When Fred Norton launched his own firm in 2017, the former Boies Schiller Flexner partner and in-house litigation counsel at SolarCity and Tesla made a vow: “One way or another, we will do a trial every year.”
On Monday, he notched a win before a federal jury in the Northern District of California, working pro bono for a veteran whose life was shattered when a psychiatrist betrayed his trust.
Appointed by U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick in late December, the three-lawyer Norton Law Firm, which is based in Oakland, California, has logged a stunning 593 hours of pro bono work on the case while also juggling paying clients.
But Norton said it was worth it, describing the work as “extremely satisfying … where your unique skills as a lawyer really make a difference.”
His client, Ronald Turner, had been pro se, and managed to survive summary judgment representing himself. But going into trial, Orrick agreed to Turner’s request for counsel.
At first glance, it doesn’t look like Turner had much of a case. The defendants said he told a psychiatrist that he’d thought about killing his supervisor. The doctor concluded he “posed a serious risk of grave bodily injury or death to an identifiable person,” so—as was her duty—she informed the supervisor and law enforcement. Case closed.
Not so fast.
Some background: Turner served for more than 20 years in the United States Marine Corps, including combat duty in Iraq that left him with PTSD. But he’s managed his symptoms with psychotherapy and other measures, has been married for 26 years, has no criminal record or history of violence, and doesn’t abuse drugs or alcohol.
After he left the Marines, he got a job working for the U.S. Forest Service as a fleet maintenance inspector, but began having problems with his supervisor, William Van Auken.
In 2014, Turner met with a Veterans Administration counselor to discuss the stress and anxiety this was causing.
“Although Mr. Turner made clear that he had no intention of harming Mr. Van Auken, [the counselor] nonetheless asked Mr. Turner to speculate about doing so, asking a series of hypothetical questions,” Norton wrote in his pre-trial brief.
In response to the counselor’s questions, Turner said if he was going to hurt someone, it would be his supervisor. When asked how he would try, “Turner complied and said, hypothetically, he would drive to Redding in his Forest Service uniform and would shoot Mr. Van Auken. When asked whether he had a gun, Mr. Turner replied that he did not, and he would have to borrow one from a friend. Throughout, Mr. Turner emphasized that his answers were hypothetical and that he would never actually hurt Mr. Van Auken or anyone else.”
The VA counselor brought in a colleague. They all agreed on a crisis plan, and told Turner to come back in three days for another session. No one felt the need to warn Van Auken or notify law enforcement.
When Turner came back for his follow up session, the counselor said he was successfully using his crisis plan and “appeared relaxed and grounded.”
Nine days later—with no intervening emergencies—Turner had an appointment with a psychiatrist, Tracie Rivera, at the Veterans Administration clinic. She was a government contractor, not an employee, and Turner had never seen her before.
During the 60-minute appointment, Turner told Rivera about the session he had with the VA counselor. But he stressed that the counselor’s questions were all hypothetical, and that he “had no desire to harm Mr. Van Auken or anyone else. At no time did Dr. Rivera inform Mr. Turner that his statements to her might be disclosed to third parties,” Norton wrote
After the session was up, Rivera called Turner’s wife, who said he was neither homicidal nor suicidal. The doctor also called the counselor, “who confirmed that there was ‘no duty to warn in place, due to the fact patient did not express intent.’”
But Rivera then spoke to a VA lawyer. The two “decided to ‘err on the side of caution,’” Norton wrote. The next day, she notified Van Auken and law enforcement about the supposed threat.
In court papers, Rivera’s lawyer Nancy Delaney of Mitchell, Brisso, Delaney & Vrieze explained that “although plaintiff indicated he did not intend to execute the plan, plaintiff’s condition and the detailed nature of the plan caused [Rivera] to believe that it could be executed, that this posed a serious risk to an identifiable person and that she had a duty under California law to warn the prospective victim and law enforcement.”
Delaney did not respond to a request for comment.
As a result of the doctor’s disclosure, Turner was questioned by police, fired from his job, and said he felt publicly humiliated and shamed.
Norton argued that the doctor was medically negligent and violated his client’s privacy rights by making the report.
Rivera “falsely portrayed what [Turner] had said to make him appear more dangerous and more unstable,” Norton wrote. “Mr. Turner did not communicate a threat of physical violence at all, much less a serious one.”
Actually trying the case was “a bit like practicing law before the 1930s, when there were no rules of civil procedure,” Norton said.
No depositions were taken before trial. That meant he and his team—which included partner Bree Hann and associate Matt Turetzky—took every cross-examination cold.
But Norton, who was a partner Boies Schiller from 2006 to 2012 before going in-house at SolarCity as deputy general counsel for litigation, had plenty of courtroom experience to draw upon. Along with David Boies, he represented Oracle Corp. at trial against Google, and also won a $1.3 billion jury verdict for Oracle against SAP.
After a four-day trial, the jury found that Rivera breached her duties to Turner, and awarded him $750,000 in economic damages and $2 million in non-economic damages.
As an attorney, Norton said the doctor’s betrayal of trust resonated. “Our clients trust us. Our system relies on the ability of our clients to trust us,” he said—just as patients trust their doctors to keep information confidential. “The exact opposite happened here.”