‘Little justices’ are goal of workers’ lawyer

June 2, 1997
By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A little justice.
That is the goal of Samuel J. Cordes when he represents workers subjected to any type of discrimination or sexual harassment.

"Ten little justices over a lifetime add up to a lot of justice," said Cordes, who has earned a reputation for his aggressive argument of such cases. "You help 10 people who have been fired for no good reason. You help 10 women who have been subjected to this stuff."

A partner in the Downtown firm of Ogg Jones Cordes & Igneizi since 1991, he cemented his reputation in 1995 while representing two Fayette County women who in separate federal lawsuits accused former Judge Richard D. Cicchetti of Fayette County Common Pleas Court of sexual harassment.

When the cases settled, Deborah DeFranks, a Uniontown court stenographer, and Heather Glover Brueggman, a Markleysburg probation officer, each received $125,000. Under the settlement, Cicchetti resigned his judgeship in December 1995.

Since then, Cordes has won verdicts against Pittsburgh's Bureau of Emergency Medical Services, the municipality of Penn Hills, radio station WPNT, Whemco Inc., Westinghouse Elevator Co. and The Pittsburgh Press.

On May 15 Cordes' winning streak ended when he lost a sexual-harassment lawsuit against Bell Atlantic brought by two Lawrence County women, Melissa Tonti and Cathalene Gatto of New Castle. The two women are considering whether to appeal.

The 45-year old Mt. Lebanon resident grew up in McKeesport, the son of a crane operator and a registered nurse. Cordes worked at Rubenstein's Fine Shoes before serving with the Army in Vietnam. He drove a cab for Tube City Taxi. Then he earned bachelor's, master's and law degrees.

"You grow up in McKeesport, and labor is ingrained in your blood," he said. "Everybody on my street either belonged to the United Steelworkers or the United Auto Workers."

Since his high school days, Cordes has sided with the underdog. During a debate in history class, he argued that the South had a right to secede from the union in 1860-61.

Although he dreamed of becoming a lawyer after high school, he did not become earnest about it until the spring of 1984, when his wife was taking paralegal classes.

"I spent a night devouring one of her law books," Cordes recalled. By 1988, he had graduated with high honors from th University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Background an asset
One of his former Pitt law professors said he believed that Cordes' blue-collar background was a valuable asset.

"He can talk to the kinds if people who are his clients," John M. Burkoff said. "He was a regular guy while he was here. Not everyone stays like that when they're in law school. He could still have those roots and learn new things."

Cordes occasionally phones Burkoff with questions about ethics. Every so often, Burkoff talks to lawyers who have opposed his former student.

"They saw him as tenacious, particularly when he feels morally involved," he said. "He is not going to back down. He's becoming a presence as a very young man."

While he may not back down, Cordes turns down cases, sometimes telling prospective clients, "What they did to you was wrong morally, and it makes me sick. But what they did to you wasn't against the law."

Deadline days
In the 1980s, Cordes told stories to readers as a reporter for The Squirrel Hill Times, The Brownsville Telegraph and The Daily Messenger in Homestead. His last reporting job was with the Uniontown Herald-Standard.

Walter Storey, the newspaper's retired editor, recalls that Cordes, who covered news, left after conceding that he plagiarized a movie review from The New York Times.

"Sam was a good reporter, to my mind. We allowed the reporters to write reviews on their own, and to pick and choose what movies they would review," Storey said.

In the early 1980's, he said. "Sam wrote a review on a movie whose title I don't remember. It turned out to be plagiarism of a New York Times review, word for word. We got a threat from The New York Times to sue us, which one would expect to get."

The Times learned of it because "One of our readers reported it" to them, Storey said.

"I called Sam in and he admitted that he had done it because he was trying to do too much work. He offered to resign, which I accepted. That was it. He was a good reporter, and could write well. I felt that he had learned his lesson as far as plagiarism goes," Storey said.

Once he told the Times that Cordes had resigned, the newspaper dropped its threat of litigation.

"I hated to see something like that happen. I was upset, and I felt bad for Sam. He was going through a very busy time," Storey said.

About the incident, Cordes said, "You make one of those mistakes you wish you could take back. I'm sorry. I wish it didn't happen. It was 17 years ago. I think I've learned a lot from it."

In 25 words or less
Despite the abrupt end to his reporting career, Cordes still uses his storytelling ability to make succinct opening and closing statements to juries.

That is one if his strengths, according to another prominent civil rights lawyer, Timothy P. O'Brien.

"He has an ability to get to the heart of the matter and present it in a way the jury understands," O'Brien said. "Some people are more inflammatory. Some people are louder. I think Sam's approach is more understated than overstated, which can be very good in these types of cases.

In court, Cordes wears round glasses that magnify his earnest brown eyes. He favors conservative suits and whimsical, animal-print ties. He looks a bit like a teddy bear.

But to Jane Volk, one of his adversaries, he is just a bear.

Along with her husband, Charles R. Volk, Jane Volk defended The Pittsburgh Press when Cordes sued the newspaper on behalf of Lisa Fischer, a Green Tree woman who was fired in 1991. In November 1995, a federal jury awarded Fischer $53,000 in back pay.

'Difficult to work with'
Cordes is "sometimes difficult to work with," Jane Volk said. "He'll fight about anything. If you ask him what time it is, he'll file a brief on it, and it will have footnotes."

Rules of court require lawyers to seek an opposing counsel's permission to extend deadlines for taking depositions or filing documents. Most lawyers frequently give each other that professional courtesy.

"He is loath to grant extensions of time to other lawyers," Jane Volk said. "I think he'd probably be proud of that. But is it serving your client to alienate the other side so that 'they won't return the same courtesy that you might request?"

In Charles Volk's opinion, Cordes is "still burnishing off his rough edges."

"He comes out with all guns blazing at all times," he said.

In an April case, Cordes sat at the defense table, something he has never done while trying a civil case.

He defended Belle Vernon-based L.K.Graphics and one of its owners, Don Kobaly, against a claim of sexual harassment by Susan Phillips. A federal court jury awarded $1,502 in damages to Phillips, far less than the $56,000 she had sought.

Charles S. Warren, who represented Phillips, praised Cordes.

"He's a very zealous advocate," Warren said. "I can say he leaves no stone unturned in his client's interests."

Ken Gormley, an associate professor of law at Duquesne University, has practiced civil rights law and sees a rare blend of talents in Cordes.

"He seems to have that unusual quality of being extremely smart in the scholarly sense that produces top-quality briefs and thoughtful discussions on paper."

As a trial lawyer, Gormely said: "Some people have referred to him as a bulldog. He is a very tenacious, aggressive person. He has that practical street-smart sense. You don't see that combination in too many lawyers."

Held in high regard
Gormely holds Cordes in high regard. "he's doing the kind of lawyering that lots of people can no longer afford to do. You are getting paid on a contingent fee basis. Lots of these cases you lose."

Ten years ago, Gormley said, companies were more blatant about discrimination and lawyers often uncovered damaging evidence in depositions.

Now, employers are smarter. "A lot of that open discrimination doesn't exist. What does exist is hidden much better," which makes Cordes' success all the more impressive, Gormley said.

John Gismondi, president of the bar association, agrees. Waging discrimination cases against employers is hard, he said, because it is difficult to prove that someone intended to discriminate against an employee.

"Did they discharge you because you were a woman or did they discharge you because they didn't like your job performance? You have to get inside somebody's head and try to prove something that is nontangible," Gismondi said.

Cordes and other lawyers who try employment-discrimination cases must draw inferences and tease out nuances to divine a manager's mindset.

When Cordes wins a discrimination case, the other side winds up paying his fees because of a provision in the federal civil rights law.

Gismondi believes that provision creates an incentive for lawyers to take difficult cases on the part of clients who cannot afford to pay them.

"A system that rewards people when they do win enables them to be available to litigants who at least have a chance," he said.