2020 Environmental Group of the Year: Cohen Milstein


December 9, 2020

Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC has represented plaintiffs in major cases including the residents of Flint, Michigan, who suffered through the city’s lead water crisis and received a $600 million settlement this summer, earning the firm a spot among Law360’s 2020 Environmental Groups of the Year.

The firm handles major lawsuits including those that touch on complicated environmental issues across the country. Ted Leopold, co-chair of the firm’s complex tort litigation and consumer protection practice groups, said the firm has the sophistication to help clients secure social justice. The firm has 11 attorneys in its environmental group out of more than 100 at the firm overall.

“We are 100% a plaintiff firm that seeks to provide protection for consumers, and I think the ability to handle these cases, the wherewithal for us to do it, the ability and concern for consumer rights all play into the role that makes us perfectly suitable to be successful,” Leopold told Law360.

The firm said it is also focused on its diversity efforts, pointing to data Law360 has published that shows 48% of its attorneys are female and that it has 35% female equity partners.

Leopold served as interim co-lead class counsel for Flint, Michigan, residents. In August, Michigan agreed to pay $600 million to resolve allegations that its mismanagement exposed residents and property owners in the city to harmful lead-tainted water. Leopold said he coordinated the effort along with several other firms to achieve the result.

“Clearly leading the battle, or the war effort, was my responsibility along with my co-lead counsel, but we want to make sure we get all the people on the bus and in the right seats to litigate the matter as we saw fit,” Leopold said.

He said the case was “one of the largest and most substantial” that has occurred domestically and if Flint hadn’t been a minority community, the water contamination probably wouldn’t have happened. And it wasn’t an easy case to bring to a conclusion as there were several issues that were appealed, including arguments by some state defendants that they had immunity.

The firm is also pursuing a proposed class action alleging that DuPont Co. and Chemours Co. failed to stop toxic chemicals from a North Carolina factory from polluting the Cape Fear River. Last year, a judge kept alive most of the claims by residents who get their drinking water mainly from the Cape Fear River who allege the companies dumped harmful chemicals, including one called GenX, into the river, leading to health complications such as ulcers, cancers and thyroid problems.

The firm has brought negligence, nuisance and trespass claims, and in August Chemours entered into a consent decree with state regulators and conservation groups “basically admitting what we have alleged,” according to Leopold.

Now, the firm’s case is in the midst of information gathering that should shine a light on the details of what occurred, he said. Leopold said getting a hold on the complicated science and issues involves marshaling the right people and experts.

“It takes a little bit of an orchestra leader to get everything moving and put the right people in the right places,” Leopold said, adding that communications skills and organization are prized traits at the firm.

The firm has also filed a pair of lawsuits stemming from Michigan dam failures. After heavy rains on May 19, a 30-foot burst of water plunged downriver from the Edenville Dam failure, overtopping a second dam. Thousands of residents had to flee homes and businesses that would be damaged by the oncoming floodwaters. That litigation is still in the early stages, Leopold said.

Leslie M. Kroeger, co-chair of the firm’s complex tort litigation practice group, said the firm is pursuing multiple suits. One is against Michigan regulators alleging mismanagement in the Michigan Court of Claims. Cohen Milstein is also pursuing a state court case against the dam owners, but those owners are now in bankruptcy. The firm has an interest in those bankruptcy proceedings so it is in three courts as it pursues the matter on behalf of residents and businesses, Kroeger said.

She described the case as “extremely active.”

“What you are really looking at is an example of the infrastructure of the United States and its downfall and who is responsible for that and who should be watching over that,” Kroeger said.

Kroeger said the firm’s aggressive approach serves clients who have been harmed and shouldn’t have to wait too long for a recovery.

“You have to push hard for your clients because otherwise things can delay,” she said. “That’s another reason why it is so fascinating that we are able to pull people from different practice groups together so that we can move things as quickly as possible.”

In September, a Tennessee federal judge denied the National Park Service’s motion to dismiss Federal Tort Claims Act allegations that it failed in its mandatory duty to warn residents of the Chimney Tops 2 fatal fire in 2016 that destroyed property. The case is now moving into the discovery process, Kroeger said.

She said the cases often come down to how entities behave in regard to money. In Flint, for example, the government tried to save money and that incentive led to a disastrous outcome for residents, Kroeger said.

“The way we look at a lot of these from a firm perspective is, What is happening around us? What is happening to our communities? What are we doing to ourselves? Who is doing it to us while people are completely unaware and how can we help?” Kroeger said.

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