There is a common perception among laymen that we are a society gone sue crazy. Litigation, they believe, has become the go-to response to even the most minor slight, real or imagined. Perhaps the preponderance of information assailing us daily through both traditional and social media makes it appear there are more lawsuits today compared to say, 20 years ago. That’s just perception. Because we are so much more aware of legal actions, this leads to the assumption that at least some of these must be unwarranted. In truth, no respectable attorney will ever pursue frivolous or “nuisance” litigation.
Those who subscribed to the idea of limitless litigation, might be surprised to learn there are actually certain areas of the law, whose clients are reluctant, even fearful of taking their claim to court. As one of California’s leading trial attorneys, specializing in employment law and personal injury, Carney R. Shegerian, has experienced this in his own practice.
A champion for the “little guy,” Shegerian has earned a reputation as “The People’s Attorney” — fighting passionately for the rights of his employee clients, and compassionately explaining the process as each client navigates our complex legal system.
Since opening his practice Shegerian & Associates, nearly 20 years ago, he has tried numerous jury trials to verdict in both state and federal court, always representing individuals that have suffered financial or emotional losses and have been wronged by employers, including major corporations. Despite his well-deserved sobriquet, Shegerian credits his clients’ commitment and strength of character as being significant factors in these wins.
“I really admire my clients,” says Shegerian. “These are decent people who have been put in a really bad spot and they understand that they could jeopardize their career going forward. It’s remarkable how many people are so strongly motivated just to do the right thing. I admire their courage, especially after being mentally or emotionally beaten up, discriminated against or retaliated against — whatever the circumstances might be — and lost their jobs through no fault of their own. It takes an awful lot of strength, not to mention patience.
“A gentleman whose case I’ve been handling just finished up a few days ago,” he continues. “It’s a case that has been in litigation for five years. It’s been a long five years for him, and for his family, not the least of which is the fact that he literally could not get an equal-paying job. He did get a job two months after being fired, but could never find anything that was even close in pay to the one he was fired from. It’s a real hardship. Now 56 years old, this man was brave enough to pursue the suit despite knowing how it would likely impact his career. Ultimately, it worked out for him, but it’s taken no small effort on my client’s part to hang in there.”
Another tremendous challenge for attorneys such as Shegerian are additional documents or clauses that employers have added for new hires to sign.
“Over the past 15 years or so we’ve seen a dramatic rise in the use of binding arbitration agreements,” he says. “These documents, which are presented as part of the new-hire process, effectively take away the right to a jury trial. Typically, a new employee doesn’t even understand what they are signing, and even if they do, what choice do they have?
“The fallacy, in these instances, that arbitration is a good thing is just tragic,” he adds. “Thirty or 40 years ago, there were many Supreme Court decisions that held that there was no way an individual could be forced to sign away their constitutional rights to a fair trial. Since 1991, as the Supreme Court inched its way ever more conservative, they’re compelling everything toward arbitration and it’s just so unfair. Naturally there have been numerous protests against this trend, but none so far have been able to reverse it. It’s absolutely tragic.”
Shegerian goes on to explain that as recently as five years ago, only about 60 percent of these “agreements” would be enforced. Today, they are all enforced.
“What is amazing is the courts have recognized that these are constitutionally unconscionable,” he says, “because how can it be defined as a true ‘agreement’ if I give you a piece of paper to sign and say, ‘take it or leave it.’ If you want the job, you’ll sign the paper. It’s not negotiable or voluntary.”
On the other hand, Shergerian is the first to acknowledge that there are individuals who, regardless of whether they have a legitimate claim or not, are anxious to pursue a lawsuit motivated solely by dollar signs.
“That’s one of the advantages to opening my own firm,” he says. “I get to choose my clients. A lot of people get fired and they immediately want to go for that jackpot verdict; take their shot like they’re in Las Vegas or something. It’s very, very important to screen out those clients who have less than meritorious cases, or have unrealistic expectations about the process. It’s sometimes difficult, but it’s been a godsend to me to be able to choose everyone we represent.”
It could be argued that Shegerian came to love the law through osmosis. Growing up he was exposed to various facets of the law in conjunction with the world of business. Shegerian’s father, a successful entrepreneur, surrounded himself by a host some of the most accomplished attorneys in the country, and these men held a fascination for the teen.
“Being around those lawyers, watching them work and seeing how important they were to a businessman — there was just something very attractive about it,” he says. “My father had so many attorneys, obviously each serving a particular purpose, and they all seemed so smart and to have all the answers. I’m not sure I even fully understood exactly what their jobs involved, but I was definitely drawn to the pace and significance of their work.”
While certain that law would be his career path, it wasn’t until sometime later, while working for his first firm that Shegerian discovered his true passion.
“I was working for a defense firm,” he says. “It was a wonderful firm, wonderful attorneys, and afforded me the opportunity to try dozens of cases in just a couple of years. They started getting these employment cases, so I learned that area of the law. At that time, I was defending the employers.
“Later, about 20 years ago when I went out on my own on the plaintiff’s side, the transition was relatively smooth,” he continues. “It was an area of law that I knew, understood and felt very comfortable with.”
Striking out on his own and launching Shegerian & Associates was something that seemed to come about as Shegerian grew and developed his own personal style. After working as a defense attorney for a couple of rather large, well-known firms, he recognized that the big-firm culture was not an ideal fit.
“Lovely people, but I just did not feel personally motivated,” he says. “Certainly, not as motivated as I knew I should and could be. I was lucky enough to be successful for my clients, but at the end of the day, it didn’t always feel so good. When I decided to venture out on my own, I just seemed to gravitate toward representing those that I see as being left behind, disenfranchised and without the ability to help themselves. Employment law is one of those areas that you can feel day-to-day just how important the work is because everyone values themselves to a large extent by their jobs or what they do. It’s the foundation for much of our self-esteem.”
Not surprisingly, Shegerian, like most lawyers, derives tremendous gratification when he can successfully represent a client, ultimately changing his or her life for the better. It’s frequently a long and painstaking process, but, the rewards are worth it.
“There’s a moment that is almost indescribable,” Shegerian says. “Going back to the 56-year-old gentleman whose case has gone on for about five years, that moment was when he won the first phase of a two-phase trial. He was awarded $2.8 million in the non-punitive phase.
“He’s a genuinely good, hardworking man who has never been money-motivated in his life,” Shegerian continues. “He has a beautiful family to whom he’s completely devoted and has struggled to support. Just to see the transformation that occurs in that moment is incredible. His confidence came back, his self-esteem returned with that jury verdict. It wasn’t the money; it was just having a jury validate that what he believed happened to him was illegal. It’s really the very best part of my job. It’s the most exciting aspect and you can really see in someone’s face that you’ve made a difference.”
At the other end of the spectrum, despite his love for the law, Shegerian admits there are definitely downsides to his profession. He says that although he certainly wouldn’t be classified as “blue-collar,” his job takes a tremendous physical toll. Also, because of the nature and intensity of the work and more specifically the way he fully immerses himself in every case, it can be all-encompassing, leaving little time for other aspects of life.
“The first one I deal with as best I can by trying to take good care of myself,” he says. “I don’t want to have a short career and don’t want to become physically burned out. I love what I do and want to continue for as long as I can.
“The second part is not really within my power to control,” he adds. “It’s just the nature of the job. Your personal life tends to become marginalized. That’s probably why I’ve never been married; although, I do have a 20-year-old son attending NYU, and he is the biggest part of my life aside from work.”
Launching, building and nurturing a practice is not unlike raising a child and many attorneys, while highly qualified for the courtroom are not necessarily prepared to start and operate a business. Fortunately for Shegerian, he holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
“The management of a law firm is very different from the practice of law,” he says. “I’ve been lucky. I’m surrounded by great managers and administrators and truly superb, accomplished associates. Together with our outstanding legal support staff, we are able to maintain a consistently high level of individualized service.”
A passionate defender of employee rights, Shegerian understands the importance of gathering a strong team and creating a positive environment in which to work. Each of the experienced attorneys and carefully trained staff members at Shegerian & Associates believes in the mission of fighting for employee rights.
“Obviously the firm has grown a lot,” he says. “The positive side is that we can help a lot more clients, but the struggle is to make sure that each of those clients receives the same personal attention and dedication that I would give if I were still a solo practitioner. Our type of law is not cookie-cutter,” he adds. “Each case needs something different as far as worked up right to get it in front of a jury or resolved.”
Shegerian has now won 76 jury trials in his career, including 33 seven-figure verdicts. He has represented plaintiffs in five of the 10 largest wrongful termination verdicts on California record.
Currently with two locations — San Diego and Santa Monica — Shegerian says he is anxiously anticipating the opening of a third office in San Francisco.
“If things go as smoothly with our San Francisco office as we anticipate, we’ll soon be looking forward to the opening one in New York City,” he says. “Honestly, even after 27 years, in many ways I still feel like a very young lawyer. Every day is new and exciting, each case unique and fascinating.”