It’s 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon, and personal-injury lawyer Jim Rogers is about to put in an appearance at his favorite court — the middle court of UC Berkeley’s Recreational Sports Facility. The 47-year-old Cal graduate is a regular here at the gym, where he tries to drop by a couple of times a week for a quick pickup basketball game.
The lanky lawyer talks furiously into his hands-free cell phone while warming up, sometimes tossing off a distracted left-handed jump shot as he paces around the key. He is the ultimate multitasker, frequently combining legal business and exercise. He talks like a foul-mouthed Disney character, casually throwing around phrases such as “blah-dee-blah” and “okeydokey” while occasionally punctuating his conversation with cruder language. In one typically nasal outburst, Rogers barks into his phone, “He fucked up.”
Even players he’s never met before refer to him by name. There’s a reason they all know Jim Rogers, and it’s not his jump shot. Rogers is a post-modern celebrity. You probably know him better as “the People’s Lawyer,” the goofy-looking guy with Shirley Temple locks whose ads are a ubiquitous feature of Bay Area late-night TV.
Rogers came of age professionally in the era in which lawyers first began advertising. One quarter-century ago, such advertising was not only gauche, it was illegal. But since the US Supreme Court opened the door to legal advertising in the 1977 case Bates v. Arizona, an entirely new type of law firm has arisen — the high-volume personal-injury factory. Firms of this type use steady advertising to build a large volume of smaller cases, many of which are handled and even settled without a single face-to-face meeting between client and attorney.
Few Bay Area law firms better exemplify this trend than the Law Offices of James M. Rogers. The People’s Lawyer boasts one of the busiest personal-injury practices in the Bay Area. At any given time, his office has up to 1,000 clients from Vallejo to San Jose and San Francisco to Walnut Creek. Rogers has been successful enough to use the money from his practice to help finance a political career.
After passing the California Bar in 1980, and working briefly for a Berkeley-based personal injury attorney, Rogers started his own practice and began calling himself “the People’s Lawyer” in radio ads in the early 1980s. Seeking an identity that would characterize him as a populist champion of “regular folks,” the liberal but independent-minded Democrat coined his now- ubiquitous moniker. By the mid-’80s, he had moved up to television.
Rogers’ first ads were nothing special: a lawyer in a conservative suit standing in what looked like a law library offering his services to victims of car accidents. But over time his ads became riskier, quirkier, and more confrontational. Some picked on the insurance industry: “Don’t get victimized by car insurance companies and health plans that cut costs at your expense,” he warned in one. Others positioned Rogers as willing to tackle the tough cases that other lawyers ducked: “The California State Automobile Association is so hard-nosed even to its own policyholders that lawyers turn down thousands of good car accident cases against AAA — that’s not fair.” Rogers even seemed willing to tangle with his peers: “You have a legal right to hire or fire your lawyer at any time — and the lawyers share only one fee when your case settles.”
Clients such as 25-year-old San Pablo hairstylist Nichole Williamson hired the People’s Lawyer based on the impression generated by these ads. On Halloween of 1999, Williamson was rear-ended in her Mazda 626 and thought she might need a lawyer to haggle with the other driver’s insurance company. She took her business to the People’s Lawyer because she’d always liked his line about hiring or firing a lawyer at any time. To her, this seemed like a consumer guarantee she’d never seen any other lawyer advertise.
What Williamson never imagined, however, was that Rogers might fire her. And by the time she and the People’s Lawyer had parted ways, Williamson was just the latest in a long line of unsatisfied customers.
Over the past decade, more than a dozen ex-clients have sued Rogers and his firm for malpractice, professional negligence, fraud, or violating fair business practices. Most of these cases were ultimately settled, with at least some compensation ultimately given to Rogers’ client. Many other clients, such as Williamson, simply settled for less than Rogers’ ads seemed to promise. Nor are his former clients the only ones pissed off at Rogers. Insurers grouse that he stiffs them on medical fees. Other personal-injury attorneys say he cheated them out of legal fees on cases he poached from them and then settled.
Rogers says having such a large practice is a mixed blessing. “If you have ten times as many cases as somebody, you have ten times as many unhappy people,” he says. “It’s often overlooked that you also have ten times as many happy people.”
Still, last year was a particularly turbulent one for the People’s Lawyer. In the summer, a judge found that Rogers and his firm botched a potentially lucrative slip-and-fall case in which Rogers purportedly pressured his client to change sworn testimony and take an $85,000 settlement. In September, a former client sued him for professional negligence after his office forgot to file a lawsuit before the statute of limitations ran out on her case. And just last month, California’s attorney general sued him to recover payment for more than $21,000 in medical bills that he and a former client allegedly owe.
Some of Rogers’ tactics are simply industry norms among a certain breed of personal-injury lawyers. For instance, these days practically no personal-injury attorney with a case that doesn’t at least involve some broken bones, facial scars, or missing limbs wants to risk a jury trial against deep-pocketed insurance companies. Rogers also concedes that sometimes he or his employees make mistakes, like any lawyers. “I have a large number of cases in the office; sometimes a screwup will happen,” he says. But Rogers says he mostly takes heat for doing things differently than other lawyers. “When you do stuff other people don’t do, you become a lightning rod for criticism,” he says. “That’s the nature of the beast.”
The People’s Lawyer makes no apologies for how he does business. In fact, Rogers has celebrated his oversize public profile in his own late-night advertising. In one such ad, while wearing baby-blue slacks and a ridiculous sweatshirt festooned with cows, Rogers joked about how his ads now shared space with the fast-talking used-car salesmen he once laughed at. In another ad, he even made fun of his own nerdy on-screen persona: “One of my ads says, ‘I’m not an actor, I’m a lawyer specializing in car accidents.’ My friends all said, ‘You’re right, you’re not an actor.'”
But Rogers may indeed be a better actor than attorney, his critics say. Although the People’s Lawyer bills himself as an accident victim’s comrade in the fight against evil insurance companies and HMOs, his critics say the truth is rather different. Jim Rogers and his colleagues actually avoid trial at all costs, thereby making it easier for the opposition to lowball his clients. And Rogers himself admits that he has never — never — personally tried a case in his 22-year legal career.
In fact, the People’s Lawyer spends more time in court fighting with his clients than fighting for them.
“Have you or a friend been hurt in a car accident? Call the People’s Lawyer at 444-4441 for a free consultation. You pay absolutely nothing unless we recover money for your injuries. Big business and insurance companies have their lawyers, but you have the People’s Lawyer.”
As Jim Rogers’ practice and profile grew, so did complaints from his disgruntled clients. Because not only is Rogers’ advertising unusual, so are some of his business methods.
For years the People’s Lawyer maintained a large caseload by sending many clients to small-claims court and then charging them as much as a 46 percent fee. It was a novel business strategy. For one thing, people can’t be represented by an attorney in small-claims court, which caps awards at $5,000. Rogers was charging an unusually high fee for making his clients fend for themselves in front of a judge.
Rogers reasoned that the only way to make money in such small cases was to charge an extra-high fee. Often, he said he wound up losing money, although he insists that his clients did better than if they had tried to fight it out in a regular court. “The bottom line is real simple,” he says. “Clients got more money, they got it quicker, and they got it with less harassment.”
But not every client liked being shuffled off to small-claims court and still having to pay Rogers almost half of the settlement. Gripes such as these eventually made their way to the state Bar, which licenses and disciplines attorneys in California. On the day after Christmas in 1996, the Bar accused Rogers of overcharging his clients. The 23-page complaint also brought to light some other dubious business practices, such as an unusual feature in Rogers’ retainer contracts that authorized him to settle and dismiss cases without client approval as long as the client’s share exceeded $100. The Bar also cited many instances in which Rogers’ office took a one-third share of his clients’ medical payments for doing nothing more than processing their insurance paperwork. And, after one unhappy client won a judgment, Rogers allegedly refused to give her the settlement check unless she agreed not to sue him for malpractice.
Rogers ultimately escaped with a “private reproval,” the mildest form of discipline the state Bar imposes. The Bar’s deputy trial counsel, Donald Steedman, concluded that Rogers hadn’t intended to harm his clients or break any rules, and had simply failed to explain the fine print in his agreements. Steedman also cited the lawyer’s candor and cooperation as mitigating factors. Rogers agreed to change his business practices and not charge fees above 40 percent. The Bar decided not to order Rogers to ethics school. After all, he’d already been there three years earlier as a result of a separate confidential reproval for an undisclosed violation. Rogers got off with a public hand-slap — and a chance to change his ways.
“Look, let’s be honest. I’m not an actor. I’m not an announcer. I’m a lawyer with eight years’ experience handling car-accident cases. I can tell you insurance companies don’t pay you anything just because they’re generous. The car-accident specialists at the People’s Lawyer will help you build a good case so you can get a good settlement as soon as possible. If you want some straight talk without any obligation, without any pressure, call the People’s Lawyer for a free consultation at 444-4441.”
Sherman Rothman went to work for Jim Rogers shortly after the state Bar filed its 1996 disciplinary complaint. If anyone should know how Rogers responded to the Bar’s warning, it’s Rothman.
Rothman worked for Rogers as a glorified paralegal, but the 76-year-old actually had spent about thirty years as a personal-injury lawyer. Then his life took a dramatic change. Shortly after moving from New York to California, he suffered a serious heart attack. When doctors advised him to reduce the stress in his life, he decided not to apply for the California Bar. Instead, he spent several years selling real estate. Then one day, another opportunity came along. His wife was friendly with a lawyer who worked for the celebrated People’s Lawyer. Rogers asked Rothman to work as a senior paralegal, and the idea appealed to Rothman.
But on his very first day, Rothman began worrying that he’d signed on with an amateur. The office itself looked embarrassing, with its old furniture and metal desks reminiscent of elementary school. Rothman also found no law library on the premises — in marked contrast to the impression created by Rogers’ TV ads. (Rogers insists that he has one, but refused to let a reporter visit his office to see it.)
Most notably, Rothman never once saw his boss or anyone else in the office take a case to jury trial. “He never wanted to go to trial,” Rothman recalls. “His whole objective was, take as many cases as you can, settle them, … and get out.” In contrast to the ads in which Rogers promised to fight tightfisted insurance companies, Rothman says insurance attorneys actually all knew that Rogers was a pushover. Because they all knew of his reputation for settling everything and rarely — if ever — going to trial, they lowballed Rogers’ clients. To make matters worse, settlement talks with insurance adjusters were often left in the hands of inexperienced paralegals fresh out of college, Rothman says. “You cannot get an insurance company to make an offer of substance when they know your attorney doesn’t try cases or even refer them to an outside trial counsel,” he says.
Other Bay Area legal professionals back up Rothman’s assertions. One insurance lawyer, who asked not to be named, said that when a rear-end injury case came across her desk not too long ago, she asked a colleague about the plaintiff’s attorney, James M. Rogers. She says the other attorney told her, “Oh, they’ll never try that case.”
To be fair, not all disputed injury cases end up in court. And Rogers is hardly the only lawyer who prefers settling cases to trying them. Trials are expensive for lawyers, and doctors and expert witnesses also have to be paid for their time on the stand. Often, attorneys negotiate settlements with the other side’s insurance carrier without filing a lawsuit. But if a lawyer can’t cut a deal before the statute of limitations runs out, then the attorney typically files a court complaint on behalf of the injured client. Even then, however, the courts require both sides to sit down and attempt to work something out in a settlement conference before going to a jury trial.
Rogers concedes that his strengths lie outside the courtroom. “I don’t do a lot of that,” he offers. “Other people are geared up to do the court stuff and I try to be available for various calls.” But while many attorneys try not to go to court whenever possible, and even farm out their trial work to specialty firms, what distinguishes the Law Offices of James M. Rogers is that it almost never goes to trial — or even refers out big cases to firms that have trial experience.
“There’s a lot of guys who are advertising lawyers, they’re basically business-getters,” says Rick Simons, a Hayward personal-injury lawyer who served as president of the California Trial Lawyers Association in 1998 and testified as an expert witness against Rogers in a malpractice case last year. “You look in the Yellow Pages, you can look on the TV during the soaps, and you see these lawyers. … A lot of them have never seen the inside of a courtroom unless they got a traffic ticket. But virtually all of them have a big firm of trial heavyweights that they work with and when they get a big case that’s where it goes, and then they get a chunk of the fee back.”
Rogers’ firm also is notorious for skimping on investigators, photographers, and even new furniture — something Williamson, the San Pablo hairstylist, discovered during an appointment with Rogers last year at his downtown Oakland office. “It looked like a thrift store,” she recalls. “The desks were old, the chairs were old, the couch looked like it was older than me.”
Williamson says she went to visit Rogers after he and a colleague began pressuring her to accept what she considered a lowball settlement offer of $15,000. The offer apparently pleased Rogers, who would walk away with a 40 percent fee of $6,000. But Williamson, who had to be taken away from the scene of her accident in an ambulance, would only net $1,800, plus $7,300 to cover her medical bills. She felt she deserved more for all the time she’d lost and pain she’d suffered.
Williamson says Rogers and one of his lawyers warned her of the risks and costs of going to trial in an unpredictable legal climate with unfriendly juries. Still, she didn’t budge. “I understand some cases need to be settled and they can be settled just fine, but some cases need to go to trial,” she reasons. “And it was like, ‘I am not going no matter what you say’ — that’s the type of attitude I got from him.”
And so, five days before Williamson’s witness list was due in court, she says the People’s Lawyer quit on her rather than take her case to trial.
Rogers refused to go into detail about his dispute with Williamson, offering only that she asked him to stop working in her behalf following a total breakdown in the attorney-client relationship.
“You’re hurt in a car accident, can’t work, can’t drive. Car insurance companies, including your own, delay or cut payments to you. Your doctor doesn’t believe you’re really injured. Call the People’s Lawyer at 444-4441 for a lawyer and a doctor who are on your side, who will wait until the case settles to get paid, who know that people really do get hurt in car accidents. Call now for a free consultation with no obligation.”
Sherman Rothman had a theory about why the attorney-client relationship broke down in so many of Rogers’ cases. He says Rogers seemed to not to have his clients’ best interests at heart.
Rothman recalls one instance in which he negotiated a settlement for a client and then went to tell his boss about the deal. The insurance company was making a good offer and the client could pay less in attorneys’ fees. It was good news for the client, Rothman beamed. But instead of rejoicing, Rothman says Rogers directed him to hold up the settlement and immediately mail a certified letter demanding arbitration. Mailing such a letter would automatically trigger a provision in Rogers’ retainer that jacked up his fee from 33 to 40 percent. Rothman refused, saying it was tantamount to fraud — and later testified under oath about the episode in a malpractice suit against his former boss. “I said, ‘Don’t do it,'” Rothman says. “It didn’t stop him.”
After about eighteen months on the job, Rothman couldn’t stomach working for Rogers anymore and quit. He then began what would ultimately turn into a crusade against his former boss, filing an eleven-point complaint against Rogers with the California Bar.
Rogers denies Rothman’s allegations. He notes that the state Bar investigated Rothman’s accusations but took no action: “If I’m really doing all this horrible stuff Sherman says I am, why can’t he produce any evidence?” Rogers points out that Rothman can’t remember the name of the client he overcharged. “It’s just like, ‘Jim’s doing this, Jim’s doing that.’ … Where’s the beef? Where’s the proof?”
Last year, however, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ken Kawaichi found proof enough to convince him that Rogers had done the same thing in other cases. In a malpractice case against Rogers, Kawaichi ruled that Rogers was guilty of “commencing lawsuits to increase attorneys’ fees to 40 percent after reaching settlements.” Rogers points out that Kawaichi later vacated his decision over a technicality. But Rogers’ own lawyer already had conceded in writing that his client jacked up fees in this manner.
Rothman also recalls having personally dismissed a case at Rogers’ direction without telling the client what was going on. He says there was a standing order in the office to secretly dismiss any case in which he’d have to go up against a particularly aggressive insurance lawyer named William Hoback. According to Rothman, in such cases Rogers ordered his employees to dismiss the case and pretend the insurance company had made an offer. The People’s Lawyer then allegedly directed his employees to negotiate a settlement with the clueless client and pay the price out of Rogers’ own pocket. In other words, Rogers deceived his clients to protect himself from nosy questions about his own conduct. Rogers doesn’t deny that he dropped some cases in which Hoback was on the other side, although he says his rival’s presence wasn’t his only motive. “There were cases where we settled them for tactical reasons and we paid off the client because it was gonna be a pain in the ass and take a lot of time to litigate the case. But no, we didn’t settle it without getting the client’s okay. … In some cases there would be enough money in the pot because there was an offer, granted a lousy offer, if I cut my fees or maybe talked to the doctors into cutting their fees there’d be enough money to get the client there, so in some cases that was the situation. In other cases, there wasn’t and I would pay out of my pocket.”
But Hoback did get one chance to interrogate Rogers under oath five years ago. In that situation, Rogers had been fired by his own client so he couldn’t dismiss the case as a way to get out of testifying. That doesn’t mean he didn’t try to avoid it. Hoback asked him at the deposition to confirm whether he’d tried to bribe his former client.
“You offered him $1,000 to dismiss this case to get out of coming here today, is that correct?” Hoback asked.
“That’s correct,” Rogers curtly replied.
Why was Rogers so hesitant to avoid facing Hoback on the stand? Rothman believes it was his fear that he might be cross-examined about his curious business arrangements with chiropractors.
“If you’ve been in a car accident, don’t let insurance companies and health plans save money by shorting you. Let a car-accident specialist from the People’s Lawyer recover money for you as soon as possible. We’ll get you a personal doctor to reduce your pain. Not an HMO, which reduces treatment to save money. You don’t pay anything to the People’s Lawyer or your doctor until we recover money for you. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Call now for a free consultation with no obligation at 444-4441.”
Hoback’s firm had been retained by insurance carriers, primarily Allstate, to investigate people they suspected of committing insurance fraud. After someone in Rogers’ office leaked Hoback a ream of internal documents, the insurance lawyer spied some of the inner workings of Rogers’ practice. They were unique in several ways.
One interesting discovery was that Rogers had worked out a deal with several Bay Area chiropractors in which he or his staff would designate certain clients as “limited-charge patients.” Rogers used the designation for clients who had iffy cases with minor vehicle damage. When treating such clients, the chiropractors agreed to call Rogers’ office any time it looked like the bill was going to exceed $1,500. Why? If chiropractor bills got too big, especially in car accidents with little impact or vehicle damage, the stubborn insurance companies wouldn’t settle and might take a case to trial — and Rogers didn’t want that. If the bills hit the $1,500 trigger, Rogers or someone in his firm would warn the chiropractors that they might not get paid if they continued to provide treatment on credit. Sometimes, he testified at a 1997 deposition, he’d even instruct doctors in writing to “pull patient out of treatment.” Nonetheless, Rogers insisted he wasn’t making medical decisions for his clients or setting a health price-cap for some of them. He merely passed along information to the chiropractors — they made the final decision. “We tell the doctor that the case is at a point where we don’t believe they have a reasonable chance of getting paid at this point,” he explains. “They make a decision about whether at that point they want to continue to treat or not.” Most of them would decide not to, he says.
The irony is that in his ads, Rogers chastises health-maintenance organizations for limiting medical treatments to their patients. In reality, however, he is doing much the same thing to his own clients — perfectly legal as that may be.
Hoback was more intrigued by a peculiar deal that Rogers apparently had with nearly all his chiropractors. Under Hoback’s interpretation of two documents that Rogers penned by hand in the mid-’90s, chiropractors who worked with the People’s Lawyer had to agree to negotiate bill reductions before they even saw a patient. While it is not uncommon for medical providers to negotiate bill reductions after a case settles, doing so beforehand is practically unheard of — and possibly illegal. The state Business and Professions Code prohibits chiropractors from agreeing to advance “rebates” or “reductions” — kickbacks, in essence — in exchange for patient referrals.
Hoback says he turned over the documents leaked to him by Rogers’ employee to the Alameda County district attorney, and was later contacted by the FBI.
Rogers insists that he never did anything improper and suggests that Hoback, whom he describes as Allstate’s “pit bull,” is out to intimidate personal-injury attorneys. Rogers says he never had an understanding with any chiropractors that they would automatically reduce their bills. He suggests that Hoback misread an element of the documents, which he said he rendered null and void about five years ago after Hoback began making a fuss about them. Rogers said he originally wrote the contracts to avoid future disagreements with doctors.
Neither the district attorney nor the FBI, which interviewed Hoback about Rogers’ business practices, ever filed charges against the People’s Lawyer.
But Hoback adopted a particularly aggressive strategy with the People’s Lawyer. Whenever he had a case in which Rogers was the attorney of record on the other side, he’d subpoena him to testify about his own peculiar deals with chiropractors. “And each time I did that, before the case came to trial, I would receive a dismissal,” Hoback says. “Then ultimately, the carriers told me, he refused to file any case where I was working for that carrier.”
“One of my ads says I’m not an actor, I’m a lawyer specializing in car accidents. My friends all said, ‘You’re right, you’re not an actor.’ Okay, no slick talk, just facts. One: Victims get paid if you build a good case, not just because you’re injured. Two: Delays can ruin your case. Three: You have a right to hire or fire your lawyer at any time for any reason.”
In the months before Sherman Rothman quit working for the People’s Lawyer, he realized Rogers had stumbled across what had the potential to be one of the biggest cases of his legal career.
In the spring of 1997, construction worker Todd Wilson fell from an improperly designed balcony at his second-floor apartment in Vallejo, severely fracturing his right ankle and left wrist. Complications later resulted in his right leg being amputated below the knee. But Wilson’s case was far more challenging than those facts might otherwise suggest. He also was an alcoholic, and had been on a bender before he fell — drinking nearly two bottles of whiskey, smoking methamphetamine, and popping painkillers. A good defense lawyer could easily make it look like Wilson’s inebriation caused the fall and that he was looking for his big payday.
Rothman believed Wilson needed a lawyer who knew his way around a courtroom. The People’s Lawyer hadn’t even deposed an expert witness since the ’80s, and the one bona fide trial lawyer in his office, who’d argued no more than a half-dozen or so jury cases, quit around the same time as Rothman. So when Rothman resigned, he wrote Rogers insisting that he farm out the case to experienced outside counsel. “There is, to the best of my knowledge, no one with any jury trial experience in your office that is even remotely capable of handling a matter of this magnitude,” he wrote, adding that every lawyer in town “knows that your office will do almost anything in order not to try a case.” Even Rogers’ most senior colleague, who had done only two jury trials in the past ten years, knew she was overmatched. “I told Jim that this case probably looked like it was going to trial and I didn’t feel I could handle it, and there was no one else in the office that had more experience than I do,” lawyer Judith Marsh recalled during a deposition.
Rogers did retain an outside lawyer, but not the kind Rothman had in mind. He contracted with a lawyer who he paid the bargain-basement rate of $50 an hour. To put that in perspective, Rogers’ firm charged $60 to $80 an hour for work done by its own paralegals. Rogers also never bothered to hire an investigator to interview witnesses who could potentially back up Wilson’s version of events.
He did, however, tap a couple of expert witnesses. The construction expert proved highly useful, concluding that the balcony’s guardrail was too short and below building-code standards. But the mechanics safety expert expressed serious doubts about Wilson’s version of events. He believed Wilson hadn’t fallen but actually jumped feetfirst from the balcony. It was bad news, but not necessarily a case-killer — for most lawyers.
But Rogers and his associates committed a blunder that no experienced trial lawyer would have: They disclosed the identity of their expert witness in court before they knew what he had to say. A trial lawyer typically hires a potential expert witness first as a “consultant,” whose involvement doesn’t have to be disclosed to the other side. Then, if the consultant renders a favorable opinion, the lawyer promotes the consultant to expert witness. Nor did Rogers and his crew ask the court to let them replace their expert, which they could have done.
Rogers and his colleagues say that they and their client agreed to pretend to move the case toward trial while actually trying to settle as quickly as possible before the other side found out about their own expert’s testimony. Wilson says he knew nothing of this bluff strategy, arguing later that Rogers’ only interest was in settling and collecting his fee.
In June of 1999, Rogers and Marsh insisted that Wilson accept the other side’s latest offer. The case that Rothman thought might be worth millions settled for $85,000. Afterward, Wilson called Rothman to complain about the job that Rogers had done. Rothman agreed to help him find a new attorney to sue Rogers for malpractice.
The task of suing the People’s Lawyer ultimately fell on Rothman’s new boss, Hayward-based personal-injury attorney Ross Meltzer. What Wilson told Meltzer about his injury case only confirmed Meltzer’s own suspicions about the Rogers firm, and so he pursued a two-pronged claim against the People’s Lawyer. One specifically alleged malpractice in Wilson’s case, and the other accused Rogers generally of unfair business practices that affect more clients than Wilson.
Wilson recalled that after his first day at his deposition, in which he repeated his standard story that he tripped and fell, the Rogers legal team was unhappy with him. By now, they doubted his version of things. As Wilson ultimately told a judge, his attorneys wanted him to change his testimony at his next deposition and say that he could have been wrong the day before and, well, he actually couldn’t remember how he fell. They wanted him to lie, he later alleged in court, adding that if he didn’t do it, they threatened to resign as his attorneys. At his next deposition, Wilson followed his lawyers’ advice.
As Meltzer saw it, Rogers and his sidekicks had essentially told their client to commit perjury. In doing so, they poisoned Wilson’s case, making it totally impossible to sell to a jury because Wilson now would look like a liar. Now he had to settle. But Wilson said he didn’t want to settle for the going price of $85,000. According to Wilson’s complaint against Rogers, Marsh coerced him into accepting the bad deal by refusing to drive him to the hospital to treat his injured leg, which was supposedly ailing him, unless the case settled that day.
Rogers and his colleagues insisted that they never told their client to lie, but rather advised him not to testify to anything he couldn’t clearly remember. Rogers’ malpractice lawyer also pointed out that the trial judge had deemed the $85,000 settlement a fair one.
After a three-week bench trial, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ken Kawaichi issued a July decision concluding that Rogers and his legal team had urged Wilson to lie under oath. The judge concluded that the attorneys forced their client to take a bad deal in a case in which Wilson had suffered roughly $1.2 million in damages. The judge also found that Rogers didn’t investigate the accident adequately, thereby leaving their expert witness hamstrung. Kawaichi wrote that Rogers’ services “fell below the standard of care and were unlawful violations of the Business & Professions Code … which may be characterized as fraud.” The judge, however, stopped short of finding that Rogers and his surrogates committed intentional malpractice. Nonetheless, Kawaichi ordered Rogers to pay Wilson for bungling the case. Because he concluded that Wilson bore two-thirds of the responsibility for his accident, he awarded Wilson another $300,200 on top of the $85,000 he originally received.
The ruling damaged Rogers’ reputation as well as his pocketbook. When Rogers represented Wilson, the People’s Lawyer didn’t carry malpractice insurance. Although the law at the time required him to disclose that to Wilson in his contract, Rogers didn’t do so — another thing Kawaichi criticized him for. But Rogers’ malpractice lawyer earned his fee by persuading Judge Kawaichi to vacate the ruling on a technicality.
Shortly after Judge Kawaichi undid his initial ruling, Rogers reached a secret out-of-court financial settlement with Wilson. By doing so, Rogers avoided having a final judgment entered into the record, casting an ever-so-slight sliver of doubt on Kawaichi’s damning decision. The judge made several damaging findings — not just about Rogers’ actions in the Wilson case, but about his practice in general — repeatedly using the word “unlawful.”
Rogers stresses that the judge’s decision was premature. What Rogers doesn’t note is that his own attorney’s alternative proposal included much of the same damning language, although he often omitted the word “unlawful.” And while this alternative decision didn’t use the phrase “perjury,” it allowed that Rogers and his cohorts had urged Wilson to change his previous sworn testimony.
When asked about the settlement, Rogers provided a Reader’s Digest version of what happened in the case: “My client had a very difficult case. By his own admission he was drunk, he’s doped up, he’s sleepless, he goes off the balcony, it’s not clear whether the defendant has anything to do with it or not, the other side makes an offer obviously a lot less than the full value of the case. We’re in front of a judge, he [Wilson] accepts it, decides he doesn’t like it, later sues me. Basically the judge in San Mateo thinks it was an okay settlement and signed off on it, but the judge in Alameda decides it’s a bad settlement and hits me with an award. It’s like, what do you do? Either stop taking those kinds of cases, or you deal with it and move on.”
“If you’ve been in a car accident I’d like to tell you what to expect when you call the People’s Lawyer. We’ll help you see a doctor on credit and receive money for your car-accident injuries. You don’t pay anything until we recover money for you. For a free consultation in plain English with no hype, no pressure, no obligation, call the People’s Lawyer at 444-4441.”
Moving on won’t be easy for Jim Rogers. Meltzer says he was contacted this summer by state Bar investigator Willis Shalita, who told him he was looking into the People’s Lawyer’s business practices. Meltzer says he is cooperating with the investigation and has turned over deposition transcripts and other documents at the Bar’s request. Shalita declined to be interviewed.
Rogers confirms that he is once again being investigated by the state Bar. In this, at least his fourth such investigation, he said the Bar is looking into Wilson’s allegations that Rogers forced him to accept a lousy settlement and to lie under oath.
And just as Rogers settled his dispute with one unhappy ex-client, another one sued him. In September, Dolores Thomas filed a lawsuit against Rogers for professional negligence and breach of the rules of professional conduct. Thomas had been struck by a car while walking. Like so many others, she hired Jim Rogers because of his TV ads. She says she liked that his commercials showed he had ethnic employees (which he indeed does). But unbeknownst to her, Thomas’ lawsuit alleges, Rogers failed to file a lawsuit before the statute of limitations on her case ran out. When Thomas found out about the screwup, Rogers tried to negotiate a deal with her. “They just said there was some confusion and gave me an estimate of what the claim would be worth.” Thomas refused to elaborate, but did say, “I wasn’t satisfied, let me put it that way.”