Craig Laubach’s career at Pepco started slowly and lasted a long time, but it ended in a blur.
He was hired in the stores department in 1974 at age 18, and spent the next five years driving a forklift, loading and unloading streetlights, capacitors, and spools of cable before finally winning a promotion to the overhead department. In overhead, he learned to repair transformers, install insulators, and trouble-shoot high-voltage overhead lines.
Laubach is tall and craggily huge, with a blunt shock of brown hair. He wasn’t afraid to work 50 feet and more above the ground, with thousands of volts of live electricity at his fingertips, and he was well paid for the risk. By 1993, he was earning $21.13 an hour as a senior line mechanic, with plenty of overtime. He and his wife, Bonnie, owned a house in Silver Spring with five bedrooms and a pool for their two boys.
On a Saturday night in April 1993, Laubach recalls in an interview, he went to a party for a friend who was visiting from Florida. At the party, he smoked some marijuana. The next Monday morning, he was summoned for a random drug test, which of course came back positive for pot. A week later, he tested positive again, although he says he hadn’t smoked any more. He was suspended. By May 27, when he traveled downtown for a formal company hearing, he knew he would be fired.
But Laubach wanted to keep his job. It was a job that he liked, the only real job he had ever had. He felt he had been treated more harshly than other Pepco workers, and he felt he deserved a second chance. After he flunked that first drug test, a friendly co-worker had told him about an outfit called Job Protectors, which specialized in representing fired, harassed, or discriminated-against workers. The co-worker had heard an ad for Job Protectors on the radio, and he gave Laubach the phone number. Laubach liked the sound of the name. Job Protectors. That was just what he needed. He made the call.
When Laubach left the company hearing on May 27, he immediately withdrew all the money he had invested in Pepco’s 401(k) plan. He also closed his credit-union account. Carrying about $3,000 in cash, the freshly unemployed Laubach rode the Green Line train to the Waterfront station and walked across the street to the blocky cement town house at 468 M St. SW, which a brass nameplate identified as the office of Job Protectors, Inc.
There he met a man named Simon Banks, whose business card identified him as a “Former Administrative Law Judge.” The office was lined with law books; there were pictures on the walls of Banks with Watergate defendant John Ehrlichman, former D.C. Congressional Delegate Walter Fauntroy, Jimmy Carter, and Thurgood Marshall. In this impressive setting, Laubach produced his discharge papers from Pepco, as Banks requested.
“I showed them to him, and he said, “This is an outrage,’ ” Laubach remembers. “He said, “I can’t believe they actually did this to you.’ He told me my rights had been violated.”
As Laubach recounted the events leading up to his firing, Banks typed the information into a laptop computer. At the end of the meeting, Laubach felt much better than he had that morning, when he was formally canned by his employer of 18 years. Banks assured Laubach that he would get his job back, Laubach remembers. Although the family finances were already a little tight, Laubach didn’t mind handing over $2,000 in cash, the retainer Banks requested.
Laubach’s euphoria soon wore off; he and his wife sensed something strange about Banks’ methods. One morning, Banks showed up 40 minutes late for a state unemployment board meeting—even though the Laubachs had paid him an extra $500 to represent them there. Laubach was denied unemployment benefits because of the reason he was fired, not due to Banks’ lateness.
Banks assured Laubach that he was negotiating with Pepco, and that the electric utility would surely agree to settle the case by giving Laubach a second chance. But the Laubachs say they received no copies of any correspondence with Pepco, no copies of any formal papers that Banks filed on Craig’s behalf, and no phone calls from Banks. Both Laubachs say they found him very difficult to reach by phone: Sometimes a secretary answered and said Mr. Banks was on the other line, in a meeting, or with a client. When Banks himself answered, he usually rang off quickly, saying he’d call back later. Most of the time, they got a recorded message.
“It was almost as if he was sitting there in the office listening to the recordings,” says Craig, “and when he knew who it was, he wasn’t going to bother answering.” This went on for months, according to the Laubachs. On the rare occasions when they did talk to Banks, he invariably assured them that Pepco was ready to settle. Craig would be reinstated, Banks promised the Laubachs just before Christmas, with $150,000 in back pay. After that, he suggested, they could go to court for damages.
It couldn’t happen soon enough: Bonnie had lost her job in 1991, and with Craig also out of work the Laubachs were living on savings, on their retirement funds, and finally on money borrowed from relatives. They were falling behind on their mortgage payments. By the time the Laubachs realized what was really going on—that Craig wasn’t going to get his job back, that there had been no negotiations, and that Banks had never even contacted Pepco—it was too late.
I call Banks on a Tuesday morning. Late in the afternoon, the phone rings. “This is Dr. Simon Banks,” the caller says. But we both know that Dr. Simon Banks is neither a medical doctor nor a Ph.D. In materials prepared for his clients, he often refers to himself as “Judge Banks,” but he is not exactly a judge, either.
Dr./Judge Simon Banks is, in fact, the holder of a Juris Doctor degree from Howard University, vintage 1975. A J.D. is the standard legal degree, but very few law-school graduates refer to themselves as “Doctor.” He did work briefly as a hearing examiner for two D.C. government agencies, which is why he calls himself “Judge.”
Dr./Judge Simon Banks is not, however, a licensed lawyer, for he has yet to pass a bar examination despite numerous attempts in two states and the District. He’s not about to let that stop him from putting his law degree to use, though. Banks maintains a thriving practice in Washington, representing clients with employment problems. He works before a half-dozen federal and local administrative boards that do not require attorneys to belong to the D.C. Bar.
For a lawyer, and especially for a purported judge, Banks displays a breathtaking disdain for court dictates. Over the past decade, he has consistently violated no less than two orders of the D.C. Court of Appeals relating to his trade. Twice, in 1987 and in January 1995, the Court of Appeals found that Banks was leading clients to believe he is a licensed lawyer, by referring to himself as a former administrative judge, among other deceptions. In both cases, the court ordered Banks to provide clients with a court-approved disclosure stating clearly that he is not licensed to practice law. He has not obeyed.
“When you get a 17-page opinion against you, spelling out in infinitesimal detail what you can and can’t do, most people will obey it,” says lawyer James Schaller, who brought the first unauthorized practice case against Banks in 1987. “He just thumbs his nose at everybody.”
Banks has been ordered by the D.C. Court of Appeals to refund $800 to a former client, Glenard Hodges. In addition, Banks appears to have ignored several other judgments of the local small claims court directing him to refund money to former clients, according to orders entered in D.C. Superior Court. Clients testified in the unauthorized practice cases that he missed filing deadlines and hearings on their behalf; he’s also skipped court hearings on his own numerous legal matters.
Banks appears to have difficulty with client relations, judging from the thick sheaf of complaints filed with the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), and from testimony given in two court proceedings. Disgruntled ex-clients have filed more than 75 complaints against Banks with the court’s Committee on Unauthorized Practice of Law, according to its chair, Stuart Pierson. The complaints follow the same basic pattern as the Laubachs’ tale: Employee is harassed/fired/discriminated against; employee hears of Job Protectors through an advertisement or a colleague (or, as one complainant put it, an “ex-friend”); employee pays Banks a large retainer after an initial consultation; Banks fails to deliver the goods.
According to client complaints and documents from such agencies as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the D.C. Office of Employee Appeals, Banks has missed deadlines, filed cases in the wrong forum, or filed complaints that were dismissed because they simply did not make sense.
“Not only was he late with filings, but his filings were nonsensical,” testified Maria Johnson at the Court of Appeals hearing on Banks’ unauthorized practice. Johnson is an administrative judge for the Office of Employee Appeals, where Banks has represented clients. “I mean, the level of expertise was below that of a first-year law student. And so I felt that he was doing a grave miscarriage of justice, when his competency level was about zero.”
Some of Banks’ clients have suffered lost jobs, broken marriages, and derailed careers, as well as lesser hassles. Boenita Armstrong says she skipped a few car payments in order to pay Banks’ $1,000 retainer to appeal a worker’s compensation claim. Her Nissan Pathfinder was repossessed, and now she and her husband share his car. That means she has to drive him to work every morning at 5:30 a.m., then wait two hours before her own job starts. When she called Banks to ask for a refund, he threatened to report her to the phone company for harassment and hung up, she says. Armstrong won a court order directing Banks to refund her money, which he hasn’t yet.
Four years ago, Philip Alexander was pulling down $40,000 a year as an emergency medical technician in the District, and saving to buy a house with his longtime girlfriend and their son. Then he got fired, and retained Banks to contest his firing at the D.C. Office of Employee Appeals (OEA). But Banks failed to file required documents and did not show up for a crucial pre-hearing conference, according to the OEA decision dismissing Alexander’s case with prejudice. Now Alexander works a part-time job paying $14,000 and lives alone in a $400-a-month room with no telephone.
“There should be a sign over his desk, a warning label of some kind,” says lawyer Alan Banov, who has represented a handful of former Banks clients and has been sued by him twice. “Smoking’s bad for your health; Simon Banks is bad for your health.”
Lovie Robinson, another Banks client, was unluckier than most. Robinson went to Banks two years ago as a client; now she and 40 other ex-clients are defendants in a massive lawsuit filed by Banks against the D.C. government, the Committee on Unauthorized Practice, and Stuart Pierson, as well as Pierson’s law firm and a handful of other lawyers and law firms who have represented, or even talked with, Banks’ former clients. Banks seeks more than $3 billion in damages, and he seems to believe he’ll collect.
“This group is going down with the largest judgment anyone’s ever seen,” he vows in a telephone interview.
Banks says his opponents are racists out to destroy him for representing aggrieved minorities. Yet “this group” includes a large number of his black clients. His adversaries, Banks claims in a later fax, “have been and always will be, unable to destroy Banks and Job Protectors as advocates against discrimination in the workplace, so they use Blacks, whom are duped, conjoled [sic], and influenced by suggestivity, fraud, deceit, and fabrication, to join the Committee, to destroy Banks as a competitor against white racist law firms.”
He has besieged the court with paper—en banc motions and mandamus petitions and other extraordinary legal writs. The pleadings in Banks vs. Barrymore & Loots et al., as the case is dubbed, now occupy six volumes in D.C. Superior Court. His “Third Amended Complaint” alone runs 226 pages, shifting randomly between three different typefaces.
“Every day I wake up with that on my mind,” he says of his one-man jihad. “Every day I start preparing a document that’s gonna cost them more money.” He took his laptop on vacation to Atlantic City, to prepare yet another pleading. Sometimes just the titles of his motions take up a whole page.
He filed similar lawsuits challenging the 1987 injunction of the D.C. Court of Appeals against defendants ranging from Sharon Pratt Kelly to James Schaller to the D.C. Court of Appeals itself. In the latter case, Banks so annoyed the judges of the U.S. District Court that Judge John Garrett Penn not only threw out the case, but barred Banks from filing any more lawsuits in federal court. To make the point, Penn fined Banks $5,000.
“He is wasting the time of courts, of lawyers, he is harassing numerous innocent civilians who have come to him for help, and he is intimidating past and present witnesses against him [by suing them],” says an exasperated Banov. “He needs to be taught a lesson that the court is not a vehicle for wreaking vengeance on people who tell the truth about his actions.”
But if the past is any guide, Banks will continue to disregard court rulings, while using the legal system to strike back at his perceived enemies. Although Banks appears to have won few of the many lawsuits he has filed over the years, he is winning the war of legal attrition. Some small law firms and individual lawyers are leery of representing Banks’ former clients, for fear of his lawsuits. And lawyers at the colossal firm Hogan & Hartson, who are defending 14 ex-clients against Banks, declined comment for this story.
For Banks’ hapless clients, people like the Laubachs and Lovie Robinson, the whole episode inspires nothing but cynicism about the legal system.
“You tell me: How is this man doing what he’s been doing?” asks Katherine Witherspoon, who won a small claims judgment against Banks for the $1,100 she paid him, but has yet to collect. “What does it take for people to stop him?”
What Moses was to the Jews, the anonymous authors of government personnel regulations are to the civil servants of Washington. They lay down the rules by which the city’s legions of federal and city workers govern their working lives. On the Metro and at the health club, oneoverhears conversations about GS levels and pay grades; the newspapers tell of downsizings, sexual harassment, and RIFs.
These are the waters that Simon Banks fishes, with advertisements on the radio, in the Washington Post Magazine, and in Federal Times, a trade newspaper devoted to government personnel issues. One Banks radio ad, which aired on WHUR circa 1987, went like this:
Hello. My name is Simon Banks, chief executive officer of Job Protectors and a former chief hearing examiner. Have you been a victim of job discrimination or been treated differently than employees of other races, sex, and handicap status? Has your employer harassed you or discriminated against you with respect to a promotion, seniority, penalty, workman’s compensation, or employment benefits? If so, call Job Protectors at 543-7870. Job Protectors is a consulting firm that provides representation by former hearing examiners that are experienced in employment discrimination matters….Job Protectors can protect your employment rights. Call 543-7870. That’s Job Protectors, 543-7870.
One day in January 1993, 60-year-old Lovie Robinson heard one of Banks’ ads on the radio. She had recently been terminated by her employer, the Peace Corps, and she wanted to file a discrimination complaint. She called Job Protectors and scheduled an appointment with Banks at 3 p.m. on Feb. 2, 1993, a Tuesday. Her account of what happened next is taken from her testimony before the D.C. Court of Appeals last year and from the complaint she filed with DCRA.
Although she arrived half an hour early, Robinson sat in Banks’ ground-floor waiting room until 5:30, she told the Court of Appeals last May, in Banks’ unauthorized-practice proceeding. When Banks finally met with her in his second-floor office, she testified, “we were constantly being interrupted with phone calls, and then there were periods of time he would jump and walk out of the room for various periods of time.” Nevertheless, he managed to tell Robinson that he had two offices, that he employed a skilled staff, and that he had represented “the Iran contra people,” Robinson testified.
For the 15 minutes Robinson says she spent with him, Banks charged her his stand ard consultation fee of $100. A few days later, she paid him another $1,500, which represented nearly all of her savings. She charged both payments to her Visa card. For that sum, Banks prepared a two-and-a-half-page discrimination complaint that he filed with the Peace Corps equal employment opportunity office on March 15, 1993. The simple document is riddled with grammatical and typographical errors, a Banks trademark: Robinson is described as having been “disababled” when she “suffeed an on-the-job injury that resulted me in a limitation on complainant’s ability to perform physical functions [sic].”
There may be a logical explanation for this, such as that the spell-check function on Banks’ computer had been disababled. When she didn’t hear from Banks for a few weeks, Robinson told the court, she began to worry. He had agreed to handle her workman’s compensation appeal as well, but she had yet to receive benefits. She called Banks frequently, and when he didn’t return her calls she took to visiting his office to check on her case. On four or five occasions, according to DCRA documents, she was not permitted to enter; a receptionist spoke to her through the door. When she was finally let into the office to get a copy of her discrimination complaint (which he wouldn’t mail to her), Banks kept her waiting two hours.
Her discrimination complaint was unsuccessful. On the complaint form Robinson filed with DCRA in December 1993, she listed herself as “unemployed.” And she never heard from Banks again.
“I never even received a phone call from him,” she testified. (For his part, Banks says that Robinson owes him money, representing the balance of his fee “for pre-preparation research of the complaint.”)
Dr. Simon Banks is wary. After we’ve chatted for a few minutes on the phone, he’s still wary. “You might be an agent of Stuart Pierson,” he muses. Nevertheless, we arrange an interview later in the week.
In the universe of Simon Banks, Stuart Pierson is Darth Vader, the embodiment of organized evil. To the rest of the world, Pierson is a partner in the D.C. office of a large Seattle law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine. He is also the voluntary chair of the Committee on Unauthorized Practice of Law, an arm of the D.C. Court of Appeals, which oversees the local bar. The committee acts as a sort of gatekeeper to the legal profession, chiefly by bringing cases against lawyers who practice in the District without having passed the D.C. bar exam.
Without Simon Banks, the committee would have less to do than the bartender at a Mormon wedding. Of the five cases it has prosecuted since 1980, two were filed against Banks. Banks’ clients have been complaining to the committee since 1984 that he led them to believe he is a licensed lawyer, when he is not. The committee’s first case against Banks was brought in 1987 by James Schaller. Pierson spearheaded the second case, which was filed in 1992, when the committee kept receiving complaints about Banks. That case was decided only this past January.
Both times, the D.C. Court of Appeals found Banks in violation of the court’s Rule 49, which states in part: “No person shall regularly engage in the practice of law in the District of Columbia or in any manner hold out as authorized or qualified to practice law in the District of Columbia unless enrolled as an active member of the Bar.” That is, non-bar members may not “in any manner assume to be an attorney at law, or assume, or use or advertise the title of lawyer, attorney or counselor, or any equivalent title…in such manner as to convey the impression that such person is entitled to practice law[.]” As a non-bar member, Banks may not represent clients before D.C. or federal courts, but many agencies permit lawyers to practice without bar membership.
Ruling in the 1987 case, Judge George Gallagher found that: “From September of 1985 until the date of the hearing of this case [April 1987], respondent…has engaged in a continuous course of conduct designed to create the public and individual misimpression that he has been duly qualified to practice law in the District of Columbia. Such misimpression has been generated and fostered by respondent through various media, including advertisements in the yellow pages, newspapers, and on the radio, and representations made in resumes, business cards, stationery, and other verbal and written descriptions of his business.”
Six years later, Lovie Robinson somehow reached the conclusion that Banks was a full-fledged lawyer. His office was full of law books, and his business card identified him as a “Former Adm. Law Judge.” Fliers and promotional materials distributed by Banks urge, “Be represented by a former Judge.” During their meeting, Banks told her about other people he had represented. “I assumed he was a lawyer,” Robinson testified. “And I had told him that I was looking for a lawyer, and…he never stated, “I am not a lawyer.’ ”
She did, however, sign a disclosure form that began, “This is to confirm that Simon Banks is not licensed to practice law before the Courts in the District of Columbia or any other jurisdiction.”
True enough. But the “disclosure” went on for another page to brag about Banks’ accomplishments in the law. “This is to confirm,” it continued in bold type, “that Simon Banks, after having been competitively selected by attorneys including the Chairperson of the District of Columbia Judiciary Committee, D.C. City Council, was employed by the United States Government and the District of Columbia Government, jointly, as an Administrative Law Judge and Hearing Examiner, for the District of Columbia Human Rights Commission.”
Robinson signed the form in 1993, six years after the D.C. Court of Appeals ordered Banks to stop describing himself as a “judge” or “administrative law judge.” Yet in the disclosure, Banks refers to himself four times, in bold type, as “Judge Banks” or “Judge Simon Banks.”
Banks’ precise position with the D.C. government has been a major bone of contention in his disputes with the bar. After he graduated from law school, Banks managed to secure legal employment in 1975 and 1976 as a hearing examiner for the D.C. Commission on Human Rights. In 1980, he held a similar post with the Office of Rental Accommodation, adjudicating lease disputes. Neither agency seemed to mind that he had not passed the bar exam.
Banks insists that his hearing examiner positions were equivalent to that of administrative law judge—the title displayed prominently on Job Protectors’ letterhead, advertisements, and business cards. The D.C. government reclassified some hearing examiner positions as administrative law judgeships in 1991, long after Banks had stopped working for the city. Although he did produce a D.C. government business card listing his title as “Administrative Law Judge and Hearing Examiner,” the D.C. Court of Appeals has twice rejected his claim to have been an administrative law judge.
Much of Banks’ life history is obscure, but he appears to have spent most of his adult life around the law. Based on a review of his promotional materials, his two stints as a hearing examiner seem to have marked the high point, credentialwise, of his legal career. He worked as a court reporter for several years before entering Howard University School of Law in 1972. A classmate remembers Banks lugging his court-reporting machine into classes and taking verbatim lecture notes, which he sold to fellow students. Another classmate remembers Banks as a charming, pleasant fellow.
“On a personal level, Simon was an immensely charming, nice guy. He wanted to be liked and respected,” this classmate remembers. “But I think his vision went beyond the talents.” After graduation three years later, Banks and this classmate sat for the bar exam. The classmate remembers that Banks emerged shaking his head and saying that he had missed “the tax question.”
“There were two tax questions,” the classmate notes, out of a total of 10. Banks was doomed to fail the bar exam, but so were lots of other people. JFK Jr. and Rep. Ron Wyden have both failed bar exams more than once. The D.C. test is notoriously hard. The last time it was offered, in February this year, only 53 percent of first-time takers passed.
It’s not clear how many times Banks flunked the D.C. bar exam, but he registered to take it six more times without passing, according to a petition filed in 1987 by the Committee on Unauthorized Practice. He attempted the Pennsylvania bar six times, also unsuccessfully, and tried the Nebraska test once.
The last time Banks is known to have registered for a bar exam was in Pennsylvania in 1984. He was not permitted to take the exam then because he was awaiting trial for a 1983 gun violation, according to the committee’s 1987 petition. Four gun-related charges and a charge of simple assault were dropped in 1985 for want of prosecution, according to information from the D.C. Superior Court. Banks then told Judge Richard Levie that he would take the bar in February 1995, but apparently never registered for it.
As of 1992, Howard University alumni records listed him at an address in Hillcrest Heights, Md. He appears to have been married at one time, with a daughter and a son. Now he lives in Columbia, Md., where his telephone number is unlisted.
In promotional materials that he gives to potential clients, Banks sketches an illustrious career for himself, omitting his trouble with bar exams. In a long article-cum-advertisement that ran in the American Weekly, a small African-American newspaper, Banks is described as “a former member of the Watergate Defense Team, [who] participated in the defense of John Ehrlichman, No. 2 man in the Nixon Administration.” Ehrlichman went to prison, but it still sounds impressive, as does the claim that “Banks testified against Judge Thomas.” (Banks submitted written testimony to Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation record, but did not testify in person.)
Banks says he worked as a law clerk for Ehrlichman’s lawyers when he was a student at Howard. “I never said I was a lawyer,” he says. He told one client, Sonja Hall, that he represented Marion Barry and Jesse Jackson, according to Hall’s testimony before Judge Levie (which Banks disputes). He told another, Cassandra Webb, that he had worked on “the BCCI case,” Webb testified. His letterhead says that he practices in Japan and Europe.
“You are no one for your employer to be afraid of,” he told client LaTonya Sills, according to her DCRA complaint. “But I am.”
But Banks’ biggest cases, the ones for which he is already famous in local legal circles, have involved one particular client: himself. Banks pursues his own cases with a zeal and tenacity that would startle his dissatisfied clients. Simply to mail copies to the 40 or so defendants costs $130 per document in postage and certified-mail charges—and Banks files very many court documents.
“My level of venom is beyond comprehension,” he says in our phone conversation.
At 9:30 on the morning of May 9, 1994, Courtroom 516 of the D.C. Court of Appeals was packed with Banks’ former clients and curious spectators. Stuart Pierson sat at one of the counsel tables up front, with three other lawyers for the Committee on Unauthorized Practice. The other table, reserved for Simon Banks, was empty.
At 10:12 a.m., Judge Richard Levie decided he had waited long enough. Banks had been paged in the courthouse twice, and messages had been left at Banks’ office. Levie also left a message at the clerk’s office of the Court of Appeals, where Banks had briefly appeared earlier that morning to file an emergency motion for a stay. The time and date of the hearing had been set weeks earlier. “His absence is voluntary,” declared Levie, a Superior Court judge sitting temporarily on the appeals court. “We’re going to proceed.”
By not showing up, Banks put himself at an obvious disadvantage: Pierson and the committee could present evidence and testimony without rebuttal. As a result, the court deemed as true many of Pierson’s contentions, simply because Banks was not there to object. Banks called Levie’s chambers just before noon, and said he would be there in 20 minutes.
He never showed. “I was in the Supreme Court during the time of the hearing,” Banks told me.
More than 30 former clients had volunteered to testify against Banks, Pierson says, but the court allowed only 11 to take the stand. The witnesses told different versions of the same basic story: They consulted Banks and paid him to handle their case, whereupon things somehow went wrong. Almost all of them, like Cassandra Webb, believed Banks was a licensed lawyer.
Webb had good reason to believe Banks was a licensed attorney, because she knew that “in order to become a law judge, you have to become an attorney first,” she testified.
“How do you know that?” she was asked.
“Because I work for attorneys.”
Webb had been fired from the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, and she paid Banks $1,000 to help contest her firing. But she never saw any correspondence, or any other sign that Banks had taken action with her agency or her union. She learned that he was not a licensed lawyer a full year later, and only because she happened to read an article about him in Legal Times.
Lack of publicity could be one reason Banks has managed to stay in business so long. The first injunction against Banks was issued in 1987, but it was not published for another two years. The files for both of his unauthorized practice cases are closed to the public. It is ironic, but not surprising, that the only news organ to pay any attention at all to Simon Banks is Legal Times, a $12.25-a-copy trade weekly aimed at lawyers. Banks sued Legal Times in 1987, but the case was thrown out.
Laverne King, another witness, had hired Banks to respond to a letter of reprimand she had received from her agency, the D.C. Lottery Board. For $1,000, Banks wrote a letter in response to a completely different matter, King testified before Judge Levie. Meanwhile, the reprimand went into her rec ord unchallenged.
“I called and called, but he refused to answer the phone,” she testified, “and then I continued to try, day after day, three and four, five, six times a day. So, finally, one day, he answered, and I explained to him that I had paid him, and I wanted some service, and I wanted to know what he had done on my behalf….”
“What did he say in response?” she was asked.
“He said, “I’ll have to put you on hold and get back to you,’ and “I’ll call you right back’….I said, “I want to talk to you now: I have paid you.’ He put me on hold and never came back. I haven’t talked to him since.”
On the phone, Banks says that the witnesses against him falsified their complaints and their testimony, which was given under oath. “Every last one of them,” he says. They did so because they were upset at losing their cases, he adds, and turned against him because “that asshole Stuart Pierson” offered them “money and benefits” for testimony. This charge seems to be based upon a Dec. 8, 1993, letter from Pierson to certain Banks clients, suggesting that they file consumer complaints with DCRA, which was then empowered to try to get their money back.
In his lawsuit, Banks asserts that Pierson conspired with several other lawyers, the D.C. government, and Banks’ former clients to ruin him because he is competing with major law firms—and because Banks is black. Banks claims Pierson is retaliating against him for representing a former receptionist at Pierson’s firm in a harassment complaint filed against another lawyer in the firm. (The harassment claim was filed after the unauthorized practice case, Pierson says.) Finally, Banks accuses Pierson of a conflict of interest, in simultaneously representing the Committee on Unauthorized Practice and his own law firm as defendants in Banks’ suits.
But Banks didn’t show up to present his side of the story last May, and the committee’s evidence was enough to convince Judge Levie to issue a second, stronger injunction in January. “The evidence is clear and convincing that [Banks] has flagrantly, intentionally, repeatedly and contumaciously violated virtually every provision of the Court’s 1987 injunction,” Levie wrote. “He continues this conduct, seven years after that order.”
In a footnote, Levie added that the record supported a finding of criminal contempt against Banks. But because Pierson didn’t seek criminal sanctions, Levie declined to impose them. Levie also declined to order Banks to pay restitution to any of his victims. He did, however, award legal fees of $63,000 to Stuart Pierson and three other lawyers who worked for the committee.
Banks hasn’t paid yet.
Banks’ elusiveness is legendary, particularly among his clients and among process servers at Superior Court. Sometimes even the U.S. Postal Service has a hard time delivering to his M Street SW office. The file folders of several small claims court cases at D.C. Superior Court contain green postal receipt cards addressed to Banks but stamped “returned to sender” and “unclaimed.” With several small claims cases pending against him, Banks is extremely cautious about what mail he signs for, and about who he admits to his office. One process server finally caught up with Banks by pretending to be a prospective client and scheduling an appointment with him.
Paul Slappy, who had retained Banks in an employment dispute with Fox News in the late ’80s, remembers an even stranger incident. In an interview, Slappy recalls that he was talking to Banks in the office when Banks’ daughter rang the doorbell of the town house. Banks immediately stood up, walked over to the bathroom, and locked himself inside while the secretary told the daughter that Banks was not in.
“Here’s a guy hiding in the bathroom from his own daughter,” Slappy marvels. “There’s something wrong with this picture.”
Slappy didn’t think anything of it at the time, as he was embroiled in his own problems. “He caught me at a very vulnerable time in my life, and here was this person saying what I wanted to hear. He was avoiding everybody, dodging everybody, and I didn’t even notice.”
When I approached Banks’ rented town house on M Street SW for our scheduled Friday meeting, my hopes of finding him there were low. A red gate marked with a Job Protectors name plate opened onto a small concrete patio where the only sign of life was the weeds overtaking a flower box. Venetian blinds were drawn tightly over the first-floor windows, which were dirty. In the basement, a ceiling fan spun. A couple of minutes after I knocked, the door opened about a foot, enough to reveal a woman in her late 20s.
She hadn’t heard about my appointment with Banks, and no, I could not sit in the waiting room. She handed over a package of documents weighing about four pounds, and closed the door. I sat down on the steps to read them. In 10 minutes, the door opened again. “I believe he canceled the appointment,” she said. She came back a few minutes later and addressed me through the mail slot. “Check your messages,” she said. Every time she came back, I noticed, she had some new piece of information. But she insisted Banks was not there. (Banks had, indeed, left a message saying it would be “impractical” to meet in person.)
Investigator K.D. Meredith of the DCRA had a similar experience in visiting Banks, although he was more successful than I was. Meredith paid a visit to Banks’ office on June 7, 1990, to check out a complaint filed the previous year by Glenard Hodges of Upper Marlboro, Md. Hodges had met with Banks once to discuss a possible harassment case, according to a D.C. Court of Appeals opinion. He later paid Banks $150 in cash and $650 by check, but became suspicious when his bank called the same day, saying that Banks was attempting to cash the check without proper identification. Hodges decided not to hire Banks after all, but Banks refused to return his fee.
“Upon entering the respondent’s facility and presenting credentials to the secretary and making inquiry of [Banks],” Meredith wrote in his DCRA report, “she informed me that Mr. Banks was not in. A man emerged from another room and stated that he was an associate and might be able to assist. Upon identifying myself to him and requesting the same of him, he informed me that he was in fact Simon Banks.
“From the beginning,” Meredith noted, “the undersigned found the respondent extremely boastful, evasive, uncooperative and very arrogant in demeanor. Upon mentioning Mr. Hodges’ name, Mr. Banks went into a tirade exclaiming that the complainant was nothing but a drug addict and alcoholic with a lot of serious problems.”
Banks showed off his collection of grip-and-grin photos, and told the investigator that he had worked for DCRA, and that he was suing its director. When Meredith quizzed Banks about his qualifications, “Mr. Banks stated that he represents clients just as a lawyer does,” he wrote, with a touch of sarcasm, “while pointing to his rather expansive library of law text books.”
The legal profession prides itself on the fact that it is self-policing. Bar membership is considered to be a privilege. One reason the bar exists is to regulate its members. Lawyers who commit crimes or abuse client funds or ignore court orders can be stripped of their licenses. Lawyers who miss court appearances and deadlines must account for themselves or face sanctions. Bouncing a check can be grounds for suspension or a reprimand; so is lying, believe it or not.
But Banks is a special case. Threats of disbarment don’t scare him, since he isn’t a bar member to begin with. He has certainly tried hard to become one, but in a way Banks is lucky. Clients who are dissatisfied with a licensed lawyer’s services can complain to the Office of Bar Counsel, which investigates complaints and presses charges before the D.C. Court of Appeals. The court metes out sanctions, and licensed lawyers are suspended and disbarred every week. Since Banks isn’t a bar member, Bar Counsel can’t touch him.
And Banks can continue to violate Judge Levie’s January order without fear of professional reprisal. As noted, Levie required Banks to include a court-authored disclaimer with any advertisements, to the effect that Simon Banks is not licensed to practice law, etc., while forbidding him to use the title “administrative law judge.”
But Banks’ recent ads, such as a brief classified in the Washington Post Magazine on March 26, contain no disclaimer. A Job Protectors ad that appeared in the April 24 edition of Federal Times urged the paper’s 40,000 readers: “Be represented by a former government administrative law judge with 20 years *experience*.” Again, no disclaimer. The ad identified Banks, cryptically, as a “Dr. Jurispudence [sic] Laws.”
Yet even as Banks defies the court system, he seeks succor from it, lashing out at his perceived oppressors with an angry torrent of litigation. He canceled our appointment on the grounds that he was preparing a brief for the Supreme Court—his third, at least.
As Banks pursues his legal Armageddon, some of his own clients, like Shirley Stewart, are left at sea. Not only does Stewart face a lawsuit from Banks, but her original case has collapsed. Stewart hired Banks nine years ago to protest what she felt was harassment on her job as an electrician with the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. She paid Banks more than $3,000 before she discovered that key deadlines had passed, according to her DCRA complaint.
“I haven’t had my day in court, and here I’m being sued,” says Stewart. “You begin to wonder what’s going on with the system.”
Banks exploits a unique niche in the system. The agencies before which he practices don’t require lawyers to belong to the D.C. bar or any other bar. One needn’t be a lawyer at all to bring cases before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Merit Systems Protection Board, which allow laypersons, such as labor union negotiators, to represent workers. Many employees, the reasoning goes, might not be able to afford a lawyer. But in making justice more accessible, these agencies also allow the Simon Bankses to flourish. A state court system can sanction and discipline bar members, but the alphabet soup of federal and local agencies cannot take action, en masse, against Banks.
Judge Levie did invite federal agencies to take a closer look at Banks’ status, and to make their own decisions about whether to continue to let him practice. “We are reviewing concerns related to Simon Banks,” says Reginald Welch, a spokesman for the EEOC, adding that no action has yet been taken.
While these agencies do permit Banks to practice, his unlicensed status may still put him at a disadvantage. For example, when an employee has exhausted his or her rights at the agency level, the next step is usually to file suit in federal or local court. But Banks is not permitted to represent clients in court, depriving him of a powerful weapon. On his receipts, Banks informs his clients that he will not represent them in federal or state courts, but the impact of this handicap at the agency level may not be apparent to them.
In our last conversation, Banks said he would fax Washington City Paper decisions in cases that he’d won, as well as the names and phone numbers of satisfied clients. He sent two decisions: an EEOC finding that the U.S. Postal Service had discriminated against William Moore, a worker in the Leesburg, Va., post office; and a Department of Defense decision restoring a security clearance to John Thomas Wills, Jr., who had been denied the clearance due to a drunk-driving arrest.
Banks also left the following voice-mail message:
“This is Dr. Banks. It’s clear to me that you’re—and to people who went over our discussion, was listening in—that obviously you’re working for Stuart Pierson. You were never interested in any concerns that I had dealing with his conflict of interest, and you never asked a question pertaining to Stuart Pierson and the various conflicts. It appears to me that his firm has hired you and we would never be treated fairly. We’re not interested in participating in any manner whatsoever, pertaining to anything you’re doing. We consider you extremely biased and only out to, you only asked questions pertaining to what you contend are my advertisements and which you contend are my violations of the court’s orders. So I don’t see how we can be helped or given a fair shake here, and I’m not going to expose any of my clients to you so you can send them a copy and help stigmatize them and other people connected with them. We haven’t filed yet in the Supreme Court, we’re waiting for your article, and we’ll deal with Stuart Pierson later. I don’t consider you objective. Bye.”
Banks may have struck the DCRA investigator as somewhat odd, but he seems to impress his clients—people like the Laubachs, whose prior experience with the law consisted of obtaining their marriage license 10 years ago.
“These are not the kind of people we usually deal with,” says James Schaller, a lawyer in a downtown firm, of Banks’ client pool.
“He said he would be our “legal representation,’ ” says Bonnie Laubach, who paid a high price for her trust.
The Laubachs’ new house is a drab but functional aluminum-sided two-story off Veirs Mill Road in Rockville. The living room is cluttered with toys and piles of folded laundry; there seems to be too much furniture for the house. A van sits in the driveway, and a comfortable black sedan is parked outside.
The appearance of affluence is only an appearance. The house is rented, and the rent is paid by Bonnie’s brother. The food in the cupboards was paid for with food stamps. The van belongs to another family member, and the car is owned by Craig’s new employer, a limousine service.
In the two years since they hired Simon Banks, the Laubachs have endured a foreclosure on their dream house in Silver Spring and a personal bankruptcy that obliterated their credit rating. “We can’t even get utilities in our name,” says Craig, now 40. “We lost everything that we owned because of this guy.” The two boys stalk around the house looking glum, while their baby sister coos. She was born last July, when the Laubachs still thought Craig might be going back to work.
Laubach’s unemployment claim had been denied, but Banks said he was negotiating with Pepco. “Every time I talked with Banks, he would say, “I’m having a meeting with Pepco today. We should know something soon,’ ” Craig says. November turned into January. By February 1994, Laubach was on the phone to Banks again. He finally met with him again on May 3 to sign some papers. That was six days before Banks’ hearing with Judge Levie, but the Laubachs knew nothing about that.
“He said, “How long has it been since you were discharged?’ ” Laubach says. “I said, “On the 27th of May, it’ll be a year.’ He said, “Well, we should know something by then.’ ”
The 27th came and went with no news, but something significant happened that day: According to a letter from the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR), the statute of limitations expired for Laubach to file a complaint with the agency. In April, Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) wrote a letter to OHR on the Laubachs’ behalf, urging the agency to waive the statute of limitations because Banks had misled them. The agency’s acting director, Steven Jumper, refused.
“I filed the complaint,” Banks told me. Banks did indeed draft a three-page complaint dated April 5, 1994 (thrice misspelling the utility’s name as “PEPO”), but the complaint was never filed. “We don’t have any record of a case being filed under [Laubach’s] name,” says OHR spokesman William Stancil. Later, in a faxed response to written questions, Banks said he told Laubach to file the complaint himself.
As for the negotiations with Pepco, Banks appears never to have initiated any. Sue Power, Pepco’s associate general counsel for labor relations, says she has never heard of Laubach, and was never contacted on his behalf. “I don’t remember ever interfacing with Mr. Banks,” she adds.
In March, Craig Laubach wrote Banks a letter asking for his papers—which are his property—to be returned. He has not received them. Without his discharge papers, and without money, Laubach has been unable to find another lawyer to represent him.
“I couldn’t evaluate the merits of the case, because I couldn’t see the papers,” says Alan Banov, who the Laubachs asked to represent them. According to Congresswoman Morella’s letter, Simon Banks is being investigated by the FBI. Two other former clients say they have been interviewed by the bureau as well.
Craig Laubach is stuck with a blot on his employment record and a driving job that pays $44 a day, most days. Pepco contractors won’t hire him because of his drug test. He’s applied to other utilities, but is not hopeful. His marriage is strained and his kids are unhappy.
“How do you tell them that their dad lost his job because he’s a jerk?” he asks. Laubach is hard on himself, when he really only made one mistake: He smoked pot at the wrong time. He may or may not have been able to get his job back, but it’s too late now. Whatever chance he had disappeared quietly last May.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.