From time to time, Minnesota Litigator has profiled Minnesota litigators with deep areas of expertise but whose practices are in niche areas (and, sometimes at the same time, nation-wide). Due to the specialized areas of their practices, they might not be widely known in the Minnesota litigator community. Vildan Teske is a perfect example. Vildan has been involved in consumer protection litigation for over twenty years.
You have developed a fairly specialized area of practice in representing U.S. Servicemembers in class actions. Talk about these cases.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act [or “SCRA,” 50 U.S.C. § 501, et seq.] covers a variety of areas but the most commonly seen sections of the SCRA have to do with the consumer protections — protections against foreclosure, repossession, liens on property. And default judgments. We have been seeing a lot of those in the last few years with the financial meltdown. It also provides stays of civil proceedings and tolling of statutes of limitation.
The SCRA provides for an interest rate cap on loans entered into before entering in to active duty. That is a large variety of loans – student loans, mortgage loans, credit cards, business loans — and the SCRA extends some protections to co-borrowers and guarantors, not just the service member. And there are protections for the servicemember families and dependents.
The SCRA also provides that service members, when called to active duty, can terminate a lease, whether an auto lease or residential. A service member can terminate cell phone contracts or put them on hold. There are quite a few protections; I am forgetting some but these are what we see on a regular basis.
I take it that these kinds of cases come up where companies have simply conducted business unaware of a particular obligation so that the remedy would be something applicable on a class-wide basis?
Large companies should be aware of the law – it’s been around, in one form or another, since World War I and amended from time to time to reflect modern life. [The SCRA used to be known as the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act (SSCRA). The SCRA was a re-writing of the SSCRA and signed into law in 2003 by Pres Bush.] The majority of the cases can be handled on a class basis because either the companies’ policies violate the SCRA or the companies have no policy or procedure to address SCRA compliance requirements.
How do you get these cases?
Most of them are referred to us. We started with the first case about six years ago, referred to us by another consumer attorney who thought it was appropriate for class action treatment. So it started with one SCRA case and then we developed a reputation and were referred more of these types of cases.
One of the challenges in these cases is that many servicemembers do not know the extent of their rights under these laws. The law has strong protections. But until servicemembers get informed, they may not beaware that they can do something about a violation.
Sometimes we hear from legal assistance offices from within the military, who get involved to help servicemembers before litigation. And, since there are not many attorneys who do this kind of work, we get referrals from them. We are the only firm I know of, in fact, that really focuses on these specific kinds of cases. There are some specific lawyers I know around the country who are deeply knowledgeable about the SCRA and who counsel servicemembers. Every JAG office will see these kinds of cases come through.
The SCRA provides for fee shifting, so that defendants have to pay your attorneys’ fees if you win for your servicemember clients?
The SCRA does now. It did not before.
With your developed niche, do you need to do any advertising?
Up until very recently we had not done any. We’ve just started some internet advertising to reach out to both servicemembers and lawyers without the background that we have. We’ll see how that goes.
Tell us about your practice from the beginning.
I went to the University of Minnesota Law School and while in school I clerked for a firm called Reinhardt & Anderson. It has since split up into two firms. Part of Reinhardt & Anderson handled plaintiff’s class action cases — securities fraud, consumer protection, antitrust — and the other part was Jeff Anderson’s practice that focused on clergy sexual abuse. I clerked in the consumer protection and securities fraud part of the firm.
I was there for two years. The practice really interested me. I wanted to do work that made a difference, especially for the little guy. Bringing a class action on behalf of a large number of people appealed to me in the sense that you could bring a single case and affect many people, and you can potentially change a widespread illegal corporate practice. Consumer protection cases were fairly new then and only a few firms were focusing on these cases at that time. I also externed for Hennepin County District Court Judge Robert Schieffelbein. It was great to get behind the scenes experience in our court system, observing trials and motion hearings and then discussing them with the Judge and his staff.
I then clerked for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office in their civil division and worked on two class actions on the defense side. One of the cases was a property forfeiture case and the other was a property tax case concerning how interest was charged. I initially worked on these cases, but then had the opportunity to work with a number of other attorneys at the County Attorney’s office and got a good cross-section of civil litigation from the county’s perspective.
Around that time, Bill Crowder and Susan Bedor- two attorneys I had worked with – left Reinhardt & Anderson and started their own firm, focused on consumer protection class actions back in 1992/93. By the time I had graduated and taken the bar, they were looking for an associate and they contacted me. I’ve continued to work on class actions from that time on, almost all in consumer protection and a majority related to consumer financial services. These cases are a good fit for class action treatment. The money at stake for each individual is relatively low but a large amount in the aggregate, so individual cases do not make economic sense when it’s a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.
I then moved to Atlanta, Georgia for a few years and continued to work with Bill and Susan in an of counsel status, along with handling individual client matters in Atlanta. In 2006, I moved back to the Twin Cities and, at that time, Bill and I started our own practice, forming Crowder Teske, continuing to focus on consumer protection class actions. In 2012, we formed a new firm- Crowder, Teske, Katz & Micko. My new partners are Marisa Katz, who had been an associate at Crowder Teske, and Doug Micko. They’re excellent lawyers and they’ve been great to work with.
And are you all consumer class action lawyers?
We all have consumer class action experience, but our firm now has several different areas. Doug Micko brought over his employment practice and so we now have this capability – representing the employee side. Although I had been involved in some employment class litigation before, Doug brings extensive experience in employment law to our firm. And, as one part of the consumer practice, we have been handling SCRA cases.
In our evolving economy, I have the sense that, increasingly, there are small businesses, like my own, that team up with others on cases. It occurs to me that this model is familiar to the plaintiff’s class action bar. How does that work? How are you able to coordinate work with multiple lawyers and firms?
Most of our cases have been brought as part of a group. We co-counsel with lawyers who bring some specialization for that kind of case. There are several reasons for that. Many class actions are simply too large for a small number of lawyers to handle. But the main reason is that every lawyer brings a specialty and their own experience. Some of these cases can take years to finish. You need a variety of perspectives. We work with two or three — sometimes four or more — other firms. We work with people with whom we have had experience and whom we respect.
There are not a lot of people who do what we do so we tend to have an idea of who has the experience. The work can be incredibly busy for six to twelve months and then the case might have few demands while we wait for a court decision..
At the end of the case, distribution of fees is based on the recovery for the classmembers and how much work each firm has done.
Have you had a favorite case throughout your years of practice — a particular case that you would share stories from at a cocktail party?
Well, I try not to talk about my work at cocktail parties, but, having said that, my service-member class action work has been very satisfying. These are people who are in a very different situation than the rest of us. They have had to drop everything in their lives to serve. Being able to represent them, to enforce their rights and to provide some kind of relief has been really satisfying.
If you could change an area of law, what would that be?
That might be a long list. Consumer protection statutes have become harder and harder to enforce over the last ten years or so. I would allow service members, consumers, employees, and small businesses to take their disputes to court rather than to be forced into arbitration under pre-dispute, binding arbitration clauses with class action bans that are in many if not most consumer contracts and more and more employment contracts. That would be something I’d want to change. Our public court system and system of justice should be open to everyone. Individuals should be able to use it if they want to. They should be able to join others in a class action. Many times that’s the only way they can hold a wrongdoer accountable. If they want to arbitrate, that choice should be there. But it should not be forced. It comes down to a question of access to justice.
What advice do you have for the starting lawyer?
A few things come to mind. Do a variety of areas of law early in your career so that you get a taste for the different types of law and practice. They vary quite a bit. Find something you really enjoy. Second, remember that you are a human being first and a lawyer second. In our profession, some tend to take themselves too seriously and I would tell lawyers to keep their senses of humor.
Also, to remember that we are dealing with human beings in every case. Your clients come to you for guidance, expertise, and they want to be listened to. This comes into play even more so when you’re involved in cases where people may be in very difficult situations when they come to you. Lastly, I would tell a new lawyer to try to find good mentors to help navigate the challenges of the practice of law. Having that kind of support can make a big difference.
[Previous Minnesota Litigator Profiles: Jim Behrenbrinker, civil rights/excessive force cases, Eric Cooperstein, “ethics maven“, Mike Flom, Gray Plant’s General Counsel, Phil Gainsley, veteran solo civil litigator, John Halpern, collections, Elliot Olsen, foodborne illness litigation, Dave Potter, railroad industry litigator, Katherine Mackinnon, ERISA plaintiff’s lawyer, Kristine Boylan, international IP/Complex Litigation lawyer.]