Jay Milano Attorney and Counselor at Law

Monthly Archives: July 2010

The St. Bernadette Defamation Case-Teachers Vindicated-$1,000,000 Verdict

[teaser]Defamation, slander and libel are serious and personal injuries to your reputation. If you have been damaged you need the lawyers of Milano Weiser. So imagine for a moment that you are a grade school teacher at a local Catholic school…[/teaser]

For 24 years, you’ve worked day in and day out with young girls and boys, helping them with math, science and reading classes. You’ve watched younger brothers and older sisters move through from kindergarten on up until they are ready for high school and every weekend you continue to watch the children and the families grow at Sunday mass.

After 24 years of faithful service, however, the world changed – for the worst. Suddenly the new priest and the new principal don’t want you around anymore and decide not to renew your contract. Parents, who’ve been with the school for years, demand to know why the teacher who oversaw the educational development of their children is suddenly being told to leave.

There is a public meeting, in the Church. More than 400 people from the community gather at the meeting to find out why a teacher with such a long history at the school had been told to leave so abruptly. Reporters are there from the local papers.

The pastor, your boss and your spiritual advisor, walks to the pulpit in his full priestly garb, just like it was a mass.  He then issues the astounding claim that the Diocese has conducted its own investigation into the issue and agrees with the school’s decision to let you go. The priest looks out over the large crowd gathered at the church and holds up a stack of papers. He tells your friends and family and the whole world that if they knew what was in those files then they would understand why the church had not renewed the contract. None of it is true. There was no investigation.Your career was flawless. How could this happen? It was apparent to you, but unfortunately not to anyone else, that the priest was trying to cover his own hind end. If he made a bad decision it would only add to the body of criticism already swirling around him. If the Diocese made the decision it was unassailable.

[pullquote_left]In a heartbeat, your entire world has changed. Not only are you out of your job, but more than 400 people want to know what you did that was so wrong to warrant why you were fired. The implication is that you are a criminal.[/pullquote_left]

Yet you know the truth – that the Diocese never conducted any investigation and that there isn’t anything is your personnel files that can justify for the way you’ve been treated. What are you supposed to do now?

For three local teachers this was more than a nightmare – it was the reality they faced.  So “the ladies” found themselves sitting in our office, looking for a solution to an unsolvable problem.  In the glass walled conference room of our building’s first floor the three teachers and their husbands sat and did their best to explain everything that had happened leading up to the meeting- leading up to what they called the most humiliating experience of their lives.

We listened to the entire story. What happened was defamation. That is when you lie about someone and it damages him or her. They had a case.

Cases are easy-apply law to facts. But putting the ladies’ lives back together, restoring their dignity would not be so easy.  We knew, and explained to them at that first meeting, that taking on an entity as powerful as the Catholic Church would be a difficult proposition. The Diocese would fight and spend and accuse to protect their own-right or wrong. That was our opinion, based upon our experience.

We would fight for vindication-to clear their names. The case could not be about money, not for them and not for us.  In the end, however, the amount of the verdict-the money-was clear evidence of the outrage of the jury.

[pullquote_right]Over years of fighting together we become close to our clients. “The ladies” would meet with us in our conference room and then stay on for hours after the lawyers left to work together with the burden of the effort. It was intimidating and tiring for them. They were, however, resolute.[/pullquote_right]

The case started in the summer of 2006 and kept going for more than three full years. During that time the teachers kept answering more and more questions, and we kept digging for more answers and more proof that they were purposefully defamed and humiliated. For its part, the church fought every inch of the way claiming that the teachers and several other parishioners were just trying to attack the priest and the parish. “How dare you?” was their unambiguous response.

But this wasn’t just a case about the church or a priest, or even about teachers. It was about what happens when a bad boss makes a mistake and then tries to hide behind the company or the institution rather than accept responsibility. For three years, the boss tried to dodge responsibility for his words and actions and it was our job to make sure that in the end he was accountable for the embarrassment and heartache that he caused for those teachers. The trial was brutal. The defense was that anyone who criticized the priest or the principal was part of a “gang of 90,” out to ruin the parish. The priest’s defense included the proposition that he had subjected himself to civil authority for two weeks and that was punishment enough. Again and again, it was “How dare you challenge us?”

The jury verdict was clear and unambiguous.  The priest’s words and actions were false, and they had caused serious damage to the teachers’ lives and reputations. The jury awarded more than $300,000 to each of the teachers for a grand total of $975,000; giving the teachers the thing they wanted most – vindication and the right to say they hadn’t done anything wrong.

P.S. Both sides had the right to appeal. On the day the appeals would start (and with an appeal, another 5 year fight) the case was settled and dismissed.

P.P.S. Jay, why would you take on the Catholic Church, both in this case and the sex abuse cases?

First, we do not pick our targets. It does not matter who the opponent is. If we were intimidated by power or perception, we would have no value to our clients.

[pullquote_left]We accept clients. If a client comes to us and has been treated unfairly, or felt the abuse of power, or was hurt by a serious mistake; and if they need and deserve help: then we accept their case.[/pullquote_left]

We would never attack God or the faithful. Faith and belief are important and helpful for people and we would never attack those values. However, sometimes some people use the faith of others for their own benefit-for power, for greed, for prestige, for money, or for sex. Those people are not holy. They are hypocrites. Interestingly enough, Jesus had a name for them, “Whited Sepulchres”. That was the name for the stones that covered the burial caves above Jerusalem. They were whitewashed and looked pretty from afar. When you approached-they stank. Of course, when you attack a hypocrite, what do they do? They claim you are attacking their institution or the values they seek to hide behind.

This case, at least from our point of view, was not about the church. It was about hypocrisy and abuse of power. That is the way the jury saw it. Eight people from differing backgrounds, brought together to do justice.

“I will track you to the ends of the earth!” The Death of the Youngstown Mafia

Jay Milano, law professor and nationally known criminal defense, malpractice, injury, and accident lawyer in Cleveland, Ohio writes what it is like to represent a client charged with the death penalty in Federal Court.

So said our client (who killed people for a living) to Jay Milano just before the trial. (Sounded like a death threat to me).

It was the “Great Mafia Sit Down of 1999”. Present were the reputed head of the Youngstown mafia, his best childhood friend and two of his muscle. They were, to use the contemporary phrase, lawyered-up.

His brother had just made a deal with the government to tell everything – everything. They needed to decide what to do.

The meeting took place not in a hotel, or bar, or steam bath (with everyone naked so no one could wear a wire) but in a Federal Courtroom. They were all in jail. The Judge had allowed them time together to talk about their defense. All sat handcuffed and shackled at a very large conference table, under the Seal of the United States of America. Around them stood 15 U.S. Marshals, silent but watching everything – like so many eunuchs guarding the concubines.

Every criminal defense lawyer should try a mafia case. It is one true rights of passage (death penalty cases being the other). This one began with a phone call from the judge, asking if I would represent a man charged with what was then the first federal death penalty case in the Northern District of Ohio – conspiracy, gambling, drugs, murders. The client did not have money to defend himself. The answer was yes without reflection.

There were two prosecutors; one my teaching partner, and the other a close acquaintance (our kids were growing up together).

In a federal death penalty case the defense has the opportunity to travel to Washington early in the case and present to the Justice Department why death was an inappropriate penalty. Off we went, one other lawyer and I.

The presentation was  made in the Attorney General’s conference room to a panel that included the Assistant Attorney General in charge of death penalty cases around the country. This was not just a conference room at any federal building. It was Janet Reno’s conference room at “Justice”. It looked like it. Fireplaces and wing chairs and portraits. We were duly intimidated.

Our argument was simple and straightforward. The government had charged two black men with the death penalty for carrying out killings. They did not charge with the death penalty the mafia leaders who ordered the hits. It was a bonehead move I thought…but did not articulate…and unjustifiable. They agreed and the death penalty was removed. No one has ever explained why they would have charged that way in the first place.

(The cheapest way, it turned out, to get into Washington was to fly to Baltimore and then take a limo to the Justice Department. The government paid our expenses and we were ultimately called before the judge to justify the limo. We were right, but she was not amused.)

The case itself was a masterwork – not by the lawyers but by the mafia don. Every single defendant, and there were at least 20, cooperated with the government. While the boss sat in jail for more than almost two years, he directed the action. One by one his underlings pled guilty. They each gave information on the next higher up. No one went to jail. The government was the willing victim in an informant Ponzi scheme. They were after the biggest fish and were willing to use the freedom of lesser criminals as bait.

Which brings us back to the sit down. The brother, second in command, had just turned. He, too, became a government informant.The don was not concerned, he had a plan. My client was very concerned and feeling very betrayed.

I had once, in another case long before, represented the brother. In the client’s eyes, at this moment, I was part of the plot against him, a snitch along with his former boss.

He got hot. He shouted that he was being betrayed. The lawyers and the criminals looked away. The marshals stood on alert, hearing everything, ready to move but motionless.

“Anyone who has betrayed me, I will track to the ends of the earth”. He had, by all accounts, killed people. There was no doubt about his meaning and there was no doubt that I was among “anyone”. He screamed, but he would not look at me. I screamed back – “Look you motherf*cker, if you are going to threaten me look me in the eye. Right now I am the only person on earth who gives a f*ck about you.”

The screaming went on for ten minutes, no one else saying a word. Then it ended.

(This man was not the only person (who killed people) who threatened me. You will, however, have to get me drunk to hear the other story.)

I left the meeting, and tracked down an expert on ethics for advice on what to do. We sat in his car. Others, including the marshals, had heard, so there were no secrets to keep. Though I had a right to leave the case, if I believed it had blown over I could ethically stay. Even a**holes, dangerous a**holes, are entitled to a defense. I knew he was a snake when I took him in.

I truly believed that my reaction convinced him of my integrity and that I could try the case without fear.
Well, almost without fear.
But without fear that affected my effort.

Next came the final payment on the informant Ponzi scheme. As had been his intention, the don, minutes before trial, turned on his bosses in the Pittsburgh mafia. Get out of jail free. The government now had bigger fish and a whole other set of headlines.

I swear he has never been to jail, though the government says otherwise. I used to tell the prosecutors and anyone who would listen that we would see him during the trial driving to and from the courthouse in a convertible with two blondes – lighting his cigars with $100 bills.

While the don was entering his plea in open court, the last three defendants sat in a cage in the basement of the courthouse. They were jammed on one side of chicken wire in a holding cell built for one. Their lawyers equally jammed into the other side. Both groups were locked in.

Bernie the Jew was adamant. His lifelong friend would never betray him. They had been together since they were six. Did we know all of what they had done together? It could never happen.

After the don had testified, told everything about Bernie and Youngstown and gambling and drugs and murders, Bernie the Jew leaned over to his lawyer and whispered “Well, kid, you got your work cut out for you.”

The government claimed they took everything from the don. They took a hotel in the Bahamas. They took his house and his bank accounts. Everything.

After the government was through with its examination in front of the jury, it was my turn. I knew him.

“Mr. Strollo, where did you bury the cans?”

Let me explain. Italians, and most Europeans, did not trust banks. This was especially true, as you might imagine, of mafia members. As a result, they buried their money in milk cans. Burying money in cans, digging up cans of money – it’s a running wise guy joke. His fellow boss in Cleveland was reputed to have buried $50,000,000 in cash in a field next to his sister’s house in St. Louis. The government sent bulldozers, without luck.

He knew immediately what I was talking about – but could not let on – except to me. Unlike my client at the sit down, Mr. Strollo had no problem looking  me in the eyes. For that moment I was far more afraid than I had been in the face of a much more direct threat.

“What are you talking about?”

“You are a mafia don. You have been in the underworld all of your life. Where is the cash?”

“I do not know what you are talking about.”

He knew. I knew. The government knew. The jury probably knew, too. It did not make much difference because Mr. Strollo was probably telling the truth – about everything. And he told about gambling and dope and murders.

The three who went to trial were convicted after two months of testimony. Their sentences were life without parole.

I had no problem representing Jeff Riddle.
The jury believed he got what he deserved.
I did all that I would to see that he was treated fairly.
In the context of his case, he was.

In the big picture, someone was cheated. The entire Youngstown mafia got off, in return for snitching on the Pittsburgh mafia. The Government got headlines all around. Whether it got (or even cared about) fairness is a different analysis.

The Baptism, Under Fire, of Rachel Weiser

[teaser]Milano Weiser malpractice, injury and accident lawyer, Rachel Weiser experienced more in her first trial than other lawyers do in a lifetime.[/teaser]

February in Cleveland 1999, Rachel Weiser stepped out of the sleet and in through the front door of the Federal Courthouse on Superior Avenue. She was three months pregnant, suffering from morning sickness, and preparing to defend a member of the Youngstown mafia. The case had begun as the first federal death penalty charged in Cleveland. But as she walked in that morning, the stakes were not quite so high. The client faced life in prison, with no possibility of parole.

At 23-years-old, and just months removed from passing the Ohio bar exam, Rachel was  stepping into the middle of one of the most widely publicized federal trials in Cleveland. This was to be the death of the Youngstown mafia.

Rachel sat down next to her client, Jeff Riddle. The government claimed (and the jury believed) that he was the hit man for the Youngstown mafia. He had once shot a lawyer in the leg just to get a case postponed.  Sitting on the other side was her boss, Jay Milano, who was the lead chair for the defense.

She was nervous – but more.

“I was just enthralled the entire time,” Rachel said looking back at the case. “I was just out of law school, just passed the bar, and the first trial I worked on was this huge mafia case that was all over the news. Jay even made me do the interview with one of the local television stations. People watching the news that night had to be thinking, ‘Who is this girl?’ This was a huge case and here is this 23-year-old lawyer on television talking about it.”

As if those circumstances weren’t enough to get a young lawyer excited and intimidated, Rachel got to watch two of her former professors duke it out throughout the trial. The prosecutor and the defense lawyer together taught her how to try a case. “Jay, and the prosecutor for the case, James Wooley, were my professors for my trial tactics class just a year before when I was still in law school,” Rachel said. “There I was working my first case, that was this huge intimidating mafia case, with my two professors watching me.” She also got a chance to watch them. Was what they had taught her real, or a law school hypothetical that broke down in front of a jury?

The case was the product of a four-year FBI investigation of the mob in Northeast Ohio.  In the months leading up to the trial, news outlets and newspapers prepared for what was called the last mafia trial in Cleveland, but then just before the trial started the biggest headline hit. The main defendant in the case, the don of the Youngstown Mafia, Lenny Strollo, had taken a plea deal with the Federal Prosecutors and would testify about everything he knew about the mob and the other defendants.

Suddenly the case was down to three men, Riddle and his cousin, Lavance Turnage, who were both accused of being the mafia’s muscle, and Bernard Altshuler (aka Bernie the Jew) who was accused of being an associate with the mob.

[pullquote1 align=”right”]For six weeks the trial raged on as Rachel sorted through hundreds of sworn affidavits, kept track of evidence, and researched every law she could think of while her two former professors battled back and forth, cross-examining witnesses and pushing to make their cases.[/pullquote1]

“It was incredible. I was sitting in Federal Court with the top lawyers in the city, and sitting next to scary but also very savvy clients, who were all facing life sentences,” Rachel said. “Everything about it was intimidating, but at the same time it wasn’t intimidating. I was there with my teachers, with these respected attorneys who helped me.”

So the case that should have been the most intimidating case in the world for a young attorney, wasn’t.

It turned out to be a springboard for Rachel. She learned early on that if you are prepared and keep a cool head, you can always put on a good case for your client.

“I got to see lawyering at its best in that case,” Rachel said. “Too many attorneys make decisions and do things that aren’t in the best interests of their clients because they are intimidated, or scared and not prepared. You can’t let the fear of a case control you. You have to be so prepared that you never make a decision out of fear – you make decisions because you are prepared to make them.”

Rachel is not yet 35. She has a plaque on her desk: “You’re Rachel Weiser?” It’s the question she has been asked too many times by old lawyers who represent powerful clients and who are shocked to see this young woman in charge of the case against them. They always start with the dismissive, ” Young lady, I have been doing this for…”. That remark is quickly followed by an offer of $5,000.00 to settle the case. Then comes the admonishment, “If you know what is good for you, you will take it.”

Rachel has won multiple $1,000,000.00-plus judgments for her clients. There is nothing more satisfying than to see the look on the faces of these “experienced” lawyers when the jury announces the verdict.

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