The Connecticut Law Tribune is pleased to announce the winners of Distinguished Leader honors in the publication’s annual Professional Excellence Awards. The following attorneys were nominated by their peers and selected by a panel to be this year’s honorees, who will be celebrated at the annual Connecticut Legal Awards Dinner Oct. 3 at the Bond Room in Hartford:
On March 24, 2016, a Connecticut jury awarded the largest race discrimination verdict in either state or federal court in Connecticut—$3.4 million. The case, won by attorney Lewis Chimes, whose law office is in Stamford, involved Yosif Bakhit, a black Sudanese Muslim immigrant who was granted political asylum here. He became a U.S. citizen and, in 2008, got a job as a laborer at Safety Marking, a company that painted lines on highways.
Between 2009 and 2012, he reported experiencing severe racism, particularly from supervisors. He was referred to as an ape or gorilla, offered bananas and was compared to a black doll, among other incidents. In 2012, he retained Chimes and requested that Safety Marking investigate his allegations. The company did not interview Bakhit, denied his allegations and took no action. His car window was broken 10 days after he lodged his formal complaint.
Another African-American co-worker, Kiyada Miles, also came forward. Bakhit and Miles brought hostile environment and discrimination claims. Chimes described the litigation as “total war,” with the defendants contesting every issue. On March 24, 2016, the jury found for both Bakhit and Miles, awarding Bakhit $305,000 and Miles $86,000. In a separate hearing on punitive damages, the plaintiffs were awarded $1.5 million apiece, making international news. The court issued several published decisions advancing workers’ rights.
“This was a case where a black Muslim immigrant who came to this country for a better life for himself and his family — the American Dream,” said Chimes, who added that he was “privileged to have played a role” in the case. “Yosif stood up for his rights in the face of bullying and severe abuse and his company’s refusal to protect him or take him seriously. The issues that played out in Mr. Bakhit’s trial—racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and treatment of refugees—resonated and continue to resonate beyond that courtroom. But in that one fabulous moment, the good guys won. Mr. Bakhit had his day in court and was vindicated. Our civil justice system worked.”
Admitted to the Connecticut Bar in 2005, Emanuele Cicchiello has quickly made an impact at Cicchiello & Cicchiello, and is currently its managing partner. During his tenure, the firm has doubled its attorneys from three to six and increased its size, visibility and reputation. Cicchiello has particularly grown the firm in employment litigation. In 2006, the firm had approximately 25 active cases at any one time. By 2011, that number had increased to approximately 60. In 2017, that number has increased to nearly 300 active cases. In 2016, Cicchiello won a verdict of $1,026,813.38 in the personal injury trial Sposito v. Blauvert. In recent weeks he has settled three personal-injury claims for more than $100,000. He also settled a case involving the Kleen Energy power plant explosion for more than $1.5 million.
Burt Cohen, chairman and founding member of Murtha Cullina’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, has dedicated much of his work to promoting diversity and the advancement and retention of minority attorneys at the firm. Under his leadership, Murtha Cullina has created a professional networking group for women and built relationships with organizations such as the Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity (where Cohen serves as president), New Haven Legal Assistance and diverse bar associations. He has worked to involve Murtha Cullina in the annual Building Careers Symposium, and he serves as a mentor to attorneys and law students of color. He has also co-chaired the Connecticut Bar Association’s Diversity Committee, collaborating with the Women in Law Committee, the LGBT Committee and the Disability Law Committee. Cohen has been a regular supporter of the Walter Kaitz Foundation, the South Asian Bar Association of Connecticut and the George W. Crawford Black Bar Association.
Center for Children’s Advocacy’s Edwin Colon is known as a tireless advocate for at-risk and underserved clients throughout the state, with a focus on children and families. He is a recognized leader in Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, helping at-risk children avoid deportation to a dangerous environment. He also works to support English Language Learners, LGBT youth and runaway and homeless youth. Colon has created and led training of pro bono lawyers at major law firms throughout Connecticut, training more than 70 attorneys in the past year to represent immigrant children. He has been a guest on NPR, spoken to district boards of education and presented legal rights information to the Connecticut Judicial Branch and the Department of Children and Families. At Norwalk public schools, he helped create a best practice model for ELL students to close the achievement gap of ELL students, particularly those who have experienced trauma and interrupted formal education.
Victoria de Toledo
A Stamford jury returned a $14.5 million civil verdict in 2016 for a 42-year-old Greenwich doctor who suffered a massive stroke after his personal trainer reportedly pushed him too hard on an exercise machine. Victoria de Toledo of Stamford’s Casper & de Toledo served as lead counsel. Dr. Chetan Vaid expressed concern that an “explosive pull” on a rowing machine was causing him physical distress, but the trainer continued to push him. Later on he went to Greenwich Hospital, where it was determined he had suffered a separation of the layers of an artery wall. While awaiting transfer to Westchester Medical Center, the artery became obstructed and he suffered a massive stroke. Stamford Superior Court Judge Charles Lee presided over the lengthy trial.
Timothy A. Diemand
Timothy Diemand has been nominated by colleagues at Wiggin and Dana’s Hartford office for his 2016 record of achievement representing his clients, his continuing bar activities and his pro bono service. A member of the firm’s executive committee, Diemand successfully defended a global manufacturer in a $125 million dispute in 2016 stemming from the termination of a Middle East distributor. The victory comes on the heels of several significant wins, including a defense jury verdict after a two-week trial for a financial services company in a complex commercial dispute, and an arbitration victory in which Diemand recovered more than $1 million for a client for breaches related to an insurance payment processing system. He is currently defending clients in state and federal court related to combined claims of more than $750 million. Diemand serves as treasurer of the Connecticut Bar Foundation and as the co-chairman with Judge Kenneth Shluger of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Professionalism Committee. He is a board member of the Center for Children’s Advocacy and defends children in abuse and neglect proceedings. He received the Connecticut Legal Services Pro Bono Achievement Award for his representation of a single mother in a high-profile Bridgeport custody dispute.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane was reappointed to another five-year term last year, solidifying him as the longest-serving chief state’s attorney since the position was created in 1973. One of Kane’s missions has been to work with prosecutors on how to deal with the problem of chronic low-level offenders.
“We want to find better ways during the screening and intake process to explore options for them,” Kane said. “We want to serve and protect the public, but also allow ourselves to devote more time to the most serious cases.” As chief state’s attorney, Kane is the administrative head of the Division of Criminal Justice, which is responsible for the investigation and prosecution of all criminal matters in Connecticut.
Katie Mesner-Hage served as co-counsel for a Bridgeport medical malpractice case in 2016 that resulted in a $25 million award to a young Ansonia woman who lost her left leg below the knee because of a clot. Mesner-Hage was joined by fellow Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder attorney Josh Koskoff, one of this year’s nominees for Attorney of the Year. Announced last Oct. 14, the $24.9 million verdict included $4.2 million for economic damages, and $20.7 million for pain, suffering and reduced ability to fully participate in everyday life. The injured woman had been “highly active,” according to Mesner-Hage, who said medical professionals improperly released the patient when she should have been admitted.
Longtime Day Pitney partner James Tancredi was named a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge for Connecticut in September 2016 following the retirement of Connecticut Bankruptcy Judge Alan H.W. Shiff. Day Pitney Managing Partner Stanley A. Twardy Jr. called Tancredi “one of the top bankruptcy and restructuring lawyers in Connecticut,” adding, “we are proud that Jim’s impressive career included time at Day Pitney.”
John D. Tower
Cramer & Anderson partner John Tower, who serves as the co-town attorney of New Milford, is also a successful civil litigator, having won a $1 million settlement in 2016 for the family of a man killed in a cycling accident, among other verdicts. In his official town position, he negotiated a complex payment agreement in lieu of taxes for a solar power farm that is expected to be Connecticut’s largest. And in another civil case, Tower went to bat for a mother in Brookfield who hired a Danbury contractor for $38,725 and ended up with incomplete repairs, a $116,000 bill and workers who had walked away from the job. In representing the family, Tower enlisted a media consultant to connect with local television station WFSB-3 Eyewitness News. An I-Team investigation story opened the 11 p.m. newscast on Halloween, leading to a groundswell of support from community members who are working to build the family a new house. Tower is now guiding legal aspects of the rebuild effort on a pro bono basis.