By Janet L. Conley
aura L. Ruth ['97] is a lot like Erin Brockovich - except she has a law degree and a wardrobe that leans more towards blue jeans than bustiers.
Like Brockovich, made famous by a movie of the same name starring Julia Roberts, Ruth 30, launched her professional career by becoming a sort of environmental investigator and crusader.
She's spent that last three years living out of a suitcase in Anniston, Ala, sitting on front porches in a poor, African-American neighborhood and listening to the life stories of residents who've seen their land devalued or their health injured by PCB's, chemicals said to cause cancer hypertension and developmental defects. PCBs were produced by a Monsanto Co. plant, less than a quarter of a mile away, for nearly 40 years.
Her face-to-face interviews and local research helped build a case that alleged Monsanto was responsible for environmental contamination.
Ruth works for Austin-based Mithoff & Jacks, one of the firms that handled the plaintiffs' case. The chemical company never admitted liability, but settled that case for $40 million in April.
For Ruth, the suit has been more about relationships than the law. As the primary client contact for 1,596 plaintiffs, Ruth says she's met all but five or six; they live out of state. She's met their relatives, eaten dinner with them and stopped to chat when they waved down her rental car on Anniston's roads. She's so close to one older woman that she refers to her as "my heart."
Ruth built relationships by spending a lot of time on site. She's spent more days living in Anniston's roadside motels than in her Texas apartment, she says. Her two cats, she added know her neighbor better than they know her. She hasn't had a date in months. "There's no such thing as weekends off," she says. "You want to date me? I'll back in two weeks."
For Ruth, a northeasterner with barely a hint of her New Jersey accent, integrating herself into a town in the Deep South was surprisingly smooth. She gained entry thanks to two longtime residents, neighborhood matriarchs who were also plaintiffs.
Also, Ruth says, "I was not afraid to be in somebody's house. It was a joke among the clients, that I know the neighborhood better than they do."
There's less and less neighborhood to know these days. Houses in the Sweet Valley-Cobb Town area have been bought and bulldozed by Monsanto. In another area, Lincoln Park, residents soon will be given the chance to sell out and move. The neighborhood, she says, was a real, front-porch community where the average resident had lived for 21 years.
Living Out of a Suitcase Becomes Second Nature
he sees its loss as a tragedy because if what it means to clients, such as the one she refers to as her heart, a woman named Ruth Mims.
Mims grew up in a house where five generations of her family lived. "When she's living in that house, she knows everyone around her," Ruth says. "It's almost like you don't need to go into a nursing home because the first day you're not sitting on your porch, the community's in there to check on you. All that is gone."
Despite her knowledge of clients' personal histories and the friendships she's built, there are some borders Ruth hasn't crossed. For all the visiting she does in Anniston, she rarely enters people's houses, she says. Instead, she's welcomed on the front porch.
"To be honest with you, some people are really proud, and they don't want you to see their home," she says, explaining that some worry that their houses won't meet what they perceive to be her standards.
Even at the home of a client she knows well, Ruth says she's seen plaintiffs come into her Anniston office when they think she is not there and joke with her office workers, women who've lived in the area for years. When Ruth appeared, she says, they'll get quiet, almost as if they're unnerved by her.
"It's hard," she says. "Is it because I'm white? Is it because I'm a lawyer? Is it because they've never met me?…It's probably a combination of all three."
The nuances and difficulties of a plaintiffs lawyer's role weren't new to Ruth.
She chose her path in the law after reading "A Civil Action" while working her way through law school at Catholic University in Washington.
She'd clerked at Bracewell & Patterson and Winston & Strawn, doing defense-side assessments of the environmental components of various transactions. She says she loved the work but felt it lacked social utility.
After graduation in 1997, she tapped her connections and was hired by Mithoff & Jacks when the firm took the Owen vs Monsanto case. She says when partner Tommy Jacks hired her, he told her she'd be spending lots of time in Anniston, and said, " 'We'll talk to you in a couple of years, when we get ready for trial.' "
It meant long hours and little glamour.
Ruth began by setting up a small windowless office in Anniston - about 500 square feet on the fifth floor of the SouthTrust Bank building.
She did everything from locating plaintiffs so they could sign retainer agreements - her firm had inherited the case from another set of lawyers - to writing the first draft of a script for a video tape designed to explaining settlement negotiations to clients.
She spent two summer months in 1998, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, in the non-air-conditioned ballroom of a local Ramada Inn conducting client health surveys. "We went to Wal-Mart and bought out their fans," she recalls.
Even with three or four weeks of vacation, Ruth says she easily worked the equivalent of 2,200 to 2,300 billable hours a year.
"It was always 14 hours a day, and you never knew when the sun went up or when the sun went down because there were no windows," she says. "Essentially, my job in the early stages was to just know everything. …I love it…I'm single, I don't have any kids and I'm a workaholic."
Although the case has settled, there's still plenty for Ruth to do in Anniston.
As soon as the settlement was announced, she says, the office phone line was so jammed with client calls that a cell phone had to be sent by overnight mail to handle the overflow.
She and her assistants are meeting with clients now, distributing handouts that explain individuals' shares in the settlement, potential land sales to Monsanto and trusts for minor plaintiffs.
Her favorite part of the post-settlement process? Handing out checks.
Notes Ruth, "I get to be Robin Hood."