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Lawyer Limelight: Stephen Garcia

Photo by Amy Cantrell.

Stephen Garcia has spent his life fighting for the rights of elders, winning over $1 billion for his clients over the span of his decades-long career. His work has laid crucial groundwork for protecting the rights and the quality of care for the elderly and infirm in this country.

Garcia started out as a criminal lawyer, but found his true calling when a desperate family approached him for assistance in a challenging case and he was able to knock it out of the park for them. His first firm, The Law Office of Stephen M. Garcia, was acquired by a major player in the elder abuse space, Wilkes & McHugh, in 2001.

He founded the full service litigation firm Garcia & Artigliere in 2003, which focuses on issues of elder abuse and neglect of elder and infirm adults. Garcia continues to handle multiple cases while setting up his firm to thrive as he makes moves to step down in the coming years.

Lawdragon: How did you first become interested in developing a practice focused on elder abuse and neglect?

Stephen Garcia: Mostly by accident 30 years ago. I am a Mexican American and three decades ago a wonderful Spanish speaking family, Zoila and Jesus Noy, changed the course of my career. They were looking for a lawyer with an office at the beach who spoke Spanish. I took the case and the defense pulled out all the stops forcing us to trial. And we achieved a very significant verdict in favor of the clients. Little did I know at the time that the case was one of the first matters tried pursuant to a new legislative scheme called the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act. The personal and professional reward for me helping a truly magical family achieve justice when so many others had turned down their case was so fulfilling that I knew I had found my life’s calling.

LD: So you really have a passion for what you do!

SG: Yes. I help those who feel no strength nor ability to achieve justice against multi-national, multi-billion dollar, corporate behemoths who pillage in their lust for unlawful profit comfortable in their belief that their money and power insulate them from responsibility for their misconduct, receive justice. That’s a game changer and a reason for living!

LD: Aside from that first case, is there another from your career that stands out as particularly memorable or interesting?

SG: We represented the interests of an incredible young mother who was incapacitated for life as the result of the abject failure of an acute care hospital to provide her the most obvious care. As it was an acute care hospital they asserted that they were insulated to $250,000 in non-economic damages per California’s limits on medical malpractice cases. We took the approach that in housing her the hospital was a care custodian of our client and hence the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act applied, with no arbitrary caps. The matter was litigated all the way to the California Supreme Court and we ended up securing a $36.8 million dollar award for our client. That has changed the viewpoint of reckless neglect in acute care hospitals and improved the delivery of care as a whole.

LD: That’s an incredible result for your client. And with lasting effects on the industry too?

SG: Exactly. Acute care hospitals can no longer hide behind an arbitrary cap of damages when they commit reckless neglect of elder and/or dependent adults and that is a game changer.

LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in your practice in terms of the types of matters keeping you busy these days?

SG: We are seeing the same bad actors over and over again. One particular provider in California has over 90 long term care facilities, is well known by the State of California to be over $90,000 in arrears on quality taxes, and operates under other licenses when the State of California has rejected his applications time and time again. What we see is that smaller firms can be run out of the case by this self professed billionaire’s willingness to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to avoid providing the better care his residents deserve were he to spend half that on their care. The trend now is to a nuclear war to bring these modern day baron robbers to task, lasting many years. One really has to have the staying power to overcome these unsavory characters, but that is the way it seems to be moving.

LD: What else is on your case load these days?

SG: We are in year five of litigation attempting to force nursing homes to staff their facilities with sufficient staff to meet the needs of their residents. We recently had a settlement forcing an increase in staffing at the facilities to occur now and into the future. That was a huge win for the elder and infirm residents of these facilities.

LD: What were the key challenges you faced in scoring this win?

SG: Size, time and money. These cases are overwhelmingly expensive. One must have the resources to withstand their well funded legal attacks to bring justice to bear.

LD: Can you walk us through the impact on the industry from this matter?

SG: That’s simple, the robber barons are finally learning that due to diligent and effective legal advocacy from many, they are going to face justice and they will pay. It is far better and simpler and more honorable for them to put the money into a more appropriate level of care to their residents than to pay lawyers. And hence, the civil justice system is invaluable in bringing about important change.

LD: What led you to pursue a career in law in the first place?

SG: Having a father and three uncles who were lawyers will traumatize anyone and it did me.

LD: Did you have any jobs between undergrad and law school that affected your legal career in some way?

SG: I tended bar and waited tables. That taught me how to connect and understand normal people in the normal exercise of life which is an invaluable tool with jurors.

LD: Is there a specific reason why you chose Loyola University another law school?

SG: Jesuits!

LD: Is this the type of practice you imagined yourself practicing while in law school?

SG: Never, wanted to be a criminal lawyer. I guess in some ways I still am.

LD: Did you practice as a criminal lawyer originally?

SG: Over the first seven or so years of my career I was solely a criminal lawyer. I am in a far different sea at this point.

LD: Was there a course or professor from law school that was particularly memorable?

SG: Professor Alan Ides and Constitutional Law. Fascinating. My son just took it and I loved even now talking about the issues with him.

LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?

SG: Know why you are going to law school. You are about to incur over $100,000 in debt. Be true to yourself and have a compelling reason for doing so. Know what you want to do ASAP, then clerk, clerk and clerk to learn the practice you wish to enter.

LD: Do you have any mentors?

SG: Judge Victor Chavez of the Los Angeles Superior Court. He was, and remains, my idol. Near 90 and still sits on the Bench bringing down his own brand of stern, yet fair, justice. He has done that for me all of my almost 60 years as a father figure to me helping me with personal problems, challenges, and life as a rule. I am a lucky guy to have him.

LD: Can you share a lawyer you have come up against in a negotiation or case who you admire?

SG: I admire a few defense lawyers, because they are honest. A few names come quickly to mind, Mike Trotter, John Supple, Bill Wilson, Rima Badawiya, Brian Reid, there are certainly others but these ones put integrity to the forefront for sure.

LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer?

SG: Aggressive, very aggressive, and honest. I will not pursue a case for a shakedown or if I do not fully believe in its merit. That causes us to walk away from a significant amount of money but it is the right thing to do.

LD: What are some of the challenges you face in your leadership role at Garcia & Artigliere?

SG: I never worked for a firm so I have no idea how to do it. As we’ve grown to a large firm that has become a constant and evolving challenge.

LD: Can you share some strategic plans for your firm in the coming months or years?

SG: We are grooming some to replace me and for us to become a firm less centered upon my involvement and more on cultural sustainability.

LD: How do you describe your firm to potential recruits?

SG: We sell our culture. We should probably have double the staff we have but then we would not be the family we are. By being small we are also able to pay unmatched salaries and help our staff as a family helps one another in life’s endeavors.

LD: Has your style of management changed since the start of your career?

SG: Yes, I was a temperamental ass at the beginning. I am more of a grandpa now.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

SG: I follow my kids around in their endeavors and snow ski, I snow ski a lot.

LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities?

SG: I have sat on a number of boards and even founded a charity which now thrives. Once one has all they require, it is an obligation of a fair and just society to give back, in my judgment.

LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?

SG: I would be a snow ski instructor working for the race department at a mountain somewhere far into the back country!

LD: Is there a larger takeaway you can share from the work you’ve done over the years?

SG: Honor our elders as they are the bedrock upon which all of us came.