When renowned antitrust and human-rights civil litigator Michael Hausfeld left Cohen Milstein Hausfeld & Toll in 2008 (now Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll) to launch his own firm, Hausfeld LLP, James Pizzirusso was one of the lawyers to make the move with him. While his cases often have an environmental flavor, Pizzirusso, like many lawyers at the Washington, D.C.-based firm, has handled a wide-range of cases for consumers in the past few years.
Pizzirusso, for example, represented students in a class action against education program provider Envision, which failed to deliver on exclusive access to 2009 inauguration-related events for students who signed up for that program. He also represents landowners affected by the devastating December 2008 coal fly ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant facility (described as the largest disaster in history involving a coal ash spill), as well as farmers in Barbados damaged by leaks in a fuel pipeline operated by Shell and Texaco.
In the antitrust arena, Pizzirusso is representing egg product purchasers alleging a massive price fixing conspiracy to raise the price of eggs. He also has done pro bono work for survivors of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon, and adds on to his busy schedule by teaching at George Washington University Law School.
Lawdragon: What made you want to practice on the consumer side?
James Pizzirusso : From as far back as I can remember, I have had an interest in social justice, the environment, and scaling back abuses of corporate power. I went to law school with these goals in mind. While I also considered a career in activism or politics, now I get to follow my passion through litigation and the law.
I started my career representing plaintiffs in consumer, mass tort and environmental cases working at Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld, & Toll in Washington, DC. Eventually my practice also began to entail representing plaintiffs in antitrust matters. I have never worked at a corporate or large defense firm (although I have had offers to do so) and have no interest in that kind of a firm environment. In November 2008, a large group of attorneys, including myself, formed Hausfeld LLP. Here, I get to do even more of the type of work that I love and have a unique opportunity practice internationally through our London office and affiliations with firms all over the world.
So many lawyers I talk to these days are burned out and hate what they do. I have been very lucky because I enjoy my job and look forward to it every day. The one problem I have is that because I believe in what I do, it can be hard to let go and not to take it personally when I lose (which thankfully is not all that often). It keeps me up at night at times, but I would take that any day over being miserable. If I had any advice for younger attorneys, it would be to find your passion and practice law in an area you enjoy. You will always find a way make it work.
LD: How will students benefit from the settlement arrived at in the Radosti v. Envision inauguration case?
JP: Unfortunately, given Envision's current economic condition, it did not have the financial wherewithal to provide members of the settlement class with cash refunds if we prevailed at trial. Thus, with the assistance of the Hon. Daniel Weinstein (Ret.) of JAMS mediation services, we put together a creative solution that we believed would allow Envision to continue to offer programs and yet put some real value into the hands of the class members.
Under the settlement agreement, Envision will provide vouchers worth $1,250 to all students who attended the inaugural program (covering approximately one half of the tuition cost). They are fully transferable and good for seven years. Moreover, under this settlement, Envision will remain viable and pursue its core goals of providing unique educational programs.
Envision has admitted its previous shortcomings and has invested a lot of time and energy into determining what went wrong to ensure that it does not happen again and we applaud those efforts.
LD: Can you describe a bit what your clients in the TVA spill are going through? What's the status of that case?
JP: Many of our clients in the TVA litigation have had their entire lives upended by the TVA coal ash spill. TVA has already purchased properties from a number of residents and many have relocated. There are several class actions remaining, however, covering different populations in the area. We represent a putative class of riparian landowners whose properties were devastated by coal ash that was released into surrounding waterways.
TVA filed a motion arguing that it was immune from suit so we are awaiting a ruling on that issue. In the meantime, the court has denied a motion to stay the case pending the outcome of that motion and discovery is proceeding.
LD: How about for the farmers in the Barbados case? What are you seeking in that case?
JP: We represent 25 property owners and farmers in Barbados. They and their families have farmed fruits and vegetables in the Gibbons Boggs region of Barbados for generations. Shell and Texaco ran a pipeline under those lands in order to supply jet fuel to the local airport. For over a decade, unbeknownst to the farmers, that pipeline developed numerous leaks and A1 jet fuel spilled into the surrounding soil.
Shell estimates that over 300,000 gallons of jet fuel were released, which then seeped into the farmers ' irrigation water. Farmers' crops were decimated, wells were shut down, and property values have been negatively impacted. The defendants have settled with some farmers, but our clients remain committed to trying their claims in Barbados or perhaps in another jurisdiction.
Fortunately, as of today, we have not found excessive levels of jet fuel in the local drinking water and it appears that only the irrigation water was adversely impacted. We are not seeking compensation for any personal injuries at this time. Our clients are seeking damages for reduced crop yields and diminution of property values. Further, they are asking, among other things, that the defendants remediate the land, do further agronomic testing, and fund a social impact study.
LD: Can you shed some light on the potential impact of the antitrust case in the egg products matter? How wide is the cartel activity alleged by the suit?
JP: The potential impact from our egg price fixing antitrust lawsuit could be huge - both in terms of damages and impact to the way agriculture takes place in this country. We are one of the court-appointed lead counsel representing a class of direct purchasers in this case such as retailers, restaurants, and food service companies who purchased shell eggs and egg products from the defendants. There is also a pending indirect purchaser lawsuit which would cover consumer purchases of eggs.
We allege that many egg producers agreed to restrict output through various means in order to raise domestic prices of eggs. The defendants primarily accomplished this conspiracy through agreements to reduce flock size, coordinate molting, and to export eggs to foreign countries at a financial loss, but making up for that loss amongst the co-conspirators. They also used "animal husbandry" as a pretext to increase cage space per hen, when in actuality it was part of an overall scheme to reduce chick hatch and further decrease egg supply in order to fix prices.
We settled with one defendant who provided access to numerous internal industry documents. We recently filed a very detailed amended complaint which relies on and quotes liberally from the defendants' own internal documents and newsletters about the purpose and effect of the alleged conspiracy.
Our complaint alleges that the defendants coordinated their efforts through several trade groups including the United Egg Producers - the country's largest such organization whose members account for over 80% of domestic shell egg production. We further allege that the defendants and their co-conspirators coordinated these efforts to reduce output beginning in 1999 and continuing to the present.
Some defendants have suggested that they might be immune from suit under the Capper-Volstead Act which provides a limited antitrust immunity to certain members of agricultural cooperatives. We believe there is no merit to this defense and, depending on how the court rules, numerous other agricultural cooperatives that seek to coordinate supply management could be similarly impacted.
LD: What are the challenges of litigating such a wide range of topics at one time? Are you constantly having to learn about different industries and products?
JP: As you can tell from your initial questions about some of my active cases, I do have quite a diverse practice, but there is also significant overlap in my docket. I would say that two common and overriding themes of much of the work I do are public health and public frauds - whether in the environmental, consumer, or antitrust realms.
It can be demanding, but it is a challenge I actually enjoy. In each of my cases, I have to become a mini-expert on topics ranging from jet fuel impacts on crop yields, to domestic egg production, to coal ash constituents. And while there are certainly differences, I often draw on my experience in one practice group in litigating in other fields. While the facts may be unique in any given case, the corporate malfeasance is all too often repeated. I have seen the same stories of distortion and cover-up while litigating cases involving tobacco that I have seen in other areas such as lead paint and arsenic-treated lumber.
While my career started out more focused and dealt primarily with toxic torts, I have sought out different opportunities to expand my practice and developed skills and expertise in areas that I never envisioned. I believe that these opportunities have helped me to become a stronger lawyer and better serve my clients. I have sought to specialize in being the best overall litigator I can be, rather than develop a niche practice that can only serve a small subset of clients.
LD: Can you share a favorite case from your career, or one that you are particularly proud of?
JP: One of my favorite quotes is from Margaret Meade. She said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." It is hard to pick just one case because in just about every case I have worked on, I feel like I have been a part of a small group helping to change the world. We have represented holocaust survivors in claims against Swiss banks and German industry, Japanese "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery during World War II, and surviving victims of Tulsa, Oklahoma's race riots. Right now, we are litigating claims on behalf of victims of South Africa's brutal apartheid regime....
But if there was one case I am particularly proud of (although it was not really a case), it would be my pro bono representation of several survivors from the September 11th attacks on the Pentagon. I was just beginning my legal career when those attacks occurred and having lived in Arlington throughout law school, I used to drive by the Pentagon nearly every day. When I saw the destruction and read about how so many lives had been devastated, I wanted to do whatever I could to help.
I represented people who had lost limbs and digits, been badly burned, or had lingering breathing problems from smoke inhalation. Some of them were reluctant to seek compensation through the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, but once we walked them through the process, they were all extremely thankful. I was also amazed at how many medical experts provided pro bono assistance by looking through medical records and providing reports free of charge. Those attacks impacted all of us and I feel like I was able to play at least some small part in helping a handful of survivors improve their lives.
LD: What made you want to teach at George Washington law school?
JP: This past semester, I taught Toxic and Environmental Torts at George Washington with one of my law partners, Richard Lewis. It was interesting because I took that class myself just ten years ago - I even found my old notes and books. It was a great experience to be sitting on the other side of the desk trying to impart my (albeit limited) experience and knowledge at my alma mater to today's generation of law students. But I also realized that in my short career, I have worked on most of the issues we touched on in class from experts and causation to damages and class actions. It was nice being able to input my personal experience into the cases we read about in class.
It is extremely rare for plaintiffs' attorneys to serve as adjunct professors in law school. We presented the class in a neutral way, but I hope we were able to break the negative stereotypes that we are all "ambulance chasers" and present an alternative career path to just working at a large defense firm.
I do admit that it was sometimes difficult to balance my case work with the class, but having a co-professor helped a great deal as we alternated taking the lead in each class. It was also a nice break from the daily grind of a typical litigation day.
I previously taught at GW's Vaccine Injury Clinic a couple of years ago when the professor took a sabbatical so I did have some experience from that opportunity, as well.
LD: Can you tell our readers more about that clinic?
JP: The Vaccine Injury Clinic at GW is exceptional in many respects. As far as I am aware, it is the only clinic of its kind in the country where law students can actually represent clients and participate in trials at the Court of Federal Claims under a special admission procedure. And students in the clinic have been very successful at obtaining recovery for claimants so it also the only clinic that I am aware of that actually makes money for the school, as well.
Even most practitioners are probably not aware of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Under this unique program, parents of children who are injured by vaccines can assert a claim against a fund overseen and administered by the Department of Justice. It is supposed to be a non-adversarial process, but unfortunately, oftentimes it is not. If the DOJ disputes a claim, the petitioner can proceed with her case at the Court of Federal Claims and essentially have a bench trial litigated against a DOJ attorney whose job it is to "defend" the fund.
My first trial and a case that cemented my interest in representing plaintiffs was Dela Rosa v. Secretary of HHS, 2001 WL 1056928 (Fed. Cl. Aug. 14, 2001). In that case, I represented a family whose daughter had developed severe encephalopathy after being vaccinated. The DOJ disputed that a vaccine caused her injury and we went to trial on causation and won. The case later settled for approximately $9 million in damages and lifetime care.
When Professor Peter Myers, who had started and overseen the vaccine injury clinic at GW, announced that he was going on sabbatical, I jumped at the opportunity to teach the clinic along with one of the most successful practitioners in the program, Clifford Shoemaker....
One of the unique things about the program is that an attorney is not paid on a contingency basis from his client's recovery. Instead, attorneys are compensated on an hourly basis from the fund whether they win or lose.
If any firms are out there that want to give associates some significant trial experience, plus get some compensation for their time, there are hundreds of families that could use assistance in the program and they are always looking for qualified attorneys to provide representation.