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Favorable mention of PLN by NY civil rights attorney

New York Law Journal, Jan. 1, 2009. http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id...
Favorable mention of PLN by NY civil rights attorney - New York Law Journal 2009

Lawyer Travels Long Road From Nigeria to New York

New York Law Journal

Mark Fass

January 28, 2009

Rarely does The New York Times feature a single attorney's victories on successive pages.

When a Brooklyn lawyer recently accomplished the feat, his arrival was all the more impressive for the distance he had traveled to get there.

Litigator Anthony Ofodile grew up in a small village in eastern Nigeria with eight siblings and no running water. He dropped out of graduate school when he ran out of money and, more than 15 years after moving to the United States, his accent remains strong enough that a judge once threatened to reduce his fees because his need to repeat himself stretched out the case.

In November, Ofodile won a motion in a ground-breaking civil rights case just as his high-profile employment-discrimination trial against real estate magnate Bernard Spitzer came to a close.

Ofodile's recent victories did not go unnoticed by his fellow countrymen. After the verdict in the Spitzer case, the Intranet bulletin boards shared by many of the city's approximately 2,000 Nigerian attorneys were buzzing, according to Beatrice Hamza-Bassey, a partner at Hughes Hubbard & Reed and a former president of the Nigerian Lawyers Association.

"Everyone was obviously very thrilled," she said. "Having two back-to-back victories is certainly a great accomplishment. Nigerian lawyers here [in New York] are not doing too badly."

Ofodile, in a recent interview in his Atlantic Avenue office, said, "I've had colleagues and classmates who have sent me the clippings. I feel it's really a big honor. I was the first lawyer in my village. I don't know any other person who has [appeared in the Times.]"

The action against Spitzer, which the press had been following for weeks, dated back to 1999, when four former employees charged the real estate mogul with employment discrimination.

The plaintiffs, who had worked as a doorman and porters at an East 57th Street luxury apartment building owned by Spitzer, who is the father of the former governor, alleged that the elder Spitzer ordered a building superintendent to fire them and replace them with lighter-skinned, Hispanic workers. One man also claimed that he, unlike his fairer co-workers, was required to scrub a toilet with a toothbrush.

Last fall, soon after a Bronx Supreme Court judge denied the defense's motion for summary judgment, Ofodile said Spitzer's attorneys called him and proposed a settlement. As Ofodile recalls, they offered a total of $8,000 -- or about $1,400 per plaintiff, after attorney's fees.

"I was very concerned that maybe they didn't understand the case I had," Ofodile said.

An attorney for Spitzer did not return a call for comment.

Ofodile rejected the offer and took the matter to trial.

Spitzer insisted that he was not guilty of discrimination.

When questioned at trial by Ofodile about his consciousness of race, Spitzer told jurors, "I don't see the blackness or whiteness or pinkness or yellowness of a doorman. I have a mind that focuses on the fact that he is a doorman and functions as a doorman."

Spitzer, however, apparently failed to convince the jury. The next week, after four hours of deliberations, they awarded the men $1.3 million. A motion to vacate the verdict is pending before the court.

The same day Spitzer testified, in a federal courthouse two boroughs away, a Brooklyn judge ruled in favor of Ofodile's clients in a federal civil rights action. The case involved two Arab men taken into custody after speaking loudly and checking their watches frequently on a flight from San Diego to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

In that decision, Judge Frederic Block's denial of the government's motion for summary judgment marked the first time that an Eastern District judge has held that a suspect's ethnicity cannot serve as a factor in determining whether the government had probable cause for their "de facto arrests" (NYLJ, Nov. 25, 2008). The government has filed a notice of appeal.

Both rulings were picked up by the press, including the lengthy stories in facing pages of the Nov. 25 Times.

NIGERIAN ANTECEDENTS

Ofodile, 46, grew up in Ifite, a village in eastern Nigeria currently home to about 6,000 people, though it was much smaller when he was a child in the 1960s.

In his description, Ifite was closer to rural than undeveloped. Most villagers were farmers, growing crops such as yams, cassava and maize. After his father lost his transportation business during the civil war of the 1960s, his family too became farmers.

There were paved roads and electricity in Ifite, though no wells until 1976, when he was 14. For water, young Anthony traveled as far as eight miles round-trip each morning, carrying a bucket -- "on my head, of course" -- for his family. He would then take the family's sheep to pasture before heading to school.

Eight of the nine Ofodile children took advantage of Nigeria's then-free education and went to college. Ofodile graduated in the top two of his class of 450 at the University of Nigeria -- the school did not distinguish between first and second -- where he stayed on for law school.

Because advanced degrees in law are "highly valued and highly regarded," he set off for Ontario's Queen's University and New York's Columbia Law School, where he earned LL.M.s in 1992 and 1993.

He then began a doctorate in law, but when the money ran out, he joined up with fellow Nigerian expatriate lawyers he knew from Columbia who were looking for a litigator.

Even with his unique background and impressive transcripts, Ofodile never seriously considered working at a major corporate firm. "The chance of litigating with my accent was very little," he said.

Eventually he opened up his own shop, "and I'm grateful that I did."

As a young attorney, Ofodile soon settled into a small practice specializing in civil rights and employment discrimination cases. He built his practice by taking out advertisements in smaller, cheaper publications targeted toward lower-income communities, such as the Hispanic Yellow Pages, though he is hesitant to discuss marketing specifics in detail.

"I do some ads that don't cost you an arm and a leg," Ofodile said with a smile. "I'm not going to give you all my trade secrets."

Among the best ways for a civil rights attorney to spread his name around, he said, is to win a case that gets picked up by Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine dedicated to protecting prisoners' rights. In his case, after the magazine ran a story in 2006 on his $1.25 million settlement of a prisoner's medical malpractice action, the letters began pouring in. He now receives well over a 100 letters a month, each outlining purported injustices committed by the government.

Though Ofodile has assigned one of his three associates to reading and sorting the letters, stacks of unopened mail are piled up throughout his office. They will all be read eventually, he promises.

'MOMENTS OF ODDNESS'

Ofodile's accent remains strong, occasionally indecipherable and a frequent focus of attention.

"There are some moments of oddness until [jurors] get used to my intonation," Ofodile said. "I've had occasions where a judge mentions it, but I say, 'I can't help it.'"

In one case, he recalled, a judge suggested that perhaps he did not deserve all of his requested fees, as the accent made the trial last "longer than it maybe should have." The judge nonetheless awarded the full fee.

At one point in the recent discrimination trial, Spitzer complained, "I'm afraid I can't make out specifically what you're saying." Ofodile said that Spitzer was feigning an inability to understand, in order to gain sympathy from the jury. "He's a sly old fox," Ofodile said.

Ofodile's practice has now expanded beyond his original base of predominantly Nigerians and prisoners. Current clients include a group of Russian emergency medical workers claiming employment discrimination, a white City University of New York professor alleging sexual discrimination and a white assistant principal who is suing the New York City Education Department for allegedly retaliating against her for reporting the abuse of children.

No longer the perpetual student, Ofodile now commutes to the Brooklyn office he owns from his home in Armonk, N.Y., where he lives in order to provide his two young sons "a village environment, like I grew up in."

His wife spends most of the year at the University of Arkansas, where she teaches law.

His professional goals have changed as well.

"My goal at Columbia was to save $50,000 and go back to Nigeria to make something of myself," Ofodile said. "Now that's what it costs to run the office for a month or two."