Lawyer Failed Him, but This Activist Isn’t About to Quit


Howard Bennett is a force to be reckoned with.

When the veteran ocean swimmer discovered the degree to which the water near his home in Playa del Rey was polluted, he founded Heal the Bay to clean it up.

When the veteran teacher found that Culver City school district employees lost insurance coverage when they retired, he successfully campaigned for lifetime health benefits.

When he and other older teachers encountered what he regarded as unfair treatment because of their age, he began organizing for a possible class-action suit against the school district.


And when, after 20 years of teaching English, he found himself demoted to a non-teaching job at Culver City High School, he went to court to get his classroom back.

No matter that he wound up with an attorney who is under investigation by the state Bar and now faces sanctions for mishandling the case and failing to obey a federal judge’s order to appear before him last week. Bennett has never been a quitter, and, at age 63, he says he isn’t about to become one. He has a roomful of boxes and cabinets in his home crammed with incriminating files against wrongdoers.

“All these years I fought for other people for all these causes, and most of the time I won,” he says, his blue eyes glinting, as waves lap softly on the beach behind him. “For the first time in my life I hired an attorney and fought for myself, and this is what happened to me.”

Bennett is uncertain of his next step, only that there will be a next step. Ever the optimist, Bennett said he still hopes that “something positive can come out of my personal disaster.”

He wants his lawyer disbarred “so he can’t do to others what he has done to me,” and he wants his $6,000 retainer back. Problem is, he can’t find his lawyer, A. Thomas Hunt, nor, so far, can the courts.

Bennett has not been a gadfly his entire life, but he certainly has been for the past decade. First came Heal the Bay, the noted environmental group. That launched, in 1986, Bennett turned his attention to obtaining lifetime health benefits for his teaching colleagues.

He eventually succeeded, in 1991, but says it was at the expense of his career. “My job evaluations took a nose dive” after he started his push for improved benefits.


“They wanted to get rid of me. . . . Before 1987, I walked on water. Articles written about me compared me to Superman.”

Soon after the benefits struggle ended, he began trying to organize a class-action age-discrimination suit, alleging that the Culver City school district harassed older teachers to goad them into retiring, then replaced them with young teachers at half the salary.

Bennett suddenly found himself removed from the classroom in 1991 and assigned to supervision of student troublemakers referred by school security. Bennett said: “It was obvious punishment for my activities and designed to scare anyone from joining the age-discrimination lawsuit.”

Not so, insists Culver City Unified schools Supt. Curtis Rethmeyer. “We had a need for a teacher to take that assignment, and he was not happy with it.”


Bennett went to court and got his class back, but only temporarily.

“They (school administrators) escalated the pressure. They wouldn’t even give me a walkie-talkie, although I was in charge of 24 students on in-school suspension for causing trouble. I was assaulted by a student, and finally I couldn’t take it anymore.

“I have three university degrees, had always taught advanced placement-type classes in subjects like myth and legend, Shakespeare and English literature; they reduced me to working as school jailer.”


So he resigned in February, 1992, and called his lawyer--Hunt, who had been recommended to him by a friend of a friend.

Bennett maintains that Hunt turned down a $75,000 settlement offer from the district, did not follow proper legal procedures, and neglected to inform him in early 1992 when a judge issued the final ruling on Bennett’s effort to return to classroom teaching, rejecting his request.

Hunt did not return phone calls from The Times or respond to inquiries personally delivered to his last known business address, the Wilshire District home of his son.

A woman who identified herself as his daughter-in-law said Hunt was “in transition” and calls in for his messages. She declined to disclose his whereabouts or provide a telephone number. He has not maintained offices for several years at the number listed in the most recent attorneys directory.

Bennett said he discovered last fall that Hunt had not filed required complaints with government agencies nor a lawsuit for wrongful discharge that he had agreed to do, nor had he subpoenaed school records or taken any depositions.

Once the wrongful discharge suit was finally filed, the school district removed it to federal court and asked for its dismissal. That was in February, the last time Bennett heard from Hunt.


When the matter came before U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts in March, Hunt failed to file papers in opposition to the dismissal and did not show up in court.

Letts dismissed the case and issued an order requiring Hunt to appear before him last week “to show cause why he should not be sanctioned for failing to respond to (the Culver City Unified School District’s) motion to dismiss, without having been withdrawn as (Bennett’s) counsel in this action.” Again, Hunt was a no-show.

The California State Bar has opened an investigation on Hunt, but investigator William Armantrout did not return calls from The Times about the status of that inquiry.

Letts also did not return repeated calls from The Times. Bennett said the judge told him he would first ascertain whether Hunt actually got notice of the court order to appear and then would “bring him here in chains” if necessary. Bench warrants are generally issued for persons who ignore court orders to appear.

Meanwhile, Bennett says, he’s not giving up--on getting his money back, getting Hunt drummed out of the legal profession, or on appealing the dismissal of his case, this time with a new lawyer.

But the Culver City district says the legal battle is done.

“He voluntarily retired because he was dissatisfied with his working conditions,” Supt. Rethmeyer said. “And his lawsuit was found to have no merit.


“It’s a dead issue.”

Try telling that to Bennett.