A Civil Action

by Jonathan Harr

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Rule 11

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Last Updated on February 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1317

Jerome Facher is a Harvard Law School professor and the chairman of the litigation department at the firm Hale and Dorr. People come from all over to take his courses and “learn from the master.” He lives alone in Arlington and uses all of his waking hours to work.

Facher doesn’t like to work in his office. Having turned down several opportunities for better views, he finds himself working in “hideouts” around the building, his favorite being a twenty-first-floor storage closet. In May of 1982, Facher is hired to represent Beatrice Foods in the Woburn case. He starts the work by sending Neil Jacobs, one of his former law students and a junior partner at the firm, to Woburn to speak with the manager and former owner of the Riley Tannery.

Jacobs speaks with Riley, who sold the family business to Beatrice, because he was forced by ordinance to spend one million dollars to build a waste treatment plant. However, the plant was never built. Riley denies that the tannery uses TCE and drives Jacobs to the land in question. On the drive, Jacobs sees several 55-gallon barrels decaying into the ground and leaking a dark substance. There is a harsh chemical smell in the air. Jacobs asks Riley about the barrels. Riley claims the barrels are from Whitney Barrel, and that he has never dumped any waste.

Jacobs asks about Riley’s relationship with Jack Whitney, owner of Whitney Barrel. Riley states that Whitney used to house tanks on Riley’s land but because he didn’t run a clean business, Riley told Whitney to remove his property.

Back at the office, Jacobs compiles a response to Schlichtman and Roisman’s complaint, negating Whitney Barrel’s potential involvement in the Woburn case. Facher approves of his work.

The narrator describes Grace, focusing on the company’s multiple lawsuits regarding contamination. The company has hired a lawyer named William Cheeseman, a senior partner at Boston’s Foley, Hoag & Eliot, to deal with the Woburn case. Grace tells Cheeseman to use whatever resources he needs “to stop this case in its tracks.”

Cheeseman gets to work and learns that Grace did use TCE. However, only one 55-gallon drum was purchased, not enough to produce the amount of waste needed to contaminate two wells. A Grace executive plays the tape of Schlichtmann speaking to the news about the case, and Cheeseman finds the interview highly unprofessional. Cheeseman decides to get the case moved from state to federal court, given the national spectrum of Grace’s businesses. He then writes a letter to Schlichtmann and Roisman advising them to drop the case.

Cheeseman never receives a response from his letter and figures that Schlichtmann must have dropped the case. However, in October, Cheeseman receives 52-pages of questions he legally has to answer within 30 days. Cheeseman refuses to respond, using Rule 11 as a scapegoat. Rule 11, when invoked, allows a case to be dropped based on a lack of real evidence with which to file the complaint in the first place. The rule is meant to stop “sham” and “frivolous” lawsuits from making it into courtrooms.

As Cheeseman begins drafting his response, he calls Jacobs and suggests they should work together, since they are co-defendants in the case. Jacobs tells Cheeseman he will talk to Facher and call him back.

While the case revolves around the diagnoses of children, there are more leukemia cases in Woburn. Roland Gamache, who lives near the Zona family, contracted chronic myelogenous leukemia at thirty-five. Joan Zona eventually asks the Gamaches to join the other families in the lawsuit. After some time, the Gamaches...

(This entire section contains 1317 words.)

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agree, because they want their children and their town to have clean water.

Months later, Roland is making plans to take his son and friends to a Bruins game and needs two more seats. He learns that Riley owns the two seats next to his. Not realizing Riley is one of the entities he’s suing, he calls him and inquires about swapping seats. Riley recognizes the name and tells him to come by. 

During their conversation, Riley gets mad and explains that he’s the defendant in the Woburn case. Gamache is taken aback, but he stays to hear Riley’s side of the story. Riley describes how he grew up in Woburn and would never harm it. After an uncomfortable rant, Riley gives Gamache the tickets. Once Gamache leaves, Riley calls Jacobs, explaining that the people in the suit don’t even know who they’re suing. Jacobs wonders if he can use this information against Schlichtmann, but Facher dismisses the idea. He also decides to forgo Rule 11 with Cheeseman, believing it won’t succeed. 

Jacobs relays this entire conversation to Cheeseman who decides to invoke the act of barratry along with Rule 11, now believing that Schlichtmann has corralled a group of clients for profit. A barratry motion means that Cheeseman believes Schlichtmann is trying to push this case forward for the sole purpose of monetary gain. Cheeseman believes he will get the case dismissed and maybe even prompt disciplinary hearings against Schlichtmann.

The case comes across the desk of Judge Walter Jay Skinner, who has over five hundred backlogged cases. Skinner reads Cheeseman’s Rule 11 motion. If invoked, Schlictmann would have to defend himself against the accusations made by Cheeseman. Skinner decides to proceed with this motion but fails to see the barratry motion in the remainder of the memorandum.

Schlichtmann and Conway discuss their options in the face of the Rule 11 motion, but Schlichtmann states he refuses to take the stand and “testify against [his clients].” Conway tries to explain that Schlichtmann will go to jail if he doesn’t testify. But Conway comes up with a plan to turn the barratry charges against Cheeseman by getting the Judge angry. Schlichtmann decides he will do everything he can to steer away from the Rule 11 motion and focus on barratry. They gather every file they have on the Woburn case and prepare for court.

In January of 1983, a group from Reed & Mulligan follow Schlichtmann, Conway, and Roisman to the courtroom for support. Schlichtmann is worried and starts regretting taking the case in the first place. He tries to compose himself in the bathroom, but he can’t help wondering if this hearing will result in handcuffs and disbarment.

Skinner enters the courtroom, and Schlichtmann immediately focuses on the barratry. Skinner is confused, but after hearing Schlichtmann speak, he says he will impound the evidence. This isn’t enough to indict Schlichtmann, who wants his name cleared. Skinner asks for the confidential information from Facher and Cheeseman connected to Rule 11, which results in Facher’s making a call to his clients in the hallway.

Skinner tells Schlichtmann that Cheeseman has a right to cross-examine him in court, and even though Schlichtmann repeatedly tells Skinner the facts, Skinner won’t end this hearing until Cheeseman has a chance to ask questions. However, Schlichtmann can’t let it go. He nearly begs the judge to try this case a different way so that Schlichtmann is not coerced into speaking out unethically against his clients.

Schlichtmann wears down the judge, who calls Cheeseman to a sidebar. Skinner begins asking Schlichtmann and Roisman questions as a medium for Cheeseman and his opponents. Roisman answers two questions, but shortly thereafter Skinner decides to refrain from asking the rest, feeling that they’re unnecessary. As Skinner prepares to call the hearing to a close, Cheeseman reminds Skinner of Facher’s phone call. Facher, however, says his clients were “all out to lunch.” While Schlichtmann wants more closure, the judge ends the hearing and leaves. Schlichtmann thanks Facher, and Cheeseman is amused.

Two weeks later, the judge dismisses the Rule 11 motion based on the facts derived from the EPA report and the study from the CDC. Schlichtmann and crew celebrate late into the night.


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