The Sweet Taste of Justice

There are two ways of looking at David Gorman's 11-year legal pursuit of Big Sugar. The 53-year-old North Palm Beach attorney is either a noble crusader or a quixotic fool. In 1989 Gorman was a successful commercial litigator with a niche specialty in construction cases. He had a penchant for...
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There are two ways of looking at David Gorman's 11-year legal pursuit of Big Sugar. The 53-year-old North Palm Beach attorney is either a noble crusader or a quixotic fool.

In 1989 Gorman was a successful commercial litigator with a niche specialty in construction cases. He had a penchant for what he calls "twilight zone" cases, the bizarre contract disputes and curious frauds that fall outside the normal purview of courtroom battles.

He also had a wife, a pension, and plans to retire in about a decade.

Today Gorman is divorced, his retirement fund is long depleted, he is in debt, and his law practice is distinctly lacking in clients who actually pay for his services. "Last year was a disaster," Gorman notes with a sigh. "Last year it took over the whole fucking year."

"It" is his epic legal battle against Big Sugar. In December 1989 Gorman agreed to get involved in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of sugar cane cutters. The sugar cane harvest has long since been mechanized, eliminating the need for the backbreaking labor, but the lawsuit (and other related cases) remains. The workers believe that for years they were systematically cheated out of their legitimate pay by the sugar companies through abusive practices such as falsifying time records.

The crux of the main suit is this: The cutters claim they were guaranteed a wage of $5.30 for each ton of sugar cane they cut, but in reality were paid closer to $3.50 per ton. The case is being brought on behalf of about 20,000 seasonal workers, mainly brought into the U.S. from Jamaica and other Caribbean nations, who worked in the sugar cane fields from 1987 to 1991.

In 1992, after Gorman and his fellow attorneys had spent months gathering depositions and collecting evidence, the original trial judge ruled in the cane cutters' favor on summary judgment before a full-fledged trial could even be held. Gorman and his two fellow attorneys won a massive settlement against all five companies: $51 million.

"At one point, when things looked good, we would say, 'Well what are you gonna name the boat, Dave? Are you gonna name it Big Sugar?'" recalls Greg Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Belle Glade. "We haven't had those conversations recently."

Three years after the $51 million award, the decision was tossed out on appeal -- and the courtroom rulings have been going against Gorman and company ever since.

"Gorman initially viewed this as another breach-of-contract case times $50 million," says James Green, the West Palm Beach attorney who initially asked Gorman to get involved in the case. "By the time we got the summary judgment, his personal sense of honor was so offended by the massive cheating that he wanted to teach 'em a lesson no matter how long it took. And I think as a consequence it's become his life's mission. Whenever anyone with a brain and a heart and with a sense of honor digs into the entrails of Big Sugar, that person's going to get outraged and offended."

Since 1992 Gorman's mission has included frequent seven-day workweeks, more than a dozen trips to Jamaica, and countless lost clients.

After the decision was reversed, the sugar companies' common defense parted ways, with each company fighting the lawsuit on its own. United States Sugar Corporation settled for $5.7 million, but the others plugged on. Gorman and company pocketed more than $1 million from the settlement. Unfortunately that money was quickly eaten up by airplane tickets, secretaries' salaries, and other mundane costs associated with the ongoing trials.

At that point the three companies owned by the politically hot-wired Fanjul family brought in some serious legal firepower: the flamboyant Willie Gary of Stuart (a child of farm workers, no less) and the matronly but deadly Elizabeth du Fresne of the prominent law firm Steel Hector & Davis, which has almost 100 lawyers in its Miami office alone. Earlier this year the first two cases, involving Okeelanta Corporation and Atlantic Sugar Association, finally made it back to trial -- and the cane cutters lost, twice.

If those verdicts stand up, Gorman stands to make not a penny on the four remaining cases. After 11 years, countless hours that went unbilled, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs that he fronted himself, he may not see a dime in return.

"We won because they have no case," says du Fresne. "That's dead serious, and I've told David that a million times. They made up out of whole cloth a theory that people who cut cane should be paid by the ton, but no one on the face of the earth had ever negotiated to pay anyone by the ton, and the Department of Labor and the State of Florida never required that anyone be paid by the ton."

Du Fresne then digs the claws in deeper. "I think they felt strongly outclassed in a trial courtroom," she says. "It's hard when you're out of your league."

Gorman declines to go in for such personal sniping -- at least on the record. But asked if he's waved the white flag on the two recently decided cases, his answer is simple. "Oh no," he says. "Fuck no."

The Okeelanta and Atlantic cases are in the process of being appealed (in part on the grounds that Gary's verbal histrionics unduly influenced the jury), with the other two on hold pending guidance from the appellate courts. Gorman is also involved in four other cases alleging mistreatment of sugar cane workers that are working their way through the courts.

"These people were not treated the way we expect human beings to be treated," Gorman says of the cane cutters. "These guys were treated not very much different than true slaves, and in some ways not as well. Because if you own a slave, you don't want to kill him."

Gorman is an unlikely crusader. Before taking on these cases, he'd never spoken with a cane cutter and knew nothing about sugar cane. He doesn't preach the liberal theology of most social-justice advocates, and he doesn't come from a legal-services background like most defenders of farm workers.

Gorman is a burly man with a full beard and a penchant for cigars, motorcycles, and the cheeseburgers at the Brass Door Pub in North Palm Beach. He's also a Vietnam vet (he enlisted) who spent a tour in country as a translator and intelligence officer in 1967 and 1968, just as the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive was getting under way.

"If people were just judging by exteriors, you would think he wrestles alligators at biker bars," says Tony Natale, a member of Gorman's co-counsel.

Last year Gorman's life was completely ruled by Big Sugar. He made four trips to Jamaica, each for anywhere from three days to a week, to take depositions and gather information. He also made trial-related visits to California, Texas, Maryland, D.C., and other places. Each trial lasted close to a month, following at least three months of full-time preparation. At one point Gorman was forced to borrow $100,000 to keep the legal operation running, $60,000 of which was immediately poured into bills related to the Okeelanta case.

Edward Tuddenham, of Austin, Texas, Gorman's co-counsel throughout the sugar cases, was dumped by his law-firm partners because they were tired of losing money arguing the cases. Like Gorman he's now a solo practitioner. "It really is hard to maintain any kind of practice," says Tuddenham. "If you just stop answering the phone for a year, people stop calling after a while."

The case has taken a personal toll as well. Although he doesn't want to talk about his divorce, Gorman acknowledges that taking on Big Sugar damaged the marriage. "When you're wondering how you're gonna pay your bills and you're gone from [dawn] until well after dark, it hurts," he says.

Gorman is now in the process of rebuilding his practice and bailing himself out of debt. He recently represented a West Palm Beach man who was cheated out of millions of dollars by a viatic scam. And T's Lounge, a West Palm Beach strip club, provides him with semiregular legal work.

But his tangles with Big Sugar are by no means finished. The main cases could easily go on for another five or seven years with appeals. On April 20 Gorman was in court again, arguing the finer points of sugar cane economics. Gorman and the cane workers claim that, according to a 1988-89 contract, the workers were guaranteed work through April 30 and that Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative illegally ended their employment on March 16.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that we're OK," Gorman says of the proceedings. "I no longer ever get overly optimistic."

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