As a young boy in Cuba, Juan Dominguez often got in fistfights behind a hardware store near his elementary school. One brawl even left a scar on his right arm.
Because of those childhood scraps, Dominguez adopted a fighter’s mentality. It served the lawyer well in his battle with Dole Food Co. Inc., one of L.A.’s largest businesses.
His case became a high-profile scrap and took a somewhat bizarre turn or two over the last couple of years. After all, Dominguez was able to get a court to order Dole to pay millions of dollars in damages, but all that was reversed after Dominguez was accused of committing a massive fraud in 2009. He even faced possible state disbarment. What’s more, a Swedish documentary film named “Bananas!” that glorified Dominguez and his fight with the food giant came out just as the fraud allegations were revealed.
Dominguez – known for his many “Accidentes” ads plastered on the back of L.A. buses – receded for a time. But a possible federal investigation of him is quiet, and the California State Bar sent him a letter several months ago saying it was taking no action against him. As a result, he said he’s getting back to normal. Dominguez recently resumed his familiar bus ad campaign, and he sat for a long interview with the Business Journal to recount events of recent years.
“This is all so ridiculous, so absurd,” he said of his travails, while sitting in his office on the top floor of a 22-story high-rise on Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown. He said federal investigators never contacted him about misconduct allegations and that the State Bar’s inaction proves his innocence.
Dominguez initially was reluctant to discuss the details of the case, but relaxed a bit and talked for three hours with the Business Journal. Still, he would not allow a photographer to take his picture because he believed it would seem like his endorsement of whatever was published.
The accusations stir up strong emotions in Dominguez, who hasn’t lost his Cuban accent even after living more than 40 years in the United States. At some points, the 54-year-old attorney was on the verge of tears. Other times, he’d raise his voice in anger.
He accused Dole of fabricating the fraud allegations against him. He said the judge who presided over the cases mishandled the matter. And he believes the U.S. media failed to thoroughly investigate the claims against him.
“Whether there is chicanery on one side or the other, the judge is there to make things fair, and that failed in our case,” Dominguez said. “Then I think, hey, the press is there to catch wayward judges. But the press was not there and I was left.”
His drama began in 2004, when Dominguez sued the Westlake Village produce giant in Los Angeles Superior Court over claims that a pesticide used on Nicaraguan banana farms made workers sterile. Dole fought back, digging up evidence it claimed showed how Dominguez and a Nicaraguan colleague faked sterility tests, and recruited and trained people who were never banana plantation workers.
As a result, a judge threw out two of three cases filed by Dominguez after finding that his misconduct in the matter was “so outrageous and pervasive and profound.” Justice Victoria Chaney, who presided over the cases and now serves on the California 2nd District Court of Appeal, referred Dominguez to the State Bar and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for investigation.
A State Bar investigator’s short letter said the investigation was completed and determined that the matter did not warrant further action, but the organization maintains the right to reopen it. However, a case is rarely reopened, according to Phillip Feldman, a Van Nuys attorney who represents lawyers in State Bar disciplinary proceedings.
It’s unclear the extent to which the State Bar investigated the allegations against Dominguez, but there could have been unusual difficulties in investigating a matter involving foreign witnesses and sealed documents.
A spokeswoman for the State Bar declined to comment on Dominguez’s case.
However, the federal criminal investigation remains open. Richard Robinson, an assistant U.S. attorney who attended hearings on the fraud matter, said he was not at liberty to comment on the investigation.
Judge Chaney declined to comment for this article, citing pending matters in the cases.
C. Michael Carter, Dole’s general counsel, issued a statement to the Business Journal refuting Dominguez’s claims. Carter cited rulings made by Chaney to support the company’s statement.
Meanwhile, the Consumer Attorneys of California nominated him last week as attorney of the year for the work he did on a personal injury case with West L.A. plaintiff’s lawyer Brian Panish. They won a $14 million judgment from a terminal operator at the Port of Long Beach for an accident involving a truck driver who was pinned by a 25,000-pound container.
“Juan is strong and passionate about what he does,” said Panish, who has known Dominguez for more than 15 years. “He’s not going to give it up.”
Tony Dominguez, his older brother, agreed with that characterization.
“He’s driven and determined,” Tony Dominguez said. “And that’s why he never backed away from Dole. And he knew he was up against a Goliath.”
Juan Dominguez lived what he describes as a Huckleberry Finn kind of life in Cuba. He went fishing, played marbles, and his brothers and cousins would all play together, pretending they were cowboys. His father was a pharmacist and his mother a teacher.
Dominguez and his family were granted visas to leave Cuba when he was 10. They briefly lived in Miami before settling in South Gate.
He considered following his father into the pharmacy business, but decided he wasn’t smart enough. He decided to go to law school instead, eventually graduating from UC Hastings College of the Law.
Dominguez opened his practice in 1987 with a $5,000 loan from brother Tony and carved out a niche as a personal injury lawyer for the Spanish-speaking community, hence, the “Accidentes” ads.
He learned about Nicaraguan banana farm workers and the ongoing litigation involving the pesticide, called DBCP, by watching CNN and attending legal seminars. He traveled to Chinandega, an agricultural center about 80 miles northwest of Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua, to learn more about the matter in 2002.
“I had some free time on my hands and I said, ‘I will go down there on an exploratory mission,’” recalled Dominguez, saying Chinandega reminded him of the small town in Cuba where he grew up. “I loved the country from the first time I went there.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned use of DBCP in 1979. Dole has been battling litigation over its use of the pesticide since the 1980s, when plaintiff lawyers began filing claims against the company and the chemical’s manufacturers in U.S. courts alleging that exposure to the pesticide caused sterility in banana plantation workers.
Dominguez and a local lawyer set up an office in Chinandega called Oficinas Legales Para los Bananeros (Law Offices of the Banana Workers) and began searching for potential clients. He said he spent seven figures on the Nicaraguan operation. He developed an eight-part vetting process that included testing sperm samples and interviewing potential clients to determine whether they worked on banana farms.
Dominguez said the competition for clients among attorneys was so fierce that a lawyer from a U.S. law firm threatened to sue him in a dispute over who represented whom.
Dominguez was told by Nicaraguan businessmen and politicians that some of the potential plaintiffs were people who had never worked on banana farms. So he began reviewing his own tests and some of the results raised red flags. He then set up three separate labs inside his law offices to make sure each test was legitimate.
“We were running a well-organized ship,” Dominguez said. “I was always on national radio saying, ‘We don’t commit fraud here. Anyone who thinks they can pull the wool over the eye of the American corporations and say they were a banana worker when they weren’t a banana worker, they need to get out because that’s a crime.’”
All the while, Dominguez loved the time he was spending in Nicaragua. He bought a 24-room hotel in Chinandega and fell in love with a Nicaraguan woman he met at the airport. They now have a 4-year-old son and were married in 2009; they held one ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hotel and a second in Nicaragua. They’re now living near his office in a Mid-Wilshire high-rise while his Los Feliz home is being renovated.
Dominguez filed his first American lawsuit against Dole in Los Angeles Superior Court in 2004. (Also participating was a Sacramento firm, which was not accused of any wrongdoing.) The suit alleged that the food company knowingly used the DBCP pesticide after it was banned by the EPA and that Nicaraguan banana plantation workers became sterile as a result. The suit started with 25 plaintiffs, but 13 were dismissed because there were inconsistencies in their stories.
When the suit went to trial in 2007, it was the first time a U.S. jury was deciding whether Dole knowingly used DBCP and that Nicaraguan banana workers were sterilized as a result of exposure to the chemical. The jury awarded $2.3 million to six of the 12 plaintiffs.
By then, Dominguez had filed two other suits against Dole. But before those cases made their way to a jury, a secret witness came forward claiming two plaintiffs in the first suit never worked on banana farms and lied during testimony.
Dole investigators searched for more witnesses in Nicaragua who could corroborate the fraud allegations. Dominguez claims the investigators approached his clients, posing as his representatives in order to convince them to sign documents they didn’t understand. He also says the investigators promised money in exchange for his clients’ signatures.
In its statement to the Business Journal, Dole denied those allegations.
In 2009, Chaney staged hearings to evaluate testimony by 27 secret witnesses who claimed Dominguez and people who worked at his Nicaraguan law firm coached clients to make false claims that they worked on banana farms, forged work certificates and faked lab results. Witnesses claimed that Dominguez and others, including a Nicaraguan judge, met in March 2003 to plan the massive fraud.
Dominguez denies being in Nicaragua that month. Furthermore, he said it’s ridiculous to think he would invest so much time and money to bring fraudulent claims against Dole and its top-flight lawyers. Many of the clients he represented had limited education, making it even more unlikely that he could have been successful in coaching them to lie.
“You think I’m going to take the time to educate someone on how to be a banana worker,” Dominguez said, “and carry that lie out for two-and-a-half days when they are being asked questions by some of the best lawyers in the United States?”
As a result of the fraud allegations, Chaney threw out the second and third suits. She reversed the $2.3 million jury verdict in 2010. She referred him to the State Bar for discipline. She called the feds on him.
Meanwhile, Dominguez’s associate in Nicaragua, Antonio Hernandez Ordenana, continues to fight Dole in courts there. Dominguez said there are currently cases pending against the food giant in Nicaraguan courts.
Looking back, he said he wasn’t served well by a documentary made by Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten. It made him look like a high-powered L.A. wheeler-dealer whose honesty could easily be called into question.
Dominguez met Gertten in Nicaragua and agreed to participate in the film after some hesitation. In “Bananas!,” Dominguez is shown driving his Ferrari down the streets of Los Angeles, listening to Cuban music and smoking cigars.
“I’m not that happy about the way he portrayed me,” Dominguez said. “But it’s fine.”
In 2009, the documentary debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival to much controversy. It was pulled from competition, a letter explaining why the film was not eligible for an award was read before its screening, and a video featuring Dole’s response to the film was shown.
Would Dominguez do it all again? Probably. But differently.
“I’m a fighter,” he said. “The thing is, you learn lessons. You can’t fight Goliath with a David. That doesn’t work.”