If Robin Hood were alive today, he would wear a leather jacket and jeans and would fleece the rich in court rather than in Sherwood Forest.
At least that’s the opinion of Rees Lloyd, whose Robin Hood Foundation in Glendale delights in dragging the rich and powerful into court on behalf of poor workers.
“We do guerrilla law, and we win,” he said outside Pasadena Superior Court, where his Sheriff of Nottingham for the day was a supermarket chain being boycotted by Lloyd’s client, the United Farm Workers.
“With these people,” he said, gesturing toward a score of farm workers who had come to court from Coachella to protest grape sales, “it’s not so much whether you win, but that you fight for them because they’ve been betrayed so much.”
His 3-year-old nonprofit foundation has made a name for itself bringing suits against Los Angeles County, in one case successfully representing a worker who blew the whistle on a boss who required donations of Corona beer in exchange for allowing overtime.
Lloyd is now suing on behalf of the family of Mario Sanchez, a Department of Public Works employee who died in a fall while working at Hansen Dam on June 4 when the rope from which he was suspended broke.
“We call it a killing because we think it is,” said Lloyd, who claims the rope should have had a wire core.
A onetime award-winning reporter, steelworker and trucker who worked his way through law school as a janitor, Lloyd, 45, operates Robin Hood out of a small house on a quiet suburban street. There is a bank of computers in the living room and several phones ringing with stories of workplace misery.
What’s missing is a busy cadre of secretaries and paralegals. If Lloyd, who netted $11,000 last year, hired a staff, he would have to start charging his clients, he growls. Then, before you know it, he would be just like the “silk suit boys” he despises so much.
Lloyd prefers his working-class uniform of baggy jeans, a leather suit coat and vest, and a string tie fixed with a clasp shaped like a scorpion to “sting the bastards.”
Donovan Main, an assistant county counsel whose office has frequently opposed Lloyd in court, called him “a very flamboyant attorney, very effective in the area in which he works.”
And his clients praise him, even using words like “love” to describe the intensity of their affection. To people such as Rudy Solano, for whom Lloyd won a $14,000 judgment, Lloyd is not just an attorney but “one hell of a dude” who fights tooth, nail, knees and elbows for the underdog.
Solano, who said he exposed the beer-for-overtime arrangement in the Department of Public Works after being bypassed for promotions, never paid Lloyd cash to represent him. After he won his case, he bought the attorney a chile relleno dinner at a favorite Mexican restaurant.
Lloyd was the son of a Welsh steelworker in industrial Gary, Ind. His philosophy crystallized in a moment during childhood when he saw his powerful father crumble before a bank loan officer.
“His voice got higher and more timid” as he talked to the better-educated, better-dressed man, Lloyd recalled. “Here’s this guy, his dignity evaporates because some rich person could use language to intimidate him.
“I said, ‘This will never happen to me.’ I was going to revenge that.”
Lloyd’s varied career began when, after serving a stretch in the service, he answered an ad in a local paper and became a reporter. He won an award in 1968 for a 22-part series on the Mafia in northern Indiana. At the same time, he worked as an organizer for a community rights group and made sure the organization held demonstrations at times when he could cover them.
He quit his job--and took out a personal ad apologizing to the readers--after one of his stories was edited to remove quotes from a soldier in Vietnam who was critical of the war.
In 1972, he became an independent trucker, hauling carpet from Georgia to California and produce the other way.
When the first oil crisis hit the next year, Lloyd became a leader in an organization of independent truck drivers called Truckers for Justice, which went on strike to protest the soaring cost of diesel fuel.
Then-President Nixon called its members “desperadoes,” so Lloyd’s CB handle became Desperado.
Finally tiring of begging attorneys to help poor people involved in his various causes, Lloyd decided to get a law degree. He spent three hours each night in class at the unaccredited People’s College of Law in Los Angeles and the rest of the night working as a janitor to support his wife and three children.
He also received a small stipend from the American Civil Liberties Union, where he volunteered.
Shortly after passing the bar examination in 1979, he became co-counsel with the ACLU on a landmark case involving seven black warehouse workers suing Crown Zellerbach Corp. The workers had been fired after complaining about the company’s affirmative action program.
The workers won their jobs back, and the case led to the adoption of a state law protecting whistle-blowers.
He left the ACLU in the early 1980s and grew increasingly close to Cesar Chavez, the labor leader and anti-pesticide crusader.
It was Chavez who advised him, he said, to incorporate Robin Hood. The labor leader gave him an autographed union flag to hang on his wall bearing the inscription “To the Robin Hood Foundation vs. the Rich.”
“He’s an attorney, but he’s really an advocate for human rights,” Chavez said in an interview. “He’s very committed and not too worried about money.”
Not everyone regards Lloyd as a modern-day crusader. Judges have thrown him out of court over his clothing and accused him of bringing frivolous cases that do more to tie up the courts than to uphold the rights of the disenfranchised.
In 1988, for instance, he represented the Chicano Employees Assn. in a suit over an incident in which a stripper hired by the wife of a male supervisor disrobed to her underwear at the workplace. Several female employees sued, saying they were demeaned by the spectacle, but Superior Court Judge Miriam Vogel said they were “unduly sensitive” and chastised Lloyd for bringing a suit that “was not warranted.”
Some opposing attorneys call him a verbal bomb-thrower who will say anything to press a point.
Even his legal papers are sprinkled with vitriol for the silk suit brigade. At one point in papers filed to support a suit on behalf of the UFW, he takes on the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, saying its general counsel “is to the institution of justice what a two-dollar whore is to the institution of marriage.” He said he was speaking metaphorically.
Lloyd lost one high-profile case when an Orange County jury assessed $10,000 in damages against him for violating the rights of Newport Beach police officer Richard Long. Long said he was humiliated when Lloyd ejected him from an ACLU-sponsored public meeting in 1980 on police surveillance. Long claimed he was attending as a concerned citizen, while Lloyd contended Long was tape-recording the event.
Lloyd said he talked to Long outside and then offered to let him come back, but Long refused.
“It’s not a thing I’m very happy about, because if there’s one thing I’ve lived my life doing it’s defending people’s civil rights, and supposedly I violate this man’s rights,” he said.
Still, “if I had to do the same thing today, I’d do it the same way.”
Today, Lloyd, who is separated from his wife, divides his time between Robin Hood headquarters in Glendale and a trailer at Chavez’s La Paz headquarters in Keene, Calif., 28 miles east of Bakersfield.
He said he has no interest in emulating Westside lawyers with big houses and $300-an-hour fees. In fact, he was forced to declare bankruptcy when the state Supreme Court upheld the $10,000 damage award against him in the Long case because he simply did not have the money. He claims he doesn’t want it, either.
“There is something fundamentally corrupt in a democracy to become wealthy telling people what their rights are,” he said.
“The truth is, lawyers are the scum of the earth.”