Dave Ring, Neil Gehlawat and John Taylor
On the surface, the deaths of Diego Stolz and Kurt Reinhold don’t seem to have much in common. Diego Stolz was a 13-year-old boy who died from injuries inflicted by bullies on the schoolyard. Kurt Reinhold was a 42-year-old Black man shot by deputy sheriffs.
But both were sudden. On a Monday morning in September 2019, eighth-grader Stolz left his home with his parents and five siblings to go to school. A year later, Reinhold was leaving a convenience store carrying a can of iced tea. Both would be fatally injured within hours.
Both incidences were violent. The bullies punched Stolz in the face and the back of the neck, sending him headfirst into a nearby concrete pillar. He was on life support for nine days before passing away. Reinhold, meanwhile, was involved in a heated confrontation with deputies and was pinned down and shot twice, killed instantly.
Crucially, the attorneys at Taylor & Ring argue both deaths were entirely preventable – the result of systemic negligence.
It is not comfortable to sit with those images of violence. But that is what the attorneys at the Los Angeles-based plaintiffs’ firm do every day: face the stories that are too painful. Unable to change the tragedy, they try to provide a more just ending to the story. Something else that makes the two cases similar: The attorneys did just that.
This past June, Reinhold’s case came to a $7.5M close. Taylor & Ring says the settlement is the largest ever paid by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. The case, led by John Taylor and Neil Gehlawat, was brought on behalf of Reinhold’s mother, Judy Reinhold-Tucker; his wife, Latoya; their 8-year-old son and their 7-year-old daughter.
Then, in September of 2023, Gehlawat and partner Dave Ring achieved a precedent-setting $27M settlement for Stolz’s family. According to the firm, this is the largest settlement ever paid to a single plaintiff in a bullying case. What’s more, the litigation led to crucial legislation that opened access to more cases like Stolz’s in the future.
These significant results are representative of the firm’s frequent achievements. Founded by Taylor and Ring in 2002, the renowned plaintiffs’ firm has litigated a range of personal injury and wrongful death matters, with well-known sexual abuse and police misconduct practices. The firm’s attorneys have experience suing school districts like Stolz’s; many of the firm’s sexual assault matters concern abuse in schools. Last year, the firm secured a $102.5M jury verdict in a sexual assault case on behalf of a teenage girl who was repeatedly assaulted by her band instructor. Police misconduct cases have also been a part of the firm’s focus from the beginning; the attorneys have garnered millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements in police shooting cases alone.
For the attorneys, every story is uniquely impactful. “Trying to give voice to something that’s wrong is extremely important,” Taylor says.
These are two of those stories.
“THE ADULTS IN THE ROOM”
Diego Stolz’s parents died when he was a toddler. Ever since, he had been raised by his aunt and uncle, Juana and Felipe Salcedo, as their own. Stolz, his two biological brothers and his three cousins grew up as a happy family of eight – Stolz the beloved baby of the bunch.
Stolz had been a target of bullying since his seventh-grade year at Landmark Middle School, part of the Moreno Valley School District. “The family saw Diego’s personality change over those months,” attorney Dave Ring says. “He became very withdrawn, down and depressed.”
Things escalated at the start of eighth grade. On a Thursday, Stolz was suddenly punched in the back of the head. Shaken, Stolz and his adult sister met with an assistant principal the next day. Ring says the administrator told Stolz that the bullies would be suspended by the time he returned on Monday. But they weren’t. In a lunchtime assault, which was filmed by some of the bullies, Stolz was sucker punched, sending him headfirst into a concrete pillar.
Ring talks about watching the video with Stolz’s adopted parents. In the video, two bullies are seen – one to Stolz’s front and one to his side. Stolz is standing with his hands to his sides, defenseless. “His dad said, ‘I feel horrible. You know why he did that? I told him he can never fight at school,’” Ring remembers.
It’s far from Ring’s first case suing a school district; last year, he achieved a precedent-setting $10M settlement on behalf of a 9-year-old who was sexually abused by a school bus driver. Ring litigates three main categories of school district cases: physical injury, sexual abuse and bullying. The sexual abuse and bullying cases can be more difficult to litigate, Ring says; the district can argue that the bad actor – the bully or the abuser – is solely at fault.
His dad said, ‘I feel horrible. You know why he did that? I told him he can never fight at school,' Ring remembers.
Ring and his partner on the case, Neil Gehlawat, see it differently. “Obviously, the boys who did it – it’s terrible what they did. I think that's one piece of it,” says Gehlawat. “But the schools, they're the adults in the room. We have an expectation – in loco parentis is the Latin phrase – but it basically means the school steps into the shoes of the parents. You act as though a parent would. And they acted nothing like that.”
Ring and Gehlawat emphasize that the assistant principal Stolz spoke with had not reviewed the surveillance footage of Thursday’s attack, had not suspended the students on Friday, and, in fact, was not at the school that Monday. In an email listing high-priority matters to take care of that day, Ring says, she did not list investigating Stolz’s attack the previous Thursday. “It was entirely preventable,” Gehlawat says. “He didn't have to lose his life if the school administrators had done their jobs.”
“DO YOU SEE YOURSELF?”
Kurt Reinhold had been in San Clemente for about a month before he was approached by two Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies. Allegedly, he was stopped for jaywalking.
The two deputies were Homeless Liaison Officers (HLOs) within the Sheriff’s Department. A letter detailing the Orange County District Attorney Office’s investigation of the “deputy-involved shooting” says that “the main goal of the HLO is outreach and getting homeless individuals services versus arrest.” The letter also explains that, as part of their HLO training, the deputies “have been trained in outreach, crisis avoidance, dealing with individuals with mental health issues and drug issues.”
Yet, despite training to offer services rather than arrest, Taylor says that no services were ever offered. Instead, he argues, “The real reason they stopped him is because he is Black. They had no intention of rendering any sort of services to him. … There was nothing he was doing outside of being Black and in public in San Clemente.”
Police misconduct cases have been a central focus of both Taylor and Gehlawat in their careers. Taylor has litigated precedent-setting police misconduct matters since the ‘90s. In 1992, he achieved a milestone $2.3M verdict in a case involving the police shooting of a 16-year-old boy. “There is, at times, a recklessness with which deadly force is used by our officers,” Taylor says. “It’s an extremely difficult job and we get that, but there is training and, most of the time, if the officers follow the training they’ve been given, we don’t end up with a dead person.”
Gehlawat came to Taylor & Ring in 2020 after achieving several police misconduct awards out of Kern County. In one, he settled a civil rights case against the Kern County Sheriff’s Office for $3.4M after deputies asphyxiated an unarmed man during restraint. “Joining this firm gave me the opportunity to maintain my commitment to victims and impact the world to make it a safer place by changing the behavior of those institutions and entities that don’t like to change,” Gehlawat says.
Footage of the deputies’ encounter with Reinhold was publicly released after his death. The video begins with dashcam footage from the deputies’ car. They notice Reinhold, and one says, “Watch this, he’s going to jaywalk.” When the first deputy decides to stop Reinhold, the second warns, “Don’t make case law.” In fact, Taylor and Gehlawat say, it was later determined Reinhold had not been jaywalking – the street was a dead end. Nevertheless, Taylor claims, “they used that as a pretext to perform some kind of criminal stop on him.”
There was nothing he was doing outside of being Black and in public in San Clemente.
When the deputies approach Reinhold, the audio cuts out for a while until one can be heard saying, “Hey, you need to stop. Are you going to stop or are we going to have to make you stop?” The argument escalates, and when Reinhold is told he is being arrested for jaywalking, he replies, “That’s ridiculous.” Reinhold repeatedly asks, “Do you see yourself?”
As the deputies continue to try to stop Reinhold, a physical altercation ensues, and the two deputies tackle him to the ground. In the scuffle, one deputy can be heard repeatedly saying, “He’s got my gun.”
Before releasing the video, the sheriff’s department superimposed a red circle around Reinhold’s hand at this moment in the footage, suggesting that his hand is on the officer’s gun. The second deputy then shoots Reinhold.
Taylor and Gehlawat argue that not only was Reinhold only flailing and attempting to leverage his weight rather than grab the gun, but that it would have been impossible to unholster the gun regardless. Gehlawat explains that the holster had three safety locking mechanisms – Reinhold would not have been able to remove the gun with brute force if he’d tried.
“NOT JUST A FEW BAD APPLES”
Both cases, while tragic individually, are emblematic of deeper systemic issues.
The bullying Stolz faced was not an isolated incident at Landmark Middle School. An investigation found that 14 police reports were filed at the school in the months preceding his death. Gehlawat says that police had been called to the school around 100 times. Most significantly, a chillingly similar death occurred on campus more than 20 years prior: In 1998, 12-year-old Jerod Schroeder was punched in the head on the basketball court and later died from his injuries.
Yet, stronger anti-bullying measures were not put in place – partly, Ring and Gehlawat assert, due to pressure by the superintendent’s office to keep kids in school to maintain average daily attendance. The school district’s funding is partially determined by a school’s attendance number, and if attendance dips below a certain threshold – say, for suspensions or expulsions – the district can lose backing. “They prioritized funding for the schools over welfare of kids, including Diego,” Gehlawat says.
The Reinhold case, meanwhile, illustrates problems within police departments that have been at the forefront of public consciousness, particularly since the killing of George Floyd just months before Reinhold’s death.
As in the majority of the police misconduct cases the Taylor & Ring attorneys take on, the deputies were not criminally charged for their role in Reinhold’s death. Instead, the District Attorney’s office determined that “there is substantial evidence that [the deputy’s] actions were reasonable and justified under the circumstances when he shot and killed Reinhold.”
That’s where civil litigation comes in, the attorneys say. “If the agency and/or criminal arm of the legal system isn’t going to examine incidents of excessive force as carefully, then we’re able to do that in the civil system and get some measure of justice for the family,” Taylor says. That said, even though the public’s awareness surrounding police misconduct has heightened in recent years, Gehlawat adds that jurors are still often inclined to trust officers first. “It’s easier for people to accept that there are some bad apples out there. That it’s not an institutional problem,” he says. “The reality is when it’s happening over and over and over, it’s not just a few bad apples.”
“RIGHTING WRONGS, INSPIRING CHANGE”
It’s rare that landmark change takes place midway through a litigation, but that’s what the Taylor & Ring attorneys accomplished during Stolz’s case.
At the time Ring and Gehlawat came to the case, California law stipulated that a wrongful death case could only be brought by the parents or siblings of the deceased. This meant that Juana and Felipe, though they had been Diego’s legal guardians nearly all his life, could not bring a case on his behalf.
So, the team partnered with local assemblywoman Eloise Reyes to draft legislation allowing legal guardians the same rights to sue as parents. After legislators heard Stolz’s story, the bill passed unanimously – allowing Juana and Felipe to be the plaintiffs on Stolz’s case, and all future guardians to be able to bring cases on behalf of the children in their care.
The school district also changed its anti-bullying policies during the course of the litigation, bringing in an outside training program and implementing more stringent disciplinary policies. The team recommends those changes to all school districts. Gehlawat emphasizes that districts need to invest monetarily in preventing bullying – starting with companies that provide anti-bullying forums and trainings for both students and staff.
Ring believes the case’s power will be lasting: “The legacy of this case is these parents,” he says. “They wanted not just this school district to change, but they wanted to send a message to all school districts. And they did.”
The team also sees a clear path forward for preventing police misconduct, starting with an end to qualified immunity. Gehlawat says that having departments investigate themselves, or being investigated by DAs’ offices which work hand-in-hand with those departments, is not a meaningful method of oversight. “There’s really no other discipline of work that gives this type of blanket immunity to their own,” he emphasizes.
They wanted not just this school district to change, but they wanted to send a message to all school districts. And they did.
Though the fight to uncover systemic problems in policing is ongoing, the attorneys are bolstered by the public’s shifting awareness of police misconduct. They attribute much of this new understanding to increased availability of video evidence. Between dashcam videos, body cameras and the ubiquity of cell phone camera access, it’s easier for the public to see events as they unfolded. In Reinhold’s case, community members took to the streets to protest his killing after the footage was released.
Though Diego Stolz and Kurt Reinhold lost their lives under very different circumstances, they are united in the justice Taylor & Ring's attorneys were able to bring in their names. Of course, the attorneys know the families would give any amount of money to have their loved ones back with them. But the civil justice system doesn’t only yield money – it provides a venue for exposing systemic problems and tackling them head-on. That’s what the attorneys at Taylor & Ring live for.
Gehlawat says it best: “Civil lawsuits are the only way to fully uncover bad conduct on the part of defendants in these cases and really change behavior. It’s all about righting wrongs and inspiring change.”