Legally Speaking: Brought to You by the Department of Irony

John G. Browning Apr. 15, 2010, 8:46am

In the 1994 film "Reality Bites," a recent college graduate played by Winona Ryder finds herself desperate for a job after losing her production assistant gig with a local morning television show.

"Stooping" to searching the journalism world, she is flummoxed when asked by an editor who's rejecting her to define "irony." Unable to give her a definition, Ryder's character blurts out "I know it when I see it" as the elevator door closes.

For the record, one of the definitions offered by the Random House Dictionary is "an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been expected." If you're like Ryder's movie character and you know irony when you see it, then chances are you've already seen it on more than one occasion in this very column.

Last year, I wrote about how the American Association of Retired People (AARP), a group which lobbies on behalf of older Americans on issues including age discrimination, was sued by one of its former employees. The charge? Age discrimination.

Elsewhere, I discussed how a fugitive from justice was finally tracked down and apprehended at her new place of employment – the Department of Homeland Security. Yeah, I feel safer already.

It happens where you least expect it. For example, Wisconsin's Equal Rights Division is in charge of addressing employment discrimination claims throughout the state. You would think that would make its administrators pretty sensitive to race and gender bias issues in the workplace. Apparently, not sensitive enough.

A federal judge recently held that the Equal Rights Division and its former administrator had engaged in illegal discrimination against longtime employee Johnny Kimble, a staffer and supervisor within the agency who'd been improperly denied years of raises on the basis of race and gender.

Sixty-one-year-old Kimble, who is now retired after 33 years of service, says he feels "vindicated," and notes "I guess it's ironic. I'd been protecting the rights of other people and couldn't protect my own."

If the saying "it take one to know one" holds any truth, then Denver, Colo., immigration lawyer Ravi Kanwal was probably very good at representing illegal aliens. That's because he himself was in the United States illegally

On July 8, 2009 the Executive Office for Immigration Review (a division of the U.S. Department of Justice) suspended Kanwal from practicing before immigration courts due to engaging in "unethical and unprofessional conduct," including the fact that he never disclosed to courts, clients or anyone that he'd been in the U.S. illegally since 1995. Kanwal had gotten his college degree in India and graduated from Tulane Law School in 1990. He came to the U.S. under a non-immigrant visitor visa, a temporary visa issued to those whose permanent residence is outside the U.S.

Apparently, Kanwal (whose Web site listed him as admitted to practice in Colorado, Illinois, Ohio and Louisiana) overlooked the fact that the same rules he interpreted for others applied to him as well.

I'd have to describe the next couple of cases as ironic as well. Twenty-year-old Jennifer Mercado was serving as a juror in the Bronx, N.Y., trial of an accused credit card thief. But she went from sitting in judgment to sitting in a cell after being accused of stealing the American Express card of fellow juror John Postrk.

On March 8, Postrk realized his credit card was missing from his coat pocket, and reported the theft to American Express. By March 10, he was reporting a possible suspect to the judge, after noticing that Mercado had been coming back from lunch breaks weighed down by shopping bags from stores where American Express told him his card had been used. The assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, Jacob Kaplan, reviewed store videos and saw footage of a woman who appeared to be Mercado using Postrk's card.

Twenty minutes later, Mercado returned to one of the stores and was apparently spooked when the store manager asked for I.D. She dropped Postrk's credit card and walked out of the store. She was arrested and charged with grand larceny, identity theft, and unlawful use of a credit card, among other charges.

Mercado claims that Postrk "came on to me" and gave her permission to use the card. Not surprisingly, she was removed from the jury.

In September 2006, 39-year-old Jon Eipp of Novato, Calif., pleaded guilty to charges that included computer theft; he might have had a stronger defense, but for the fact that he was also involved in another theft of computers – from the courthouse, during his trial!

It seems Eipp was free on bail during the trial, and on Wednesday after court he hid somewhere in the courthouse until after hours, at which point he tried to steal six computers and monitors by rolling them out of the building in a recycling bin. The theft was confirmed the next morning when investigators reviewed surveillance camera tapes. Eipp pleaded guilty to the new charges as well, characterizing the theft as "my way of asking for help."

My personal favorite, however, has got to be either irony or a case of poetic justice. As everybody who's been to a movie theater knows, there are few things more annoying than people who take cell phone calls during the film. In fact, the nice folks who make the movies and run the theaters have run some truly entertaining public service ads reminding people to stay off their cell phones, out of common courtesy to other moviegoers.

Taj Showers must have missed every single one of them, or perhaps she's just rude. While attending a June 14, 2008, screening of the "Incredible Hulk," the Chicago woman claims that she was "discreetly" leaning down in order to answer her cell phone when – out of nowhere – a movie theater armrest struck her.

Showers maintains that the armrest "suddenly dropped from its upright position" and struck her in the head so hard that she suffered a concussion and experienced blurred vision. She's filed a lawsuit against the theater for failing to inspect and maintain the seats, and for otherwise being negligent, and seeks in excess of $50,000.

While I confess I have my doubts about her case – c'mon, how heavy can those armrests really be? - I'm actually more tickled at the irony of the situation. If you're talking on your cell phone during a movie, and an armrest strikes you on your thick skull, then you've gotten what you had coming to you.

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