I plopped down a large first retainer and charged solo into battle. I worked with the lawyers to draw up a two-count complaint against my Fortune 100 employer. After the legal spit and polish was applied, Hotchkiss vs. Time Inc. was on. Thus began an eighteen-month litigation nightmare; I was in over my head the entire time.
I had totally underestimated the emotional drain of legal discovery and depositions. It became a full-time job without pay. The longer it went on, the more I realized I had to win. I’d be going into debt by the time the case was finished, and I was already considered radioactive in the marketplace.
I interviewed in earnest for a new job during the lawsuit, and I was honest about the reasons for my departure. No one bought them. Why would a guy at the pinnacle of his career, running a division of a Fortune 100 company, decide to leave voluntarily? And not for a comparable or better job? Prospective employers and headhunters surely thought I was trying to cover up the fact that I was fired. The industry was also small enough that once the lawsuit was public knowledge, everyone made up their own version of the facts anyway.
Ms. Vladeck assigned my case to an attorney in her firm named Julian Birnbaum, who had earned his JD from the University of Chicago and an AB from Harvard. His character could not have been more unlike Ms. Vladeck’s. The more I got to know him, the more he seemed to me like a psychology professor rather than a plaintiff’s attorney. Though he was dedicated to my case, the fiery passion of the firm’s leader was missing.
Time Inc. decided to represent itself internally with Miles Brugerman, deputy general counsel, as the lead lawyer. Miles was very much a gentleman and had the credentials to match: Amherst College and the University of Michigan Law School. He and I had never met before, but we had work colleagues in common. When he deposed me and put a face to a name, he realized and acknowledged that I would make a formidable opponent in court. At the end of his three-day deposition, Miles offered to settle the case. After consulting with Julian and my wife, I declined. Strike two.
The journey from filing suit in November 2000 to jury selection on a Monday in May 2002 was exceedingly nerve-racking. Over this year-and-a-half-long period, I suffered mood swings like never before. The night after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, I walked down from my apartment to the West Side Highway and along the unprotected footpath that paralleled this always-busy six-lane thoroughfare. I stared into oncoming traffic, trying to imagine if I’d experience any pain by taking two steps to my right. The slightest imbalance on my part could have ended the lawsuit.
I must have made that same five-minute walk at least a half dozen times during the pretrial period. Each outing occurred during the evening, when it was either twilight or dark and nearly impossible to judge the speed of oncoming traffic. I was setting myself up for tragedy. Sometimes I ran across the full six lanes—as well as the raised median barrier— just to see if I was faster than a speeding bullet. It wasn’t exactly Russian roulette, but it was both certifiably manic and potentially lethal.
What had happened to me? Why couldn’t I hack the role of plaintiff? If this game—and it was a game, I now realize—was too hard to play, then why didn’t I pick up the phone and call Julian to suggest we stop? Why couldn’t I confess my suicidal ideations to Linda. She was my wife, for Pete’s sake! Of course I know why, at least now. I was sick in the head—depressed, mentally ill, emotionally unstable, whatever you want to call it— and, as such, I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t tell right from wrong, and I most certainly couldn’t share my feelings of utter despair with anyone. Honestly, how could I talk about something I couldn’t label? I was truly stuck in my own world, my own universe. I was thoroughly obsessed listening to my own alternative station called “Radio Stuart.” That sole stream of information was no more fair and balanced than what Fox News disseminates today.
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