Longform

Blackburned

It's ten minutes to five on the afternoon of June 29, 2006, and Mark Brennan can feel the tension coiled inside him like a steel spring, wound to the breaking point. He sits in a nearly deserted courtroom in Denver's Alfred A. Arraj United States Courthouse with his client, Bill Cadorna, waiting for the jury to file in and announce its verdict. Eight grueling days of trial, more than three years of legal battles. It all comes down to the next few moments.

Closing arguments in Cadorna v. City and County of Denver wrapped up a mere three hours ago. It's taken the eight jurors scarcely more time to reach their decision than it did for the attorneys to summarize the case — not always a good sign, but Brennan has reason to anticipate victory. An hour and a half into deliberations, the panel sent a note out to U.S. District Judge Robert E. Blackburn: "May the jury award lawyers' fees?"

Brennan knows the answer to that one; the matter of attorneys' fees is up to the judge. But the question itself seems to bode well for the plaintiff. Brennan doubts that any jury would want to award fees to the government, particularly after hearing the evidence about how city officials treated his client, a 53-year-old former firefighter suing for age discrimination. And yet, and yet — in a trial like this one, almost anything is possible.

Brennan turns to Cadorna and claps him on the shoulder. "Whatever happens," he says, "I'm glad we didn't settle this thing. These have been the most enjoyable two weeks of my entire professional life."

Not many lawyers would regard the Cadorna trial as a career highlight. But Brennan, a 6'3" broad-shouldered Hoosier with a booming baritone voice, isn't like many lawyers. A solo specialist in employment law who seems to thrive on conflict, he relished taking on the collective might of the Denver City Attorney's Office, the Denver Fire Department and the Denver Civil Service Commission — and, in his view, he kicked their collective ass.

He'd held up to scrutiny — and yes, mockery — the city's costly and absurd criminal investigation of Bill Cadorna, a firefighter for more than 25 years. Along the way, he'd provided some unsettling glimpses of the petty spats and vendettas simmering at local firehouses, where some employees apparently spend their downtime bickering over what's for dinner, filing grievances against each other and tossing around homophobic and racial slurs while scheming to banish their elders from the pack.

Cadorna had been fired in 2003 for allegedly stealing a $20 cookbook from a Safeway. The bizarre case against him later fell apart, after one of the key witnesses admitted to lying on the stand. But the city refused to rehire Cadorna, telling him that he was too old to be reinstated.

To Brennan, the demolition of his client's career is a clear case of age discrimination. But getting it to the jury wasn't easy. Over the past eight days, he'd clashed frequently with the defense, including an explosive confrontation in a hallway with an assistant city attorney, whom Brennan called a "fucking weasel." He'd also been scolded repeatedly by Blackburn for breaches of the judge's strict trial protocols, everything from "speechifying" his objections to making faces. The duel with the judge had led to a showdown on the last day of testimony, when Blackburn cut off Brennan's cross-examination of a top city official and then slapped him with a contempt citation. But Brennan could tell that he was making his case with the jury — and that, he figured, was all that really mattered.

"They gave you the ultimate power to decide," he told the jury in his closing just a few hours earlier. "Otherwise there is no possibility of justice, so long as those who have all the wealth and power at their disposal have the only say on what is lawful and proper."

Now the jury gets to have its say. Brennan and Cadorna stand as the five men and three women enter the courtroom. The bailiff collects the verdict forms and hands them to Judge Blackburn, who reads them aloud. The plaintiff has prevailed on all counts; the city is guilty of age discrimination in its decision to fire Cadorna and in its refusal to rehire him. The jurors award him $610,571 in back pay and compensatory damages, a figure the judge is obliged to double because they also find the discrimination to be "willful." Add to that Brennan's legal fees, and the Hickenlooper administration is looking at an award in excess of $1.5 million, one of the largest judgments ever entered against the City of Denver.

Cadorna recalls the moment as one of the most electric of his life. "I thought, 'At last I'm vindicated,'" he says. "These eight people saw through the lies and bullshit."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast