Douglas Fierberg’s arc of justice

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60 Minutes host Anderson Cooper (r) interviewed Douglas Fierberg (l) in November 2021. Photo courtesy of Douglas Fierberg.

By F. Josephine Arrowood

Sun contributor

Attorney and Solon Township resident Douglas Fierberg is a trim, compact man in his early 60s, with a towering reputation as a relentless advocate for victims of school violence. On a recent day in his Traverse City office, he grabs a list off his desk and begins to read aloud: “Student death. Student shot dead. Student death. Student death. Student death. Student permanent brain injury. Student death. Student death. Dead son. Raped daughter. Student death. Student death.” The obscene, gut-wrenching litany is part of what he and his colleagues at The Fierberg National Law Group must work with every day in their civil litigation practice.

Locally and nationally, school violence is on the rise. Data collected since 1970 by the U.S. Justice Department shows that “traumatic events at schools are common,” according to 2017 Office of Justice Programs documents. Whether or not such violence has always been present and now more widely reported since the enactment of laws such as 1972’s Title IX, the problem is endemic.

After suffering trauma in the educational setting—bullying, sexual predation, abuse by a teacher or coach, hazing, or a school shooting—victims often face additional crises in the form of indifference, negligence, victim blaming and shaming, and more at the hands of school officials and related authority figures. Education is disrupted, futures are derailed. Students commit suicide, families are broken, communities torn apart.

How did Doug Fierberg become such an unswerving nationwide champion for victims, survivors, and families?

Fierberg grew up in metropolitan Detroit. His parents were staunch liberals, social workers active in the civil rights movement; they worked on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential bid. They also co-founded the humanistic Judaic Birmingham Temple in 1963, headed by Rabbi Sherwin Wine. The Fierbergs were also business entrepreneurs, operating the Nadon’s women’s fashion chain for 30 years in the Detroit area.

Young Fierberg studied psychology at the University of Michigan from 1977 to 1981. After graduation, he worked for his family’s business for several years before earning his law degree at George Washington University in 1988. In DC, he worked as a civil trial attorney, and was often assigned to commercial litigation cases, where his prior business experience served him well.

But, he said, “I did not go into law school believing in moving money from Point A to Point B. I grew up in that left-wing world of 1970s liberalism; I believed that lawyers could make a significant difference in individuals’ lives, or in the environment.

“I initially went to law school believing I was going to help protect the environment. I did a stint working for the Environmental Enforcement of the Justice Department and the Natural Resources Defense Council. In Ann Arbor, I had been the executive director of Ozone House [a runaway and homeless shelter], so I had a lot of experience working with young people.”

There he witnessed the effects of parental abuse, exploitation by adults against vulnerable youth, and more. He also saw how social justice programs and policies—separate from the criminal court system—could help empower these victims of violence.

As a young attorney in DC, “My litigation practice was growing pretty rapidly,” Fierberg said. “I represented most of the neighborhood associations: Capitol Hill, Logan Circle, Dupont Circle. Many of the people got to see me try cases on behalf of their community groups. A producer for ABC’s 20/20 knew a police sergeant whose son had been brutally hazed at the University of Maryland, and the family at that time had the top victims’ rights lawyer in DC. He was suggesting to them that they take a $5,000 settlement, and the family was not happy with that. The 20/20 producer suggested the family meet with me.

“Right around that time, I was also retained by a family of diplomats whose daughter was set up to be gang-raped by a very high-profile person in Washington. So, I had an 18-year-old young woman and a 20-year-old young man, both with variations of traumatic injuries in the context of school issues.”

The defendants were being represented by top lawyers, including Barry Levine, the lawyer for John Hinkley, Jr. (Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin in 1981).

“Because the defendant in the sexual assault case was extremely high-profile, I had an 18-year-old young woman in front of a freight train of lawyers. The same thing was true of the young man; he was extremely vulnerable and had been terribly hurt.”

He posits a common scenario: a young person courageously trying to report a traumatic event to the adults in his or her world. Then the victim’s second trauma begins.

“You’re suddenly in a grown-up world that you know very little about and is absolutely terrifying, because of who’s on the other side and what they’re trying to do to you—what obstacles they’re putting in your path to getting justice. That young 18-year-old woman was terrified, and I was the only one standing between her and them. You’re coming to people—mostly men—in authority, who have very little interest in truly listening to you, who will explain over the top of you, who will talk to you as if you don’t have any agency, who will propose decisions for you, not necessarily considering what you want to do or are able to do.

“A lot of the training I had from Ozone House—being able to speak to, listen to, see the agency in young people—sort of played out. I was able to talk to them, and they were able to talk to me. We could talk about the strategies, the risks, their fears … Then I strapped on the vest and stood between them and the shit show.”

Feinberg continues, “In the case being defended by Barry Levine, he had gotten [his well-known client] out of the country; they filed five motions to dismiss the case; he called me a liar in court—the judge called him out on that. They had a bevy of lawyers; she had me. No one was supporting our firm. It was the real deal, and also meaningful—for me (but it’s not about me)—and for her.

“I took that case to trial on his behalf and got him a verdict of $375,000 versus the $5,000 offer the lawyer had suggested they take. For the young woman, I got her a six-figure settlement after I didn’t back down. I took a lot of flak on her behalf.”

During those two cases, Fierberg learned that there is a substantial amount of injury and death in educational settings, with no national legal resource to compile and sift the data, or to understand the complex patchwork of laws that varies widely from state to state.

“There was no coordinated set of lawyers or lawyer in the entire country who was going to focus on that to build an institution—an institutional memory—to fight it out with the defense lawyers, wherever they were,” he said. “Victims and their families don’t know what to do. They live in California but their son goes to college in Nevada; they get a horrific phone call in the middle of the night and their lives are upended.”

He continued, “The criminal justice system often doesn’t provide remedies that survivors are looking for. They might hire someone who does the ‘usual’ personal-injury cases, like auto accidents or slip-and-falls. But how much have they done in terms of a scenario involving a school or other powerful institution? What do you do for legal remedies for a 13-year-old sexually assaulted in the school gym and horrifically treated thereafter? Have you ever handled that? Probably not. We have—time and again. A young man dead at Michigan State from fraternity hazing. How do you handle those cases…what are the strategies, what are the legal theories that you need to allege in order to get the type of justice the family deserves?”

Fierberg strove to create that necessary and unique institutional memory back when he established The Fierberg National Law Group (FNLG), first in Washington, DC, and later based in northern Michigan as well (members of the group also work out of Boston, New York, and Boulder). He stated that FNLG is the only such firm in the country, with deep knowledge and experience gained over nearly three decades of national advocacy. He is quick to praise his highly trained and specialized team of trial lawyers and support staff—nine of his 11 colleagues are women—who represent victims and families in cases of sexual misconduct, school violence, Title IX violations, injury, and wrongful death in educational settings.

The list of FNLG’s legal victories on behalf of their clients is impressive, including over $11 million for the families and survivors of the April 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, where 32 people died with dozens more injured. He has appeared on media network shows (including 60 Minutes in November 2021 with Anderson Cooper), as has been interviewed widely by major print media.

Fierberg also founded and chairs a national litigation group called Schools: Violence, Misconduct, and Safety, under the auspices of the American Association for Justice, and sits on other victim-advocacy boards, including the Women’s Resource Center in Traverse City.

After decades of litigating cases all over the country and building that institutional memory, nothing is going to surprise Fierberg and his colleagues at FNLG.

“You’d like your lawyers to be five moves or more ahead of the opposition. For example, when we sued Louisiana State University [on behalf of 2017 hazing victim Maxwell Gruver’s family], they rolled out a series of defenses that we had anticipated, and they lost that first move. Then they lost on appeal … Then they tried to petition the Supreme Court, and they lost that.

“It took time, but before we even filed, we knew the landmines and what to look for. And we established new law in this country that could be used in holding institutions responsible for countless other people.”

When most people think of personal-injury lawsuits, they think of monetary settlements. But survivors and the families of victims may also seek reform through legislation.

After Matthew Carrington died in Chico, Calif. during a brutal hazing ritual in 2005, Fierberg represented his family in their lawsuit against the fraternity and its members. In addition to a substantial settlement, the family achieved passage of Matt’s Law, which changed hazing from a misdemeanor to a felony in California when serious injury or death occurs. The perpetrators in Carrington’s case were also sentenced to speak out on the perils of hazing.

Fierberg said, “We helped change the law; we helped fill some gaps in the law that we knew interfered with the path toward justice on behalf of families.”

Unfortunately, hazing continues nationally with at least one death per year, according to retired journalism professor Hank Nuwer, who maintains a database on the ritualized abuse going back to 1838 in the United States. In 2021 alone, there were at least five hazing deaths in the news—including one at Michigan State University’s Pi Alpha Phi chapter, where 21-year-old Phat Nguyen died on Nov. 24.

Fierberg describes the Greek fraternity-sorority system as a well-established, powerful industry, with substantial donors to universities, political lobbies, and corporate lawyers ready to defend and perpetuate its practices.

“When universities boast that 25% of their student population is in Greek life, when an estimated 70% of U.S. Congresspeople are Greek alumni,” that sends a powerful message, he said.

He described the system as a primitive form of LinkedIn—only with LinkedIn, you don’t risk ruining your life, harming others, or getting killed.

 “[The Greek system] hasn’t been reformed in a hundred years,” he said. “It’s institutional injustice. Baked in the middle of it are some dangerous practices,” such as a hierarchy of power; oaths of loyalty and secrecy, fueled by coercion; and incredible financial influence, all bearing down on vulnerable young people who are trying to find their way, hoping to belong and succeed.

The national fraternity and sorority chapters have their own “best practices” consultants, Fierberg said. “Is another ‘policy’ going to help on a Friday night with 18- and 19-year-olds who just want to party and maybe get laid? Where they have membership for life? In campus housing where no campus security is allowed, where no RAs or RDs are allowed?”

In addition to financial settlements, legislative reforms, and elimination of dangerous “traditions” like hazing, Fierberg and his team also win accommodations for survivors to protect their educational rights.

Fifty years ago, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. An offshoot of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (and rooted in the 14th Amendment), Title IX banned discrimination against students or employees on the basis of sex for “any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Since then, Title IX has expanded to include not only gender equity for students in school sports, but also protections against bullying, sexual misconduct, harassment, and LBGTQIA+ discrimination.

“With Title IX, we do three things: In school, something happened. We protect their educational rights, but that doesn’t necessarily involve a lawsuit. Or something happened in school, and we protect their rights, and we file an actual lawsuit over mistreatment and a hostile environment,” after the original trauma, he said.

“With Title IX, we’re also pushing the boundaries on hazing and fraternities. Laws naturally develop. Title IX has changed to deal with what has evolved [in society] with gender equality,” in all its expanded forms as well.

With the warp-speed transmission of news and communication methods, the ways in which these laws are violated has expanded as well, with cyberbullying, transmission of child pornography, and the prevalence of children with cell phones and social media accounts, all contributing to a seeming tsunami of school violence issues.

How does Fierberg keep going? How do he and his colleagues at FNLG go on, day after day and year after year of horrific violence against the most vulnerable? He returns to that list on his desk: Student death. Student shot. Student dead. Student raped. Student death.

“Do you realize how much trauma we’re dealing with in this office? Hear that typing in the next room? Whatever my [colleague] is typing right now—it’s some family’s horror.”

He has a favorite quote, popularized by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“Progress takes a lot of time,” Fierberg said. “We make gains and we’ve had setbacks. The challenge that we all have is to remain incredibly sensitive, stay healthy, and prevail, because the stakes are so high for everybody. It’s what’s sitting in the middle of that mom and dad every day, every moment.

“Holding those in power responsible to do right before [harm] happens—when it happens—after it happens. It’s the right thing to do; it’s incredibly meaningful.”

It’s not just about him, he said. One thing he can’t stand about the legal profession is the rampant chest-thumping and self-promoting. Silverback gorillas, as writer Sharyn McCrumb called them.

“My cup hath been fulleth for a very long time. I don’t want to be burned out; I can’t be involved in every tit and tat of every case. If I do that, it disempowers the lawyers here that I work with. Balancing work and life …” his voice trailed off.

Even after so long, after so many gut-wrenching cases, he’s still ready to strap on the vest. For his legal team. For his clients. For the arc of justice they’re building together.