J. Tony Serra, attending the recent Trial Lawyers for Public Justice awards gala in San Francisco, didn't even bother to stick around for dinner, let alone the awards ceremony.
With so many rich, conservative-looking establishment attorneys in the room, Serra figured there was no way the group would honor a ponytailed maverick defense attorney who took on the Federal Bureau of Investigation and won.
"I left early," said Serra, 62, who keeps homes in Bolinas and San Francisco. "I said, 'There's not a chance in hell we're going to win this thing.' The next day when I found out we won, it ... blew my mind."
Serra and six colleagues shared the TLPJ's 2003 Trial Lawyer of the Year award for their victory in Estate of Judi Bari vs. Doyle, a civil rights case that led to a $4.4 million verdict against the FBI and the City of Oakland.
The Washington-based lawyers' organization also named San Anselmo attorney Ford Greene a finalist for a 22-year legal fight against the Church of Scientology. The case resulted in a $8.6 million settlement last year for a former church member who claimed he was brainwashed.
The 21st annual awards ceremony was held July 22 at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a not-for-profit organization that claims 3,000 members throughout the country, grants the awards to recognize lawyers for precedent-setting cases or "David and Goliath" trials against powerful interests.
In Serra's case, two environmental activists, Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari, sued the FBI and the City of Oakland over the investigation into the bombing of their Subaru in 1990. Investigators arrested Cherney and Bari, who were both injured in the explosion, on suspicion of transporting the bomb for environmental terrorism, but within weeks prosecutors conceded there was insufficient evidence to charge the pair.
Cherney and Judi Bari filed a federal lawsuit claiming they were falsely arrested, illegally searched and slandered by the authorities. Last June, a jury awarded $4.4 million to Cherney and the estate of Bari, who died of cancer in 1997.
The trial team for Cherney and Bari included Serra, Dennis Cunningham, Robert Bloom and Ben Rosenfeld of San Francisco; William Simpich of Oakland; William Goodman of New York; and Michael Deutsch of Chicago.
Serra and his colleagues shared the 2003 Trial Lawyer of the Year honors with another trial team that won a $20 million settlement on behalf on 30,000 sweatshop workers in six Pacific Rim nations and the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth.
"These exceptional attorneys offer powerful examples of how trial lawyers play a crucial role in exposing and redressing government intrusion and corporate misconduct," Paul Stritmatter, president of the TLPJ Foundation, said in a statement. "We are proud to honor them for their exemplary work defending the Constitution and protecting workers' rights."
In Ford Greene's case, the Church of Scientology agreed to pay his client, a former church member, more than $8.6 million to resolve a lawsuit filed in 1980. In the suit, Lawrence Wollersheim accused the church of causing him to develop bipolar disorder and to contemplate suicide, according to the Associated Press.
A jury in 1986 awarded Wollersheim $30 million, an amount reduced on appeal to $2.5 million and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1994. The court award collected 10 percent interest over the following years of litigation and eventually grew to $8,674,843.
In May 2002, church officials, saying they wanted to put the matter behind them, paid Wollersheim the money.
The TLPJ, in honoring Greene and two co-counsels in Southern California, called the case a "a landmark victory for former members of Scientology."
Greene, who has carved out a specialty in lawsuits against religious cults, said he was flattered to be on the same stage "with all these big-boy lawyers" at the TLPJ gala.
"I was honored to have been nominated at all and then to have qualified as a finalist and be recognized as one of the group which was comprised of some of the heaviest-hitting plaintiff's lawyers in the country," he said.
Church of Scientology officials did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.