By Emily Jackoway | November 8, 2022 | Lawyer Limelights
“Every year, more than 300,000 farm workers are poisoned by the food you eat. Welcome to Death Valley.”
For more than 35 years, a poster bearing that haunting statistic has hung on Raymond Boucher’s office wall. Boucher was given the poster after one of his first landmark victories as a lawyer – a case he litigated on behalf of the family of a farm worker who was poisoned by herbicides and denied humane treatment. The gift-giver was a former client who looped Boucher into the case: Cesar Chavez. A pretty good start to a career.
Since then, Boucher has won numerous historic cases in a variety of sectors, all with the same aim: giving a voice to those who would otherwise be voiceless. His clients range from farm workers denied basic rights, to employees whose companies have attempted to silence them, to children who have been sexually abused. In every case, it’s the lack of humanity that stuns and motivates Boucher. The question he asks himself continues to be, “How does this happen?”
Boucher is perhaps most well-known for his work taking on the Catholic Church in cases related to its child sexual abuse scandals. In two landmark cases, he alleged that the Church systematically hid sexually abusive priests and knowingly allowed the abuses to continue. Boucher was the lead attorney in a significant sexual abuse settlement culminating with the 2007 settlement with the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, that involved several hundred survivors of childhood sexual abuse and recovered $660M. In a similar litigation, 144 victims in a case against the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, lead to a $220M settlement. Outside of the dollar amount, these cases raised international awareness for the abuses his clients, and many others, suffered at the hands of abusive priests and altered the perception of the Catholic Church.
In another early case, Boucher’s trial results significantly bolstered protections for witnesses. In the early 1990s, he represented Lula Wallace, the mother of 18-year-old Demetria Wallace. Demetria was set to testify in a murder trial when she began receiving death threats. The police had assured her and her family that, despite those threats, she would be safe. She wasn’t. When Demetria was murdered, Wallace’s family rallied to fight for justice, and Boucher steered them there. The trial judge took the case away from the jury the morning of closing arguments. Along with a monetary settlement, the Court of Appeal issued an obligation to provide truthful information for witnesses – a decision now called the Wallace Rule.
All told, Boucher has tried more than 80 cases to verdict and helped recover more than $4B. But size and dollar amount aren’t what’s most important to him. “I don't believe that there's such a thing as a small case or a large case,” he says. “On the plaintiffs’ side, we're trying to help people heal. We're trying to help give people a voice. And we're trying to help create change. I hope that, at the end of my life, I'm able to have accomplished that in some way, shape or form.” In celebration of his tireless advocacy, Boucher was named a Lawdragon Legend this year.
Lawdragon: How did you make your way to this practice area – representing victims of discrimination, malpractice and abuse?
Raymond Boucher: When I was in college, I worked as a criminal investigator for the District Attorney's office. The lesson I learned while there is that, as long as I’m in the profession, I want to work in a way where I can make decisions about the cases that I take on, as opposed to being forced to advocate for things that I don't believe in.
That may seem odd because you're on the prosecutor's side at the DA’s office. But, unfortunately, not all prosecutors exercise that discretion appropriately, and get too caught up in image and numbers rather than in justice and fairness, which is what the law is supposed to be about. So, I think that early experience is the thing that primarily drove me to the plaintiffs’ side.
LD: Did you have any early mentors?
RB: I worked for a lawyer named Neil Krupnick. I was impressed by the way that he tried to always connect with his clients and make them feel good about coming forward. But I also admired the way he helped them come out of it. It’s always hard to determine how you help people who have been injured and impacted come out of the case to find a semblance of closure.
Also, in my early career I did pro bono strike violence work, I worked with Hermez Moreno on behalf of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers. To sit down in a room with Cesar and to talk with him, this amazing human being and thoughtful visionary, was incredible. He was humble, compassionate and thoughtful.
Being involved in that civil rights component early on drove me to feel very good about the work that I do. I was able to feel good about getting up in the morning, looking in the mirror and saying, "I'm comforted by the ability to go into the office and fight for justice.” I have loved every day.
LD: Speaking of Cesar Chavez, tell me about that early case involving the poisoned farm worker, Mr. Chavoya.
RB: It was one of the most difficult complaints I ever wrote. These circumstances were born out of the corporate belief that working men and women are people that don't have value. The idea that they're expendable.
You have this man who's a good husband, a good father of several kids and a good member of his community. He's poor. He works hard on the farms. He's trying to give a better life to his children.
The farm was violating the law by spraying the fields with different pesticides that shouldn't have been used in conjunction with one another. They ordered the men into the fields to start working long before it was safe to do so after spraying. When Mr. Chavoya became sick and disoriented, rather than take him a quarter of a mile down the street to a clinic where he could have been treated for organophosphate poisoning, they threw him into the back of a van, drove a few hours across the border into Tijuana and dumped him at a clinic there, and he died. That's just so inhumane – so vicious, so vile, so cruel, so despicable.
LD: What were the challenging elements of that case from a legal perspective?
RB: At the time, farm labor laws in California were even worse than they are today. We didn't have any cause of action against the farm or the farmer. So, our claims were against the two companies that made the pesticides, Chevron and Shell. Pre-emption was a major issue, and the law was less settled at the time.
The idea we were pushing, which was novel at the time, was that if you have pesticides that are being used in conjunction with one another, testing them independently in a vacuum to see the impact on humans and animals doesn't take into consideration the cumulative and synergistic effect of putting them on top of one another. And they often were used in conjunction. We believed there was an obligation on the industry’s part to analyze the effect of multiple pesticides and termiticides upon human health. They needed to lay out the steps that workers and farmers needed to perform for protection.
Ultimately, we were able to resolve the case in a fashion that has helped the family. No judgement is ever enough to compensate for the loss of a father and a husband, but it certainly was something that assisted them in life.
We don't give enough credit back to our clients for the way that they can impact our humanity. Seeing their tenacity and sacrifice is incredibly powerful and enlightening.
LD: Are there any other early cases that set the framework for your career?
RB: I was involved in several meaningful cases early on. I represented someone who was, to me, a hero: a guy named Robert Wityczak. Bobby was a triple-amputee Vietnam vet. One of the nicest people I ever met. He was working for Rockwell International. There were allegations of mischarging between two different projects at Rockwell, where they took money from a fixed-cost contract and transferred the work and labor on it to a cost-plus contract.
Rockwell obviously denied it. But three employees who came forward about it, including Bobby, all got terminated. Or, in Bobby's case, constructively discharged, because they made life so miserable for him, he had no choice but to leave.
I took 60-some-odd depositions in that case, and they were my first depositions as a lawyer. Finally, I think in the 50th deposition, I got somebody to admit that they were treating him inhumanely, and to admit the truth of Bobby's allegations. So, ultimately, we were able to resolve the case on his behalf.
Now, if you look up Bobby Wityczak, what you'll see is that he was then invited to testify before Congress. He was one of the key individuals to testify in front of Senator Grassley's committee. But, most importantly, it is his testimony that helped develop the whistleblower law that we now have in the United States: The False Claims Act of 1986.
LD: Wow. That’s amazing.
RB: He was an amazing man.
LD: Tell me a bit about the Wallace case, which was monumental both for the result and in your career.
RB: That’s a case I still carry with me to this day. Lula Wallace, Demetria’s mother, is a heroine. It was a privilege to see the dignity, perseverance, and thoughtfulness of a woman that has been wronged by the system in so many ways.
We were able to obtain an important appellate decision that expanded the government's responsibility to protect victims and witnesses of crime. We were able to require that law enforcement, one, be honest and truthful with them, and two, that they provide protection when it's necessary. Demetria Wallace's death wasn't completely in vain because she was able to change the law in a positive way that will help others who find themselves in the same kind of circumstances.
One thing that I don't think we discuss enough is how much our clients give to us as lawyers. We talk about giving them a voice, and it's true. In sex abuse cases, in particular, we assist them in taking the power back. But we don't give enough credit back to our clients for the way that they can impact our humanity. Seeing their tenacity and sacrifice is incredibly powerful and enlightening.
Demetria Wallace's death wasn't completely in vain because she was able to change the law in a positive way that will help others who find themselves in the same kind of circumstances.
LD: Speaking of sexual abuse cases, tell me a bit about your significant involvement in those matters.
RB: I'm getting ready for a trial now involving sex abuse of minors – in this case, a four-year-old boy. I believe statistics say one in five girls and one in 20 boys are abused. Those numbers are way under-reported.
Most of the cases I am involved in, the abuser is someone who's close to the family, but someone who's been entrusted with the child in some environment – whether it's a teacher, a coach, a mentor or a camp counselor or a priest. Of course, you do have circumstances in which this happens in familial relationships, or with close family friends, which is also a huge issue. But these are predators who are brilliant at stalking and picking out their prey. They know the children who are most vulnerable. They know the children who they'll be able to establish trust with so that they can take advantage of that trust and sexually abuse them. It's the grooming process.
Many adults aren’t equipped to deal with the mental and emotional issues that we face in life. More so for a child who hasn't had the opportunity to go through life experiences, so they can't comprehend what’s happening to them. The shame that they carry, the silence that they hold – it's years before we hear the sound of that silence and we see the impact on these young boys and girls.
We can never give back a childhood. That's the unfortunate thing about the law. But taking back the power is really about helping a survivor emerge out of silence. Hopefully, through taking back that power, they can do several things. One is to inspire others who've been sexually abused to find the courage to come forward. A second is to stand up for themselves and say, unequivocally, "What you did to me was wrong, and I'm going to stand up for myself because I now have the ability to do so." And then, through that process, they can hold the organizations and entities that allowed the abuse to take place accountable. There’s power in that.
So, when it comes to representing survivors of sexual abuse, the only thing we can do is provide opportunities for them to seek some modicum of justice. In this case, it’s clearly an imperfect justice. But through that power, if they can stand up for themselves and realize that they didn't do anything wrong, they can stop punishing themselves. Hopefully, they can find a way to release that misplaced guilt.
LD: You’re obviously very well-known for your work with cases involving the Catholic Church. Are there any other impactful cases in that space that you don't get the chance to talk about enough?
RB: Some of the early foster home cases that I did were very impactful. These foster children are at the mercy of society. They're at the mercy of a department that is perhaps well-meaning, but not well-run and not well-funded. It becomes numb and callous to these children.
I also consulted on a couple of cases involving the prison system. You know, you think you can at least grasp some of the suffering inflicted on people in this country historically. But when you see things like the rampant physical and sexual abuse in the prison systems, and how the system allows it to happen, you realize your mind is not capable of imagining the ways in which we can be cruel.
So, the hope is that in doing these cases, and hopefully bringing in verdicts and settlements that are substantial enough, that institutions begin to realize that they should be at the forefront of the decisions that they make, the policies that they carry out and the protections that they must ensure.
The shame that they carry, the silence that they hold – it's years before we hear the sound of that silence and we see the impact on these young boys and girls.
LD: Tell me about the team at your firm. What do you enjoy about working with them?
RB: One of the things I love about being a lawyer is working with people that I share an office with. It’s a joy to see the development and growth of lawyers. We have a lawyer, Alex Gamez, who has been with me since he passed the bar, and he tried his first case this week. The case involved the sexual abuse of a couple of young boys by their uncle. He got a $24M-plus verdict in his first trial.
LD: That's incredible.
RB: It’s inspiring to see the joy that he feels in having not only accomplished that for himself, but the meaning that it had for his clients.
LD: What do you look for when you're bringing people onto your team?
RB: I primarily look for people who are compassionate, thoughtful and think outside the box. People who are not afraid to fail. People who add value to what we're doing.
LD: Tell me about recent cases – I know you just had a major victory in the Porter Ranch case.
RB: The Porter Ranch case, again, is a case that's incredibly meaningful and gratifying, in part because of its magnitude. There are 36,211 people who are part of the case and another probably 20,000-plus that never sought to come forward. We uncovered reckless conduct by Southern California Gas in failing to maintain a well field that had enormous risks and consequences of a blowout – which is what happened. We’re still unsure of the long-term effects of the blowout on the environment, and more importantly, on the people that lived within that community.
Managing and litigating a case involving 36,211 people was difficult. We obviously had an amazing team of lawyers, including Brian Panish and his firm, Robin Greenwald and the Weitz & Luxenberg firm, Paul Kiesel of Kiesel Law, Robert Nelson of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein and attorneys from Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy. I was blessed to be a part of the leadership team. Now, most of my time is taken up doing the work necessary to get this settlement over the finish line.
LD: Where does the settlement stand now?
RB: I think we're probably a month away from it being finally funded, so there's light at the end of the tunnel.
Aside from that case, I'm blessed in my career to work on a lot of different matters. I'm not just in one field. So, right now I'm also working on a nursing home case involving a woman who had schizophrenia and was recognized as an elopement risk (meaning that she was at risk of wandering from the facility). Yet, she was allowed to walk out of the facility at 4:30 in the morning. A facility that had lost others to elopement, one of whom was recently severely injured as a result. So, she walked out on Christmas morning in freezing rain and is found, Christmas Day, face-down on the pavement, frozen to death. How does that happen? How do you force change? The jury system is the most effective system at making society safer.
So, we're looking forward to trying that case. And I’m looking forward to another 35 years of trying cases like that one. I love being a lawyer.