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Consider the case of the soused spouse. Shortly after midnight on Nov. 14, 1999, a drunken Jose Ordonez returned to his East Harlem home and demanded dinner. When his wife refused, the 240-pound Ordonez allegedly beat her. Police arrived and arrested Ordonez; as they walked the intoxicated suspect down the stairs, he stumbled, missed a step and broke his ankle. Ordonez’s next step? He called a lawyer and sued the cops. He wasn’t alone. Each year, 37,000 people sue New York City. Some of those cases strain the imagination. There was the Bronx man, legally blind, who drove his car into a concrete barrier — and sued. (An underpass where the crash happened should have been lighted better, he argued.) The guy who bought a stolen SUV in a city airport parking lot for $75 — and sued. (Wrongful arrest, he argued when released in a technicality.) The two inmates who shot themselves with a smuggled handgun in their Rikers Island jail cells — and sued. (A guard was responsible, they argued before a judge kicked out their case.) Representing the Big Apple in the nation’s most litigious city is Michael Cardozo, named in January 2002 as New York City corporation counsel. The city’s top legal gun runs an office of 650 lawyers in all five boroughs. “This is the greatest general counsel job that any lawyer could ever have,” said Cardozo, a descendant of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo. “The variety of legal issues is just so overwhelming.” Included in Cardozo’s annual budget is $560 million to pay off lawsuit judgments or settlements. But the city isn’t giving money away: New York’s lawyers post a pretty fair 52 percent winning mark in court — not enough to endure as manager for the Yankees, but a figure comparable with private sector firms. “New York City is endlessly sued — sometimes with no basis at all, or a concocted basis,” said veteran New York attorney Edward Hayes. “Someone is always trying to rip them off. I think the corporation counsel’s office is pretty good.” Ordonez might agree. He sought $6.5 million for his ankle, but wound up with zip from a Manhattan jury. The corporation counsel’s office is nearly as old as the city itself, created in 1683 as a New World version of an English position called “the recorder” — a political/legal counselor. The job disappeared during the Revolutionary War, but it was an absolute necessity by the start of the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1849 that the actual office of corporation counsel was established, with a five-member staff. The office expanded with the city. It now stands as the third largest law firm in New York, behind only the international powerhouse Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and the citywide Legal Aid Society. Its 17 divisions stretch into virtually every aspect of the city’s massive legal machinery: In Family Court, 80 lawyers handle cases ranging from a knife-toting schoolkid to a teen drug mule packed with heroin-filled condoms at Kennedy International Airport. North of the city, in Kingston, a half-dozen city attorneys deal with environmental, real estate and zoning issues involving the city’s reservoir. The city signs off on $4 billion worth of contracts annually, and the counsel’s office approves each one. “One better be ready for this job 24/7,” said Victor Kovner, corporation counsel during the Dinkins administration. “It’s very hectic, very demanding.” The tort division, with 180 lawyers, handles cases of every size and shape and takes a staggering 60 of them to trial every week. The lawsuits often linger for years; a case won by the city last month dated back to 1991. “The amount each lawyer handles is breathtaking,” said Larry Levy, a 14-year veteran of the corporation counsel’s office now in private practice. The bizarre cases make headlines. But the caseload also includes thousands of lawsuits, on everything from police brutality to worker’s compensation, filed by legitimate plaintiffs with legitimate complaints. When a Staten Island ferry crashed in October 2003, killing 11 people and injuring dozens more, Cardozo’s office settled more than 50 claims within 13 months. His lawyers also uncovered one fraud — a Manhattan man who claimed he was a passenger when the ferry slammed into a concrete pier. An investigation showed he had filed more than 10 previous lawsuits against the city, and was only trying to cash in on the tragedy. “You get some stories to tell at cocktail parties,” said Kate O’Brien Ahlers, communications director for the office. Michael Hess, corporation counsel during the Giuliani administration, remembers his first week on the job in 1998: It included a $76.4 million jury award to a reputed Bronx gang member left paralyzed by a gunfight with an off-duty police officer. The city argued that the officer only returned fire after the plaintiff shot at him with a Tech-9 submachine gun. “That jury should have thought, ‘Where is this money coming from?’” Hess said. “It’s taxpayer money. That’s something to be thought about.” A legal note: Sixteen years later, the case remains on appeal by the city. There are dozens of similar cases down through the years, part of the lore in the counsel’s office. In 1990, in one of the most infamous incidents, a drunken dishwasher lost his left arm when he tumbled in front of an oncoming subway train. He won a $9.3 million award from a Bronx jury. “God bless America!” proclaimed the plaintiff, Francisco Marino, a Mexican immigrant. Six years later, a state appeals court threw out his would-be windfall. “There’s always those bizarre, frivolous claims,” said Kovner, whose watch coincided with the Marino case. “I noted them, and try not to think about them.” For Cardozo, such cases are now part of the routine. He came to the corporation counsel’s job from one of the city’s top law firms, Proskauer Rose, where he was a senior partner. He spent four years there as co-chair of the litigation department — but his move into the public sector provided a different perspective. His office has established a “risk management” unit to assess the lawsuits, paying off legitimate cases but targeting those that appear shady. “It’s so important to say, ‘That’s a lot of baloney. We’ve got to defend that case,’” he said. After all, potential lawsuits can crop up almost anywhere. Consider the case — never filed — of the lumbering lawyer. Levy recalled one night several years back when he was crossing a wet Greenwich Village street. He suddenly lost his balance and tumbled to the street. “I slipped,” he said with a laugh. “And suddenly there were three strangers on the corner shouting, ‘Sue the city! Sue the city!’” Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed.

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