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The Aggressor

By Kari Santos | Jan. 2, 2015


Law Office Management

Jan. 2, 2015

The Aggressor

Christopher Dolan's tenacious approach to big cases has won him some notoriety -- and some enemies.

It was New Year's Eve, and San Francisco was coming off an uncharacteristic heat wave. Around 8 p.m. Huan Kuang was walking through the Tenderloin district with her young children, Sofia and Anthony Liu, who had just finished dinner at their grandmother's. Hand in hand, all three stepped into the crosswalk, heading home to celebrate the start of 2014.

Nearby, Syed Muzzafar was behind the wheel of his Honda Pilot. For a month the 57-year-old father of four from Union City had been driving full time for Uber, an app-based ride-sharing service. He was working in San Francisco that night picking up revelers, waiting for another fare request after dropping off a passenger.

As Muzzafar took a sharp right turn at the traffic signal, his SUV hit the family. Five-year-old Anthony flew face-first onto the cement, the skin scraped from the side of his face. Bones in Kuang's face were shattered, her legs badly injured. Sofia, who had been holding her mother's left hand, took the brunt of the impact; the six-year-old died in the hospital hours later.

When local reporters pounced on the story, Uber quickly claimed it was not liable because Muzzafar had been between fares at the time, "not providing transportation services through the Uber App." The buzz grew even louder after it was revealed that the company's background check had failed to uncover Muzzafar's 2004 arrest in Florida for reckless driving. (Uber's representatives did not respond to requests for an interview, and an attorney working on the case for Uber declined to comment.)

Meanwhile, Kuang and the children's father, Ang Jiang Liu, both immigrants from China, were left struggling. Neither had medical insurance. Liu previously worked at a take-out restaurant and remembered a lawyer named Christopher Dolan, whose office was nearby and who used to come in to grab lunch. They gave Dolan a call.

Last January, on the family's behalf, Dolan filed the first wrongful-death lawsuit against Uber in San Francisco Superior Court. In December the San Francisco District Attorney's office charged Muzzafar with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.

Even before Dolan took the case, he had been a public critic of the lack of insurance standards for emerging ride service companies such as Uber and Lyft. Sofia Liu's death spurred him to become one of the most vocal proponents of AB 2293, which requires expanded insurance for drivers from the time they begin using the app. Starting in July, the company must provide: $50,000 in liability coverage for a single person, $100,000 for a single accident, $30,000 in property damage - and $200,000 in excess liability coverage if a driver's personal policy is insufficient. It must also provide $1 million in coverage as soon as the driver is matched with a passenger.

Christopher Dolan, both the man and his name, are ubiquitous - at least in Northern California, where he regularly writes a legal advice column for the San Francisco Examiner, appears at protests and rallies, touts his firm in radio ads, and speaks on behalf of clients in high-profile cases in the news. Meeting him is not unlike meeting a celebrity: His charisma is immediately apparent, though at just over five feet, eight inches he is shorter than he seems on TV. Dolan speaks with authority, but has a twitchy energy. While talking, he is prone to fiddle with things - passing his gold cufflinks from hand to hand, dropping them in his lap, behind him, in the chair, on the floor, then picking them up, twirling them between his fingers.

Dolan, 51, calls himself a "highly educated juvenile delinquent" - and the label fits, given his early struggles finding his way to the law.

Colleagues, clients, and adversaries use other descriptions, for better and worse.

Robert Zimmerman, a medical malpractice defense lawyer who has opposed Dolan twice, paints him as a consummate litigator. Zimmerman recalls one trial when his wife was in the gallery watching Dolan give his opening statement. "She texted me," he says. "I looked at my cell phone and the text read: 'You're going to get killed!' "

But another opposing counsel, who asked to remain anonymous, said Dolan's litigation was the "most acrimonious and bizarre" ever and that, because of Dolan's antics and bullying, "certain lawyers were in tears at times."

Dolan's bravado, and his affinity for the controversial case, has made him the target of angry emails and death threats, from both former clients and strangers - including those who take issue with his work representing LGBT clients. Consequently, security cameras monitor the office, and posted flyers bear the names and faces of those who have been particularly aggressive. Dolan fights back with a sort of nonchalance. A self-described "cafeteria Catholic," he remembers his emailed response to a conservative Christian who had tried to intimidate him, reading in part: "I am on my knees right now praying for your mortal soul."

His polarizing personality also has provoked members of the bench. A few years ago, Dolan represented seven African-American police officers who claimed they had been racially discriminated against by Richmond's police chief and deputy chief.

Geoffrey Spellberg, the defense attorney in the case, has opposed Dolan several times. "I have seen aggressive conduct by Chris when litigating since I've known him," he says. "But I think I would have to say he took it to an extreme in the Richmond case."

In a move that prompted Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Barry Goode to slap him with a $1,500 fine, Dolan created a two-hour DVD using video from depositions edited so that the defendants appeared to admit making racist statements, and he distributed it among neighborhood groups before the trial. Some of the questions in the deposition echoed material in a report that had been ordered sealed.

In Spellberg's view, Dolan can be unprofessional, combative, and rude. "To me, it's just not pleasant to litigate that way," he said. "There's enough dispute in litigation just on substantive issues; there's no reason to make it something personal between the lawyers."

But others say that's all just fallout from Dolan's trial-lawyer persona.

"When bringing a case before a jury, it has to be entertaining," says Anne Costin, who worked for six years as an associate at Dolan's firm and is now of counsel there. "He is not only entertaining, he is enthralling. He is not a person who hides the way he feels about the merits of the case, or when there are tactics he thinks are unscrupulous on the other side."

Dolan was scrappy early on. He grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut, the youngest of five. "I learned how to talk," he says. "When you're not big and you're not strong, you have to talk." His father was a small-town lawyer and, after his parents split up, Dolan, then 14, lived with him in his office. Although Dolan enjoyed reading casebooks and watching his father in court, he felt no early urge to practice law.

"I can't say I was that focused," he says. "I had a misspent youth." He graduated in the bottom fifth of his high school class, then paid his way through community college with earnings from his own landscaping business before transferring to Boston University. There, it's fair to say, he began to find his path, paved with straight A's and activism. In 1985 he spent a summer in what he calls his "Che Guevara phase," living with a family in Spain, sporting a beard, and traveling around the country on a rented motorcycle on weekends.

After college, he again worked in landscaping and construction while applying to law school. Despite his stellar grades, every program Dolan applied to rejected him. When he learned that Boston University had accidentally switched his transcript with that of a different, academically mediocre Dolan, he threatened to sue the school for derailing his efforts to enroll. The university responded by offering him a spot in its masters of management program in London, with a stipend. Dolan accepted.

He sped through the two-year program in half the time and applied to law school once again - this time to Georgetown, his father's alma mater. He was wait-listed, then rejected. "Shit doesn't come easily to me, but I don't give up," Dolan says. He booked a plane ticket back to the States and headed to the Georgetown campus. Andrew Cornblatt, the law school's dean of admissions, still remembers the visit.

"I'm sitting there in my office and someone said: 'Chris Dolan is here to see you,' " Cornblatt recalls. "I remembered his application - and in he walks. I get plenty of determined people, but here was someone pleading his first case." Dolan told Cornblatt he would do anything - answer phones, paint the office - to get in. "I said: 'We have people to do that, but thank you anyway,' " Cornblatt says. Still, he kept thinking about Dolan, and when space became available, the dean admitted him.

Dolan excelled at Georgetown and learned to love trial law during a first-year torts class.

Life after graduation, however, did not go smoothly. Dolan was so unhappy at a clerkship in Maine under a judge he calls "a renowned turd" that he quit. He then accepted an offer from Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi in Los Angeles, but had to wait a few months before the position opened. So Dolan went back into yard work for the winter, naming his company Esquire Tree Service, and printing on his business cards: "The only time you'll see your lawyer work for his money."

In March 1993 he rode his motorcycle to the West Coast to join the firm. That gig did not go well, either: There was tension between the corporate and the tort lawyers. Late one night two years in, after an especially heated struggle, Dolan found himself alone in the office, peeing into his boss's potted plant. He soon decided to leave and start his own practice.

The move shocked some of his colleagues at Robins Kaplan. "We were all partners and associates at a large, national firm," says Joe Dunn, who worked with Dolan and until November was executive director of the State Bar of California. "We couldn't understand why Chris would want to embark on his own, which is one of the most difficult ways to practice law. But from day one, Chris was a very charismatic individual. You're not going to lock a charismatic personality behind closed doors very long."

So in 1995, at just 31 years of age, Dolan started the Dolan Law Firm with, he recalls, "five thousand bucks, two computers, and a secretary I promised six months' salary."

The gamble seems to have paid off. In 2006, after buying the firm's main building in San Francisco, Dolan had it gutted and rebuilt according to his vision - equipped with a mock courtroom, a gym, and a conference room for events and press conferences. His own office is the size of a large studio apartment, complete with a fireplace, pull-out couch, and bathroom with shower. Photos of his wife and two children line the ledges and tables.

In 2007 the firm opened an office in Oakland, and the year after that another satellite office in Sacramento. Today, Dolan estimates his firm has won about $175 million for clients - although its website boasts: "over $200 million recovered for our clients."

The firm now has a total of 16 attorneys. "I have seen him hire people to give them a chance in life," says Costin, now of counsel to the firm. "I've seen him hire homeless people and promote them into paralegal positions or legal positions from within."

The first case Dolan took to court was on behalf of a motorcyclist injured in an accident on Highway 1, near Bolinas in Marin County. When he visited the site and realized his client had hit an oncoming car because overgrown shrubbery obscured the road, Dolan sued Caltrans. He also cleaned up his biker client for the trial, helping him dress to cover his tattoos and, with the court's permission, digitally altered evidentiary photos of the crumpled bike to obscure decals that read "Will Beg For Sex" and "Fuck 55" - a reference to the speed limit. The jury awarded his client $2.5 million - and launched Dolan's niche practice representing motorcyclists.

"When you're 30 years old and don't have a pedigree, you have to take tough cases, swing the bat," Dolan says.

That case also launched his beginnings as a rabid self-promoter: He gave out cards at motorcycle rallies, spoke at events for any group that would have him, and spent the fee from his first court victory to place ads in the Yellow Pages. Dolan's firm still attracts most of its business via promotional material, its reputation from big cases, and word-of-mouth referrals; all its earnings come through contingency fees. Dolan branched out to employment discrimination cases - including a landmark post-9/11 case in which he won damages of $61 million for two Lebanese-American FedEx contractors whose manager hectored them with racial epithets - and later to transgender-discrimination and wrongful-death cases.

Though its bread and butter is personal injury cases, in all the firm's website lists nearly 40 areas of practice, ranging from railroad accidents and sexual harassment to prisoners' rights and freedom of speech. "It keeps me intellectually interested," Dolan says. "I don't know how people do workers comp, for example, which is the same thing over and over again. How can they can remain excited about their jobs?"

Dolan clearly has a penchant for novel cases - such as that presaged by a phone call last December from Omari Sealey. The man's 13-year-old niece had gone to Children's Hospital Oakland for a tonsillectomy to relieve sleep apnea, but bleeding afterward triggered a heart attack. Days later the hospital pronounced Jahi McMath brain-dead, and Sealey explained that authorities planned to "pull the plug" at 8:30 the next morning.

Dolan filed a cease-and-desist order in court and organized a televised prayer vigil for the following day. It was a national story even before he won several delays, and Jahi remained on life support through the holidays. When it was time to move the girl to another, undisclosed hospital, Dolan coordinated the transfer for a Sunday afternoon when news crews and hospital staff were busy watching a crucial 49ers game against the Green Bay Packers. Dolan said they drove her out "right under their noses," adding: "It felt like the fucking movie Argo."

Commentators charged that Dolan had only taken on the case for publicity, and they said the hospital was right to want to take Jahi off life support. Dolan also locked horns with Sam Singer, whom Children's Hospital hired as a spokesman during the crisis.

"Great attorneys really know the law, and also really know how to communicate honestly to the news media in very delicate and difficult situations," Singer says. "Chris Dolan is not one of those types of attorneys. He is completely classless. This is a short man with a Napoleon complex who acts like a bully."

But Jahi's mother, Nailah Winkfield, says Dolan was only following the family's wishes. "My mind was made up with what I wanted to do with my daughter," she says. "He always told us the ins and outs and pros and cons of what we wanted to do. He never gave us any false hope." She says Dolan prayed with the family before going into court and spent long hours at the hospital, once falling asleep in his chair in the waiting room. During a particularly emotionally fraught moment, says Winkfield, he cried along with them.

Last fall Dolan announced he had collected evidence he says proves Jahi remains alive - including EEG and MRI scans showing electrical activity and blood flow in her brain, evaluations from experts, and videos of her moving her limbs at her mother's request. He is seeking to have McMath, who was issued a death certificate, declared alive again - a ruling without precedent. If that request is denied, however, it will clear the way for a wrongful-death lawsuit, which would open a full evidentiary hearing.

Close friends counseled Dolan all along that taking the Jahi McMath case was "career suicide," but the threat never seemed to faze him.

"You don't stick your finger in the wind of public opinion and see which way justice is blowing and walk in that direction," Dolan says. "Oftentimes, you have to walk right into the wind and shut it up."

Lexi Pandell is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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