A ‘Bulldog” in the Courtroom
BY JAIME LOO – Chicago Daily Law Bulletin Staff Writer – July 27, 2013
Most 16-year old drivers are terrified when they’re pulled over by a police officer.
After she was stopped in 1988 by a Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer who alleged that she ran a stop sign while driving with friends in her father’s Jeep, Kurtz contested the ticket in municipal court.Dana L. Kurtz turned it into her first court case.
The teenager called the officer to the stand and cross-examined him.
The courtroom had a chalkboard, so she drew the intersection and other stopped cars “trying to establish that he really didn’t see whether I stopped or not,” Kurtz said. There were no other witnesses that could testify because her friends “chickened out” of coming to court, she said.
Kurtz lost the case. But the experience affirmed for her the importance of fighting for what’s right, she said.
“I’ve always stood up for what I believe in,” she said. “Even if it was over something silly like a traffic ticket that probably cost $50 or $30 back then.”
Kurtz, 42, represents plaintiffs in employment, civil rights, sexual harassment and political corruption cases. The founder of Kurtz Law Offices Ltd. has won six-figure settlements and, in a few cases, more than $1 million judgments for her clients.
Growing up in Tulsa, Kurtz always knew she was going to be a lawyer. Her father was a lawyer and accountant who often helped failing businesses.
Kurtz learned her work ethic from her mother, who handled real estate and title work at the time. Today, Kurtz’s mother is the bookkeeper for her daughter’s law firm.
When Kurtz left home to attend Knox College in Galesburg, she went to court again — but under much different circumstances.
During her freshman year, Kurtz said, she was sexually assaulted in her dorm room by another student. It was the middle of the night and her roommate had left the door unlocked. The man had been trying doorknobs in her building and opened hers.
“I went and actually talked to the D.A. (district attorney) by myself and apparently in Knox they had not prosecuted a sexual assault case in I don’t how know how many years,” she said. “And I gave him a list of witnesses and took an active role in it.”
Kurtz sat through the trial, the entire time taking mental notes of what the prosecutor was doing.
She was thinking, “I would do this; I would do that. I would’ve done this,” she said.
The defendant was found not guilty. At the time, the college had no support system for sexual assault victims. So Kurtz and some friends formed the Students Against Violence group.
The organization persuaded the college to adopt written policies and create a mandatory educational program for freshmen on sexual assault, date rape and violence on campus. A 24-hour hotline was also established for crime victims.
During her senior year, the college honored Kurtz with the Dean Deborah Wing Award for Advancement of Women’s Rights on Campus. The plaque is still on the wall in her office.
“So it was actually a very good experience in the sense of effectuating a bigger change on campus that helped other people and other students just based off of that bad experience that I had,” Kurtz said. “And that’s really what pushed me toward women’s rights and really fighting for victims of sexual harassment.
“I mean, we have a number of cases where women have been raped by their bosses, egregious sexual harassment cases that sometimes other people won’t take. But (I) also help clients heal through that process because I’ve been there. It’s been a very empowering experience for me in terms of helping others.”
Helping others heal
During law school, Kurtz worked for attorney Edward T. Stein and participated in moot court. She also externed for trial court Judge Ann Claire Williams in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in 1996 to 1997.
Kurtz graduated from IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1998 and went to a firm that was then known as Soule & Bradtke. She founded Kurtz Law Offices Ltd. in 2003.
In 2006, Kurtz represented the first female police officer in the Mokena Police Department, Suzanne Barth, in a sexual harassment case.
The officers watched “The Howard Stern Show” on cable TV before roll call, Kurtz said, and some of them regularly made suggestive remarks to Barth about women on the show and women’s breasts. It was just one example of the daily harassment Barth faced.
“A guy (fellow officer) had grabbed her breast, over her police vest, and she complained about it. Well, then after she complained, they started retaliating against her.”
Barth ended up resigning her position and filed a lawsuit after she was left without backup during a drunken-driving stop. It only takes a few minutes to drive across Mokena to Barth’s location during the traffic stop; Kurtz said it took more than 15 minutes for a police sergeant to arrive.
“His response was, ‘I was on lunch,'” she said.
The trial lasted for three weeks and the jury returned in less than two hours with a $1.9 million judgment in Barth’s favor. Barth did not return to police work after the trial.
There is a perception, Kurtz said, that women who enter male-dominated fields like law enforcement should be prepared for harassment. If they a file complaint, they’re labeled as too sensitive, she said.
“What I have found in every case … the women are far more tolerant than you or I would be of things that happen. And it’s ultimately something, the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” she said.
What’s particularly troubling about sexual harassment cases involving public institutions, Kurtz said, is how aggressively defendants litigate them and how unwilling they are to change — something she attributes to the negative attention municipalities receive from such lawsuits.
It always amazes her, she said, how supervisors either ignore initial complaints or try to cover up incidents instead of admitting mistakes.
Kurtz handled one case where the defendant agreed to a policy change in the settlement.
In that dispute, Sharon Januszewski, a female firefighter, filed a sexual harassment case against the Oak Lawn Fire Department. The breaking point for Januszewski came when she arrived at work and found semen on her bed sheets.
The case settled for $850,000 in 2009 and the fire department agreed to alter some policies and mandate training.
“I think that’s a positive story,” Kurtz said. “You can get settlements in cases where you can actually effectuate change and it’s not just about paying money.”
Kurtz has also handled political corruption cases in Cicero and two against the Cook County sheriff’s office. Last year, Kurtz got a $1.56 million verdict for 21 county correctional officers who alleged they were retaliated against for backing Sheriff Thomas J. Dart’s opponent in the 2006 election.
The trial in Chicago’s federal court lasted a month. Kurtz said she took a lot of pride in representing the plaintiffs.
“Part of what I do, too, as a lawyer is I really try to help the clients heal from what has happened to them. And so that’s part of the process even in preparing for trial and through the course of the case,” she said.
“And what I’ve found is that often times helping them to forgive, even if that doesn’t resolve the case through settlement, it helps them be in a space where they can testify authentically about what happened to them. I don’t know what other lawyers really do that.”
Sky’s the limit
Kurtz said she loves doing trial work and making arguments to protect people in the workplace.
In 2000, she argued Jacobs v. City of Chicago before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is often cited in Section 1983 civil rights cases on qualified immunity issues involving any law enforcement, government officials or government employees who raise qualified immunity as a defense.
The 7th Circuit held that if there is a question of fact on qualified immunity, it becomes an issue for the jury to resolve rather than the trial judge.
Joseph F. Spitzzeri, a Johnson & Bell Ltd. attorney who has opposed Kurtz in court, said she has a reputation as a “bulldog” in the courtroom.
He said Kurtz is always well prepared for cases and isn’t shy about fighting for information she and her clients are entitled to during the discovery process.
“One of the downfalls of a lot of trial lawyers is that they only see the strengths of a case. She sees both the strengths and the weaknesses,” he said.
Spitzzeri, who represents defendants in employment cases, said he is so impressed with her work that he often refers clients to her who are looking for plaintiff representation.
While Kurtz enjoys the adrenaline offered by trial work, she also gets a rush from her hobby — skydiving.
“The moment you get the call the jury is back and you’re waiting in the courtroom for the jury to come out, it’s the same feeling I get when I’m at the door of the airplane getting ready to jump out,” Kurtz said. “My heart is fluttering.”
Kurtz has jumped about 300 times since she started skydiving in 2004.
She has also competed on four-way formation skydiving teams in which four people score points by making various formations together in the air.
Kurtz’s husband, Curtis, even proposed to her during a jump.
Skydiving forces you to relax, she said.
“It just makes you realize life is more than winning and losing. It just gives you a perspective on the world,” Kurtz said.
“I guess hurling yourself out of an airplane at 120 miles an hour — one, you realize you can do anything, and two, you actually get down and you’re happy. And it puts life into perspective.”