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Making causes out of cases
Mitra Shahri stirs up local legal scene
For some people, as a certain local police chief can attest, a good sex scandal can put a serious damper on your career. For others, however, such scandals are all in a day's work Ñ people like Mitra Shahri, a lawyer who specializes in cases of people blowing the whistle on workplace misdeeds, including sexual harassment.
Shahri is not your average lawyer. She's a 5-3, wisecracking, smack-talking, kickboxing amateur comedian who learned English from watching 'Laverne & Shirley.' Now, the lawyer uses her adopted language to fight what she and her clients see as injustice.
Her story sheds light on a little-known but ubiquitous area of the law, one that potentially affects anyone who holds a job. It's also an area of law that, in Portland at least, Shahri may be helping to change. In fact, for some Portland corporate defense lawyers, Shahri may represent the end of the world as they know it.
'She's shaking things up around this town,' local civil-rights lawyer Beth Creighton said.
She's talking about a legal shake-up, but there are other reasons, too. The dark-eyed, athletic Shahri, who so often is deposing alleged sexual harassers, makes no secret of her identity as a woman Ñ in a recent interview, for instance, she was wearing a short leopard-skin-patterned skirt and spike heels.
'I would think it really throws alleged harassers off guard when she shows up,' said Creighton, a friend of hers. 'There are people in the circles I run in that think Mitra is setting feminism back 20 years Ñ because she's not afraid to dress like a woman.'
Creighton said this is a good thing, not a bad one. Shahri is challenging an unspoken taboo in the male-dominated legal world of Portland, where less than a third of the lawyers are women. Female lawyers can be smart, attractive and aggressive, Creighton said Ñ but not all at once.
'If you're attractive, you're not smart; and if you're smart, you're probably not attractive,' she said. 'Mitra is just an example that you can be effective and you can be successful in this traditionally male legal arena Ñ and still not lose what it means to be a woman.'
'I take it personally'
After moving to the United States from Iran with her family when she was 17, Shahri attended Wichita State University, where she played point guard on the varsity women's basketball team. Then she attended the University of Utah School of Law in Salt Lake City. Upon graduating, she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked for a large insurer-oriented law firm. She defended hospitals and doctors in cases involving birth injuries until she decided she was on the wrong side, left the firm and started representing plaintiffs.
She moved to Portland four years ago, seeking a better quality of life.
Some lawyers are dispassionate, practicing their trade in a scholarly, almost technical way. In contrast, Shahri's practice is all about morality, about right and wrong. In essence, she seeks clients who are fired or retaliated against for doing the right thing Ñ the doctor who blows the whistle on a batch of spoiled vaccines, for instance, or the nursing-home employee who complains to the state about a co-worker's neglect of patients. She also has represented several employees who reported sexual harassment, only to feel retaliated against.
Shahri, 46, said her job is to help companies do the right thing Ñ by punishing them for their misdeeds. She said her clients often fall victim to an unhealthy corporate mind-set in which 'it's easier to fire the person who is complaining than it is to deal with the issue.'
'I take it personally,' she said. 'When you file a complaint it's a declaration of war.'
She is not unique in her type of practice. What sets Shahri apart, as well as her style of legal combat, is her passion, humor and verve, lawyers said. 'She has the energy of 10 lawyers É and has more fun than any collection of 10 lawyers,' said another plaintiffs' lawyer, Greg Kafoury, who's worked with her on cases.
'She's a dynamo,' said lawyer David Paul, another friend of Shahri's. 'She's making causes out of cases, which is what I like about this job.'
Shahri was a featured comedian in the 2004 'Laf-off' fundraiser for the Campaign for Equal Justice's legal-aid programs, where she spoke of the difficulties of being a single lawyer who's new in town and at one point flashed a fake bare bottom she'd hidden under her skirt to illustrate a gag.
Unlike most lawyers, she is constantly cracking jokes, a habit she blames on her steady diet of television shows like 'Laverne & Shirley' and 'Welcome Back, Kotter' when she moved to the U.S. Asked how tall she is, she said: 'You mean my stature or my height? I walk a whole lot taller than I am.'
Her hobbies outside of the office? 'I sit around plotting what I'm going to do to my opponents.'
On her Web site, if you click on the link for 'if you're opposing us,' you see an image of a white flag and the words 'Give up now. (or one of us could get hurt)'
The Web site, unlawfultermination.com, also includes a picture of her as a kid, and a cartoon of a little dog telling a big one, 'Tell it to my lawyer.'
She talks tough in court, too, said Dale Koch, presiding judge of Multnomah County Circuit Court. But whereas some lawyers do it in a deadly serious way, trying to intimidate each other, he said, Shahri is 'smack-talking but in a manner that tells you that she's not doing it all that seriously.'
Molly Jo Mullen, a corporate defense lawyer who faced off with Shahri in a recent case, said Shahri's humor and passion stand out. 'Some lawyers are very analytical and may not have much of a rapport with her clients. I think she's the opposite of that. She cares very much for her clients. She's heavily invested in her cases.'
Legal cultures clash
Though Shahri has been in town only four years, she already has a reputation. Lawyers who've never met her say she is said to be an aggressive, difficult opponent. In part, it's because she learned her trade in California, a place that has an entirely different feel from Portland's chummy small-town atmosphere, lawyers said.
There is a huge difference in legal cultures between Oregon and California, said Victor Kisch, a lawyer who represents employers in sexual harassment cases, who moved to Portland from California in 1993. 'In California, it's way more openly combative.'
Kafoury, however, thinks Shahri is throwing a wrench into what he calls Portland's good-old-boys legal network. 'This is a laid-back town, everybody knows everybody,' he said. 'Mitra was spawned in a different sea. She's not a good old boy, and it shows.'
When asked how he would describe her style of lawyering, Kafoury said, 'I would say 'scorched earth' comes pretty close to it.'
Indeed, while the lawyers who've faced Shahri for the most part would not comment, it's safe to say she has made enemies Ñ or critics, at least Ñ in this town. Some lawyers privately claim that Shahri's influence could help make Portland into a more California-like litigious place, while others claim a less idealistic, passionate style is better, as it lets a lawyer gauge a client's case objectively.
Martha Takaro, co-chairwoman of the employment section of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, thinks such talk is just sour grapes from corporate defense lawyers who are accustomed to having their way Ñ but are not getting it with Shahri.
'I think that the big firms in Portland are used to be being able to intimidate the plaintiff's bar,' Takaro said. 'I think Mitra is not easily intimidated.'
Litigious? 'If that means standing up for my clients, yes, I'm litigious,' Shahri said. 'If that means standing up to corporate bullies, yes, I'm litigious.'
'I don't back down, and that seems to anger the defense,' she added. 'I hope it does.'
Mullen, who faced Shahri, agrees that she pushes the envelope, but said, 'We have been able to disagree amicably.' As for whether Shahri's idealistic, aggressive style is an effective one, Mullen added, 'I think her personality type is probably well-suited to the kind of practice she has.'
Home Depot in cross hairs
One of the most frequent combatants to face Shahri is Home Depot, which has about a dozen stores in the greater Portland area.
According to records filed with the state's Bureau of Labor and Industries, Shahri has filed 10 BOLI complaints on behalf of her clients against Home Depot since 2003, alleging discrimination or retaliation. So far, six have turned into lawsuits, while four more are pending.
'Home Depot, shall we say, has given her lots of room to roam,' Kafoury said with a laugh. 'They made themselves into what Colin Powell would describe as a target-rich environment.'
Home Depot's main local attorney, David Hosenpud, declined to discuss Shahri or their cases together, but did concede she 'appears to be' suing his client more than any lawyer in town.
Based on Hosenpud's tone, it's clear he is not a big Shahri fan. Similarly, one local Home Depot manager said she could not comment on Shahri's lawsuits, repeatedly stressing the word 'unfortunately.' The main corporate office also declined to comment, citing pending litigation, and spokeswoman Kathryn Gallagher in Orange, Calif., declined to issue a statement defending the company's workplace practices.
In a way, Shahri is a microcosm of a string of lawsuits and pressure that Home Depot has faced across the country. Tim Smith, senior vice-president of the Walden Asset Management firm in Boston, said the attention has helped the company improve its practices, noting, 'They probably have a much better story to tell than they did five years ago.'
Still, Smith is among the many shareholder representatives who have filed resolutions urging Home Depot to go further, for instance by publicizing a workplace diversity report as Wal-Mart recently agreed to do. 'They are refusing to disclose information,' Smith said.
According to BOLI and court documents, the Home Depot allegations filed by Shahri range from simple gender discrimination to discrimination for getting pregnant, to discrimination for changing gender, such as a pending case of a woman who claimed she was discriminated against for getting testosterone shots as part of a sex-change procedure.
Then there are the harassment cases. One of Shahri's clients was a store checker who claimed she was transferred after complaining of sexual harassment; her boss allegedly made comments about her body, patted her on the rear and and made lewd remarks. Several other cashiers at the Mall 205 store whom Shahri represented claimed they were retaliated against and berated after complaining that a supervisor harassed them; with one, he offered her money to strip and tried to kiss her forcibly.
One security guard who worked at several locations claimed he was fired as part of an investigation into security guards using store surveillance cameras to focus on female shoppers' body parts and make videotapes of the footage for their own use. He claimed he was fired not for doing it, but for refusing to falsely accuse a co-worker of doing it Ñ without evidence.
In every case, Home Depot at first denied the claims, often complaining that Shahri's complaints were false and 'inflammatory.' The first six complaints filed by the lawyer, however, appear to have since been settled, because Shahri said she is not permitted to discuss them.
Big settlements rumored
Indeed, the vast majority of Shahri's claims settle before trial. This is the area in which Shahri may be helping change the way the law works in Portland Ñ because although she cannot discuss settlements, she's widely believed to be pulling down some very large ones, much bigger than the Oregon norm.
Shahri says cases in which, say, an employer falsifies records and lies under oath to cover up misdeeds were getting five-figure settlements in Oregon when she came here Ñ even though the same case would result in settlements of $1 million or more in California. 'Are Oregonians' lives worth less than Californians?' she said, adding that with large corporations, large settlements or verdicts are necessary to get them to change their ways.
Takaro says she has twice invited Shahri to speak to Oregon Trial Lawyers Association members about how she wins such big settlements.
'She is very charming, very good-looking and very witty,' said Takaro, who thinks such traits add to Shahri's success in winning settlements. 'I think the defense bar is afraid of how that charm and that wit will translate into jury verdicts.'