IN THE EYE OF THE KATRINA CASE
Earlier this year, Los Angeles attorney Richard Doren argued one of the most significant cases the insurance industry has seen: a question over Hurricane Katrina and flooding exclusions, a case with more than a billion dollars at stake.
Since there were more than a dozen defendants, the group of insurers and their lawyers chose the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner, who has practiced in the area for 21 years, as the lead attorney.
“I felt privileged to argue an issue of such importance and significance,” said Doren, whose side won this month. The Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals delivered a victory for the insurance companies, holding that the water damage caused by flooding during Katrina was subject to the “flood” exclusions in insurers’ policies.
With a topic as emotional as Katrina, the process was “intense,” Doren recalled.
The day of the 10 a.m. argument, people lined up outside at 6:30 a.m. to get a seat. Extra seating was added onto each row, and the courtroom was filled with clients, lawyers, professors, interested onlookers and media.
“The experience of being involved in something so significant � as a professional, you couldn’t ask for a greater opportunity,” Doren said. “That overwhelmed any feelings of pressure or concern about doing well � you get caught up in the moment.”
While Doren acknowledged the emotions associated with the topic, he said the proceedings were very judicial in tone and focused on the core legal issues.
The court gave each side a full two hours for arguments, and cleared the morning docket. Along with Doren as the lead attorney for his side, two other attorneys representing insurers gave shorter arguments for a specific client issue.
The crux of the case, In Re Katrina Canal Breaches Litigation, 07-30119, addressed whether the storm’s water damages fell under the insurance companies’ flood exclusions � even though the flooding involved man-made levy failures.
Eventually, the Fifth Circuit held that a flood is a flood, whatever the cause.
“We had confidence in our arguments because we believed they were correct, unambiguous and enforceable,” Doren said. “But, obviously, you have a great obligation to make sure strong arguments are communicated well.”
� Kellie Schmitt
SUMMERS AT THE BORDER
Fearing for his life, Abdi Mohamed Ahmed fled his native Somalia just over a year ago.
As members of a small minority clan called the Silcis, Ahmed’s family suffered murder, rape and torture at the hands of a majority tribe there. Paying a smuggler $6,000, Ahmed told the court, he hoped to gain asylum in the United States. He traveled through Africa, South America and Mexico before landing in detention in Southern Texas.
And that’s when some plucky summer associates from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius’ San Francisco office came into the picture. Every year, the office sends a group of summers down to Texas to work on asylum cases, both to give them some trial experience and to help out an organization called ProBAR.
“If you’re represented by counsel in these asylum hearings, your chances are astoundingly higher than if you’re not,” said Howard Holderness III, a Morgan, Lewis partner who heads the entire San Francisco summer associate program.
With summers Anne Lee and Matt Poole making opening statements and closing arguments, submitting evidence, preparing witnesses and writing briefs, Ahmed, 19, won his asylum after about a year of waiting.
Two other summers, Miranda O’Connell and Jeanette Thurber, won asylum for a Honduran teen who the firm says had fled his home after a land deal gone bad led to the murder of his uncle and some of his cousins.
“It’s like intensive litigation camp,” said Sharon Smith, a fifth-year Morgan, Lewis associate who went to Texas, along with another associate, Seth McGibben, to supervise the younger lawyers. (The six of them shared a condo for the week in July they were working on the case there.)
The summers � who have since scattered and weren’t available for comment � didn’t walk away without their reward. When they came back they were feted at San Francisco’s Hotel Vitale.
After the successful hearings, they also celebrated in true South Texas style. “In Texas, we went to the Dairy Queen,” Smith said. “You know, when in Rome.”
� Zusha Elinson