Legally Speaking: The World Turned Upside Down-Part I

John G. Browning Apr. 30, 2008, 3:39am

After the British army formally surrendered to George Washington at the Battle of Yorktown, heralding the end of the Revolutionary War, Gen. Cornwallis' once-proud military band played a tune they must have thought quite appropriate � "The World Turned Upside Down."

Given the strangeness of recent goings-on in the legal world, I can't help but whistle that tune myself as I ponder some of the following developments.

If you're looking for a motivational speaker for that next corporate outing, here's a couple of people to cross off your list: Jon Burks and Joshua Christopherson.

Burks is a principal at New Braunfels Middle School. According to a complaint filed Jan. 21 by teacher Anita White, Burks' "pep talk" to a group of science teachers consisted of telling the educators that if their students didn't improve their Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test scores, "I will kill you all and kill myself."

Thanks, Mr. Burks; with all the other challenges facing teachers these days (low pay, inadequate resources, over-crowded schools), why not add impending death to the list?

Joshua Christopherson is a supervisor for Prosper Inc., a company that sells "coaching packages" for prices ranging from $3,000 to $15,000. At a meeting in May 2007 in Provo, Utah, Christopherson asked his sales team for a volunteer for a "team-building exercise."

Expecting something akin to the previous exercise � an egg toss � salesman Chad Hudgens stepped forward. Co-workers then pinned Hudgens down on his back while Christopherson poured water down his nose and mouth � a simulated drowning technique best known as "waterboarding" and which is practiced on suspected terrorists.

Hudgens says that "toward the end, I'm starting to black out, I'm getting very lightheaded. The sensation that's going through my head is 'I'm going to drown.'"

Hudgens has filed a civil lawsuit against his former employer for using the torture technique. Prosper's general counsel, George Brunt, claims the whole thing is a misunderstanding and that Christopherson was simply inspired by the Greek philosopher Socrates, who reportedly held a student's head underwater and told him he should want to learn as badly as he wanted air.

Something tells me that's a little different from the Socratic method Brunt and I learned in law school.

Maybe a motivational speaker, or simply a good dose of common sense, is what the San Diego, Calif., City Council needs. The American Civil Liberties Union fought the city over the Mount Soledad cross, a historic cross at a San Diego veterans' memorial.

The ACLU demanded the removal of the symbol, continuing the battle even though 76 percent of the voters supported maintaining the cross where it was built and even after the federal government took over the site and San Diego no longer had control over it.

The lawsuit cost taxpayers dearly, including $900,000 in taxpayer funds awarded to the ACLU. One might think that such litigation wouldn't exactly endear the ACLU to the San Diego city government. Think again.

In a 5-2 vote, the city council voted in March to honor the ACLU with a special day of recognition "for the work they do." While council member Toni Atkins (who proposed the honor) stands by the resolution, city council candidate and Christian activist James Hartline sharply criticized the move.

"The American Civil Liberties Union has done everything possible to destroy Christianity in the American culture and government. From tearing down crosses on public property to removing crosses and the Ten Commandments from governmental buildings, there has been no greater hate machine against our constitutional right to free religious expression in America than the ACLU," Hartline said.

From one stupid move to another, the bonehead of the month award probably goes to the University of Texas at San Antonio. Students there were working on a project to draft an honor code that penalized cheating and plagiarism. Unfortunately, however, the student in charge of drafting the code, Akshay Thusu, submitted a code that had been � you guessed it � plagiarized from another university.

Apparently, UTSA's code matched, word-for-word, significant portions of the Brigham Young University student honor code. You'd think someone might have caught on when they got to the Mormon references.

UTSA is not the only university in hot water. Yale University is being sued by Dongguk University in South Korea, after the Buddhist-affiliated school came under fire for hiring a professor who lied about her credentials.

After hiring art history professor Shin Jeong-ah in 2005, Dongguk University officials asked Yale for confirmation of Shin's claim that she had earned a doctorate from the Ivy League school. An associate dean at Yale mistakenly confirmed the degree.

After questions surfaced about Shin and her alleged credentials, the South Korean university's president apologized, Buddhist monks called for the dismissal of Dongguk's governing board, and prosecutors initiated a criminal investigation.

Dongguk's lawsuit seeks at least $50 million in damages, maintaining that Yale's negligence "severely tarnished" the university's reputation, cost employees their jobs, and triggered a decline in financial support as well as student applications.

Yale, which describes the error as an administrative mistake, initially claimed that it had never received the letter from Dongguk seeking confirmation, and that the letter from a Yale associate dean confirming the degree was a forgery.

Then U.S. Postal Service tracking records surfaced showing that a Yale staff member had indeed signed for the letter, and Yale changed its story. And to think that, back in the day, I actually applied to Yale Law School. I could have just told people I went there � Yale's crackerjack administration probably would have backed me up.

A copy of the R.E.M. song "It's the End of the World As We Know It" goes to Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho. The two men filed a lawsuit this March in federal court in Hawaii naming the U.S. Department of Energy, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the National Science Foundation, and CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) as defendants.

Wagner and Sancho believe that researchers at CERN have assembled a giant particle accelerator (called the Large Hadron Collider) that will begin smashing protons together outside Geneva, Switzerland, this summer and that this activity could produce a black hole that would swallow the Earth.

The plaintiffs are seeking a temporary restraining order prohibiting CERN from moving forward with the collider until it has produced a safety report and an environmental assessment.

Putting aside the question of how a federal court in Hawaii can have jurisdiction over a European scientific organization, I have to wonder how a federal judge, who has probably seen his share of hyperbole from lawyers before, will react to a lawsuit after hearing the plaintiffs tell him that what's at stake could be the future of our planet.

But if you really want a sign that the apocalypse might be upon us, how about a new Web site called SueEasy, that supposedly makes it easier for people to join in pending lawsuits. The Internet site (registered to a Mountain View, Calif., company called Webtronaut Innovations) allows users to browse pending court cases online and join other consumers' litigation.

SueEasy says that "our primary concern is for you to register a genuine complaint or grievance as quickly and as simply as possible," and promises to help consumers to attract "the best in legal help with the least amount of hassles."

Essentially, attorneys are charged a monthly fee to view potential cases of varying types, ranging from dog bites and slip and falls to medical malpractice cases.

Darren McKinney of the American Tort Reform Association calls the Web site the latest sign of "an attitude that runs against personal responsibility and seems to promote the notion that whatever negative happens in your life somebody else can be blamed for and thus sued."

A Web site that matches up lawyers with potential litigants like a dating service? What's next � a drive-through window at the courthouse? A carpool lane for chasing ambulances? Maybe the world has turned upside down.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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