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In-House Counsel at the City of Detroit

May 13, 2019
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Choi Portis is a lawyer for the water and sewerage department in Detroit. She handles litigation for the department, develops policies and procedures, and reviews contracts—so one day is rarely the same as the next. Choi is a graduate of Thomas Cooley Law School.

Transcript

Host:

From LawHub, this is I Am The Law, a podcast where we talk with lawyers about their jobs to shed light on how they fit into the larger legal ecosystem. In this episode, Kimber Russell interviews a litigator who switched gears from private practice to being a lawyer for a city government.

Kimber Russell:

We're joined today by Choi Portis, a 2011 graduate from Thomas Cooley Law School. After law school, Choi was a litigator at several firms in the Detroit metro area. Now she's the Deputy General Counsel at the City of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. So Choi, let's start by discussing what your department does and how exactly your department is situated in the city government.

Choi Portis:

The city of Detroit itself has a law department, but due to really interesting court orders that came down primarily as part of the bankruptcy and also violations of the Clean Water Act, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department operates its own general counsel's office. We have our general counsel, me as the Deputy General Counsel, and then we have two associate general counsels. We only deal with water-based legal issues that could range from collections actions where we file cases against commercial and industrial customers who aren't paying their water bills, personal injury cases, sewage disposal backup claims, breach of contract. And then we also provide legal advice to our Board of Water commissioners and our director. We also are going through a project right now where we're revamping a lot of customer-facing policies and procedures to create a lot more transparency in government as it pertains to the water department.

Kimber Russell:

You said there were a lot of court orders stemming from the bankruptcy. Could you tell us a little bit more about what those entail and how those impact your office?

Choi Portis:

Back in the 1970s, there was a court case. They spoke about violations of the Clean Water Act, and so pursuant to that, we had to create these combined sewer overflow facilities and we had to start charging our customers drainage to pay for those. Fast forward to 2014, when the City of Detroit went through its bankruptcy, there was this huge issue about what to do with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. It was either to privatize water or to create a regional authority and give Detroit control over its retail and infrastructure, which is essentially what happened. Now, there's a few court orders that existed as it pertains to the bankruptcy. The court said because of the bureaucracy and how large the city of Detroit is, we do have four offshoots, legal, human resources, finance, and our government procurement departments. So while we are still city Detroit employees, we operate independently of the central city services.

Kimber Russell:

Now let's just get back to what you did prior to joining this office. You were a litigator. How does that differ from what you do on a day-to-day basis at your position with the city?

Choi Portis:

So it doesn't really differ much. I primarily litigated, that was all I did before I started working for the City of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Now I do a fair amount of litigation still, but a lot of the work that I do right now centers around working with our contracts department, helping them to negotiate contracts with different vendors. A lot of the work that I do also centers around helping to redevelop some of the policies and procedures. And if I could add one more piece to that, it's to provide legal advice and a legal mind in the room sometimes for our internal department, such as our finance department or our customer service department when they're having issues related to maybe a customer is coming in trying to establish water service and that customer may not own the property, or they don't have the proper documentation to prove that they own the property.

Kimber Russell:

Tell us a little bit more about the contracts and procurement process.

Choi Portis:

Because we're a governmental agency, our contracts and procurement process is a little interesting. Probably about 99% of our contracts go out for bid, so we'll create what's called a request for proposal or request for bid. There's a process that we go through to pick the lowest and best bidder that would be able to provide what we're asking for. Once that process happens, then our contracts and procurement department, they put together the contract documents, they send out the offer, and what I do is, I review the contract. I review the contract for its substance to make sure that any city of Detroit specific portions that are supposed to be included in the contract are included, make sure that the insurance and bond requirements, if there are any, are correct. And if they aren't, send it back to them to get the vendor or the contractor to correct whatever pieces are incorrect. Once all those pieces are correct, I sign off on it, send it back to them, they do a final review of it and give it over to our director so that the contract can be executed. Once the contract is executed, then the contractor starts their work.

Kimber Russell:

You mentioned that there are times when you provide a legal opinion or a legal mind on certain other issues including customer related issues. What are some of the customer issues that you most frequently see that you might have to take a hand in?

Choi Portis:

I feel like the most interesting issue that I faced recently was I had a customer service representative that contacted me, and it was literally a typical law school question. Since Michigan is a race notice state in terms of who gets to the register of deeds first, I literally had a situation where a woman sold a house to one person and then two days later sold the same house. The individual who she sold the house to the second time is the first person who went to the register of deeds and registered the property. The first person she sold the property to came in and was trying to establish water service, but the register of deeds, once they called them, said, nope, there's a different person that's registered here as the owner of the property, and produced a different document. So obviously we couldn't produce water service to the person who initially bought the property because they weren't the first person to get to the register of deeds.

So that was the most interesting recent issue that I had. Another issue that I typically deal with, with customers, is related to our real estate closing policy. The way that the policy is currently drafted, a customer, if they're selling a property, they have to come in and request a final real estate closing read. What that read does is puts the responsibility for any delinquent balances on the seller and gives the new owner a clean slate. A lot of times people don't do that, and sometimes we might end up in litigation with that. Sometimes we may end up in some negotiations with that, but the policy's pretty clear. Those are the two main issues that I typically deal with when it comes to dealing with our customer service representatives. Sometimes I work with customer service management if they are dealing with issues of how to redraft their policies to make sure that they're following the letter of the law as well.

Kimber Russell:

You do a fair bit of litigating. What kind of support do you have on these cases?

Choi Portis:

Pretty much myself, and like I said, there's four attorneys in our office and we share a paralegal. So at times when there's a lot of document-intensive things like reviewing deposition transcripts or putting together exhibits for motion hearings and things like that, I'll rely on our paralegal, but most of the time I'm a one-woman shop.

Kimber Russell:

That's pretty intensive. How many cases do you find yourself handling at one given time?

Choi Portis:

When I first started working for the water department, I had the entire litigation docket as well as working with and providing support and advice to our outside council. Right now because I've gotten rid of a fair amount of my cases, either through settlement or gotten them dismissed through summary judgment or whatever other ways that we can get rid of them, I do only have about two or three cases right now.

Kimber Russell:

So you don't find yourself going to trial that much?

Choi Portis:

No. No.

Kimber Russell:

So how far along do most cases get in your office?

Choi Portis:

So our cases will typically get to the case evaluation stage before we actually either get to a settlement or we file a motion for summary disposition to see if we can get the case dismissed. And so in Michigan, all civil cases have to go before a three panel case evaluation panel, and they essentially put a number, a dollar amount figure on that case to kind of help facilitate the case to determine whether or not the case will actually get settled. And a lot of times that number is close to what the parties end up settling for. My strategy is typically before, because you know the date for your case evaluation, my strategy is typically file your motion for summary disposition before the date for case evaluation. If the judge issues a order saying the case is dismissed, you have no need to go to case evaluation. But if the judge doesn't dismiss it, you have a dollar figure that the plaintiff is kind of stuck with.

Kimber Russell:

So what kind of preparation goes into these cases for you? What sort of fact finding do you do? Are you able to reuse material that you've used on prior cases? When you get a new case landing on your desk, what's the first thing that you do?

Choi Portis:

So it just depends on the case. If it's a personal injury case, usually those cases involve someone who's alleging that they have tripped over or fallen into a catch basin or a storm sewer drain that was missing its cover or that was damaged at some point. And so with those particular cases, what I typically do is I'll contact our engineering department because at some point there, if in fact this particular catch basin or storm sewer drain cover was missing or damaged, there would be some sort of work order where our crews went out and fixed it. And that's basically just to determine whether or not we had notice of the issue because the statute requires that there's notice. Obviously we're entitled to governmental immunity on those issues, but notice is a huge piece. So the first thing I try to figure out is notice on those cases.

Another thing that I do is I'll send out some information getting releases so that I can get the medical records for the plaintiff if it's a personal injury case, because if this person is injured, but we didn't cause the injury, trying to figure that out, and then kind of make the cases go from there. Now in the instance where we have a property damage claim or case, that typically involves a sewage disposal system event, which our legislature kind of carved out as an exception to governmental immunity. And so with those cases, again, I'll start with our engineering department maintenance and repair to see what work orders existed.

Kimber Russell:

What's the most challenging kind of case that you encounter on a day-to-day basis?

Choi Portis:

I did actually have a huge case back when I first started. It was a sewage backup case, but it turned into a class action lawsuit because there was probably over 500 homes and businesses over on the east side of Detroit that were impacted by a rainstorm, and they ended up with a ton of basement backups in that particular area. And so that case went on for about two and a half years. And so that was really challenging in terms of challenging myself with the nuances as it pertains to a class action lawsuit. We did end up getting that case settled. It did not go to trial, but it was a lot involved in that case. And like I said, sometimes I'm a one-woman shop, so it took away from some of the other things that I had to do, but it was a really interesting learning experience.

Kimber Russell:

Well, considering that, as you say, you're a one-woman show, what proportion of cases do you get a favorable result on?

Choi Portis:

Oh, that's interesting. So I had a really good year last year. I was getting cases dismissed left and right, that had no legal merit. Sometimes it just depends on the case and the facts of the case. Generally, I try to approach each case with the same mindset and the same theory. Sometimes I find myself playing devil's advocate to see what the other, to anticipate what the other side is going to do or to just ask that right question in deposition to see if I can get that on the record so that when I actually file my motion for summary disposition, I can get the judge to say, hey, look, they admitted on the record, or there's no testimony that shows X, Y, or Z. And so I found myself being a really fierce litigator in that respect, trying to get my cases dismissed. So I would say last year I think I got four or five cases dismissed against the department without the department actually having to pay out money.

Kimber Russell:

So Choi, there's a lot of nuance in what you do and especially with respect to reaching settlements on behalf of the city. What can you tell us about how that process works? How do you negotiate a settlement that is beneficial to the city?

Choi Portis:

I have one client, and that is the city of Detroit Water and Sewers Department. And the way that we're structured is that we are governed by the Board of Water Commissioners. So it's kind of the hierarchy in terms of dollar amount. In terms of settlement, it varies. So if the dollar amount is below a certain amount, I can have a conversation directly with our director of the water department because essentially he signs off on all settlements that are below a certain amount. If the amount that the case is being settled for or the amount that we are trying to negotiate for is above his threshold, I have to take that directly in closed session to our board of water commissioners for their approval. I have not had this, I haven't had a dollar amount high enough for it to go to the city of Detroit City Council, but if the dollar amount in question, if it exceeds their threshold, then it has to go to the Detroit City Council, and then if the dollar amount goes over their threshold, it has to go directly to the mayor of the city of Detroit.

Kimber Russell:

How would you characterize the work-life balance in this position, considering that you are responsible for so many different facets of this job?

Choi Portis:

It doesn't end at five o'clock usually. Because the city of Detroit Water and Sewers department is a 24-hour operation, you may have a situation where there's a water main break at 11 o'clock at night on a Saturday, we're getting emails about that. But I try to maintain a healthy life work balance. My day in the office typically starts anywhere between 7:45 and 8 o'clock and typically try to get out of the office no later than 4:30, but probably around 6 or 7 I'm still checking emails to see if anything came down the pipeline that I need to work on over that evening, or maybe if I have to go back in the office earlier to tackle some issues before I have a meeting or something like that. So I typically try to keep my workday to about eight hours, but that doesn't always happen.

Kimber Russell:

What's different about this position than when you were a litigator for a private firm?

Choi Portis:

So the difference between this particular position and when I was a litigator is kind of piecemeal. So when I was a litigator, I actually did plaintiff's work, so I was suing a lot of governmental agencies. Now, on the other hand, as a litigator for the water department, I am the governmental agency that's being sued. The stuff that I do at the City of Detroit Water and Sewers Department, it kind of mirrors what you would see in a business setting in terms of a general counsel's office dealing with just the day-to-day legal work. I supervise outside counsel as well, and so it's never a dull moment because I don't ever deal with the same issue every single day. I know the majority of my cases are going to be me defending on the basis of governmental immunity for a basement backup or a personal injury case, but I might have a issue with customer service today. I might be helping our finance department in a meeting with one of our community partners that we use to help administer our water assistance program for low income citizens of the city of Detroit. So my day varies day to day versus when I was in private practice, it was kind of a hamster on a wheel where I was doing the same thing over and over again. It was just wait for a scheduling order, discovery, go to court hearing, file a motion.

Kimber Russell:

Circling back to the Detroit bankruptcy and the maybe not well-deserved reputation Detroit has as a government entity, what role do you think you play in more positively impacting the city of Detroit and its citizens?

Choi Portis:

So, you know, Detroit is a near and dear place to my heart, obviously, because it's home. I affectionately refer to myself as an indigenous Detroiter. And so growing up and kind of seeing that negative pieces that kind of overshadowed the city of Detroit, including the bankruptcy, I think I'm in a good place and space in the city right now and city government because we are completely trying to improve our community footprint, and that is being more transparent, being more open with our customer and our constituency. Just kind of having a customer centered focus, just letting the citizens know that we are here for you. We are trying to make sure that we're providing the best customer service because essentially we don't work for the government, we work for the citizens of the city of Detroit. In terms of me personally in my work in trying to help improve that community footprint, I do a lot of career days.

I feel like I'm on the career day circuit starting back this week. I do a lot of outreach in terms of helping minority law students, helping them pass the bar, because I do tutoring through the Wolverine Bar Association in the summer, and also through my work with the American Bar Association and the State Bar Michigan Young Lawyer section. Just trying to do the work in the community here, like our State Bar Michigan motto says, A Lawyer Helps. And just doing whatever I can, using using my law degree and using my position to be able to help in any particular way that I can.

Host:

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