New York City personal injury lawyer Mark Sokoloff talks about his career and background.
What inspired you to become an attorney?
Ralph Nader spoke at my college and really inspired me. He was a civil rights attorney and is well known for his work in consumer protection, environmentalism, and government reform. That, and John F. Kennedy, who said “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Tell us about one of your most interesting cases.
The first firm I worked with when I graduated from law school was a railroad labor firm, and one of the first cases I was involved with was Agent Orange. One of the first clients I worked with was Paul Reutershan.
He came in initially to see if he had a case against the railroad because a commuter had assaulted him. I told him no, the railroad isn’t responsible for that, and I figured that would be the end of the conversation. He says, “Well, while I have you here, can I ask you about something else? I think I got cancer from something called Agent Orange while I was serving as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.” Right away, I think he’s crazy, what could he be talking about? But I try to be respectful and take notes, even though at this point I think this whole story is ridiculous. I get off the phone with him and tell him I’ll be in touch.
When I started looking into the information he gave me, things made more and more sense, and I became convinced that there was something important here. Other people were looking into it at the time, and they were going to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia to find out more about it. So I talked to the other attorneys at the firm, and we decided to go for it. We filed a complaint, hired experts to support our case, and it ended up going to federal court. The money that we won from the insurance company during that case became the start of the Agent Orange fund.
Unfortunately, Paul died from the cancer he contracted after his time in Vietnam before we won the case. He became the first person to receive a federal disability benefit as a veteran involved with Agent Orange, and he received it posthumously. This whole experience was extremely formative for my career, and it was my first entry into class action lawsuits.
What are you most proud of?
Well, being a part of the filing of Agent Orange is something I’m extremely proud of. I also helped to form the Independent Railway Supervisors Association (IRSA) as the first independent union on a major carrier.
I also have a very well cited second circuit court of appeals case, Bates vs. LIRR, which was one of the first Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) filed against the railroad, and we established that a railroad can’t furlough people with a disability.
Do you have any hidden talents, hobbies or a fun fact?
I actually once opened at The Improv, the comedy club on West 44th Street. It’s a pizza place now but in its day, it was an institution for comedians. I opened for Rodney Dangerfield and Sam Kinison. It was only 6 minutes, and it was a complete blur. I don’t even remember how I did! I guess I couldn’t have been that good since I became a lawyer, not a comedian.
What is your favorite quote?
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.