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Since going solo in August, Stephen Sommers has toiled in anonymity on a heavy load of employment, personal injury and bankruptcy work, hoping to get his new practice off the ground. “At this point, it’s just me and my laptop,” he said last week, shortly after bolting out of obscurity in a blaze of international publicity. Sommers’ big case is against a Woodside, Calif., nonprofit, and would be a routine employment suit if not for its implication that we may not want to know what gorillas have to say. Specifically, the suit alleges that the director of the nonprofit Gorilla Foundation, Francine “Penny”Patterson — who rose to fame by teaching sign language to Koko the gorilla — told two female caretakers that the gorilla wanted them to show her their breasts. “If plaintiffs did not indulge Koko’s nipple fetish,” the suit continues, Patterson told them “their employment with [the] Gorilla Foundation would suffer.” According to the suit, in the spring and summer of 2004, Patterson repeatedly told the plaintiffs that Koko wanted a peep show. (Sommers said one of his clients, fluent in sign language, questions whether the gorilla has the ability to communicate such a request.) The complaint also says the women were fired in retaliation for reporting health and safety violations to Cal/OSHA, and were not paid full wages for overtime and rest breaks. Sommers is quick to say that his breakthrough case is not aimed at sullying the gorilla’s reputation. “This is not about Koko asking people to take their clothes off. This is about Penny Patterson asking people to take their clothes off,”he said. “If Koko does want it, Penny should discourage that behavior. There are better and more humane ways to bond with a 350-pound gorilla.” Of course, as one would expect in a suit over simian titillation, there are the requisite claims of infliction of emotional distress, both negligent and intentional. “My clients are very private people,” Sommers said. Bizarre or not, Sommers says the suit is similar to cases he handled as an associate at McCarthy Johnson & Miller and Beeson Tayer & Bodine — minus the ape. “I know there’s a lot of snickering in this case, but to me it’s a straightforward employment case,” he said. “We decided we wouldn’t back down just because Koko’s involved.” The involvement of high-powered defense firm Ropers, Majeski, Kohn & Bentley is apparently of more concern. “I think they play hardball,” said Sommers. But he’s not about to back down from them, either, and is planning to go to trial. Until that time, Sommers is basking in a media spotlight turned on when he alerted the San Francisco Chronicle to the suit. Over the past two weeks, Sommers says he’s turned down the TV shows “Celebrity Justice,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “Inside Edition” and a lesser-known program that would have subjected his clients to a televised polygraph. “We’re trying to keep it as hard news as we can,”he said. “To us, it’s not a laughing matter.” Nor is it to the defense, which issued a statement asserting that Koko is not the only chest-pounder around. Sommers is engaging in “a transparent attempt to call attention to himself,” wrote defense counsel Todd Roberts, a partner at Ropers, Majeski. Roberts said Thursday that he had no further comment. Joining the sparse group of primates who don’t find the case humorous is Michael Blacksburg, another San Francisco solo who will be working with Sommers. Bizarre or not, the plaintiff team says they are working hard to prepare Gorillagate for trial in San Mateo County Superior Court. In the meantime, there are some logistical issues to work out in Alperin and Keller v. The Gorilla Foundation. “The gorilla’s vocabulary is limited to 1,000 words,” said Blacksburg. “I’d say that deposing Koko is highly, highly, highly unlikely.”

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