The Great Geffen

I’m a thinker, a lover, a voice for those without one (a civil rights attorney) and an occasional goof. I’m well traveled, well versed, always well meaning, and generally well liked. …
She’s hooked already, thinking: intriguing, unique.
Happy, strong, kind, playful, balanced, passionate, dynamic, and very creative. …
Almost too good to be true. Maybe he’s a Boy Scout, too–kind, brave, thrifty, cheerful?
I’ve had some hard knocks (diving accident at 21, story in archives but check second photo and note wheelchair–in case you’re curious, everything else works better than fine). …

Damaged goods? Maybe not. At least he’s up front about it.
If you know you couldn’t fall for a guy in a wheelchair, stop reading.

When David Geffen went online in search of his “ideal match,” he was apprehensive about the cyberspace meat market. That’s why he had waited four years–from the time of his separation in 1998 until December 2002–before jumping in wheels first. But he knew he had the writing skills to fashion just the right personal profile. After all, writing–in graduate school, law school and throughout his career as an attorney–was what he did best.

Even before he could write, he knew becoming an attorney was in the cards. “My father was a city attorney in Norwalk [Calif.] and then he became a federal court magistrate-judge–in 1969 or 1970.” By then Geffen, a young boy, was already comfortable in the company of his father’s judicial friends, the kind of people he would later seek to persuade with well-researched, reasonable arguments. But he was more than a mere brainiac.

“After high school, I sold my prize possession–my ’68 Camaro convertible–and went to Europe, took a backpack and bought a Eurail pass and pretty much traveled alone for 11 weeks. I had a real passion for traveling and Europe and all things different.”

No doubt that unique streak led him to the University of California in Santa Cruz when he returned from his travels. It was the mid-’70s and Santa Cruz was notorious for alternative thinking: “We were arrested for occupying the administration building. We were protesting apartheid, university investments in apartheid and the termination of the Third World studies program. I was on the front of the school newspaper, leading the parade.”

Were drugs involved?

Geffen laughs. “I don’t think there was a time in Santa Cruz when drug usage was not involved. You can just paint the whole thing. I tried psychedelics for the first and only time in college at UC Santa Cruz … and mushrooms. I had an amazing two-year experience. It just completely rocked my world, that whole experience. I loved it. But I felt completely alienated from the rest of the world.”

After two years at Santa Cruz unofficially majoring in synaptic gap zapping and brain wave reorientation, what does a young man-in-the-making do? He does the opposite of established wisdom, a la Horace Greeley. He goes East.

“I moved to Boston and dropped out of school for about six months to wait tables and just experience the world. And then I found myself at the Boston University School of Public Communications.” There he studied journalism, advertising and public relations and honed his writing skills, then left Boston in 1980. “At that point I’d made a checklist of where I wanted to be. One was Washington, D.C., as a summer intern to work on a news crew. Or go back to Los Angeles.”

His brain said D.C.–”It was where everything was happening”–but his heart tugged him home. “I hadn’t been with my family for four years, I had a little sister I was concerned about who was having some difficult teenage years. Also I wanted to play piano, I was very musical, I also played guitar. Plus I had this idea that I would work in the mayor’s office. It was only going to be for the summer. I expected that I would go on a Semester at Sea starting in the fall.”

Ah, but the best laid plans. …

Beneath the Waves
June 7, 1980. Cool, overcast, the infamous SoCal June Gloom. Geffen and a friend were at the beach in Santa Monica. The water was cold. “So I ran in as fast as I could until I couldn’t run anymore. And I ended up hitting a sandbar, like hitting a brick wall, and ended up floating on my back, knowing that I’d done something really stupid and extremely painful. There was this horrible nausea, and I was conscious throughout the whole thing.”

Someone saw him floating there–a wave had turned him on his stomach–and pulled him out and threw him on the beach, thinking he was a drowning victim. The rescuer was–fittingly–a city attorney. Then a lifeguard arrived. But Geffen, even as he was going into shock, took control. “The lifeguard bent down and I said, ‘Look, get a bullhorn and call my friend Michael’–he was up on the beach. ‘Call the paramedics and get me a blanket ’cause I’m going into shock. I think I broke my neck.’ And they did everything I told them to do.”

Eight weeks later, in rehab, his spinal cord injured at the C5-6 level, he had a realization. “In the middle of meditating, I came out of it in a shock and said, ‘Oh my God, I knew.’”

Months earlier, in Washington, D.C., during spring break, he had started experiencing a strange, non-drug-related paranoia. “I would stop suddenly and look up and grab the back of my neck as if something was going to fall from the sky and hit me. It became very pronounced during this time. And then it went away, all within a week. And I didn’t think about it again until after my accident, when it came up during meditation.”

Premonition or not, there was no way he could turn the clock back. He had to go on and finish his degree. Since he knew he would be able to write, he considered law as a career. “But I wasn’t sure. I just knew it was an option. I was really interested in writing for film. I put myself in a class where I’d have to read my scripts. That was really traumatic, having to get up there as a disabled person and read something that I wrote in front of a whole class of people who only knew me as a disabled person. And it was good for me in that respect. My first ‘outing’ as a disabled person.”

This was at California State University, Northridge, a month out of rehab. After that he took extension courses at the University of California, Los Angeles, mostly in writing and production work for film. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he went on to get a master’s in learning and education at UCLA. But something he had discovered about himself at Santa Cruz was pulling him in another direction. “I was still really drawn to social justice and making an impact, and I thought a law career would be a better avenue for that.”

Birth of a Barrister
Geffen was conditionally admitted to law school at the University of Southern California, but the assistant dean insisted on an interview before making it official. “The first thing he said was: ‘The reason we wanted to have you in here for an interview was we’ve had handicapped people here at the school before and they just weren’t able to cut it. So we want you to copy this blue book until you’re done.’”

Geffen obliged, writing longhand with a pen for two hours, copying someone else’s handwriting. “I was too stupid to know that this had nothing to do with going to law school or to protest it. I felt like, well, I guess I should feel lucky if they let me into this school.” As soon as he was finished, another obstacle was thrown in his path. He was informed that the student lounge, where all the study groups met, was not accessible, and the university had no plans for making any changes. “I felt about as low as a toad at that point.”

Just then a tall skinny student entered the office. Geffen recognized him from his childhood days. “‘Jerome?’ And he looked down at me and said, ‘Oh my God, David? David Geffen?’ And I go, ‘Yeah.’ And he grabbed the dean by the lapels of his jacket and started shaking him, saying, ‘This man saved my life. This man saved my life!’”

Geffen had saved Jerome from drowning on a Boy Scout trip in the Sierras when he was 13. “I went from feeling about as low as you could possibly feel to feeling like a hero in all of 30 seconds.”

A great scene for a movie? Yes, and Geffen has already written it.

Ironically, he ended up declining USC’s offer and enrolling at Loyola Law School. “They treated me like a prince. I had a walkie-talkie, I could call the security guards if I needed help. Plus by that time, between graduate school and Loyola, I went up to Santa Rosa and got a service dog, named Konya–after a city in Turkey–a German Shepherd. And she was amazing. She really helped me as far as building my confidence, helping me to meet people. Making me feel needed. It was just amazing what she did for me. She carried my books throughout law school for three-and-half years.”

Fresh out of law school, he started interviewing with law firms that were looking for young lawyer/workhorses–long hours, mediocre pay. Plus they were skeptical of hiring a quad lawyer. So Geffen devoured a book–How To Start Your Own Law Practice–and hung his shingle in Beverly Hills in 1987. “People would call me on the phone and say, ‘Do you do this kind of law’ and I’d say yes, make an appointment with them for the next day, then go to the library and study for the next six hours and bone up on the area of law that they wanted to do. By the time they came in I had all the fresh authorities … I took just about anything and everything that came through the door.”

One day a security guard who’d been terminated from the private police force of–guess where–USC came in. Geffen took the case, which became his first jury trial. “Ironic that it happened to be USC, but we beat them, and I got a taste for employment law.” It turned out the next case he had that went to trial was also an employee of USC and he won that one as well–a disability rights case. Geffen 2, Trojans 0.

By this time he was practicing in Santa Monica–where his heart resided. It was 1992, the Americans with Disabilities Act was on the books and starting to be enforced, his law practice was growing and he was newly married with a 5-year-old stepdaughter. The future looked promising. Then came the Sherman case.

Rollercoaster
In 1995 a man named Robert Sherman came to Geffen with a product liability lawsuit. Sherman, a quad, had suffered injuries in a hospitalwhile using a therapeutic sand-grain silicon bed designed to prevent and heal pressure sores. The bed had ruptured and Sherman had unavoidably been inundated with silicon sand-grain material which subsequently entered his lungs, resulting in serious health problems.

It was David versus Goliath–the defendant a huge billion-dollar medical corporation with an army of attorneys. The company portrayed itself as a model of ethical purity, but Geffen saw their seamier side during the discovery phase of the trial. “They were so difficult to get information out of that I couldn’t get a straight story. I wanted to know how many times this kind of thing had happened before and what they knew the dangers to be and whether there were any designs that they could have come up with that would have kept them from having this problem.” The trial lasted five weeks and the jury found in favor of the giant.

“I was absolutely devastated. I was $30,000 out of pocket and I’d spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on the case, and I was really very upset, questioning my ability to analyze facts and decide whether a case is worth taking or not, and how could I have been so far off on impression? Plus having a quadriplegic on the witness stand, I was identifying with him quite a bit.”

A week later, still recovering from the loss, Geffen got a phone call from an attorney in Texas who was suing the same company. The attorney reiterated what Geffen already knew: The company had been difficult to work with. But the attorney had managed to get the court to compel the company to turn over certain documents and in the process found Geffen’s name. He also discovered what the company had concealed from Geffen: evidence of 27 similar incidents involving the same “therapeutic” bed, all of them prior to Sherman’s incident. Geffen had been informed of only three prior incidents that were only marginally similar.

“So I marched into court on my white horse,” says Geffen. “I said we want a new trial and we want sanctions against the defendant for their misconduct in hiding evidence. And the court considered my argument and said, ‘I really don’t think this new evidence would have made any difference.’ And I said, ‘What about the sanctions? What about them lying? And the judge said, ‘The trial’s over, I really don’t think I have the authority to sanction them.’ It was the same judge, an old codger. I was dealing with an Orange County Old Boys’ network.”

Incensed, he appealed. “Two years later I was handed one of the most gratifying opinions I’d ever read,” says Geffen. The appellate court overturned the lower court and granted a new trial and $85,000 in sanctions that included all of Geffen’s costs and attorney fees on the original case. The opinion states, in part: “We [the appellate court] wish to send a loud and clear message to litigants and counsel alike: We will not tolerate the disgraceful tactics which hallmark the defense in this action. We intend to ensure that any victory achieved by such methods and challenged in this court will be short-lived and costly.”

The case was eventually resolved out of court, with undisclosed terms. Since then Geffen has received phone calls from numerous attorneys asking him about the case. “It stands for all sorts of principles that had previously not been discussed by the appellate court,” he says. “So now my case can be cited for the proposition that discovery sanctions can issue even after the trial’s over.” It was the most important case of Geffen’s career.

In the Trenches
In 1998, about the time the appellate court ruled in his favor, Geffen and his wife of six years separated. “We don’t hate each other or anything like that. It just didn’t work. We were the wrong people for each other.”

Now Geffen, whose practice had always been in office buildings, wanted to try practicing from a home office. He rented a house in a commercial area for two years, sectioning off a work area, then found his dream home/office a block from the beach in Santa Monica.

For the past four years he has been raising money for spinal cord research with the Paralysis Project, as well as working with the Western Law Center for Disability Rights, which does advocacy work on behalf of individuals with disabilities of all kinds. Currently a board member, he says, “They go to bat for people who have no voice–in line with the area of law that I’ve been practicing, employment discrimination and public access law. I’m very behind what they do, because they take really difficult cases and make precedents and educate the public in the process. They’re behind keeping Rancho Los Amigos Hospital open after the county decided to close it.”

Eve Hill, executive director of the Western Law Center, appreciates what Geffen brings to the board of directors: “He’s part of the disability community, plus he has the experience with legal issues–he has that overlap. He’s also involved with the community in fundraising for nonprofits. And he’s got a great sense of humor.”

Geffen is also a litigant in a case brought by the Western Law Center against the Superior Court of the County of Los Angeles. “L.A. Superior Court has about 15 or 16 courthouses, and all of them have their problems. The county goes from Lancaster to Pomona. It’s a huge area, and I practice everywhere. I’ve had hearings scheduled in one courthouse in Glendale and there was no access to my courtroom. I had to call up the courtroom where my hearing was and say, can we do this hearing downstairs, and wait for them an hour to get into the other courtroom. I had the same experience in Riverside.”

And Long Beach Superior Court has no direct wheelchair access to the fifth floor. “They had courtrooms up there, they had meeting rooms, they had the cafeteria on the fifth floor and there’s no access in the building. You have to go down to the first floor, accompanied by a security guard, go into another building, go up a private elevator, and then do the same thing when you want to leave.”

But nothing compares to the downtown L.A. Superior Court building. “The closest parking lot is across the street, and the sidewalk is pitched toward the street. The ramp to the street is like a ski slope and buses come whipping around the corner. I’ve seen my life flash before my eyes many times at that corner. I’m fairly independent and I use a manual chair, so I used to just see if I could grab an attorney to help me, somebody walking toward the courthouse. Sometimes these guys were late and they’d just say, ‘No.’ Which is really humbling. ‘Sorry, no time.’”

And then he started relying on the homeless guys in the area. “I had these two regular guys there–Michael and Ron–who would see me at the courthouse and come running and grab my chair and get me to the courthouse and bring me back to my car when I came out.” Ironic justice? Here’s a successful attorney making good money who depends on homeless men to get him to work?

“That worked out well for awhile,” says Geffen, “until they started some new security procedures at the courthouse and kind of chased away a lot of the homeless guys.”

But Geffen does not fixate on the negative. “My courtroom experiences have been varied. Mostly good, I would have to say.” And now, thanks to progress in online resources, his job is much easier. “In 1987, when I began my practice, online research was prohibitively expensive for a solo practitioner, so most of my legal research was spent in the library. I had to have people pull books for me and it was very cumbersome, a lot of work. I was pretty much outgunned by big law firms. They would paper me to death. And I was spending hours and hours getting things done.”

Now Geffen says he’s on an equal par with major law firms as far as legal research and productivity. “For $50 a month I can get any state or federal case I need online within maybe two minutes–I have DSL–and it used to take me hours to do this kind of research.” Then there’s the experience factor. “There’s very few times that I see something that I haven’t seen before, so I’m building on my past work. I’ve got the formats in my computer, I have a lot of connections. Everything is at my fingertips. It’s a really exciting time to practice. A much more efficient time to practice.”

The Other Geffen
Geffen is well known as an entertainer extraordinaire outside the courtroom. He started throwing parties for the Western Law Center about three years ago with the dual purpose of raising money and treating donors and guests to a fantastic time. He comes by it naturally. “My parents were huge party throwers. They threw the parties that everybody wanted to attend. Always with a theme, hippie parties or whatever, and I’ve continued that tradition–summer solstice parties or Caribbean parties. I had one party where we had a number of video cameras and we sectioned off the groups and everybody went out and made a movie, then we came back and screened our films.”

Each year he features live music with a different talent. “I usually try to find a local artist who’s trying to make it, a musician and a group. This year I had a flamenco singer and dancer with a flamenco group behind her. Last year I had a Chilean singer, and before that I had a kind of a rock band, friends of mine. Next year I’m expecting it’s going to be a Middle Eastern theme, probably a belly dancer. I like to throw parties. It’s one of my favorite things to do. If I could make a career of throwing parties, I probably would do that.”

This inclination surfaced even in the midst of rehab back in 1980. His recreational therapist kept insisting that he get with the program. But sewing or making model airplanes wasn’t exactly his thing. “But you have to do something creative,” she insisted.

“OK then,” said Geffen. “I want to do a talent show.”

In typical Geffen style, he set about producing an extravaganza that rocked the roof off Northridge Hospital. He hired wheelchair comedian Gene Michener, railroaded the various therapists into participating and sprinkled para poets and quad warblers throughout the playbill. In preparing his script, he interviewed no fewer than 15 quads, asking them what they hated most about the hospital. Geffen then transformed their answers–the intercom system, the food, therapists always insisting on just “one more rep,” and the strange case of the recurrent paging of one Dr. Tush, to name a few–into an original song with verses and a chorus:
The finished program was picked up by the press and P.M. Magazine. Video cameras followed Geffen around and chronicled the quad chorus in all its glory. Laughter and tears flowed from the same well. The curtain descended to shouts and thunderous applause.

As for Geffen’s future, it leads back to the past–the world traveler is emerging again. “I’m going to Europe on Sept. 4 for the first time since I was 17. I’ve been wanting to get back to Europe since that trip that was so important to me. I’m going to England and Spain. Barcelona and Malaga. And I have a friend in London I’ll see. Sixteen days.”

And whatever happened to the online search for Miss Right?

My ideal match is warm and giving, instinctively kind to strangers, truly appreciates life’s gifts, knows and loves herself, likes to explore, never stops asking questions, is slow to anger, quick to forgive, enjoys family, likes to cook and be cooked for, loves my yellow Labrador, and thinks I’m funny (we did say ideal). …

But the first month he got what he had feared. “I had exactly the kind of experience I was hoping to not have, which was the few people who wrote me and that I had conversation with hadn’t looked closely enough at my pictures to realize I was in a wheelchair, and then they kind of freaked when they found out I was in a chair and decided it was not something they wanted to pursue. “A couple of respondents got past his disability and dated him, but only once.

Then came the third time, yes, the charm. Her name was Barbara.

She will talk through a problem, embrace a challenge, and stop frequently to smell a flower or watch the sunset. She is not a prima donna or a snob. She embraces her femininity and is very physically affectionate. That is to say my ideal lady is tuned in and turned on.

Call it Lady Luck, but Barbara was online dating all of one week and Geffen was the only guy she went out with. “I spent hours tweaking my profile before she responded. It said exactly what I wanted it to say, to the point where it could be my epitaph.”

Legend has it that Barbara fell in love with Geffen even before she met him, based solely on his profile. “That’s true,” she says. “I was so enamored. The thing with David is–his disability is beside the point.”

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