Angela Vicari said she jumped at the chance to join a Kaye Scholer team representing migrant farm workers after she joined the firm in 2004 because “it sounded like a very complex case, not one where you handle and wrap up in a few months,” and it would offer opportunities for professional development.
Her instincts on both counts were correct. Seven years later, Vicari, who has become lead counsel for her firm in Hernandez v. Garcia-Botello, 02-CV-523S, in New York’s Western District, has spent more than 1,035 pro bono hours representing workers who sued labor contractors and farm owners alleging they were not paid federal and state minimum wages, as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act and state law.
The workers also claim the defendants violated the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act by providing false information at the time of recruitment, failing to pay for all hours worked, transporting workers in unsafe vehicles and housing them in dilapidated labor camps.
The plaintiffs seek payments to each worker for actual and punitive damages.
This year, Vicari, 32, has been spearheading settlement talks.
If her hours spent on Hernandez were billable, the firm estimates that would translate to about $383,208, not including staff and disbursements.
In her day job, Vicari handles a general commercial litigation practice representing financial institutions, pharmaceutical companies and hedge funds in matters such as breach of contract, fraud or securities suits. She also has defended clients in product liability litigation involving pharmaceutical drugs, pain pumps, medical devices and other products.
The farm workers’ case came to the attention of the Worker Justice Center of New York, which requested Kaye Scholer’s help in 2005, a year after a few contractors pleaded guilty to charges of forced labor and harboring illegal immigrants. The Worker Justice Center, formerly known as Farmworker Legal Services of New York, had been pursuing a civil case against the contractors and farm owners since 2002.
The case did indeed provide Vicari with opportunities for professional development. Since joining the team, she amended the group’s complaint to include new defendants and claims, coordinated discovery, took key depositions and drafted major pleadings, including the briefs on class certification and summary judgment. Class certification as well as the defendants’ motion for summary judgment were denied.
The case presented major logistical challenges as the farm workers had scattered while the contractors were in prison across the country.
Vicari traveled to a remote Texas town to handle a deposition of a contractor incarcerated there. She also traveled to Arizona and Rochester to interview clients and appeared several times in Buffalo federal court for hearings and conferences. She has traveled more for this case than for any one case on her corporate roster, she said.
“These are not your in-house counsel that you send them an email and get a response five minutes later,” she said. “Our clients don’t have email. It just makes everything more time-consuming and logistically a little more difficult than most cases.”
Language was another challenge. The clients speak Spanish and Vicari does not, so every client communication involves an interpreter.
About 10 Kaye Scholer attorneys have worked on the matter, but Vicari is the only one who has been on it from the start.
“The situation they found themselves in was something they wouldn’t be able to solve or get redress without counsel,” Vicari said. “That’s immediately part of the reason why you work on these types of cases.”
Vicari brought the resources of her firm to this case, said Lewis Papenfuse, executive director of the Worker Justice Center.
“These workers were treated horribly,” Papenfuse said. Vicari “really understood the issues and understood the immense difficulty it was to work with people who were abused like that and also highly transient and needed to find work.”
James Herschlein, co-chair of Kaye Scholer’s complex commercial litigation department, said Vicari stood out in the way she overcame the legal obstacles put up by the defendants.
“The defense tried to bully back and so nothing was consented to, nothing was easy,” Hersehlein said, adding that at the time the case began Vicari was a young, junior associate. “You’d have to do motion after motion. This case took incredible guts.”
Vicari was a summer associate at Kaye Scholer in 2003 and became a first year right after graduating from Columbia Law School.
The farm workers’ case is not her only pro bono commitment. Now chair of the New York City Bar’s Young Lawyers Committee, Vicari spent about 200 hours on pro bono last year and has devoted about 1,747 hours on multiple pro bono cases while at Kaye Scholer, according to Elly Spiegel, the firm’s pro bono administrator.
Among the matters she has handled are working with the New York City Law Department to defend a negligent supervision case; and joining a Kaye Scholer team on behalf of foster children suing the state of Oklahoma over alleged abuses in the foster-care system.
Kaye Scholer encourages pro bono work but does not require lawyers to fill a quota.
Vicari’s strong commitment to the farm worker case persuaded Kaye Scholer to take it on and continue with it for seven years.
“It’s pretty unusual for an associate to be the lead attorney on a case of this magnitude,” Spiegel said. “Having somebody as especially committed as Angela makes a huge difference.”