In Firm Pursuit
A savvy L.A. attorney takes on what appears to be an open-and-shut case of sexual harassment. But she soon stumbles upon a far-reaching conspiracy of corporate greed, deceit and violence.
Read an Excerpt Below!
Gripping the gearshift of her convertible Mustang Cobra, Karen pressed down hard on the gas and didn’t let up until the speedometer hovered near eighty-five. At this time of the day – only minutes before sunrise – L.A.’s 405 Freeway resembled the flatlands of some Midwestern highway. The road was all hers, so she took it.
Whenever trouble loomed, Karen did the one thing that soothed her. She drove. For the past few weeks, anxiety had crept into her every thought and buried itself there. But during her freedom drives, as she liked to call them, she felt fearless. Invigorated. Fulfilled. All those empowering words her therapist insisted that she embrace.
As the Mustang glided past ninety, the crisp air fanned Karen’s face and she inhaled a healthy gulp that a New Yorker would have considered warm for a February. Despite the cool temperature, she felt a hot exhilarating rush. Not all that different from what she experienced during sex. Really great sex.
Zooming past the Santa Monica exchange in a nearly drunken state of euphoria now, Karen almost missed the Mulholland exit. Imitating a stunt she’d seen in a Bruce Willis movie, she laterally zipped across three lanes, just in time to make it to the off ramp. As Karen ascended the short incline to the traffic light ahead, she combed her fingers through her thick mass of strawberry blond hair, then rubbed her emerald green eyes.
When Karen first reported her allegations of sexual harassment against Henry Randle, she had expected that the man would be fired. But she had not anticipated that Randle would turn around and sue Micronics Corporation. Now, Karen was her company’s star witness in his wrongful termination case. A case she wanted nothing to do with.
Leaning forward, Karen pressed the CD button and began singing along with Faith Hill. Not until she had made a left onto Skirball Center Drive and a right onto Mulholland, did she notice the black sedan a couple of car lengths behind. A longer glimpse in her rearview mirror told her that the car was a BMW with a lone occupant inside. Karen punched off Faith mid-chorus and picked up speed. Her pulse did the same. She passed the University of Judaism at close to seventy. The sedan sped up as well.
And then it hit her. The documents! Karen snatched her purse from the passenger’s seat, fished out an envelope, and stuffed it down her sweater and into her bra. She had known all along that they would eventually come looking for the documents. Feeling them against her skin sent an icy chill through her body.
Karen inhaled and tried to think clearly as trepidation gradually sucked the air from her lungs. The two-mile stretch of Mulholland that lay ahead was interspersed on both sides with outrageously expensive homes and cliffs with made-for-Hollywood views. A sharp turn down one of the long driveways would leave her trapped, making her an easy target for her pursuer. A wrong turn in the opposite direction could send her into a nosedive off one of the cliffs, finishing the job for them.
Though fear now coursed through every vein in Karen’s body, an odd smile graced her lips. There was no way the BMW would be able to keep up. Her breathing slowed ever so slightly after another glance in the mirror confirmed that her pursuer was losing ground. Karen had cruised Mulholland so many times she could almost drive it blindfolded. She only had to make it down the hill to Beverly Glen. Somebody was bound to be walking a dog or taking an early morning jog. They would not want witnesses.
Karen patted her breast, confirming that the envelope was still there. Still safe. Just then, another car shot out of a driveway several hundred yards ahead and Karen’s heart slammed against her chest. Instinct told her the BMW to her rear was not working alone. She anxiously felt for the envelope again and concentrated on her next move.
She took another quick glance in the rearview mirror. The BMW wasn’t there. When she looked to her left, her eyes bore across the empty passenger seat of the BMW and directly into the barrel of a gun.
Time froze for a second, then a piercing scream left Karen’s lips, reverberating into the early morning air. Karen stomped on the brakes and the BMW, unprepared for her sudden stop, darted ahead, just as she had anticipated.
What happened next, however, had not been part of Karen’s plan.
She jerked the steering wheel sharply to the left and hit the gas. But instead of making a full U-turn, the Mustang headed off the road, straight toward a thin patch of bushes where a guardrail should have been.
Karen’s hands flew to her face, barely muffling her futile screams.
For what seemed like minutes rather than seconds, the Mustang floated across the reddish-orange sky like a wonderfully woven magic carpet. After a moment of calm, Karen felt the sharp pull of gravity, then braced herself for a landing that turned daybreak into darkness.
“This case should be settled,” barked the Honorable Frederick H. Sloan. The judge’s demanding baritone required a response even though no question had been posed.
I looked over at Reggie Jenkins, my spineless opposing counsel, seated to my left in the judge’s private chambers. The petrified expression on his face told me I would have to speak for the both of us.
“Your Honor,” I began, knowing how much judges loved to hear that salutation, “we’re just too far apart. My client is ready and willing to try this case.”
Judge Sloan rolled up the sleeves of his crisp, white shirt, revealing more of his flawless tan. Most of the federal judges who sat on the bench in California’s Central District did not fit the typical stereotype of a jurist. Sloan was both tall and handsome and had probably hit the gym during the lunch hour. If it weren’t for his lush grey hair, it would have been hard to tell that he had bypassed sixty a few years back.
“How about you, counselor?” The judge swiveled his chair away from me and zeroed in on my opponent. “Are you prepared to try this case, too?”
Jenkins inhaled and scratched the back of his neck. A chubby, middle-aged black man, he had chronically chapped lips and wore a short Afro that always looked uncombed. His beige linen suit needed a good pressing and his tie was as crooked as he was.
“Oh, no, Your Honor.” Jenkins cracked the knuckles of his right hand against the palm of his left. “I don’t like wasting the taxpayers’ time and money.”
I wanted to bop Reggie on the head with my purse. He settled all of his cases because he was too incompetent to go to trial.
Judge Sloan swung back to me and smiled heartily. “I’ve seen very few cases that were slam dunks. You sure you want to try this case, little lady?”
Little lady? I hated it when judges talked to me like I was some bimbo. After only eight years of practice, I had some pretty impressive stats on my Bar card. I was a senior associate at O’Reilly & Finney, one of the most respected trial firms in L.A. I had also won a five-million dollar verdict in a race discrimination case and defended a high-profile murder case. But taking crap from judges was par for the course.
Before I could respond, the judge returned his focus to my rival.
“Mr. Jenkins, what’s your client looking for?”
“Your Honor,” I interrupted, “my client really wants to try this –”
Sloan held up a hand the size of a dinner plate, but did not look my way. “I’m talking to Mr. Jenkins right now.” He grabbed a handful of roasted almonds from a crystal dish on the corner of his desk and tossed a couple into his mouth.
“Well, Your Honor,” Jenkins stuttered, “my client, Henry Randle, was fired based on trumped up charges of sexual harassment. He was really terminated because he’s a black man and because he refused to turn a blind eye to the company’s fraudulent billing practices. He –”
I couldn’t contain myself. “That’s not true. Your client was fired for grabbing Karen Carruthers in an elevator and trying to kiss her. And there’s absolutely no evidence that –”
This time the judge cut me off with a raised hand and a stone-hard glare. “Ms. . . .uh . . .”
“Henderson,” I said, annoyed that he couldn’t even remember my name. “Vernetta Henderson.”
“Ms. Henderson, you will speak only when I ask you to.”
I locked my arms across my chest and slumped a little in my chair. When a federal judge called for order, he usually got it.
“Mr. Jenkins,” the judge continued brusquely, “I know the facts. Let’s cut to the chase. Make Ms. Henderson an offer.”
Jenkins looked timidly in my direction and took a long moment before speaking. “I believe I could get my client to accept five hundred thousand,” he nearly squeaked.
“Out of the question,” I said, ignoring the judge’s gag order.
Judge Sloan leaned forward and stroked his chin. “I’m afraid I would have to agree. Give us a more realistic number, Mr. Jenkins. What’s your bottom line?”
Reggie looked down at his hands. “I . . . uh . . . I guess if my client received something in the neighborhood of thirty thousand, he might accept it.”
Thirty thousand! I mindlessly doodled on the legal pad on my lap. That was a good offer. My client, Micronics Corporation, would easily spend ten times that in attorneys’ fees by the time the trial was over. But Micronics’ litigation philosophy mandated trying winnable cases, even when they could be settled for nuisance value. They firmly believed that if a plaintiff’s attorney litigated a case for months or years and netted nothing for his efforts, he would think twice before suing the company a second time, knowing the battle that awaited him.
Truth be told, I was psyched about trying the case for reasons of my own. If everything remained on schedule, my anticipated victory in the Randle case would come about a week before my law firm’s partnership vote. Having another big win under my belt days before the vote would cinch things for me. I would soon become O’Reilly & Finney’s first African-American partner. I was not about to let Judge Sloan steal my thunder.
“Your Honor,” I said, looking him fearlessly in the eyes, “Micronics Corporation isn’t interested in settlement.”
Sloan propped an elbow on the desk and pointed at me with a finger the size of a wiener. “You and your client are making a big mistake,” he said with a controlled fury.
I swallowed hard and said nothing. Pissing off a judge, particularly a federal judge, would mean hell for me the next time I appeared in Sloan’s courtroom. He could be as retaliatory as he wanted with no fear of repercussions. One of the many perks of having a job for life.
Sloan snatched a legal pad from his desk and started writing. “You want to try this case?” he said with a cruel smile, “then you’ve got it. I’m expediting the filing of the pretrial documents. I want the trial brief, the jury instructions and all motions filed by Monday morning. And I’d like to see you two back here Tuesday afternoon for another status report.”
“Your Honor!” Jenkins whined, cracking the knuckles of both hands this time. “I’m a solo practitioner. There’s no way I can get all those documents drafted in four days.” He took a ChapStick from his jacket pocket and nervously dotted his lips.
“That’s not my problem, Mr. Jenkins. Perhaps you’ll be able to talk some sense into Ms. Henderson before Monday morning.” The judge grabbed another handful of almonds. “You can leave now.”
As I followed Jenkins down a long hallway that led back to the main courtroom, a flutter of apprehension hit me. What if I didn’t win?
Luckily, the flash of self-doubt did not linger. Reggie was a lousy attorney. Going up against him would be like trying a case against a first-year law student.
The Randle case was going to trial and I was going to win it.
Reggie Jenkins made it back to his office on the low-rent end of Wilshire Boulevard in less than thirty minutes. Instead of getting to work drafting the pre-trial documents for the Randle case, he gazed out of a window clouded with years of grime and sulked.
He could not understand why Vernetta Henderson was so adamant about trying the case. Especially after he had made a perfectly reasonable settlement offer. Women attorneys, particularly the black ones, always made everything so personal. The girl acted like she wanted to punish him for even filing the case.
The view of the alley two floors below did nothing to lighten Reggie’s sour mood. To the right, three bums nodded near a metal trash bin overflowing with debris. The stench managed to seep into Reggie’s office even though his windows had been glued shut for years.
Reggie regularly fantasized about having an office with a real view, in a swanky downtown high-rise with marble floors, round-the-clock security guards and windows so clean you could see yourself. His name would appear on the door in fancy gold letters: Reggie Jenkins, Attorney-at-Law. Or better yet, Jenkins, Somebody and Somebody.
His secretary, paralegal and sometime girlfriend, barged into his office without knocking. “I just wanna make sure you gonna have my money on Friday,” Cheryl demanded. Her fists were pinned to a pair of curvy hips.
Reggie’s teeth instinctively clamped down on the toothpick dangling from his thick lips. “I told you I would, didn’t I?”
“You said the same thing last month, then you didn’t show up at the office for three straight days.”
Reggie snatched his checkbook from his briefcase and scribbled across one of the checks. “Here,” he said, thrusting it at her. “Just don’t cash it until tomorrow.”
As Cheryl sauntered out, Reggie shook his head and frowned. One day, he was going to have enough cash to hire a real secretary.
He stared down at his cluttered desk, realizing that he was about to lose another one and there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Although he had promised Henry Randle his day in court, Reggie had never actually intended to make good on that vow. It was much easier to settle cases — the winners as well as the losers. He’d only had six trials during his thirteen years of practice and had lost every single one of them. He thought about calling Randle to update him on today’s court session, but what would he say? You’ll get to tell your story to a jury, but you’re going to lose.
Reggie had checked around and learned that Vernetta was an excellent trial attorney. He clearly was not. Juries unnerved him. Whenever those twelve pairs of eyes focused on him and him alone, something inexplicable happened and he turned into a bumbling idiot. If a witness responded with an answer he had not expected, it startled him and he froze up. When an opposing counsel yelled Objection – hearsay in the middle of his question, it wrecked his rhythm, causing him to stumble like an old drunk taking a step off of a curb he didn’t know was there. By the time the judge had ruled on the objection, Reggie did not know what to say next because he could not even remember what question he had asked.
He rummaged through the unruly stack of papers in front of him and pulled out the Randle vs. Micronics complaint. The day Henry Randle had walked into his office and told his story, Reggie felt like someone had handed him a blank check. He had never had a case with allegations of race discrimination and whistle blowing. Randle swore that he had never even laid eyes on Karen Carruthers before running into her in that elevator, and he certainly had not grabbed the woman or tried to kiss her. And Reggie fully believed his new client’s claim that Micronics trumped up the whole thing to silence his complaints about the company’s fraudulent billing on some multi-million-dollar contract with the Air Force.
But as the litigation progressed, Reggie’s enthusiasm for the case waned. Just as it always did. Now, he simply wanted his thirty-three percent of whatever settlement he could get so he could move onto the next one.
He turned on his ancient computer and prepared to get to work on the pre-trial documents. Before he could open a blank screen, an idea came to him and his dour mood immediately brightened. After mulling it over for a few minutes, Reggie grabbed his car keys, checked his breast pocket for his cell phone, and rushed out of the door.
If his brilliant little plan actually panned out, he was about to turn the tables on Ms. Vernetta Henderson and her scheming client.
After being released from detention in Judge Sloan’s chambers, I headed back to my office where I checked my voicemail messages and quickly browsed through twenty-three new emails. Finding nothing that couldn’t wait, I made my way to Haley Prescott’s office on the other side of the twelfth floor.
Haley was a second-year associate assigned to assist me with the Randle case. She had only been with the firm for six months, having clerked for a federal judge in D.C. after graduating from Yale Law School.
The sweet smell of lavender prickled my nose the minute I stepped inside Haley’s office. The place smelled like a florist’s shop. The oversized bouquet sitting on the corner of her desk looked like it had just been picked from somebody’s garden. Haley’s fingers were gliding across her computer keyboard, her eyes glued to the monitor in front of her.
“Hey,” she said flatly, not bothering to look my way. Haley saved her more enthusiastic greetings for male attorneys. The partners in particular.
“I just got back from court,” I said, as I walked up to her desk. “I hate to deliver bad news, but Judge Sloan wants all the pre-trial documents in the Randle case filed by Monday.”
Haley’s fingers froze in place. “That’s not possible. I’m spending the weekend at my condo in Mammoth.”
As hard as I tried to like the girl, she never failed to get on my last nerve. What bothered me most was her air of superiority, something that was no doubt bolstered by having a mother on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, a politically connected father, and the looks of a runway model. Almost every attorney in the firm – partners and associates alike – treated her like she was rainmaking royalty. Considering the potential clients she would likely attract to the firm because of her parents’ connections, she probably was.
But ruined travel plans came with the territory. So I ignored her grousing. “Which documents have you drafted so far?” I asked.
Haley rudely went back to typing. “None of them.”
“I thought you told me you had already started drafting the trial brief and jury instructions.”
She paused to tuck one of her curly, blond locks behind her left ear. The girl had long, feathery, Pamela Anderson hair. And from what I could tell, it was the real thing, not that dull, pasty shade that came from a peroxide bottle or years of overexposure to the sun. It was no doubt the only genuine thing about her.
“This isn’t the only case I have,” Haley snapped. Her voice took on a Bostonian pitch that hadn’t been there a second ago.
“I don’t know what other cases you have,” I snapped back, “but I’m sure they aren’t going to trial in a matter of weeks.”
All I could do was stare at the girl. It was times like this that I really missed my friend, Neddy McClain. She’d been the only other African-American attorney at O’Reilly & Finney besides me. Neddy and I had started out on rocky ground, but ended up getting pretty tight after defending a big murder case together. She had recently moved to Atlanta, where her new fiancée, a former police detective, had opened his own private investigations firm. I would’ve loved to see Haley give Neddy the kind of attitude she was throwing my way. Neddy would’ve had Haley running from her own office in tears.
Haley’s lips remained pursed into a tight pout. “Like I said, I really can’t work this weekend.”
My right hand unconsciously went to my hip. “And, like I said, the documents have to be filed by Monday.”
As far as I was concerned, the fact that Haley’s mama was one step below a Supreme Court Justice, did not mean she didn’t have to work just as hard as everybody else. I was actually glad to be throwing a wrench in her plans.
Haley allowed several beats to pass, then fixed me with an infuriated look that didn’t need translation. “Fine,” she said tightly.
I turned to leave, but Haley stopped me. “I forgot to give you this.” She shoved a document at me. “One of the secretaries from Micronics’ HR Department faxed it over this morning.”
I quickly scanned the four-page fax and felt a heavy pall come over me. It was a memo to file written by Bill Stevens, Micronics’ former in-house attorney. When Stevens left the company, the Randle case was transferred to O’Reilly & Finney. The memo briefly summarized allegations of sexual harassment made against six Micronics employees, not including Henry Randle, during the past five years. Most of them had been accused of misconduct far more egregious than what Henry Randle was accused of doing. One of the men allegedly grabbed a woman’s breast. All six were white. To my dismay, even though an HR investigation confirmed the charges against each of them, none had been fired.
I looked at the date in the upper left hand corner of the page and thought I was seeing things. “This document was written months ago,” I said, more to myself than to Haley.
“The secretary said the memo was misfiled with another case,” Haley explained, her full attention still on her computer screen.
“Why didn’t you call me the minute you got this?” I paused and tried to collect myself, not wanting Haley to pick up on my rising stress level. “You knew I had a court appearance in the Randle case today.”
Haley huffed out a breath of air. “Actually, I tried,” she said. “But you apparently didn’t have your cell phone on. I didn’t leave a message because I figured you were already in court.”
I felt a light pounding in my chest. I walked over to close the door, then turned around to face my subordinate. “I just passed up a chance to settle this case,” I said. “Something I probably wouldn’t have done if I’d known about this fax.”
Haley shrugged. “I was out when it came in and I didn’t think you’d be discussing settlement at a pre-trial conference. It wasn’t scheduled until two o’clock. If you’d come into the office this morning, you would’ve known about that fax.”
“I had a dental appointment,” I said testily. Why was I explaining myself to this child? It took most junior associates until their third or fourth year before they stopped being intimidated by the partners and senior associates. But my senior status apparently meant nothing to Haley.
She tucked another loose curl behind her ear. “How much did Jenkins want?”
I exhaled. “Thirty thousand. And I should have taken it.”
“I thought you were so eager to try the case.”
“I was.” I waved the fax in the air. “But this changes everything. This memo basically proves Randle’s discrimination case. Every one of these guys – who all just happen to be white – got off with a mere slap on the wrist. We can’t take a chance of going to trial with these facts.”
“Well, I can tell you one thing, Porter’s not going to be happy when he finds out you passed up that settlement offer.”
Tell me something I don’t know .
Porter was the partner in charge of the Randle lawsuit. He’d been riding me ever since we got the case, something he seemed to enjoy doing to most associates.
“Well, look at the bright side,” Haley said. “That document is attorney-client privileged so we don’t have to produce it. And the odds are pretty good that Jenkins won’t find out about those cases on his own. He didn’t even ask for information about prior sexual harassment claims during discovery. The man is totally incompetent.”
I suddenly felt protective of my fellow black brother. I could call him incompetent, but I didn’t like hearing him criticized by this pompous little sorority girl.
I reread the fax and my rage slowly shifted from Haley to Micronics. Why hadn’t somebody at Micronics told me about these other cases? I was certain that I had asked HR about prior sexual harassment claims. Hadn’t I?
“If you ever get another fax or letter or telephone call or anything else with important information about a case I’m working on,” I said, “I want to know about it. Right away.”
“No problem.” Haley gave me a Cover Girl smile.
I headed for the door and did not bother to look back. “I’ll expect to see a draft of the trial brief and jury instructions by noon on Saturday.”