June 27, 1999
Maxxam's boss target of law firm
Lawyer's sole goal is "piercing the corporate veil" of huge corporation
that controls Kaiser
Julie Sullivan -- The Spokesman-Review
Spokane -- Steven Schectman's law firm handles suits from wrongful deaths
to environmental disasters. But no matter what the case or who the client,
the defendant is always the same:
The head of Maxxam Inc., which owns a controlling interest in Kaiser
Aluminum, is the sole target of a small but busy Northern California law
After 20 years of suing landlords, governments and other attorneys,
Schectman's aim is "piercing the corporate veil" of Hurwitz's Maxxam and
its more than 110 subsidiaries. His firm represents more than 65 people in
five state and federal suits against Maxxam.
Last week, Schectman won the right to depose two Kaiser executives in one
of the cases against Pacific Lumber Co.
The suit alleges that Pacific's logging practices caused massive landslides
that swept away seven homes and damaged another eight in Stafford, Calif.,
and in another instance, destroyed the Elk River watershed.
Schectman hopes the Kaiser depositions unravel a complex corporate
structure that he claims was created to shield Hurwitz from liability.
It was in another deposition in the case, with Pacific Lumber head John
Campbell, that Schectman discovered more than 30 laid-off Pacific Lumber
employees had been sent to Spokane to cross the Kaiser picket line after
the Sept. 30 strike by the United Steelworkers.
The Steelworkers allege such third-party hiring breaks state law. The
Washington State Patrol is investigating.
Schectman says the takeover of the California timber company and Kaiser,
and their respective problems with the environment and labor, are the
result of calculated corporate policies by Hurwitz, whom he calls a
Hurwitz takes over companies, drains their wealth and moves on, leaving
investors, employees and communities behind, the attorney claims.
"Maxxam is one of the corporations in America that most operates on the
edge, if not the outside, of the law," he charges. "It's important Hurwitz
be exposed and brought into the family of legally compliant corporations."
Representatives for Kaiser and Maxxam say Schectman is a nuisance -- an
opportunist driven by the Steelworkers, who have been locked out of Kaiser
plants since Jan. 14. They say the Steelworkers had no problem with Hurwitz
owning Kaiser in the 10 years before the dispute.
The suit against Pacific Lumber has "zero connection" to Kaiser, and Kaiser
has nothing to do with operations at Pacific Lumber, Kaiser spokesman Scott
"This whole effort is to connect the dots where they don't connect," Lamb
says. "This does absolutely nothing to advance the process toward a new
Maxxam spokesman Joshua Reiss places Schectman among a cadre of trial
lawyers nationwide who believe they can reap huge benefits by suing large
"The allegation that (Hurwitz) is the one behind the scenes ultimately
making the decisions is on its face inaccurate," Reiss says. "It's just not
Schectman said he is not receiving any pay or travel expenses from the
union. He was in Spokane last week to lend support and learn as much about
Kaiser as possible.
"I am going to college and graduate school on Maxxam," the 46-year-old
attorney says. "My office will be the place outside Maxxam that knows the
most about Maxxam, and we will be able to disassemble this entity."
To 200 Spokane Steelworkers rallying at the Trentwood rolling mill gate
Thursday, he was more direct.
"Hurwitz is the enemy," he said.
A legal bulldog
"Have you seen `A Civil Action'?" San Francisco attorney Frances Pinnock
asks. "That's Steven."
The best-selling book and movie centers on a case brought by Jan
Schlichtmann, the idealistic personal injury lawyer whose life was consumed
by a suit over contaminated drinking water in East Woburn, Mass.
Pinnock says her former law partner is a West Coast version of that
character, a "bulldog" who'd sooner lose his law practice than quit.
Schectman grew up in a two-story flat on Chicago's north side. His
immigrant grandparents, Russian Jews who spoke no English, lived
downstairs. His parents sold industrial staples out of the basement.
Schectman earned a degree in experimental psychology at Drake University
before traveling to California to begin what would be a career of activism.
He worked on Tom Hayden's failed bid for the U.S. Senate, enrolled in law
school in San Francisco and worked with the United Farm Workers on housing
issues. At the beginning of his second year of legal studies, he met
Berkeley civil rights attorney Len Holt and left school to become an
He tried his first case a week after passing the California Bar in 1980. He
has since trained five other apprentices. Today, there are six apprentices
in the Pacific Law office in Eureka, where he works with two other
attorneys and a retired judge.
But before he even took the bar exam, Schectman co-founded the Eviction
Defense Center in San Francisco, helping 40 to 50 people represent
themselves against landlords. Among his legal victories: a $4.3 million
settlement for the wrongful eviction of 23 elderly hotel tenants.
He says that in the process of trying that case, he learned how economics
drives unlawful conduct.
"Follow the money" soon became an official strategy, as did the
outrageousness of some of Schectman's tactics.
When he sued a famous San Francisco restaurant for firing a waiter because
he had AIDS, Schectman organized members of the radical group ACTUP to
demonstrate outside the restaurant and target patrons. The client won
$30,000 but died within two weeks.
When Schectman took on one of California's oldest and most prestigious law
firms -- Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro -- for discriminating against aging
secretaries, he had the older women standing on street corners handing out
The women were terrified, he says, and the button-down firm horrified, but
it was vintage Schectman.
"I represent powerless people and powerless people need to experience their
own power," he says. Such acts also pressure defendants to resolve the case.
"People dislike me. But my job is to be disliked by the opposition. This
isn't a job to me. It's who I am."
During the battle, the Pillsbury attorneys countersued, saying Schectman
had used documents carried out of the law firm by the former employees.
Schectman lost that round and the case dragged on for months.
"The case destroyed our law firm," Pinnock says. "We actually had no money.
His wife was selling her jewelry."
The former partners are still involved in a dispute over the collapse of
the firm. But Schectman held out, completely broke, for nearly six months
before winning a $4.8 million settlement for the secretaries.
He and his wife toyed with going to the beach for a year with their two
children. Instead, they ended up in Humboldt County, where they often
camped and where he became increasingly aware of a former Pillsbury client,
Today, from a rented Victorian, Schectman works with environmentalists and
other activists, studying Hurwitz.
He doesn't own his own home or office and he drives a van. Yet he's taking
on a man who is No. 156 on the Fortune 500 in control of a billion-dollar
conglomerate. It's a position he's used to.
"We're not making cases happen," he says. "All we have to do is sit back,
do our work and his victims find us."
* Julie Sullivan can be reached at (509) 459-5497 or by e-mail at
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