divided the relatively small Dept. 15 courtroom's seating down the middle, with the Shader-Chortkoffs on the right side (facing the bench) and the Vollstedt family and employee personnel on the left side.
At times during the testimony, the tension in the courtroom could be cut with a proverbial knife. For example, the parking manager who sent the email to Milt that included what lawyers call an "admission against interest" (that the lease agreements entitled Shadkor to retain the parking spaces at issue at their election until the 2020s) testified (under oath) that the email and its content had not been personally authorized by the Vollstedts despite the representation in the email itself that it had been! The witness testified that he had unilaterally decided to give Milt false assurances on the subject out of concern Milt might otherwise suffer a stroke or heart attack. (Unbelievable!)
And because the trial contained several such dramatic moments (some expected others not) the jurors appeared to me to become steadily more engaged with the trial's issues and comfortable with parsing the rather arcane real estate contractual provisions at issue and the parties' course of conduct relative thereto, that might otherwise have induced a MEGO response (My Eyes Glaze Over). The periodic drama provided an antidote to the impatience- or even resentment jurors might otherwise have felt at having to spend the run-up to the Christmas and New Year's holidays as a captive audience of judicial "deciders". And when it came time for them to deliberate, they were aided by detailed instructions and a carefully wrought Special Verdict form (see Author's Note below) that the attorneys and Judge Fruin labored over until the very day the jury received the case.
Knowing Jasmine would enjoy meeting Edie, whose business Jasmine has patronized since moving to Los Angeles from Ottawa, Canada in the mid-1990s, I arranged for Jaz to drop-by the courthouse on Monday Dec. 16th and watch part of the trial with me. Afterwards in the hallway Jasmine told Milt's family her story of using their dry cleaner's tailoring services during my beloved father-in-law's last visit to Los Angeles prior to his passing in 2017 https://www.facebook.com/100001176456035/posts/1365080870207782/?d=n, the same year the world lost Milt. See https://www.facebook.com/beth.c.shader/posts/10156935900959115 and https://www.dailynews.com/2017/12/29/milton-chortkoff-owner-of-burbanks-iconic-milt-edies-drycleaning-business-dies/# . Edie, Michael and Beth were gracious to Jasmine and Beth generously gave us a Milt and Edie's gift certificate!
On Thursday afternoon I watched as the Chortkoff-Shader family's attorney gave a masterful closing argument, placing the voluminous evidence and applicable law into context as a morality play: One that described how the Vollstedts and their personnel had retaliated against the owners of Milt and Edie's, personable pillars of the community (ala the Baileys). For example, Mr. Hamrick revisited the testimony the jurors had heard that at the end of one meeting between the Chortkoff-Shaders and Vollstedts during which Michael had informed the Vollstedts that selling Shadkor's land and building to Marriot did not make business sense given the unwillingness of Marriot to price-in the value of Milt and Edie's business "goodwill" (an impasse that effectively kiboshed a possible sale of all 3 parcels comprising the Pass Ave. and Alameda northeast corner rectangle to Marriott), one of the Vollstedt sons told Michael Shader in a surely tone, "now you'll see how we do business."
When it was his turn to deliver a closing argument, the Vollstedts' attorney Mr. Gershuni simply could not make explain away the legally and morally transgressive actions his clients had taken in pursuit of a windfall profit.
Not only did applicable California statutes and common law teachings support the Plaintiffs; the Plaintiffs also figuratively (and in my theistic view, literally) had God on their side: The Old Testament extols monotheism and condemns idol worship. And the Jewish prophet Micah implicitly associated the worship of money with idol worship when he declared: "He has shown you O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
And the New Testament goes further, teaching explicitly that the letter and spirit of Micah's injunction is not compatible with avarice and describes "the love of money" as "the root of all evil."
The powerful through-line of the entire trial was the manner in which the prospect of coming into a multi-million dollar "killing" had stoked a civil war between once amicable business associates and acquaintances and near-friends who had previously been simpatico and even held each other in esteem. The Defendants and their counsel expressed their affection and admiration for Milt at multiple turns during the trial.
Without quoting it directly Attorney Hamrick evoked the theme of a compelling passage penned by Karl Marx (who was a better economist and sociologist than political agitator). In an 1844 essay Marx famously decried the manner in which those who possess money in outsize quantities, such as the Vollstedts here, attempt to use it to artificially revise social reality in their favor regardless of whether such favorable outcomes are merited. Here is how Marx put it:
Beginning of Excerpt from "The Power of Money"
"[M]oney is thus the general distorting of individualities which turns them into their opposite and confers contradictory attributes upon their attributes.
"Money, then, appears as this distorting power both against the individual and against the bonds of society, etc., which claim to be entities in themselves. It transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence and intelligence into idiocy.
"Since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and confuses all things, it is the general confounding and confusing of all things — the world upside-down — the confounding and confusing of all natural and human qualities.
"He who can buy bravery is brave, though he be a coward."
End of Excerpt from The Power of Money.
The jury began deliberating late Thursday afternoon (Dec. 19th). On early Friday morning the jury sent a question to the judge about the criteria surrounding their option to award attorney's fees to the prevailing party. Since the Plaintiffs had been the only party to request attorney's fees, this signaled the end was nigh for the Defendants.
Much as I would have liked to, I had other pressing business to attend-to that day but asked the court reporter Kristy Hicks if she would kindly inform me of the results when the jury returned.
Shortly after I left the parking lot, Ms. Hicks texted me "Two buzzes". I asked what she meant, and a few minutes later we exchanged the following texts:
Two buzzes means verdict now. Lol! So plaintiffs got ,750.
And nominal damages
Which means plaintiffs get the Parking spots
That was my big question...Judge Fruin was keen to have the jury decide the contractual issue re the parking spaces so as to ensure the trial would close out the parties dispute. Pleased the jury got it right!
Been so long since my one and only jury trial I forgot the “two buzzes” lingo! Now I wish I had stuck around. Oh well...Edie and her family must’ve been very happy. Of course there is always a post-verdict motion and appeal to worry about, but today’s a day for the Plaintiffs to celebrate. The attorneys fees would’ve been gravy but the bar was too high for the jury’s comfort. The preservation of the parking spaces means the expense of the litigation was worthwhile.
When you visit Milt and Edies you’ll see what I mean. Their own spaces aren’t enough and any other location would’ve been very inconvenient for customers. I understood exactly why Milt got apoplectic when he learned the landlord was coming after the 10 spaces. They really are crucial to the business as their customers have known it for decades.
Did any jurors stick around to speak with the attorneys and parties? Or did they all head for their cars and holiday shopping errands?
Thank you so much for relaying the news Kristy!
So Milt & E get to keep the spaces until 2027. Michael Shader was crying when the verdict was being read. After the verdict he thanked the entire jury and asked them to plz stop in the cleaners when in Burbank to say hi. The jurors stayed for at least a half hour! Probably closer to 45 minutes. Judge invites jurors to visit his chambers after verdict, and this jury took him up on his offer and took group pictures in there! There was laughter and stories going on in chambers. The verdict was pretty much unanimous with only 1 or 2 dissenting jurors. Total success for plaintiffs.
[Author's PS. Here is the Special Verdict form filled-in and signed by the jury foreperson: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Xb3pbJSkywikmW2JgHxt0zlfRtTbyuiW/view?usp=drivesdk .]
Thanks for this perfect word picture of a classic courtroom scene...as close to It’s a Wonderful Life ending as it’s possible to get in today’s America...and during same run-up to Christmas no less!
I told Beth in the cafeteria yesterday that the case reminded me of film’s storyline...both w/r/t to her Dad (who resembled the solid citizen businessman father in the movie up against the greedy villain banker Potter) and her husband (who continued the good fight against the bully plutocrat) and that I sensed it would go the way it did...Beth said she knew but didn’t want to get her hopes too high...
In effect the jurors played the role of the townspeople in the movie...(the townspeople responded with small donations when they heard that George Bailey was in financial trouble...not a perfect analogy but you get the idea)...with the foreperson supplying the jurors’ version of the toast to George from his brother at the end of movie...“To Michael Shader, the richest man in town!”
So this really is a storybook ending to a 3 year ordeal for the plaintiffs. Maybe Milt got his wings today.
Eric C. Jacobson is a writer, civil rights attorney and appearance lawyer in Los Angeles. His articles have been published in Counterpunch.com, LAProgressive.com and LA.Indymedia.org. He also regularly contributes comments to MattersOfPrinciple.com, former Colorado Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart's blog. A recovering aspiring politician and political consultant himself, Jacobson finally won an election at retirement age earlier this year. He now proudly serves as a member of the KPFK Local Station Board in which capacity he is seeking to strengthen the 5-stations/5-cities/1-network Pacifica radio foundation.