From law school classmates to partners in a powerhouse plaintiffs’ firm, Miguel Custodio, Jr., and Vineet Dubey have dedicated their careers to fighting for regular people who find themselves in terrible circumstances through no fault of their own.
Educated at UCLA Law, a top tier law school, the two friends each did the customary interview rounds with major law firms while they were students, but something didn’t feel right about it.
“They're all defense law firms that represent the largest corporations in the world,” says Dubey. “Miguel and I both have an opposite worldview. We want to help the little guy take on those corporations.”
Custodio started out working in family law, first at a major firm on the west side of Los Angeles and then under his own marquee. Dubey hung his own shingle soon after, doing plaintiff civil law. They kept in regular touch during this time, batting around ideas and comparing experiences as young lawyers pursuing the dream of increasing access to justice.
Custodio grew up in the Los Angeles area with a large network of family and friends. Once he became a lawyer – the first in his family to do so – he was regularly asked if he did civil law, primarily on the plaintiff’s side. He started mentioning this to Dubey.
“I said hey, if you can get some good civil cases, let’s work together on them, split fees and see how it goes,” recalls Dubey. After testing the waters this way for a couple years, the two men realized that they worked well together, were seeing success, and were starting to grow some recognition.
“It just made all the sense in the world for us to formally partner up,” says Dubey.
Their first case as an official partnership was a real estate dispute between a mother and daughter. The family element meant that it was an inherently emotional battle for both parties. What’s more, their client (the mother) could not afford an attorney. They took the case on contingency.
They were working out of a single office in Pasadena with just two desks, two minds and pure conviction. The litigation lasted a year and a half, and they were able to secure complete title to the property for their client.
“It can be daunting, going out on your own, taking a lot of cases on contingency,” says Custodio. “It helped so much to have a partner who shared my optimism and faith that it would work out. We both felt that if we worked hard, stayed committed and did the right things, we would be successful.”
The faith proved well-founded.
Ten years since they officially minted the partnership, they’ve seen a steady influx of cases, as they secure win after win for injured individuals who might not otherwise have been able to see justice.
“We represent the little guy,” says Custodio. Working in conjunction with leading personal injury firms in California – Nick Rowley and Courtney Rowley at Trial Lawyers For Justice, Carpenter & Zuckerman, and The Simon Law Group – they recently secured a $35M dollar settlement on behalf of a client who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. They have achieved justice for countless people who have been injured, severely or not, by the negligence of others.
“Too often, there are policies and procedures in place, but they’re just not followed, and people end up getting hurt,” says Custodio. “That’s where we come in.”
Getting in the Trenches
Custodio & Dubey frequently go to bat up against large, well-resourced insurance companies and have landed some serious hits on major corporations, including Spark Networks and Starbucks.
Spark Networks owns a suite of dating apps, including EliteSingles, Jdate, and Christian Mingle. In 2013, two gay men went to sign up for Christian Mingle, only to discover there was no option to search for a same-sex match.
Custodio & Dubey brought a class action suit against Sparks under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which protects against discrimination by any commercial enterprises in the state.
“The website was excluding lesbian and gay people from accessing it, which is clear discrimination by a for-profit corporation,” says Dubey. “We were able to force them to change their practices to be more inclusive.”
The website was excluding lesbian and gay people from accessing it, which is clear discrimination by a for-profit corporation.
In another civil rights case with an extensive impact, the firm brought a case against Starbucks under the Americans with Disabilities Act over the height of their service counters, which were too high for people in wheelchairs to access.
The firm technically lost the case – but only because Starbucks mooted the lawsuit by quickly lowering all their service counters across the country, while “engaging in delaying tactics in order to stall the litigation,” says Dubey. “At one point, in response to a document request, Starbucks opened up a warehouse in Kent, Wash., filled with thousands of boxes of documents, and basically said good luck.” Custodio and Dubey spent weeks in Kent and hired temporary workers to help them go through and scan the documents, in order to find what was necessary for their construction experts to examine.
“We consider it a win,” says Custodio, “because now disabled people can safely and independently get their own drink at Starbucks.”
“We also learned a lot in that case,” adds Dubey. “It helped us become better lawyers.”
These days, Dubey’s practice is primarily focused on environmental law, specifically on bringing actions against companies that are selling products with toxic chemicals in violation of California law, often manufactured overseas. He finds himself doing a lot of work against food companies over lead in their products, the result of contaminated groundwater and a lack of sufficient testing.
He’s also handling cases against sellers of children’s products that have been found to have lead in them, as well as a number of cases involving phthalates, a widely used chemical in rubbers and plastics that causes cancer and other serious health issues.
“It’s dangerous stuff,” says Dubey. “We’re doing what we can to spread the word and clean up these products. Ultimately, the federal government needs to take a more active role because this is happening on a widespread scale.”
Custodio’s practice is centered more around catastrophic personal injury, frequently involving car crashes. His caseload runs the gamut from more straight-forward, single plaintiff cases to multi-faceted suits involving several defense law firms and commercial insurance policies with layers of coverage.
But one case that stands out in his memory involved an autistic child injured at school – and the widespread cover up that followed.
“He was 13 years old, nonverbal,” says Custodio. “One day he came home from school and couldn’t stop crying. The parents asked the aide, who is meant to be by his side, one-on-one, throughout the entire school day – what happened? The aide said they didn’t know, which is right away implausible.”
Since the child couldn’t verbally communicate, it took time to figure out what was wrong. “He was non-stop crying for days,” says Custodio, as his parents took him to various doctors. Someone finally x-rayed his wrist and discovered it was broken – two weeks later.
Custodio took on the case and went into detective-mode, poring through documents and research. He discovered deep negligence that included a cover-up of the boy’s injury by the teacher and the director of the school. When he shared his extensive findings with his client, the student’s mom, she burst into tears.
“She felt that finally somebody was able to really understand their plight,” says Custodio.
He sent a 14-page demand letter to the insurance company and settled the case shortly thereafter.
“Those are the clients that we want to get justice for,” says Dubey. “It's important. They are generally the kind of people who get left out, and we want to change that.”
Growing to Meet the Demand
The success of the partnership has brought them a long way from that one-office operation in Pasadena. Operating now out of the 25th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles, the team has six offices and a large bullpen of staff, from paralegals to digital marketing specialists.
Managing a firm that’s growing quickly to keep up with demand is a blessing, but not without its challenges. “They don’t teach you how to run a business in law school,” says Custodio. They’ve both been taking corporate coaching to hone their management skillsets.
“Along with actually practicing law, through growing a business, managing employees, building systems, hiring vendors, marketing, advertising,” says Dubey, “we’ve gotten real-life MBAs.”
They’re careful to build at a steady pace, making sure they’re ready for the influx of work that’s been coming in, but not over-extending themselves to the point where they would have to suddenly reduce their workforce.
“When you’re running a business,” says Custodio, “you need to remember that in your hands are the livelihoods of everybody in your office.”
Dubey and Custodio are both first-generation Americans, with parents who immigrated from India and Guatemala, respectively. That background has given them a compassionate approach to their legal work.
They also work promote a collegial and friendly office culture, a place that can feel like a second home.
“Neither of us wanted to work in these big buttoned-up, corporate environments,” says Custodio. “We’re serious about our work, but we also want to have a good time at the office.” To that end, they have regular outings with staff and “over the top” holiday and birthday celebrations.
“We also pride ourselves in how well we treat our clients and how much care we give to each of their cases,” adds Dubey. “As the work increases, we need to have the staff and systems in place so that every client gets that same level of high-quality care and attention.”
Dubey and Custodio are both first-generation Americans, with parents who immigrated from India and Guatemala, respectively. That background has given them a compassionate approach to their legal work. This insight is especially helpful in L.A., with its high number of inhabitants who speak only Spanish or otherwise don’t have English as a first language, and might not fully understand their rights under the law.
“My mom doesn't speak much English,” says Custodio. “If she went to an attorney, she would put 100 percent faith in them. So I want to make sure that every client that comes in through our door, we take care of them as we would our own family members.
“We go the extra mile. We make sure they're well informed about everything. We reassure them along the way and make sure that we explain every step.”
In addition to their client work, the partners are currently developing a scholarship program for underrepresented kids in high school and at their alma mater, UCLA.
It’s just another way they’re working to give back, as they know what a difference these programs can make: In undergrad, Custodio joined the UCLA law fellows outreach program. The program is for students from diverse backgrounds who haven't necessarily been exposed to graduate studies and helps them navigate the experience to ensure success.
“It’s an extension of our work with clients, part of the same ethos,” says Dubey. “We want to help provide justice and opportunities for individuals that might otherwise be overlooked. That’s what it’s all about.”