From his condo in Kona, Hawaii, Bob Dunn can hear the waves lap at the beach 40 feet away. He never goes in the water.
“My philosophy is you don’t want to be at the bottom of the food chain wherever you’re at,” says Dunn, a Spokane attorney, in a phone interview with The Inlander from his second home. “On dry land I know I’m at the top of the food chain.”
He’s on a vacation, of sorts.
“It’s time away from my place in Spokane with my wife,” says Dunn, who has no children. His days in Hawaii start at 3 am local time, 6 am Pacific, his usual start to the workday in Spokane.
Dunn usually works from early morning to about 6 pm, not taking a lunch. He cuts that by three hours when he’s in Hawaii.
It’s from these marathon work sessions that Dunn has pulled off a series of legal victories that have embarrassed city leaders and enraged the public. Just last week, he was the man behind the scenes whose threaten of a lawsuit helped Forrest Rodgers, the fired director of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, get his job back.
“In my view of the world, fights are between good and evil,” says Dunn, 59. Evil, for him, has been the city of Spokane and its police department, or the local museum. It’s been private entities like Sterling Savings Bank, or the Cowles Publishing Company. He’s sued all of those institutions in past years, or threatened to, and the cases have led to hefty cash payouts for him and his clients.
But they’ve also led to an uncomfortable realization among many in seats of power: Fail to cross your T’s and dot your I’s when you fire someone, and you may find Dunn knocking at your door.
Every case is a murder to Dunn. In court, he draws the chalk outline around the slain job and shows the jury the blood trails that lead to the former employer.
“Generally, if you’re going to catch somebody’s attention and you’re asking for a lot of money, you have to identify why this case is no ordinary dispute,” Dunn says. “I believe in trying to get that point across you have to treat it as serious as a murder case.”
But it was not murderers who inspired Dunn, nor lawyers.
Comedians like Jack Benny (“a classic in terms of delivery”), Bill Cosby (“the best in terms of timing, presentation and performance) or politicians like Bill Clinton (“the most persuasive speaker”) all inspired him in the theater of the court, Dunn says.
“My father always regretted that he didn’t get the opportunity to go to law school,” says Dunn, who grew up in the Yakima Valley.
So he joined the Air Force to see the world, but got no farther than Fairchild Air Base, where he was a survival instructor.
After leaving, he went to Gonzaga University for a law degree. That led to a job as a trial lawyer at the Spokane firm Winston & Cashatt.
“I liked a good argument. I can say I never shy away from a good argument,” Dunn says.
The arguments started over contracts, car crashes and condemnations. Then they went into sexual harassment law, and the legal troubles of cops.
By 1992, Dunn had struck out on his own, forming McCormick, Dunn and Black, which continues to operate (minus McCormick, who retired).
Along the way, he built up a reputation as a theatrical, innovative attorney.
“Bob is very tenacious,” says Milt Rowland, a local attorney whose argued against Dunn. “He understands the theater aspects of litigation as well as, or better, than anyone I’ve ever known.”
Attorney Dick Eymann remembers when he worked with Dunn on a case involving a woman whose house had accidentally been flooded with sewage by city workers in Newport, Wash.
The cover of the drain that the sewage was poured into was made an exhibit and handed to a witness in an envelope. When the witness pulled the cover out of the envelope, “it had all this hair and crap on it,” Eymann remembers.
“When [the witness] discovered what it was, she threw it away and it kind of sailed across… and landed in front of the jury box,” Eymann says. “It was just one of things that happened during the trial.”
Dunn has also pushed judges to their limit.
During pre-trial motions for the civil suit of Spokane Police Detective Jay Mehring last year — who sued the city for $3.5 million — an irate judge wadded up a brief Dunn had filed and threw it into the trash.
The suit ended with a jury awarding Mehring $700,000, which the city is appealing.
“Do I get emotional? Yes. Do I represent my client zealously? Absolutely. Do I understand there are ethical rules and protocols that apply to lawyers? Yes. And I’d like to think I’m as ethical as any lawyer around,” Dunn says, when asked about his reputation. “In terms of aggressiveness, I’m as aggressive as I have to be.”
Consider what happened last February, when Dunn brokered a settlement with the city that would have put fired Spokane Police Officer Brad Thoma back on the force, with back pay.
Mayor David Condon backed the settlement, saying it let the city off the hook financially, even if he thought it sent the wrong message to the community. But a livid City Council turned down the settlement, and Dunn went ahead with a $4 million lawsuit against the city.
“It is almost impossible to terminate a police officer or firefighter for misconduct,” says Councilman Mike Allen, who blamed the way public employment laws were written for the debacle. “Dunn is very good at exploiting those laws to his advantage.”
Many of Dunn’s suits hit on the way a firing was handled, not the firing itself. In the case of Thoma, Dunn’s suit claimed the officer was fired for a disability: alcoholism.
And last week, Forrest Rodgers, was offered his job back at the MAC. That time, Dunn didn’t even have to sue; he just threatened to.
“Making this decision to fire this man after [getting] him in and then never giving him not even a remote opportunity to prove himself in his job was a case of bad manners,” Dunn says of the case. “I would say that probably 75 percent of my work would disappear if people had good manners, whether they were employees [or] constituents.”
Tim Connor, director of communications at the nonprofit Center For Justice, which has also sued the police, though for different reasons, says Dunn plays an uncomfortable but important role in the town’s legal realm.“There’s things that are absurd, [like when] people who … lose their job get a whole apple pie, not just another bite of that apple,” Connor says. “Sometimes you represent the principle, not the client. It’s better to have a Bob Dunn in Spokane than not.”