Lawyer Limelight: Sam Maduegbuna

When Nigerian-born trial lawyer Sam Maduegbuna first came to the United States in the early 1990s, he didn’t expect to stay. But when he realized how significantly he could help fellow immigrants and other underprivileged groups in the U.S., he knew he was needed here. Nearly 30 years later, he has successfully run his own firm and tried cases against seemingly indomitable entities, frequently garnering large recoveries for his clients.

Since 2002, his New York-based Maduegbuna Cooper has followed through on Maduegbuna’s original aim of fighting for the underdog. In addition to their niche specific commercial practice, the firm specializes in civil rights and employment litigation and always handles an array of pro bono matters. Though he did not return to Nigeria for work, Maduegbuna continues to practice on the international stage by handling domestic and international commercial transactions and in U.S.-Africa business deals mostly relating to Nigeria.

Lawdragon: How would you describe the type of work you do in your practice?

Sam Maduegbuna: I represent individuals against powerful interests. I fight on behalf of individuals and groups who have been victims of civil rights violations or denied other rights in the workplace.

I  take on all aspects of labor and employment law, especially employment discrimination, retaliation and whistleblower cases on behalf of public servants and private employees.  I have developed a particular interest in litigation against governmental employers on behalf of the citizens and groups they employ.

I also handle civil rights litigation arising from police and even private misconduct. Those matters run the gamut and include death cases, police pursuit, excessive force, assault, battery, false arrest and detention, violation of prisoner and inmates’ rights through unlawful seizure and assault, and denial of rights or medical neglect.  A fair amount of these cases involve death or serious injuries that implicate medical malpractice and therefore require an understanding of complex medical issues.

LD: How did you first become interested in those practice areas?

SM: My initial legal training was based on the English system of legal education, which prepared me to take on any sort of legal matter – even criminal matters. My real interest, though, has always been public and private international law.

In fact, my original ambition was to be a diplomat with an international organization such as the United Nations or any of its agencies and affiliates, or to work as a private international commercial lawyer representing multinationals and entities engaged in international transactions. 

LD: What shifted those plans?

SM: My plans changed after I came to North America for graduate studies. In 1992, after a Masters degree in International Trade Law, I emigrated to the U.S., took the bar a year later and decided to practice in New York for a little bit before returning to Nigeria.

I quickly realized that because I was born in Nigeria a lot of fellow African and Nigerian immigrants were coming to me seeking legal help for issues relating to their employment. Some were teachers and public servants. Others were working as cab drivers or street vendors facing violation of their civil rights by incessant arrests and police brutality. This was in the early to mid-1990s New York City, when Rudy Giuliani was mayor and the police believed they could act with impunity.

I felt an immediate need to help on a limited basis and frequently free of charge while still handling commercial matters. Later, I took on such matters on a more substantial basis as I saw the difference my assistance was making to the lives of these individuals and families.

LD: It must have been fulfilling to realize you could make a true difference in these people’s lives. What do you find most rewarding about your practice?

SM: I find civil rights and employment law work extremely fulfilling. It is personal and solves the needs of the individual at an immediate and direct level. It has become a passion – a cause, not a job. It is something I look forward to doing every single day.

I feel duty bound to fight on behalf of the weak and less fortunate against powerful interests, and quite fortunate that I am in a position to do so. I look forward to every new challenge and the satisfaction of the changes it brings to the lives and struggles of individuals, virtually all of whom end up becoming lifelong friends . 

LD: Are there any cases that stand out to you in particular?

SM: There are several, but I would say that without a doubt the most unique and riveting is what, in my view, remains the unlawful termination of Richard Drake by Delta Airlines. Drake was a wonderful flight attendant and union leader and, more importantly, a great human being. He was falsely accused of adulterating his urine sample during a federally mandated drug testing.

Drake claimed that his drug tests were not the product of random selection – that he was specifically targeted for three drug tests in three consecutive quarters as a means of eliminating him - a well-known union leader and organizer at Pan Am, which had been acquired by Delta. He alleged that the tests caused him to experience emotional distress, damage to his reputation, personal humiliation, mental anguish and suffering and deprivation of liberty.

After five days of trial, the jury was presented with a special interrogatory for each of the three drug tests. It found that Drake’s April 1993 drug test was a product of random selection, but that the subsequent two tests were not. It awarded Drake $2.5M in damages over the various tests. 

LD: How did you get involved in that case?

SM: I was appointed to represent Richard Drake by the Eastern District of New York. I took on the case pro bono, working with a fellow Nigerian-trained lawyer K.C. Okoli – a brilliant advocate, one of the hardest working lawyers I know. Together, we fought for several years on Drake’s behalf.  Our efforts led the judge to note specifically that we had gone above and beyond the obligations of our initial appointment.

LD: Do you have any other favorite cases?

SM: There are far too many. All matters seem to be favorites as they all involve a fight to protect individuals against powerful interests.

One that is particularly memorable and fairly recent is the Glaves-Morgan v. City of New York employment discrimination and retaliation case. This was a case against the city of New York, and particularly Robert Doar, a commissioner for the city’s Human Resources Administration Agency. He was appointed under high praise by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and his father had served as an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department during the Kennedy administration. After months of hotly contested discovery, including depositions of difficult high-level officials, most of whom were experienced lawyers, we roundly defeated the city’s motion for summary judgment. The offer to settle was an insulting low five figures. 

As a result, we tried the case to a jury verdict before the late United States District Judge Harold Baer. This ended up being the first case where a sitting New York City commissioner was found by a jury to have acted discriminatorily. The jury found on all claims for Ms. Glaves-Morgan, a Black female and a graduate of Yale and Brooklyn Law School, who was Executive Deputy Commissioner and the Agency’s Chief Contracting Officer. The jury was about to determine the amount of punitive damages Commissioner Doar and his First Executive Deputy should personally pay when the City of New York agreed to pay all that Ms. Glaves-Morgan wanted and all of our attorneys’ fees and costs.

This result was widely published - made all major New York papers and legal publications, including The New York Times and The New York Law Journal.

LD: Are there any recent cases you’re particularly proud of?

SM: There are several worthy of mention, but because the ones I want to discuss involve some level of confidentiality, I’ll speak in general terms.

My team and I have recently worked on a wide array of cases. Some involved minority employees who accidentally found out that they are being paid less than fellow non-minority employees doing the same; others were employees subjected to adverse employment action for complaining or whistleblowing in the workplace for such issues as not being provided the right equipment during Covid-19. Some of our recent cases have involved appeals on issues of importance, one disability discrimination case (Natofsky v. City of New York, a 2020 Top 100 Labor and Employment Settlement, required a petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court –

LD: Did you face any major challenges in those cases?

SM: Unearthing the evidence in discovery to overcome a summary judgment motion is always a challenge. You have to really get into the weeds. My team and I work hard on that aspect of any case.

These cases gave the clients vindication that their perception of discriminatory or retaliatory  treatment was correct. For employers and management, our cases sent a clear message that they must always abide by laws and rules prohibiting discrimination and retaliation. Those laws protect us all in society.

LD: What else stands out to you about those cases?

SM: I’d say that these matters were memorable because they show that bias is alive and well in today’s workplace and that litigation when properly handled does shine light on the truth.

LD: How did you first become interested in the law?

SM: The capacity to effect change that a career in law and politics provides has always fascinated me.

I had an uncle who was an English-trained lawyer. He ended up being a judge (magistrate) in the British colonial government-run Island of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, modern day Tanzania. At a very young age, I was so amazed at this man’s position and range of knowledge of world affairs that I very much wanted to be in such a position when I grew up.

This image of an international jurist and my aptitude for the humanities caused me to study a little bit of political science before switching to law.

LD: Did you have any mentors early on?

SM: Very early in my career, before I was even admitted to practice law in Nigeria, I had two mentors who pushed me into conflict as to which direction in law practice to follow – international commercial law or civil litigation. I will mention one in particular, Bankole Aluko, of blessed memory – who died too soon.

Bankole (Kole, as he was fondly called) was a brilliant civil litigator, not a criminal defense lawyer, who was ultimately conferred the highest honor a courtroom lawyer would obtain in Nigeria, by taking silk as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (“SAN”), the equivalent of what the English call Queen's Counsel (“QC”).

Despite representing multinational corporations in high-stakes litigation, this wonderful human being, for years, and unknown to most, spent much of his time taking on pro bono death penalty cases. One such case I worked with him was on behalf of a death row inmate. He took the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Nigeria, while at the same time serving commercial interests. This was a rare combination for a unique lawyer and a selfless individual.

Kole taught me so much about dedication and preparation; about how to argue and how to be a good human being, and not just a lawyer.

LD: Has your practice changed since the beginning of your career?

SM: Yes, it has changed considerably in many ways. Electronic discovery, for one, was not widely used in the past.

It is also now increasingly difficult to have employment discrimination cases where the evidence of bias is direct. Employers and supervisors are more careful in how they treat employees and how they cover the biases they hold. The bias still exists, but it is better hidden.

Through diligent efforts in discovery, the bias can ultimately be uncovered – once in a while, you find the evidence in an email with explicit language or even a memo that directly confirms what the client believes and experienced.

LD: Can you tell me about a lawyer you’ve come up against in a case who you admire, and why?

SM: There are several, but one that comes readily to mind for the simplicity that he brings to litigation is Charles “Chuck” E. Kutner – a doyen of the New York medical malpractice bar. I had the pleasure of being on opposite sides with him in a number of medical malpractice cases. I was mesmerized by his professionalism and knowledge of the law. He could reduce the argument or the issue to one simple argument that was difficult to overturn. I have a lot of admiration for Chuck, and we have remained friends, despite how aggressively we fought each other in litigation. 

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

SM: My style is to keep cases as simple as possible, but getting there involves a lot of hard work and sleepless nights.  

I come to the practice of law with an intense desire to change and confront wrongdoing, but with tremendous feeling and capacity for empathy. I believe that the key to our clients’ stories is not in the head, but in the heart. I start with the client; we are joined as one in the challenge or adversity he or she is facing. 

LD: You mentioned you do a fair amount of pro bono work. Tell me about that.

SM: I have been a member of the pro bono panel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York for as long as I’ve been admitted to that court.

Since the mid-1990s, I have worked on a diverse array of pro bono matters, ranging from landmark workplace drug testing litigation, such as in the Drake case, to vindication of employee disability rights in both public and private sector employment.

LD: What do you do for fun outside the office?

SM: I love to travel and visit museums, attend art exhibitions. The most fun I have is in collecting and appreciating art – particularly contemporary African art.  I find joy in identifying and patronizing African artists, some of whom end up becoming international stars. Interior decorating using art is something that is also a source of much fun for me.

LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the justice system?

SM: My favorite of such movies would be “Anatomy of a Murder,” which is the 1959 Otto Preminger classic courtroom drama with a soundtrack and cameo by Duke Ellington. The main character, played by Academy Award winner James Stewart, teaches what it means to be the underdog in a courtroom when you’re always outmatched by the size and number of your adversaries, but never by their skills or knowledge. I repeatedly go back to scenes in this movie for lessons in witness preparation, ethics and, most importantly, presenting yourself as an ordinary person in the courtroom.

As for books, there are just too many – no one in particular is a favorite, but biographies of renowned trial lawyers and judges are always a pleasure.

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

SM: If I wasn’t a trial lawyer, I would probably be in academia for the social sciences with a side gig in something involving art, like a curator, gallerist or interior designer.