When big-name lawyers become small-stakes plaintiffs

ATTORNEY

(Reuters) – Being a top-rated litigator doesn’t guarantee success when confronting the implacable wall of municipal bureaucracy.

Consider Bill Isaacson. The Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison partner is well-known for representing blue chip clients like Amazon in cases with millions or even billions of dollars on the line.

“Widely considered one of the most preeminent litigators of his generation,” is how his Paul Weiss bio puts it.

Absent from that bio is his own case against the D.C. sewage department. Isaacson is a co-plaintiff in a fight over his Washington, D.C., home’s monthly sanitary sewer bill – a scooplet via my Reuters colleague Mike Scarcella, who spotted his name in the docket. Isaacson and his wife Sophia McCrocklin have taken their case to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

I’m betting that Isaacson, who declined comment, could afford to pay the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority charges, which I estimate to be $70 a month or less (court papers don’t reveal the exact amount) for his home near Rock Creek Park in the northwest quadrant of the city. Average profits per partner at Paul Weiss last year were $5.73 million, according to The American Lawyer.

My guess is that it’s more about the principle of only paying what you think you owe — but more on that later.

The suit reminds me of an earlier unsuccessful battle by Randy Mastro — then the co-chair of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s litigation practice who last year joined King & Spalding — against the City of New York over a fine he got after his home’s fire alarm went off twice by mistake.

Mastro in 2017 failed in a three-year quest to get the fine reversed, though he did manage to get it cut in half from $1,500 to $750, he recalled.

That he couldn’t get it dismissed outright “will haunt me to my grave,” he told me. I don’t think he was entirely joking.

On a strictly cost-benefit basis, the litigation, which Mastro pursued all the way to the Appellate Division, First Department, didn’t make much sense.

But as a former New York City deputy mayor, he said he felt “a particular obligation” to challenge what he saw as an unjust municipal action. Indeed, his quixotic quest could arguably have helped others hit with false alarm fines — and $1,500 is not chicken feed, at least to those of us who don’t make Big Law bucks.

There’s a danger though if lawyers, prominent or not, seem too quick to sue those who cross them.

“Think before you lash out,” legal PR specialist Elizabeth Lampert told me, noting that if attorneys are perceived as overly aggressive or petty, there can be consequences.

Remember the pants judge? When a then-administrative judge in Washington, D.C. sued his dry cleaner for $67 million in 2005 over a pair of lost pants?

The case made national headlines, and the ex-judge, Roy Pearson Jr, was subsequently sanctioned by the D.C. Court of Appeals. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Millions of lawsuits are filed each year, most of them in state courts, where the odds are good no one will take notice, even if filed by a legal luminary. But with the technological advancements in electronic dockets and the growth of social media, it’s also increasingly likely someone might, especially given the proliferation of legal industry-focused journalists in recent years.

Isaacson is no Taylor Swift, but in legal circles, he and other tier-one-super-influential-MVP-best-dragon-litigator-of-the-year types have acquired a certain name recognition.

This also means he and his powerful peers can expect that the cases they bring, both big and small, may attract attention.

It’s not apparent from court papers how closely Isaacson is involved in the sewer squabble. He and his wife, along with the trustees of a similarly situated property, are all represented by attorney Stephen Gardner of Kalbian Hagerty, who did not respond to my messages seeking comment.

Isaacson and McCrocklin, an artist and former lawyer with the Environmental Protection Agency according to her website, say that, unlike 99.99% of DC Water customers, they’re not connected to the city’s sewer pipe system.

Instead, they say their property has a septic tank plus a stormwater collection and drainage system, and that any runoff isn’t physically capable of reaching city sewers, which means they shouldn’t have to pay sewer charges.

Last month, a water and sewer authority hearing officer denied the couple’s petition for summary judgment, ruling that they must prove their property contributes no stormwater to the District’s sewers. The officer also found the petitioners “have not prevailed in showing they are not subject to (the charges) because they have septic systems.”

In a statement filed with the court, Isaacson and McCrocklin’s lawyer said the two sides’ positions “are both extremely well-known to each other and seemingly very entrenched.”

Still, he said his clients are open to mediation, which — stop the presses — means this sewer fight might still dry up.

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