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Transcript for Trial Lawyer Talk, Episode 12, with Balam Letona

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Scott Glovsky: Welcome to Trial Lawyer Talk. I’m Scott Glovsky and I’m your host for this podcast, where we speak with some of the best trial lawyers in the United States. This is a storytelling podcast. So we have great lawyers tell great stories from cases that had a profound impact on them.

Today, we’re lucky to have with us Balam Letona. Balam is a phenomenal lawyer from Santa Cruz, whose practice focuses on wrongful debt collection, and other types of financial tortes, as well as trying cases for the lawyers.

Balam is going to share with us a very interesting story that should flight upon keeping your power in the court room, and not letting anyone, including the judge, take away your power. So let’s get started.

Welcome to Trial Lawyer Talk. Today we’re very, very lucky to have with us, Balama Letona. Balam is a wonderful, caring, sensitive, and kind human being, and lawyer who cares a lot about his clients. Balam, thanks so much for being with us.

Balam Letona: Thank you for having me, Scott, it’s a pleasure and an honor to be here speaking with you.

Scott Glovsky: Balam, can you tell us about a case that had a profound impact on you?

Balam Letona: Yes, I can. I am thinking about Albert Sone. He was born in 1918. I had absolute honor to represent him in a personal injury case. At the time he was about 96, some lawyers in the Santa Cruz area had call me and asked whether I would try that case. They had worked the case up to trial and they weren’t getting anywhere in trying to settle it. So they gave me a call because they knew that’s what I liked to do, is try cases.

The first thing I asked them was, tell me a little bit about the client, and they had me in probably the first 30 seconds of them explaining to me that he was 96. He is alert. He has a broken leg that was the circumstances that precipitated a law suit. At that point, I heard a little bit about the case, and I wanted to meet him.

What I’ve learned being a trial lawyer, and being a lawyer for people, is that when you want to learn about a case and want to pursue justice, you have to really get to know the person individually, and learn their life story. At the time Mr. Sone was in a rest home somewhere on the central coast. So I drove out about a week later, he was probably about 70 miles from my office.

I drove out to meet him, and he was immobile at the time. He began to tell me all… I didn’t really want to know as much about what had happened, but instead I wanted to learn about him and what brought him up to this 96 years. I spent several different afternoons with him in the next following weeks. I learned quite a bit about his back story. His parents were originally from Holland, and they came to this country sometime around 1870.

Walking into his room, where he was staying in this rest home, it was a hospital like setting. On the walls he had different pictures of people, and all of them were in black and white. He had a picture of his mother and his father. He had pictures of steamboats that we don’t see nowadays. He began to weave this incredible narrative about his life story that I was just curious about.

One thing that struck me with Mr. Sone was that he had always been a principled man, and very independent. What had happened to him… Something happened to him that took away his independence. I think he had just turned 96, he was living alone. His son was a former Sheriff of a county in the central coast.

His son wanted him to live with him, but Albert refused. Instead he said, I want to live in a small little town, I want to have my own place, and live alone. Of course his son relented and let him. Albert’s wife had gotten sicker and sicker and couldn’t care for her, at this point in time, she was in a rest home, and Albert was living alone.

One night in the winter, there was a terrible storm that had hit the central coast of California, knocked out the power, it was raining. When the power was knocked out, sometime around midnight, Albert stood up, he was about 6’4″, and walked into the garage to turn off the gas.

He turned off the gas with a pair of pliers, and he put them in his dungarees, that’s what he called them, but we would call them jeans, right. He went to sleep on the couch. He didn’t go to sleep on the bed, because he wanted to be ready for anything. That’s the kind of guy he was, I’ll sleep on the couch when there’s potential danger around, I’m going to be ready.

During the night, he rolled off of the couch, and still had these pliers in his pocket, and he cracked his femur and he had a broken leg. The next day, he was rushed to the emergency room. Understand, up to this point he was completely mobile. He was driving, he was going everywhere doing things. He was taking out the trash, doing his own laundry, he had full independence.

They were successfully able to put in a metal rod. Then they sent him off to a different rest home, his wife was in a different city, he was recovering there. When he got into the room, there was a Japanese-American in the same room with him, a man close to his age. Mr. Sone grew up in a time where Japanese-American’s were just thought as Japs. Those were the words he used.

I remember listening to him use those words with me. It stunned me because I would never use a word like that. My own personal experience has just been love and understanding from Japanese people. So I never thought for a moment, that I would ever call a Japanese-American a Jap.

Here I am sitting across from Mr. Sone, he’s laying in his bed and tells me about that dirty Jap, and how that dirty Jap came after him. So if we go back to, when Mr. Sone have been brought into this room, at this rest home to recuperate. He’s lying in this room. It’s close to midnight, and he is nearly sedated. He’s disoriented, he’s just come out of major surgery, and soon enough the drugs where off.

Early the next morning, he wakes up and opens his eyes, and he sees, what’s in his mind is, a dirty Jap. Now, if you were to ask me, I don’t think Mr. Sone would have ever said that if he hadn’t felt something. It’s not like he is a guy that would walk down the street and say that to someone who looks Japanese.

This is the part of the story that really impacted me, as a human being but also as a lawyer. Was to find out that this dynamic between Mr. Sone and his roommate, because why did that happen? Skip forward a little bit, what happens is, the next morning he wakes up, and he sees this gentleman.

In his mind, this gentleman is being very aggressive towards him. He’s not making sense. They start to argue back and forth. The day continues, his son visits him, his son is aware of this tension that’s brewing, and he can see it. He’s assured everything is going to be okay.

Mr. Sone falls to sleep later that night. He then is woken up to this man pounding on his leg that has just been operated on. He’s just pounding on that leg, Mr. Sone is helpless. He’s trying to scream out, trying to get this man off of his body. At some point he’s pulled off and taken somewhere else, but at the end of the day Mr. Sone’s never able to recover. He’s never able to walk again after that.

So the lawsuit was filed because of this attack on him. The near certainty in Mr. Sone’s mind, and also his son’s mind, if that attack had not happened that he would have recovered fully. He would have had a full recovery. The day after the surgery he was up and walking and making progress as you would expect someone to make. After that, it wasn’t as clear as it was the first day.

The thing that impacted me the most, and why I bring up this case, is because it was really the first time I had the opportunity to go into the mind and explore the story from the perspective of a Japanese-American who attacked him. It was really important for me to understand him as a human being.

I then got involved in the case, and I found out this gentleman’s name. He hadn’t been deposed at all, discover had already closed, so there was no hope to ever… No back up, he had not been deposed because he had passed away.

Scott Glovsky: So you are trying to get inside the heart, the head, and the mind of this elderly Japanese man who is now dead?

Balam Letona: That’s right.

Scott Glovsky: How did you do that?

Balam Letona: So the first thing I did, is I picked up the phone and I called the lawyer that was representing his estate. Because at some point, before I ever got involved this gentleman was named as a co-defendant. But because he had passed on, and there weren’t any assets to speak of, he had been dismissed out.

I picked up the phone and I spoke with the lawyer. I simply told him that I am representing Mr. Sone, and I’ve done some research on this man. His name was Mitsuku Eto, it think he probably went by Mits, and his last name was Eto, E-T-O. I learned through Google research that he was a member of same 442 regimen that fought in Europe for the United States.

I learned that his family had been interned during the war, because they were forced out of their home, and sent away to one of these internment camps. It was in the internment camp, that he eventually joined the Army and went and fought valiantly for our county, all through Europe.

I found different photographs of him that were online. The Japanese-American community had been a tremendous job at preserving those photographs, and also interviewing those people. I know that he won many medals and honors in the military.

When I picked up the phone and spoke with this lawyer, I expressed that to him. I said to him, that I believe that there’s more there, that there’s a story here that I want to hear about. I had known up until this point that he had fallen from a tree while trying to pick some apples in his back yard. That’s what had brought him to this rest home, and into that room with Mr. Sone.

He had a lot of head trauma and was taken to a local hospital, and he had to be tied down in the bed because he was striking out and hitting people. I wanted to know more about him. I really felt that his memory shouldn’t be in a trial. I didn’t want the focus of his memory to be someone who attacked my client.

I felt it important that the jury see there was two victims in this particular situation, that the rest home hadn’t done their job. I had a meeting with his widow and his son, and I put together a collage of photos that I had found on line. I printed them out and sat down with them, that was the first thing I did, was I took out those pictures.

I showed it to his wife, and there were some pictures she had never seen before. We spent some time talking about his military history, and I learned about his story. Then I began to ask them about the fall that had happened and what changes she saw.

It is an image that will never leave me, was her telling me that, after he had been hospitalized and she could tell he was actually out of his mind. She would be at the hospital actually trying to calm him down. Here’s a lady that wasn’t even 4’6″ probably weighs 70 pounds soaking wet, and she’s trying to hold down her husband from attacking people. He isn’t getting the care that he needs.

That was an aspect of the story that really bothered because that, but I also knew that was a story that a jury needed to hear. After I had met them and really understood their story, I then reshifted me attention back to telling that story at trial.

One of the things that I learned while looking into this was from Mrs. Eto, she started to tell me about her effort to stop her husband from attacking other people. I said to myself, there has to be nurses out there who know about this. We were probably less than a month from trial. But I got the names of different nurses, and most of them wouldn’t return my phone call, but there were two that did.

I began to interview them, and they began to tell the story of the bruises they had sustained from Mr. Eto. The attacks that he would do, and it was so hard to control him. What struck me was that one particular nurse, she described this from a place of love.

What she would say is that he didn’t know what he was doing. She didn’t really have control over him, but he should not have been at that facility. He should have been somewhere else where they could have controlled him, where they could have restrained him, or done something to control him. She didn’t blame him at all for what had happened.

That aspect of her testimony, in my mind, was what was needed, a jury needed to hear. That’s how I began to form the case, is from the perspective of that nurse and also from the perspective of Mr. Eto’s widow. How do I reconcile that with this dirty Jap? That’s the rub, right? You have Mr. Sone, who says these things about Mr. Eto. Then you have Mr. Eto, who also has a story.

What I eventually realized was that, of course, Mr. Sone was put in a situation where his emotions and his need to protect himself came out, and he was vulnerable at the time. This was a man who was entirely doing everything on his own. He was doing his laundry. He would try to paint his house. He would rake leaves. Now, he’s lying on a bed prostate, not able to move his legs or get out, and there’s danger in the room.

Mr. Eto, was not only physically combative, but he was also verbally combative. That was the story I needed to tell, but also I needed to address head-on these racist comments. Mr. Sone, he would deny he said these things.

I didn’t feel that that was the best way to go about denying, it was instead to embrace that, and speak to the jury in voir dire about racism and different words that we use. And how when we are in a vulnerable position, we sometimes revert to a more base level of how we react. If you think about…

Scott Glovsky: I’d seen that there was notes and records shown that you client has said these racist comments, that would openly come out.

Balam Letona: There were, yes, they had their expert that was going to testify about that. That that was what he was going to talk about with all of what I just mentioned.

Scott Glovsky: So how did you deal with it?

Balam Letona: What I did, I just embraced all of that. I didn’t deny that it did not happen. Of course, I was going to put them to their proof, but I was not going to deny it. I wasn’t going to make it an issue. I wasn’t going to make it a factual stand, because I didn’t see that we could really sustain that piece of the evidence.

How I addressed is that I began to identify some parts of my own story, my story as Balam Letona that I could identify with, where I was racist, or I did something discriminatory towards someone. I don’t remember the exact story that I was going to use when speaking with the jury about that. But I felt it important enough that I had a story from my own past to give them permission to start speaking about that.

Scott Glovsky: So to connect with your client, and to share the truth of your client, you tapped into your own racist feelings to be able to identify with your client, and to identify ultimately with the jury.

Balam Letona: Yes. I think that the only way to be a successful trial lawyer was to be transparent and honest. We hear a lot of talk nowadays of not being politically correct, and being mindful of other people’s feelings. There something to say to that when it comes to a jury, it’s not a time to be politically correct, it’s a time to really become real, and to really discuss the dynamic that is occurring, that we all…

I hear common people, they are asked, well why you do you support this one candidate? They’ll say, because he’s saying what we’re all thinking and we’re afraid to say. I think that is what needs to happen in a jury trial. In order to really understand your client, you have to understand sometimes the truth is ugly. It’s not pretty, it’s absolutely horrendous. We don’t all have our best days.

The reason why our justice system is set up, it’s set up to, in my mind, to find the truth behind those horrendous statements, to really explore that. The only way I know how to do that is what I’ve been taught to do, is to find that truth in me, to find my own story, so people can have permission to start talking about that.

Because we all know that when they go into the jury room that’s what they’re going to be talking about. Sometimes it’s not going to come out verbally, but they’ll have it in the back of their mind, and that’s what’s really going to be driving their decision. So I’d rather speak about it during voir dire. Of course, it’s not my train, they may take what I say and go a different direction, that’s their train at that point. Let them talk about it, how they want to talk about that issue.

So at the end, this came about, and I’m probably two days into the case, and we ended up settling the case.

Scott Glovsky: So after two days into the trial?

Balam Letona: Yes. We ended up settling. I was very disappointed with how the settlement went down, and so was Mr. Sone’s son, but it ended.

Scott Glovsky: What do you mean, disappointed in how it went down?

Balam Letona: Well we were trying the case. It was just me, I had an associate with me, who was from this lawyer’s office who had referred me the case, and he never tried a case before. The methods I was using were a bit different for him, they were kind of foreign. We were getting rulings against us.

The judge had pretty much disallowed all of the evidence that Mr. Eto had attacked other people previous to hitting my client. The only thing he allowed in was that Mr. Eto had struck the lady, who was in a wheelchair. He had punched her in the chest, while he was being wheeled down the hallway.

But all of the other evidence found in the medical charts, where these nurses had said combative, resisting. All of those that went on like a chronology, day-by-day, he had excluded all of that evidence.

Scott Glovsky: So how did that feel? You’re in trial, you’ve got your heart and soul connected with your client to tell his story, and then the judge essentially disallows you to tell his story. How did that make you feel?

Balam Letona: It was devastating. I still haven’t gotten over that feeling. I felt like I let Mr. Sone down. I wish there was a magic carpet to take me back in time to redo it. I felt alone. It’s one of my biggest regrets when I look back on the different cases and trials I’ve had. Part of it is, I feel like I didn’t do enough to fight for him. He eventually died a few years after that trial, I think it was a year and a half or two years later.

Yeah, devastation. I had time to process that case. What it has given me, it’s given me strength to not give up no matter how bad the case is going during trial, to just fight to the end. I realized in that case, for the first time, that I have to be willing to figuratively die in a case in order to win. I don’t mean win where we would get a victory, and the jury would find for us, but to win for my client.

Many times, as crazy as it sounds, people just want to be heard in trial. They want that moment where they can tell their story to a jury, and to a judge. They’re not really interested in the money. Of course, that’s how we spell justice in America, as crass as some people may think that is, money is what is paid in a trial.

What I’ve learned though, is that Mr. Sone taught me that I need to give everything, I need to die, I need to put my ego aside, and I need to pursue justice.

Scott Glovsky: Let me have you explain a little more. When you say I need to die, can you tell me more about what that means?

Balam Letona: When I say that I need to die in a trial that takes me back to Mr. Sone’s trial, where I had, in my mind, a very difficult judge, who I felt was personally attacking me, and who was being petty, being mean. Who was treating the other attorney as if they were old pals, that there was a running joke going between them that none of us knew about.

What I realized in that case was that I needed to let that judge kill me. I need to let him verbally assault me, and do whatever it is that he’s going to do to me. I needed to be that punching bag for my client that I needed to take that punishment.

The judge would never in a million years, ever direct that to Mr. Sone, he had too much respect for him. But to me, he’s gladly doing that. That is when I came to the realization that I need to stand up, and I need to take all of the verbal abuse, and emotional abuse for my client. I need to be that one, that’s that punching bag.

If that means that I’m going to die emotionally then I’m going to let that happen. That took a few days for me to realize that, because as you know trials are usually called and there’s some motions in limine, and there’s some work that happens when a jury starts to come in.

That’s when I started to realize how this was going to go down. I was very scared the first day, I remember that happening, it was just very scary. It finally took me a day to realize that, once I…

Scott Glovsky: You said you remember having….?

Balam Letona: Well I remember… Yeah, you’re not going to let me off the hook are you? The very first day of trial, we were going through motions in limine, and we were pretty much losing everything that we wanted to get. I had put too much emotional energy in my expectations of what was going to happen, that we were going to win these things.

I put too much energy and emotional energy into a story that I was going to tell based on some of this evidence. When we started to lose that, and things were going just awful, and this just was rude. I left that hearing, and I had a panic attack.

I’ve never had a panic attack at that point. I felt like the world was collapsing around me. I felt alone, and I didn’t really have any other attorney’s that I could lean on and talk about this and just be real and open about what was happening with me inside.

Once that happened, the next day came around, and that’s when I had this euphony. That the only way I’m going do well and not allow this panic attack to come back was to let go of this aspect of control that I wanted over of maybe how the case was running. And let control of ever convincing this judge that we were right. Also let go of my idea of how he was controlling the case, and how he acting.

That was probably a fiction in my mind, or maybe it wasn’t, but I certainly felt that way. There were some other things that happened post trial that I can’t talk about, because I’ve been instructed not to talk about by people higher up, I would say. Some good stuff did come out, because of what had happened in that trial and the judge’s conduct.

Once I gave up control of that, I said to myself, I’m going to allow you to take all of your angry and snide remarks, I’m going to give you permission to do that to me. Once I gave him permission to do that, he lost his power, and I was able to go forward.

I think, now circling back, when I talk about that I have to figuratively die, that meant I had to give up, and give the judge permission to attack me and not let it affect me. Because before that, I was resisting his attacks, and I was taking it personally. But once I realized that this is how he is, and nothing is going to change. Once I turned that corner then it was fine.

Scott Glovsky: That’s wonderful. What a great lesson. I know that’s a common experience among our colleague trial lawyers, of getting your ass kicked by the judge, having a trial seemingly where everything is going against you. And yet fighting for justice for your client, while you feel like you’re dying inside, and tortured inside. That wonderful lesson that you shared with us, of keeping your power and not letting that judge take your power, is something that I’ve learned from you.

So I thank you very much for that gift, and the tremendous gift that you’ve given us today. Also the love that you show for you clients, and the creativity in your lawyering, it’s very evident. I’m really thankful that you shared with us today, and very thankful for your clients that they have you as their lawyer.

Balam Letona: Thanks for having me, Scott.

Scott Glovsky: It was a pleasure.

Scott Glovsky: Thank you for joining us today for Trial Lawyer Talk. If you like the show, I really appreciate if you could give us a good review on iTunes, and I’d love to get your feedback. You can reach me at scottglovsky.wpengine.com. That’s S-C-O-T-T-G-L-O-V-S-K-Y.com, and I would love to hear your feedback.

You can also check out the book that I published called Fighting Health Insurance Denials: A Primer for Lawyers, that’s on Amazon. I put the book together based on 20 years of suing health insurance companies for denying medical care to people. It provides a general outline of how to fight health insurance denials. Have a great week and we’ll talk to you in the next episode.

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