Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Western Comma


Even though it’s still November, the sun came back today. After waiting for the plumber to finish roto-rooting our sewer line, the dogs and I decided to go on their favourite walk. Our route includes a long loop though neighbouring Western Washington University. When we crossed the “Quidditch Quad,” the dogs became adorably tangled in a pack of teens and parents on their campus tour. 

The student guide had met us before. He told the campus visitors “Bear and Buster are among Western’s many amenities.”


Last week when I was in Seattle I ran into an old friend. He sheepishly told me he’d given up reading my blog posts. I happened to be in town for tedious lawyer meetings that had already triggered either déjà vu or PTSD. So I steeled myself for another complaint about too much painful law stuff. 

Even worse:  “They’re all too damn long.”

Ever since my friend Nancy interrupted my endless elevator speech a couple of months ago, I’ve been terribly self-conscious about size. By some measures, good editing involves removing as many words as possible. Yet look at the summary in “My Story So Far”: a crushing 1,711 words. Plus six pictures. And a zillion hyperlinks.

Unfortunately, I’m still trapped in legal disputes where every other party follows the same two-page playbook their only options appear to be “Stall” or “Lie.” As a result, I don’t have many opportunities to compare my nonfiction storytelling skills with anyone else’s.


So far there’s one other writer who’s interested in getting at the truth about my experience with PTSD, lawyers, and bureaucrats – the judge who recently wrote the opinion in my case for the Washington Court of Appeals

Lawyers and judges prefer their written work product to follow a predictable format. Maybe it’s because we want to keep our focus on the merits of each case, rather than hiding behind distracting bells and whistles. Or maybe it’s because we’re a hopelessly hidebound profession on the road to extinction. (It’s still an open question.) Anyway, a huge proportion of all legal writing – including most court opinions – begins with a short “factual background” section. Ideally, these summaries objectively encapsulate the evidentiary record and describe the parties’ claims in a manner that permits either side to argue for their position, and that helps readers quickly figure out what the case is about.

Lazy legal writers tend to pad their fact sections with too much extraneous information. Meanwhile, overzealous advocates can't resist applying too much spin. Paring your fact section down to the objective essentials is hard work. 

Here is how the Court of Appeals summarized my story so far. It's a lean 212 words:

In November 2015, Leishman’s physician diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and serious codependency. Leishman informed the Attorney General’s Office of his new diagnosis and ultimately submitted a formal request for reasonable accommodation of his disability in February 2016. In March 2016, Leishman, an openly gay man, also filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, alleging that his supervisor, Kerena Higgins, made homophobic comments towards him. Leishman felt that his PTSD was triggered by Higgins’s comments and her micromanagement of his work. During a meeting with Higgins to discuss Leishman’s disability accommodation and Higgins’s comments, Leishman became aggressive, raised his voice, and pounded his fists. [As the Complaint states, this occurred when my supervisor accused me of faking my disability.] 

Higgins complained to the Attorney General’s Office about Leishman’s inappropriate conduct and the Attorney General’s Office placed Leishman on home assignment. The Attorney General’s Office retained Ogden Murphy Wallace to conduct an independent investigation into Leishman’s sexual orientation discrimination claim against Higgins, and Higgins’s allegation that Leishman was inappropriate during their meeting. 

Ogden Murphy Wallace drafted a report concluding that “Leishman has not established support for his complaint of discrimination against him based on sexual orientation as prohibited by Attorney General’s Office polices.” The Ogden Murphy Wallace Report also concluded that “Mr. Leishman’s conduct during the March 1 meeting [with Higgins] violated expected standards of conduct for his position as reflected in his job description.” The Attorney General's Office terminated Leishman on May 7, 2016.

The Court of Appeals opinion goes on for several pages to explain how various legal authorities apply to these facts in this specific procedural posture. The end result of the appeal is my complete vindication:  the Court reinstated my claims against Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC, Seattle’s sleaziest bottom-feeding law firm®.” It only took two years for the legal system to correct the judge's mistaken dismissal of my claims based on an inapplicable technicality.

The Courts of Appeals’ three simple factual paragraphs aren’t exactly the summary I would have written if I were a judge. Frankly they’re shorter than I’m capable of at this stage of my recovery. Nevertheless, the court fairly and concisely identified the essential players; summarized the background context; and included all the essential factual information a reader would need in order to understand the court’s legal analysis. 


One sentence from the Court of Appeals’ factual recitation encapsulates the entire tragic story:
The Attorney General’s Office retained Ogden Murphy Wallace to conduct an independent investigation into Leishman’s sexual orientation discrimination claim against Higgins, and Higgins’s allegation that Leishman was inappropriate during their meeting.
As the pro se plaintiff in this case, I happen to know the highlighted text is the crux of every subsequent legal dispute related to my doomed employment by the Attorney General’s Office as Chief Legal Advisor to Western Washington University. 

Interestingly, the same sentence also jumped out to me as an experienced editor. When someone is trying to trim down a document, you look for certain quirks of language. Some of the literary “tells” signaling potential bloat include excessive use of passive voice, clichéd phrases, run-on sentences, and mismatched parallels. One example of that last category is when a sentence includes a list containing only two brief items. My eyebrows go up whenever a writer marks his or her subconscious need to pause for breath by putting a comma before the “and” connecting two supposedly equal and closely linked concepts. 

Such as the comma in the highlighted text from the Court of Appeals’ opinion.


Despite all the overlong blog posts, my argument actually is very simple. And quite English Major-y. There should be a period where the comma appears in the Court’s key sentence:  
The Attorney General’s Office retained Ogden Murphy Wallace to conduct an independent investigation into Leishman’s sexual orientation discrimination claim against Higgins.
Period.

That’s what the Attorney General’s Office and Ogden Murphy Wallace said publicly when they identified Ogden Murphy Wallace’s assignment as part of the State’s rigorous and transparent contract procurement process. That’s what the lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office and their attorney-investigator told me. That’s what my Complaint alleges. And that’s the only way the rest of the story makes sense. My lawyer would never have allowed me be interrogated alone for over an hour if she or I had known my employers were secretly looking for a way to justify firing me, rather than asking their investigator to conduct a thorough and independent investigation into a specific complaint regarding discrimination based on sexual orientation.  

It’s true that senior lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office made the mistake of asking their investigator to also look into a separate supervisor complaint about my workplace conduct, without amending the contract documents. But that’s not what they told the public, my lawyer, and me. And that’s not what the State's vendor contract authorized. 

The sad result speaks for itself. The final Ogden Murphy Report ignored extensive evidence documenting explicit and implicit homophobia. Instead, the Attorney General’s Office had their lawyer-investigator whitewash my superiors’ conduct while repeating a litany of secret complaints from the same dishonest and bigoted bureaucrats who’d already decided to get rid of me – all without giving my lawyer or me a chance to respond. To the contrary, my former employers refused to listen when my lawyer and doctor tried to tell them about the relationship between my disability and my frustrated behaviour. Then when they realized their mistake they tried to cover it up with more lies and abuse. That seems wrong to me. 

So I guess I’ve managed to edit my elevator speech down not just to a single sentence, but to a single period replacing a suspicious comma. Now let’s see what the other side can say to top that. 





1 comment:

  1. Allison CarocqsaultNovember 30, 2019 at 1:52 PM

    2015, a terrific yet horrific year.

    The cold, yet lovely winter and the colorful spring served to be spectacular times.

    Maybe the low temperatures frustrated a few, but overall it was quite the divine time. Summer, possibly, was the season where the times seemed to change. Though naturally, Fall came into full force, coating the snow and botany -- that seemed to dominate the year -- in the rotten, fallen leaves. Ah, how the times change. It seems this terrifying seasonal cycle is, returning? We can only wonder.

    ReplyDelete