This story is about the first legal case I ever worked on. It was the very beginning of my career, and while I planned on going to law school at night, little did I know that this experience was going to change my life.
San Diego – 1982
Our law firm was the attorney of record for a large pizza franchise corporation being sued by a former corporate employee who supervised all the franchises. This pizza chain encompassed over hundreds of pizza parlors all over southern California.
The pizza corporation was susceptible to some attack over the years, and they scrambled to resolve this susceptibility. Previously, they didn't have their hiring policies fully intact like companies definitely do these days. They didn't regularly perform background checks, or verify social security numbers, or verify previous employment, and there were errors in how they paid overtime.
To rectify these errors, management went through every present employee file and cleaned it up, making sure all pay and benefits were in order. If any past overtime was owed to an employee, they paid it. Background checks were done as well as making sure current employees had no ill-will feelings or problems with management.
There were at least 450 former employees who needed to be located, contacted and their time sheets gone over to correct any errors. Management was advised to try and track down as many of these former employees as possible, and resolve any issues that might expose them to future lawsuits – smart decision.
Before this project of locating past employees started, a nasty lawsuit landed on their door.
This lawsuit was put into action by one person who was a disgruntled franchise supervisor. This supervisor worked in the head corporate office for four years and was generally known to butt heads. You know, the guy no one really gets along with, he is just tolerated? We all know one of these types.
Out of nowhere, the supervisor turns in his resignation, then word is filtering throughout the corporate offices that he is now accusing management of not paying overtime to its former employees, citing that illegal aliens were taken advantage of, and any benefits paid were discriminatory.
As it turned out, it looks like the main intent of this former franchise supervisor was to expose as many illegal employment laws as he could, thinking the corporation would settle with him and he could make a few hundred grand or more. He was a hater and wanted to hate corporate America. Even when he was working for the company, he said things about hating corporate America in an unexpressed resentment sort of way, but again, he was just tolerated.
It is now going to cost a bundle, thousands and thousands of dollars for the pizza chain to prepare its defense before it even goes to trial.
I guess what I am trying to set you up for is how one person can bring upon such financial hardship and turmoil to a group, a company or another individual, when it comes to frivolous lawsuits. There are people who just want to find a reason to attack someone and make a few bucks.
But here’s the good news - IF YOU ARE EVER ATTACKED ON A HUGE SCALE, YOU NEED TO INVESTIGATE THE ATTACKER AND EXPOSE HIS CRIMES AND HIS LIES. You need to go on the offensive. This works more often than you think.
So while the lawyers are busy defending the pizza corporation with all their pretrial legal briefs, depositions and motions, the investigative trial division was on the offensive.
The investigators had their own three part agenda, 1) Investigate this supervisor, expose his crimes, which will make him back off and drop this lawsuit. 2) Try and locate every one of the four hundred plus former employees and resolve any possible outstanding wage or complaint issues. We don’t want the attorneys for the supervisor to find these employees and depose them. We want to get ahead of any potential law suits from these former employees and 3) Investigate every pizza franchise by interviewing all current employees and managers looking for any illegal situations they might be involved in. We want to make sure we have no further susceptibility issues at trial, in other words, nothing else the other attorneys could attack us on.
All of the above needs to be done before the trial even gets started. You want to know where you are weak and what your liabilities are, and fix them quickly. You don’t want any surprises by the other side when you are actually in trial.
There were 12 investigators to get this agenda done. I was an investigator-in-training and learned that I had natural abilities for this kind of work. My main job was to work on locating all the former employees. It took us three to four months to finish this project. We used the public databases at the city, county and state agencies to locate people, and good old-fashion street work by visiting old addresses or relatives. We didn't have the computer technology or the social media sites that we have today. We actually found two-thirds of them, and luckily, only a few had issues to resolve. We then had them all sign an affidavit stating they have no outstanding claims against the pizza chain, no outstanding ill-will, and have no plans to bring a lawsuit in the future. The former employees we could not find were actually illegal aliens using stolen social security numbers. There was no reason to continue to look for them. They have too much to hide themselves, to even think about suing us.
Then, I worked with a different group of investigators. We broke up into teams, then visited and interviewed all the franchise stores’ current employees. We wanted to double check making sure we had no liabilities with employment law nor did we have employees we shouldn't have. We reported all of our findings to the corporate office. A few employees were let go and some quit shortly after we interviewed them. We had no qualms in telling them why they were being interviewed. Being upfront with them just expedited the cleaning up process.
Now, to investigate this supervisor who brought about this lawsuit in the first place, we had to first, actually investigate our own clients corporate office! We had to get permission from the attorneys and corporate management to have access and interview all of the management personnel.
There were thirty-five corporate employees. We read every employee’s personnel file, and then interviewed each of them. The interviews were extensive but well worth it. We got to know our clients management ream better and decided that no one else on this team was going to go rouge. Plus, we got a lot of background information on the supervisor suing us.
To each person interviewed, we asked them an important question having to do with financial irregularities. We wanted to know if they knew of employees having financial trouble. Did they borrow money from someone or did others borrow money from others or was anyone having financial trouble, like losing their house etc.
This again is a touchy subject but you want to know what employees, if any, might be susceptible and desperate enough to steal from the company. Again, you are just doing a checklist to make sure the client and the company has no outstanding legal or unethical situations.
After all the interviews were done, we matched our answers up and two things popped out: 1) Guess whose name came up four times as having financial trouble? The supervisor suing us, “Bill”, and 2)Two executives of the management team admitted they would leave their company ATM cards in their top desk drawers and further admitted that all the staff knew the pin numbers, in case they needed to buy supplies or take a client to lunch. They had a huge trust factor in their office. Also, you have to remember the world was a bit more trustworthy back then. Again, you wouldn’t see that in today’s business world.
After further investigation it turns out that over time, someone had been using the ATM cards, getting cash, to a tune of around $15,000.00, not in large withdrawals at any one time, just enough cash to stay under the radar. Management had a policy of doing an audit on these ATM bank statements, but with this trial preparation and stress, they were actually behind on this audit for a long time. They didn't really know they had a problem.
So, we went off our original mission for a bit and focused on who was stealing the money from the ATM because this might lead us to another liability the company didn't know it had.
Since the pizza corporation was our client and one of their own was stealing from them, we didn't want to go to the police as yet. We didn't want to expose out client to another legal situation, and our client might not have a legal case since they allowed their staff to use the debit cards.
It took us days to go through every bank/ATM statement writing down the date and time of every ATM transaction, then finding receipts or any paper trail of what this money was spent on and who used the ATM card. We only recovered a lousy 25%. There was 75% unaccounted for and it came to around $12,000.00.
After getting approval from the corporate office, we decided that we would just confront this head on and go see the President of the bank in question. We told the President all about our current trial, that as investigators, we were looking at any and all liabilities our client has and clean them up. We showed him the bank statements and highlighted the date and times of each ATM transaction that we could not account for. We gave him the names of three employees who were having financial trouble.
In a dream world, the bank could just match ATM withdrawals to the deposits of the three employees, and we’d probably have our man, but we knew the banker could not give us account information unless we gave him a subpoena, plus we don’t know where the employees bank. We don’t want to involve any subpoenas at this time because then we’d have to notify these employees what we were doing, and as required by law, we’d have to give each employee a copy of the subpoena.
What we wanted from the bank was this: To take the last ten recent questionable ATM withdrawals, including the date and time, then match this with the banks security cameras and verify who was at the ATM at these particular withdrawals.
The bank realized they had the authority to release this information because with cameras at every ATM, no one can legally argue the expectation of privacy.
Within five days we had pictures of the person using the ATM at the time of the unauthorized ATM transactions. It was the Plaintiff, “Bill”.
We were excited beyond belief; this turned the whole trial in a new direction.
Immediately, our lawyers had a meeting with corporate advising them they were now going to issue subpoenas and scare the crap out of Bill and his attorneys. They were going to subpoena “Bill’s” entire banking records including deposits, and since we didn't know which bank “Bill” had his money, ten subpoenas were served on every major bank and credit union in San Diego.
The kicker was that we also subpoenaed “Bill” for a deposition so we can ask him under oath if he made these unauthorized ATM transactions. (Bill doesn't know we know about the bank ATM pictures). The attorneys want to catch him lying under oath, and then show him his picture at the bank making withdrawals.
The deposition took place a month or so later. It was absolutely nail-biting waiting to hear what happened. After four hours, all I remember is attorneys running into our investigative office and yelling that they had won the case, they were thrilled.
It turned out that after the Attorneys started asking “Bill” about the ATM transactions, “Bill” was starting to get real uneasy and then his attorneys starting wondering why “Bill” was acting uncomfortable.
“Bill” and his attorneys had no idea we even knew about these ATM heists, they thought we were there to discuss “Bill’s” bank accounts. This was an excellent ploy on our part.
Our Attorneys said that during the deposition, they only asked a few questions regarding the ATM transactions, when suddenly “Bill” and his Attorneys took a break - one and half hour break - to “talk" to their client.
When the deposition resumed, the only thing discussed was the Attorneys for “Bill” stating they have decided to withdraw the law suit. The Attorneys gave no reason why, we knew why but did not ask, we didn't care, and knew we won. The next two hours were taken up by discussing how to word the legal documents to dismiss this case, who is going to file the dismissal with the court and any other loose ends.
The entire legal crew celebrated the victory with our clients the following Friday night with dinner and drinks. The clients paid for the entire celebration.
Then one of the investigators asked if I wanted to work for him on upcoming legal trials they had on their calendar. Then it hit me, this was where I belonged, working on defense legal trials. At that moment, my career started and never had any doubts.