The good fight
Lawyer in U S West case puts principle over profit
Matt Mcclain © News
Curtis Kennedy, an attorney who has represented the Association of U S West Retirees, has a winning record in the many cases he's fought against U S West and Qwest. Despite having a high-profile practice, he works out of an office in his home.
As a boy in a Dallas orphanage, Curtis Kennedy fought a bully who was picking on an overweight kid. They fought to a draw, and Kennedy and the bully later became friends.
It's a fight between right and wrong that Denver lawyer Kennedy has faced over the course of his career. He sticks up for people he believes need outside help - especially employees and retirees of large corporations such as Qwest Communications, formerly U S West.
Kennedy has won dozens of victories and sizable, even multimillion-dollar, settlements in defending people from discrimination and other kinds of unfair treatment.
One of his biggest monetary victories came just a couple of weeks ago after he took on one of the country's biggest class-action law firms - California-based Lerach Coughlin.
Lerach, the lead law firm in a shareholder securities fraud case against Qwest Communications, wanted $96 million in legal fees as part of a $400 million shareholder settlement. Kennedy, representing the Association of U S West Retirees, who are part of the class, got that fee slashed to $60 million - thus netting $36 million more for the shareholders.
"He was David vs. Goliath," said Nelson Phelps, executive director of the Association of U S West Retirees.
And while many attorneys would seek a percentage of the $36 million, Kennedy is seeking $40,000 for legal fees and the $23,000 spent on the expert witness.
Lerach officials didn't return calls for comment.
Phelps remembers how Kennedy came to the retirees' aid in the mid-1990s after seeing how they were struggling to keep their health care coverage.
"He presented himself as a helper at no cost. It took me literally months to believe he was really sincere," Phelps said.
Over the years, Phelps said, Kennedy often has worked for reduced fees.
"He is, in this day and age, almost naive to some people because he's so honest and so much of a fighter for the little man," Phelps said.
Kennedy, 49, is athletically built, with curly, graying hair and a mustache. He is prone to wearing blue jeans, white dress shirts and cowboy boots.
For years, he has worked out of a modest house in southeast Denver, where he lives with his wife, Lisa, and three children ages 9 to 11.
His home office could be any legal office in downtown Denver, with its hardwood floors, a large dark wood desk, an aquarium with tropical fish and framed newspaper clippings featuring some of Kennedy's legal victories.
He has no support staff. His phone number isn't listed - he doesn't need the work. In fact, he turns down work.
Kennedy said he doesn't take on a case unless a person has been at a company for at least 20 years. And he picks his fights carefully.
"You have to pick the moral side and then find out how it violates the law. Not everything that is immoral violates the law," Kennedy said, then added, "Maybe it should."
Kennedy is a master at digging up documents that show the promises companies have made to their employees. Critics complain he doesn't understand that companies sometimes need to modify the pledges of the past in order to compete and save jobs in the future.
Qwest wouldn't comment for this article.
A solid record
Kennedy's record is legendary. An article from the mid-1990s reported that he had taken U S West to court 45 times and had never lost.
Kennedy, however, vividly recalls a defamation case in 2000 that he considers a big loss: He got only a $75,000 jury award for a former U S West manager whom co-workers had ridiculed as a "Vietnam veteran gone psycho." Still, after the case was over, Kennedy invited the opposing attorney to his house for a lunch of his wife's lasagna.
His wife, Lisa, a pharmacist, believes Kennedy's sense of right and wrong is "innate."
But certain memories stick out in Kennedy's mind. He remembers being about 8 years old and meeting a guy named Ernie who worked as the custodian in the kitchen at the orphanage.
One day, Kennedy asked Ernie how he wound up doing that job. "He told me he didn't have a choice." Ernie said he had worked for the Studebaker car company, which collapsed, leaving little for its retirees.
"I just thought that was pitiful, and it stuck with me," Kennedy said.
By the time he was in middle school, Kennedy was living with foster parents in Tulsa, Okla. Kennedy was known as Dr. Fro because of his curly, "large at times" hair, said longtime friend Steve Day.
The first sign of a promising law career came during high school when Kennedy worked nights as a fry cook at a local Dairy Queen.
Kennedy didn't think it was fair he had to spend 35 minutes cleaning the restaurant after it closed without getting paid. So he filed a complaint with the Oklahoma Department of Labor. He won, benefiting others in similar situations.
Law school was a whim
Despite being habitually late to morning class because of his part-time jobs, Kennedy got straight A's in high school and a college endorsement from the principal. Kennedy paid his way through the University of Oklahoma. He took the law school entrance exam on a whim.
He landed in Colorado because of the oil and gas boom, and headed toward a career representing energy companies.
"I couldn't stand it," Kennedy confessed.
The turning point came when he had to represent an oil and gas company against age discrimination claims by a stellar exploration geologist. As he studied the case, he concluded the geologist was right.
That didn't sit well with his boss. "He told me that (the clients) pay our bills, 'keep your mouth shut about what you know and do what the clients want.' "
He struck out on his own doing divorce work until a case involving three Mountain Bell managers who were let go during the 1983 AT&T breakup.
A $25 initial consultation - a fee Kennedy didn't collect - turned into a class-action lawsuit representing 500 managers and a seven-year fight.
He persuaded his former legal secretary Linda Weatherman to join him and got a $20,000 line of credit from a family owned bank to ensure he had enough money to pay her salary for the first six months.
For more than a year Kennedy lived out of his corner office in the Equitable Building, showering either in the basement or at a downtown athletic club.
At one point, while the initial verdict was on appeal, Weatherman took out a line of credit on her home, borrowed $1,000 from her father and worked a temp job while Kennedy tried to get some work in California.
"I guess I took a leap of faith" working for Kennedy, Weatherman said. "But I think litigation is always a risk. There is no given. I knew what a hard worker he was."
She believes Kennedy's orphanage experience probably influenced him to the degree that "he wanted to make something of himself, prove he could. He had to be tenacious to survive that."
Kennedy had promised that if he won the case he would share the proceeds with Weatherman.
Kennedy finally won what's been reported as a $20 million settlement in late 1989. Kennedy's take reportedly was about $2 million. He gave Weatherman a $100,000 bonus and a two-year advance on her salary. He asked her what her favorite color was.
On a business trip to Detroit, he bought a baby blue Jeep Cherokee, drove it cross country and delivered it to her door. "He parked it on my lawn with a big red ribbon on it," Weatherman recalled. "It was unbelievable."
Kennedy also threw a huge party for the plantiffs at a luxury Hyatt hotel near San Diego in January 1990. He paid for 360 rooms and a banquet.
On the trip to Detroit, Kennedy met Lisa at a nightclub.
He knew instantly. Lisa, on the other hand, wasn't quite swept away. She still laughs about Kennedy's opening line - "Are you from here?" - but she thought he was handsome.
He told her stories about buying his foster mother a home and his foster father an office building from part of his legal fees.
"I thought he was nuts" to give away the money after struggling so long to get it, she said. "He was incredibly kind and generous and believed it was the right thing to do. I probably learned more from him than from my Catholic upbringing."
Kennedy's friend Day said he's still that way. "He does all kind of things for people and doesn't expect anything in return."
Kennedy has a few toys: He owns Harley Davidson and Triumph motorcycles. But the family has lived in the same house for 16 years.
"We're not trying to keep up with the Joneses," Lisa said. "It's not important to us."
Pulled in by U S West
Burned out after the seven-year Mountain Bell case, Kennedy took flying lessons at nearby Centennial Airport.
But he was drawn back into litigation when he learned U S West was taking out a larger percentage of income tax from the settlement checks than the company was supposed to. "Just when you think it's over, it's not over."
He took on a discrimination case in the early '90s on behalf of a group of female employees at U S West whose pension benefits were cut by the lengths of their pregnancy leaves.
About that time, Ruth Shepard came to Kennedy for help. Her lawsuit claimed she had been unfairly treated in a corporate downsizing after she had stood up for a colleague from Somalia who was sexually harassed by a female boss.
Kennedy met Shepard at his kitchen table and was struck by how well-dressed she was. Kennedy said Shepard brought him to tears when she said she got dressed up every workday morning because she couldn't tell her high-school children she no longer had a job.
"I felt horrible for her," Kennedy recalled. "This is what happens to someone after 27 years (at a company)?"
Shepard describes Kennedy as one of the most ethical attorneys she's ever dealt with and remembers him digging something up that made the opposing attorney ask where he got it.
"He's very humanistic, deeply feels a client's problems," said Shepard. She said she was very happy with the settlement she received in the case.
Lisa said Kennedy feels deeply the pain of his clients.
"I have to get him to relax, let it go," she said.
But Lisa said Kennedy is good about shutting his office on the weekends to spend time with the family.
To let off steam, he exercises - there's a punching bag on the deck and weights in the basement - or rides his motorcycle.
Generally low-key, Kennedy can get pretty riled up when he talks about corporate America.
American companies used "to take great pains to treat people well from cradle to grave. Now it's just out the door. It's pathetic. I think it's bad for our children and hopeless for our grandchildren. It's a cancer that needs to be addressed."
Kennedy currently is absorbed in a fight to retain pension death benefits for U S West retirees. Qwest notified retirees of its plans in 2003.
Phelps, the retiree association director, appeared at Kennedy's door soon after. "I'm out mowing my lawn, and Nelson drives up," Kennedy recalled.
The case is scheduled to go to trial in January.
Kennedy hints the death benefit case may be one of his last.
"I can't see myself being 60 and still taking on all these three-year ordeals."
Curtis Kennedy at a glance
• Profession: Denver attorney
• Age: 49
• Education: Law degree, University of Colorado; bachelor of arts degree, University of Oklahoma
• Experience: 1983-present - solo practice focusing on employee benefits law, age and other discrimination cases on behalf of workers and retirees
1982-83 - associate, Calkins, Kramer, Grimshaw & Harring in Denver
• Key victories:
Won class-action suit alleging Mountain States Telephone forced 500 managers to accept an inferior retirement plan at the time of the breakup of AT&T in 1983. Reported settlement: close to $20 million.
Helped ensure in 1996 that about 30,000 U S West retirees who left before 1991 would be guaranteed health care benefits and prescription drugs for the rest of their lives at no additional cost.
Forced U S West to restore to the pension fund money that it had improperly taken. 1997 settlement: $8 million.
Won class-action suit in 1994 alleging women employees at U S West weren't getting pension credits while on pregnancy leave. Settlement could translate into millions of dollars for thousands of U S West women employees.
Argued plaintiff legal fees of $96 million were excessive in the recent $400 million class-action shareholder settlement with Qwest Communications. A federal judge recently reduced the fees to $60 million, adding $36 million for the shareholder settlement fund.
smithje@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5155