(Thanks to Howard Watkins, Fresno Photographer, Hastings Classmate, and friend for the Gallo March Photo)
(Cesar Chavez in front of UFW Flag in 1974)
Many California grape growers and Safeway Stores challenged a class action I handled known as the “sour grape case.” They asked the judge to dismiss the case in 400 pages of motions and scheduled a hearing that gave me ten days to respond. The defendants may have thought they could paper me to death since I did not belong to a law firm. I spent many twelve-hour days in the library preparing the opposition and the ACLU provided additional typists to assist for my one-hundred-page response that asked the Court to permit the case to proceed to trial.
Jerry Cohen arrived from Tehachapi to visit before the hearing to read my arguments. He was reassured after he studied my opposing memorandum. Judge Norman Dowds presided in Los Angeles Superior Court class action courtroom. More than twenty management lawyers argued that the court should dismiss the case. After the hour it took for the war of words, I addressed each of their contentions, distinguished the cases they cited, and demonstrated how the UFW claims derived from valid legal precedents showing how each defendant violated the Agriculture Code and the Consumer Legal Remedies Act. After my thirty minute dissertation the defense replied using their star management attorney. The slick icon of the establishment implored the Court for dismissal, the case would waste valuable judicial time, and the UFW should not benefit from litigation designed to increase legal expenses for their enemies in a labor dispute. Sly and cunning, experienced, and silver-tongued, he attempted to refute my arguments, but used authorities I had already distinguished.
“The defendants request dismissal of this frivolous complaint and sanctions against Mr. Lavery for requiring these distinguished corporations to defend against it. He forced these prominent growers and eminent stores who provide grapes for our nation to spend thousands of hours responding to an inane case. We request Mr. Lavery be ordered to pay defense attorneys fees as a sanction for a gross abuse of process. He improperly filed politically motivated pleadings that are not for legitimate consumer protection and diverted the Court’s and the defendants’ precious time and resources. His malicious purpose was an obvious ploy to support the disruptive boycott.”
Judge Dowds looked at the crowd of attorneys before him and the three-foot stack of legal briefs that covered his desk. He paused, and examined the courtroom full of UFW supporters with their Aztec insignias, and calmly said, “I overrule the demurrers and the motions to strike as to each cause of action and deny the requests for sanctions. Clerk, set the case for trial and notify counsel.”
The crowd shouted respectfully, “Si se puede!” They gathered outside the courtroom to celebrate another victory. As I left the presence of the judge and the UFW, I met Jerry who was present at the hearing and said, “You were hitting on all eight cylinders.”
(Click to expand photo:Dan, Jerry, member of the Press, and Sandy Nathan at the ACLU at a press conference on the legal battle 1974)
Five years ago watching Jerry argue a case in court made me think I could never publicly debate any civil rights issues against lawyers before a judge. After leaving the Navy, I had radically changed my life’s course. Feelings of gratitude and humility emerged for the cause I served. The conflicts I had encountered along my chosen path were negligible compared to the experience they forged into me. Challenging some of the most powerful forces in society with less than a year of litigation experience, I had become an activist for one of the most respected causes in America. Battling for civil rights at the ACLU for the UFW had transformed me from a shy person, afraid to assert himself, into a capable attorney with purpose and tenacity. Having tapped into a source of power of La Causa, and a previously unknown force within myself, had made a difference, rather than the pawn I had been in the military going nowhere fast.
(ACLU hires Dan as the Director of the Farmworker Project; click to expand to read print)