Rage Against the Legal Machine

I knock on the door, let myself in.
Melody Baker can't hobble from the living-room couch to the front door unless she takes the morphine prescribed by her doctor. And today, she is trying to forgo the morphine.

She wants to explain to me, in the most clear-headed way possible, how her serious illness was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals when she was a child growing up in Maryvale. For years she has counted on the future settlements of two of Arizona's largest class-action "toxic tort" lawsuits to bail her out of her medical expenses. But, just last week, the Phoenix lawyers representing her in those unsettled cases said in open court they wanted to sever most of their legal ties with her.

Through the years, I've witnessed this 43-year-old environmental activist's nearly incomprehensible, malapropist diatribes against environmental officials and industry representatives at numerous public meetings. Her angry sentences seemed to be 3,000 words long and were nearly impossible to follow.

Because of that history, I don't particularly look forward to this interview in Baker's home.

Melody Baker waits for me on the same old beige couch she had the last time I visited her Maryvale tract home 10 years ago. I can tell right away she is seriously ill. She's lost weight. She's jaundiced, although charcoal-hued flesh puffs from beneath her eyes. She's pulled her black hair--which once hung down to her waist--into a thin, short ponytail.

Baker herself is not the obsessive, raging activist I remember. She's a very sick woman who fears she may not live to see her grandchildren. She worries out loud that she's too sick to be a good mother, worries that she's a financial and emotional burden on her family.

Beyond the beating her health has taken and her catfights with her lawyers, she's facing overwhelming financial problems. She lost her accounting job last October, probably because her medical claims and illness-related absences inconvenienced her employer. Her husband Tom, who installs dog doors and earns about $25,000 a year, can't afford to pay the $500 monthly Cobra payments to keep up Baker's health insurance.

Tom Baker's salary is too high to qualify Melody Baker for AHCCCS, the state health-care program for poor people. With no money, Baker fears she and Tom may have to sell their only family asset--the house--in order to pay for her medicine, which costs about $1,000 monthly.

When I first met the Bakers 10 years ago, they were healthy and financially secure. Tom had a good sales job with a company that has since gone bankrupt. Melody was a young environmental activist fighting for victims of pollution.

Then in 1988, Baker herself became a victim. She was diagnosed with thrombocytosis, a blood disorder originating in the bone marrow. Her health slowly deteriorated. Today, she's an invalid. An inoperable blood clot is lodged in a vessel supplying her liver. She is too weak to sustain an operation; the clot may be permanent. Her liver is so swollen and tender she cannot even walk to the kitchen without feeling severe pain, which explains the need for prescribed morphine and the wheelchair. A second clot has blocked a vein in her leg.

Doctors say a new clot could form at any time in her bloodstream and cause a stroke.

And they say Baker could develop fatal leukemia any day.
She's sure her illness was caused by her exposure to trichloroethylene, or TCE, a solvent dumped decades ago by several industries into underground drinking-water reserves beneath Maryvale, where Baker has lived since she was a child. Her doctor and the lawyers think so, too.

Melody Baker had hoped settlements in the two massive class-action lawsuits against dozens of alleged polluters would help pay her medical bills, but now the lawyers have threatened to abandon the penniless Bakers.

It's not that Melody Baker doesn't have a good case.
It's just that she can be such a bitch.
Representatives of the four Phoenix law firms--Robbins and Green; Treon, Strick, Lucia and Aguirre; Beaus, Gilbert and Morrell; David Dannacher--said in court July 15 they want out. They want to sever most of their ties with Baker.

The sophisticated barristers said in court their professional relationship with the Maryvale housewife is no longer viable.

Translation: Melody Baker won't cooperate with the lawyers. She's not a "team player" with the six other class representatives. She takes up too much of her attorneys' costly time. She gets in the way, rejecting perfectly good settlement offers that the lawyers desperately need to pay the staggering expenses associated with the case. She upsets the other clients with her temper tantrums in the waiting room.

But she's always been that way.
That's no reason to dump her.
After all, her sophisticated lawyers should have factored this housewife's combative personality into their plans before they allowed her to be the lead plaintiff and a class representative in the Maricopa County Superior Court case that bears her name--Melody Baker v. Motorola, et al. In this giant lawsuit, she and thousands of other plaintiffs allege that dozens of polluters contaminated their property and thus reduced the value of thousands of homes all over the Valley. Her lawyers now say they want to retain her as a member of the class in the Baker case, but dump her as a class representative.

As a class representative, Baker has been privy to legal strategies that regular members of the class have not been told about. Class representatives are also supposed to approve reasonable settlements and cooperate with their lawyers in legal strategizing.

Her lawyers also want to stop representing her in the personal-injury class-action lawsuit that claims she and dozens like her were made ill by the TCE and other chemicals dumped into the Maryvale environment. They say they'll turn over Baker's file to a new lawyer, give him all the research they've done on her case. For free. They will cooperate with her new attorney.

They just don't want anything to do with Melody Baker.
On July 15, Baker's attorneys asked Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Cates to hold a secret hearing with sealed records so they could explain why they wanted the judge to cut them loose from Baker.

The move is extremely unusual. Lawyers often may bicker with class representatives, but they rarely try to get rid of them.

"'Good luck, bitch,' is what they're tellin' me," Baker says. "How can I afford to get another lawyer? And if I don't get another lawyer, how can I get my fair share of any settlement in my personal-injury case? How do I pay my medical bills?"

If Cates makes the mistake of permitting a secret hearing, Melody Baker doesn't stand a chance against the united forces of the good barristers at Robbins and Green; Treon, Strick, Lucia and Aguirre; and Beaus, Gilbert and Morrell.

And no one else will ever know that Melody Baker's rage is based on raw fear. Or that she has at least one good reason to be furious with her lawyers.

In March, she received a report from the doctor hired by her attorneys to assess her condition.

"Melody Lee Baker is currently afflicted with abnormal blood counts and neuropsychiatric dysfunction," the doctor wrote, adding that there was "an increased likelihood of strokes" and ". . . her Hematopoietic Disease could transform into an Acute Leukemia at any time requiring aggressive but usually futile chemotherapy and/or bone marrow transplant.

". . . Based on the above and the cost of medical care today," the doctor concluded, "I would estimate this patient's annual medical expense to be $2,000; and if she lived an additional 28 years to the age of 70, then this would be approximately $56,000 above and beyond any other routine medical expenses."

Baker's monthly bills for prescriptions already total more than $1,000 each month. How could the doctor conclude that her medical bills would only amount to $2,000 each year? Can't do the math?

When Baker heard this absurdly low assessment of her medical expenses in March of this year, she flipped out. Can you blame her?

Unless it's corrected, the medical report may sabotage potentially dozens of future financial settlements of her personal-injury case.

Baker says her attorneys ignored her when she pointed out the mistake. They said the report was right on the mark. She had tantrums. She screamed and hollered. Of course she did. She also tattled on her attorneys to Judge Cates; her attorneys didn't like that very much.

Can you fault her for violating legal etiquette by informing Judge Cates she was unhappy with her attorneys?

Back in March, Cates arranged for a different judge to mend the bitter rift between Baker and her lawyers, but that peacemaker disqualified himself because he had once worked for a law firm representing one of the polluters.

So the relationship worsened to the point that on July 15, the attorneys asked Judge Cates in open court to cut them loose from Baker. No second judge. No mediation. No nothing. They wanted out.

Baker sat in her wheelchair in the courtroom last week, looking pathetic. She tried to explain to Cates she had no money for a new attorney. She begged to stay on as class representative. She asked to keep her present attorneys.

Her lawyers extended an olive branch on July 18, suggested going to a mediator before taking the drastic steps they had requested on July 15. The attorneys deny they had a change of heart simply because there was press interest in the case, and dumping a sick woman would be a terrible public-relations move.

Frankly, I often wondered why smart lawyers signed up fiery, transparent Melody Baker as a class representative in the first place. I mean, she never hid her temper.

She campaigned for pesticide-free school grounds and credible studies explaining why Maryvale kids suffered from high rates of leukemia. Most of all, she wanted the state to force industries to clean Maryvale groundwater of TCE. Her crusades were honorable, but her rage and inability to get along with other environmentalists impeded her success.

Even so, she helped force her cause into the courts.
What amazes me is that all through her environmental activism, Baker did not make her illness public. She tells me she didn't want anyone to feel sorry for her or think of her as an activist with a personal grudge.

She succeeded. I never felt sorry for her, never saw much beyond the long-winded, grammatically flawed diatribes. I thought others fought a better fight.

I judged her unfairly.
Few of us knew her fury was rooted in the fact that she had innocently drunk polluted water as a child, had gotten sick, and has silently watched her health deteriorate for years.

And now, looking death in the eye, she seethes on.
And no matter how crazy she gets, her lawyers should have enough grace not to abandon her at the time she needs them most.

She's entitled.

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at tgreene@newtimes.com


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