Paul T. Reid of Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Miami has found himself under scrutiny following his objection to a motion for continuance filed by pregnant attorney Christen E. Luikart, whose due date coincided with trial.
Trial for the Palm Beach Circuit Court products liability suit was set for October, but so was Luikart’s new arrival. However, when the pregnant attorney asked for a continuance, opposing counsel objected.
Reid is a board-certified trial specialist with nearly 40 years of experience as a litigator. He said his critics have overblown his words and taken them out of context.
The fallout was almost immediate after the Daily Business Review published an online article describing the case late Tuesday. Shook Hardy released a statement Wednesday saying the firm has suspended Reid pending further review by management. By midafternoon, the firm had removed his bio page from its website.
The uproar comes just as the Florida Supreme Court is weighing a proposed rule that would create a presumption that pregnant lawyers should get three-month continuances.
But now Reid has become a central figure in a debate about accommodations for pregnant lawyers. He is accused of comparing Luikart’s pregnancy to an illness and suggesting she became pregnant as a ploy to delay the litigation. His remarks in opposition to the motion and during a subsequent hearing offended some, who provided their own examples of opposing parties agreeing to continuances to accommodate Broadway show attendance, but not for pregnant litigators.
Reid suggested in court that the request for a continuance was the latest in a slew of delaying tactics by opposing counsel.
On May 14, Luikart, of Murphy Anderson in Jacksonville, filed a motion for continuance, telling the court, ”The undersigned has been advised by her doctors not to travel further than one hour’s drive from Jacksonville, Florida, for the final five weeks of her pregnancy—during the current trial window.”
But Reid objected, arguing, ”Cases involving illness of counsel or a party do not mandate reversal in all circumstances.”
Palm Beach Circuit Judge Cymonie Rowe ultimately granted Luikart’s request, and pushed the trial to January 2019. But as both sides revisit the motions and transcripts, they see two very different stories.
‘The Client Chose Me’
Reid represents Arizona resident Scott Aswege, the plaintiff in the case, suing a string of manufacturers for their alleged role in an accident that left him an amputee. Luikart represents Genie Industries Inc. and its parent company, Terex Corp., an American company that heads the worldwide manufacture and distribution of Genie Lifts, a piece of equipment designed to move and position heavy loads.
On April 4, 2013, when Aswage was working as an event planner at an auto auction event, the platform of a Genie Lift “flipped up” and triggered Aswage to fall 20 feet onto concrete. The Genie Lift was defective and “unreasonably dangerous,” according to the complaint filed on Sept. 22, 2016.
The case had originally been assigned to West Palm Beach Circuit Judge Meenu Sasser, but was later turned over to Rowe, who set the October trial date.
“She’d learned that she was pregnant several months ago, obviously, but given the fact that the trial was set in October, she had advised plaintiff’s counsel that she was going to be moving for a continuance, given her pregnancy. He had objected to her, which caused her to file the motion for a continuance,” said Sarah Jeck Hulsberg, who works with Luikart at Murphy Anderson in Jacksonville.
Reid said his client had “no desire to inconvenience Ms. Luikart with respect to the birth of her child.”
“However, respectfully, under the relevant standards, Ms. Luikart’s parental leave is not a compelling circumstance justifying the severe prejudice plaintiff will suffer if this matter is continued,” he wrote in opposition to the defendants’ continuance motions.
While Luikart wanted to postpone, Reid’s suggestion was that Luikart could either try the case early or pass it on to another attorney at her firm.
According to Reid in his opposition, “the defendants did not begin the process of seeking a compulsory medical examination until six days prior to the deadline for all parties to disclose expert witnesses, and proposed dates for the CME which were a month after the expert witness disclosure deadline.”
His proposal drew criticism from some attorneys, including Hulsberg, Luikart’s Murphy Anderson colleague.
“I have a 10-month-old, so I just recently went through this myself, and it’s so incredibly offensive that he wouldn’t be accommodating,” Hulsberg said. “I think we certainly have an obligation to zealously represent our client and do what’s in their interest, including moving forward to trial, but at some point I think that gives way to just being a respectful and conscientious person.”
Jennifer Shoaf Richardson, associate at Jackson Lewis in Jacksonville and president of the Florida Association of Women Lawyers, pointed to Luikart’s role in the litigation.
“Ms. Luikart was clearly lead counsel in this case and had done the vast majority of all the work,” Richardson said. “The implication that she should sub in her partner after years of work on this matter, or the implication that she isn’t really the lead counsel is something that we see time and time again.”
When any lead counsel is replaced, there’s a disadvantage to the client, observers said.
“She’s been lead counsel on this case all along,” Hulsberg said. “She’s been the No. 1 point person, taking all the depositions, going to all the substantive hearings, having all the direct communications with the client.”
At the hearing Luikart told the court, “The client chose me.”
Reid’s frustration was that there had been numerous delays en route to trial, which he claimed were unfair to his client, who was injured five years ago.
“This is a transparent attempt to do indirectly what defendants cannot do directly, which is justify their ongoing violation of the expert witness disclosure deadline,” Reid wrote in his pleading.
Later, at the hearing, he told the court, “What prompted this is when I filed a motion based on them not to produce the information on her experts and so then we got a continuance.”
However, Rowe interrupted Reid as he explained his grievances to clarify whether Luikart had previously asked for a continuance in the case.
“No, your Honor. None that comes to mind,” Reid said.
Luikart implored the judge to review Reid’s opposition to the motion, stating, “He not only compares my pregnancy to an illness, he minimizes my role as lead counsel.”
But Reid then clarified.
“I’m not saying that pregnancy is an illness,” he said in court. “I’m saying the factors, when someone is physically unable to participate in a trial for whatever reason, are enumerated in this case.”
Rowe concluded the hearing by stating, ”I don’t believe Ms. Luikart got pregnant in response to this case. I do believe that Ms. Luikart is entitled to have some time to deliver her child and take care of her child before coming back to resume her duties as an attorney.”
‘I’m Disgusted by What Happened to This Woman’
The incident was the latest sign of friction among legal professionals when it comes to parental leave.
“The problem is it’s not just Ms. Luikart. It’s a trend,” Richardson said. “One, in implying that women would get pregnant or time their pregnancies to interfere with a trial date, which is completely ridiculous and absurd. And two, a common reaction is to diminish the role of women in a trial.”
Deborah Baker-Egozi, partner at Greenspoon Marder and member of the Florida Bar of Governors, had a similar reaction.
“I’m disgusted by what happened to this woman,” Baker-Egozi said. “I believe the case was several years old. What’s the urgency?”
Baker-Egozi thinks it comes down to implicit bias. Some people, she said, naturally struggle to reconcile the idea of someone being a mother and lawyer at the same time.
“I don’t think that anybody sets out to say, ‘I’m going to discriminate against pregnant women.’ I absolutely don’t believe that,” Baker-Egozi said. ”There’s a very strange phenomenon, and I think it’s national because I’ve been involved in this issue for three or four years now, that when a woman goes and says, ‘I’m going to have a baby, I would like to get a continuance of trial,’ there’s resistance to that.”
According to Baker-Egozi, judges grant and deny continuances for all sorts of reasons.
“I was actually in a calendar call once when the judge rolled the trial over so that the opposing counsel could buy ‘Hamilton’ tickets to go to New York City with his wife, which is fine,” she said. “Because most trials are not an emergency.”
Reid and Luikart did not wish to comment on the ongoing litigation, but both feel that the transcript speaks for itself.
The statement on Reid’s suspension was issued by the firm’s Miami administrative managing partner, Hildy Sastre.
“As attorneys, we zealously advocate for our clients every day in court; but we expect our lawyers to do so in an appropriate and respectful manner. The statements made by Mr. Reid do not reflect the supportive and inclusive culture that Shook, Hardy & Bacon is committed to championing for our clients, staff and lawyers, opposing parties and counsel and others involved in the legal process. Mr. Reid’s comments are directly at odds with Shook’s advocacy on these issues, and our firm chair suspended Mr. Reid today upon learning of the situation, pending further review by firm management. We will use this situation as an additional opportunity to educate our lawyers and staff and foster a continued dialogue on diversity and inclusion. Shook fully supports the proposed rule under consideration by the Florida Supreme Court to create a presumption that pregnant lawyers should get three-month continuances in their cases and other initiatives reflecting fair and respectful treatment of others.”