Al Meyerhoff dies at 61; labor lawyer handled landmark sweatshop lawsuit

Al Meyerhoff, a prominent environmental and labor lawyer whose landmark cases included the 2002 settlement of a class-action lawsuit against some of America’s biggest clothing retailers that alleged sweatshop abuses on the island of Saipan, has died. He was 61.

Meyerhoff died Sunday of complications related to cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his wife, Marcia Brandwynne. More than a month ago, he learned that a rare blood disorder that had been diagnosed a year ago had turned into leukemia.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of 30,000 immigrant Saipan workers alleged a pattern of long hours, low pay and other objectionable working conditions in garment factories that produce more than $1 billion of clothing annually for U.S. stores. Recruited mainly from nearby Asian nations, workers toiled in what Meyerhoff called “indentured servitude.”

The case was “far and away the most ambitious litigation ever brought involving sweatshops,” Meyerhoff said on National Public Radio in 1999.

The $20-million out-of-court settlement of the suit known as Doe vs. the Gap involved more than 20 major U.S. retailers. The companies did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to adopt a code of conduct for the workplace and create a fund to pay for back wages and independent monitoring of factories on Saipan, an island about 3,700 miles southwest of Hawaii that is a U.S. commonwealth.

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, “fought an often lonely battle” to clean up the island’s working conditions and improve its minimum wage, Meyerhoff wrote last year in his blog for the Huffington Post.

In an interview Monday with The Times, Miller said Meyerhoff was always “trying to figure out how to deliver justice to different groups of people whether they were farmworkers or immigrants or people who had been damaged by employers. . . .

“He had a range of interests, a sense of outrage and a tremendous sense of humor that all sort of came together with his remarkable legal talents.”

Albert Henry Meyerhoff Jr. was born into a working-class family on Sept. 20, 1947, in Stafford, Conn.

Growing up, he was bullied by the older boys in town, which caused him to develop “an active dislike of the abuse of power,” he later said.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1969 from the University of Connecticut, he found the first day of law school at Cornell University to be life-changing, Meyerhoff later said.

“When he sat in his first class, all of a sudden he became comfortable in his own skin. From that moment until the day he died, he thought what he did in life was exactly what he should be doing,” said Brandwynne, a veteran local newscaster and news executive.

Straight out of Cornell in 1972, Meyerhoff joined the nonprofit California Rural Legal Assistance and made $60 a week representing farmworkers and the rural poor.

He successfully challenged a statute that prevented undocumented immigrant children from attending public school and sued the University of California over using public research funds to promote agricultural mechanization.

In 1981, an interest in science and technology prompted Meyerhoff to join the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. As director of the council’s public health program, Meyerhoff brought countless cases to trial under Proposition 65, the antitoxics initiative that passed in 1986.

Joel Reynolds, director of the defense council’s Southern California program, said Meyerhoff “was always looking for creative ways to use the law.”

“He was a rare combination of intellect, passion, humor, creativity and absolute commitment to the public interest, particularly those less fortunate in terms of economic and social circumstances,” Reynolds said. “He had a brilliant mind and a heart as big as a Volkswagen.”

To pressure the chemical industry to agree to tougher standards on pesticides, Meyerhoff invoked a little-used Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act amendment that prohibited animal carcinogens in processed foods.

“The tactic forced a crisis requiring the industry to negotiation,” Meyerhoff later recounted, and led to the Food Quality Protection Act, which resulted in the ban of several dozen carcinogenic pesticides.

Actor and activist Mike Farrell, who was a close friend, called Meyerhoff “a glass-half-full man” who “always saw the humor no matter how difficult the situation. He was angry about the way people were abused and the way the environment was abused, but he always saw the hope and made the argument for the positive outcome.”

In 1998, Meyerhoff joined Coughlin Stoia, a major class-action law firm. There, he fought for the rights of Saipan’s offshore garment workers, Enron shareholders and many others.

“I worked on issues I believe in with extraordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Meyerhoff once said. “What beats that?”

Meyerhoff, whose first marriage ended in divorce, had been with Brandwynne for 15 years. The couple chose the propitious date of July 7, 2007, to marry.

In addition to his wife, Meyerhoff is survived by his daughter, Leah; his mother Ruth, 92; and brothers George and Alan.

Services are pending.