Breaking the Waves
Thursday, February 24, 2011
By NANCY WRIDE
Mayra Fornos had big dreams, and they’d all come true by age 24. Newly married to a handsome USC student, Fornos lived across the street from the sands of Manhattan Beach, he a surfer bound for law school, she the tall and stunning fashionista. The future seemed set: He would become a lawyer; she would launch a career in apparel marketing. She was already one of three top models in Los Angeles that shaped Guess and other brands in the $2 billion jeans industry. She’d already been a Rams Cheerleader.
Then, it all cratered, with the break of a wave.
On that day in 1979, six months before graduating USC, Ralph Fornos walked into the waves with his board, and had to be carried out. Perhaps a wall of water slammed him to the ocean floor, or he hit a sandbar. He floated to the surface alive, but unmoving, a quadriplegic.
In the years that followed, her husband’s life in a wheelchair drastically changed hers. “After my husband was injured, he said ‘that’s it. We have to change the world,’ ” Fornos recalls proudly. It started with Fornos turning the pages of his law books. Immersing herself to help him with classes at University of West Los Angeles School of Law, Fornos decided to become a lawyer herself, and practiced with her husband until his death in 2002.
She views the Americans with Disabilities Act as the greatest civil rights law passed since the Civil Rights Act itself.
Today, it’s fair to say that Mayra Fornos is the only lawyer in Southern California whose entire workforce is either paraplegic or quadriplegic. She is one of the best-known Los Angeles attorneys specializing in Americans with Disabilities Act claims, and a widely respected advocate for the profoundly injured.
Working tirelessly both in and out of court, she has changed access policies, she has changed bicycle safety routes, she has changed hospital protocols. Friends say she never focuses on the money, but the cause. She has helped found two charities for the disabled.
She has done it, say her colleagues, with an approach that is blissfully ego free in a profession that typically is not. Steve Heimberg, a Los Angeles medical malpractice attorney and physician who works frequently with Fornos, put it this way: “She has fairy dust.”
And a firm resolve. When defense firms see Fornos is on the case, Heimberg said, they bring in their biggest guns for the battle. Even those who have jousted with Fornos in court respect her – and her devotion to the rights of the disabled.
“She’s an excellent lawyer, but even more impressive than her legal skills is her passion for the ADA and her pursuit to preserve the true intent behind the ADA,” said Kathleen Hunt, a Los Angeles lawyer who has sat opposite from Fornos.
Fornos isn’t after technical violations, added Hunt. “Her concern is to really make people aware that those with physical disabilities can and should have access and equal enjoyment to properties, places, just like anyone else.”
That devotion carries into her Century City office with the team she has assembled. Three of her associates are paraplegic. Two are quadriplegics. That they are impressive goes without saying – but their manner says something about Fornos, as well.
Across the street from Fornos’ Century City practice, she and associate attorney Mark Willits, 29, of Woodland Hills, talked about how he was paralyzed from the lower neck down. He breathed through a ventilator as an assistant fed him.
He had just turned 16, and was helping unload a semi-trailer on his family’s small town Iowa farm, 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans and a 100-cow herd. A bunch of wood fell on top of him, causing catastrophic C2 and C3 injury.
“Think about it: he can’t breathe on his own but since his injury, he has graduated UCLA law school, he has gotten married, he holds a job and he’s bought a house,” Fornos said. “What people can do if given a chance – there it is.”
Willits would not minimize the staggering degree of mental trauma one lives through with this kind of tragedy. But neither does he dwell, allotting just a couple of sentences to define his fate.
“I wanted to die. But I eventually realized that I had to move on with life, and I had a very strong family to support me,” he said. Earning his law degree and passing the California bar were big turning points. His role is to recruit clients who seem in need of legal or life help, and to screen the cases for the firm. “Mayra is empathetic and passionate about helping people,” Willits said simply.
Each of her half dozen workers is devoid of self-pity, willing to share how they came to be permanently injured, well moved-on from the dark days of wanting to die or hide from the weight of their own thoughts about the future.
Brianna Walker of Anaheim was a former dancer and legal secretary when she crashed her car in a sleep-deprived state and was paralyzed. Her life in a wheelchair is as full as it ever was – she practices law with Fornos and, along with Willits, helps run the charities Ralph and Mayra established.
Walker and her co-workers share a matter-of-fact confidence about their capabilities and no self-doubt about their standing at the firm. There, Fornos and her team have represented cases of malpractice and discrimination and won damages and access for the disabled into places where barriers once stood – schools, amusement parks, workplaces, public spaces.
But the case she’s really arguing is the rights of her clients to have a life.
It sounds so simple, and yet it never is, and nobody knows this better than Fornos, part of why she is so effective in cases she fights herself and those she works on with other lawyers, some at big firms with the resources to power the lengthier battles. She has teamed with some of the top personal injury and medical malpractice lawyers in Los Angeles, among them longtime CAOC leaders Bruce Broillet and Heimberg.
“Her own view of what is important and which of her cases are the biggest is different than a lot of attorneys,” Heimberg said. “They are not the money cases they’re the cause cases – and virtually every case of hers that I am aware of is a cause case.” In the hard-knock legal world, Fornos operates “on the goodness method.”
“I think she is quite unique in the country,” said Heimberg – and he isn’t just talking about her team of lawyers in wheelchairs.
During her years of marriage, Fornos became well aware of what it actually means for a wheelchair-bound person to not be able to use a public restroom. It is not just the indignity or potential humiliation – it’s a potential health hazard. Robbed of a place to relieve themselves, they can experience extreme high blood pressure and a risk in some cases of dying.
In her first semester at law school, Fornos took a course in constitutional law from a professor that would become the most influential person in her professional life: the late California Appellate Justice Bernard Jefferson. He was also president of the law school.
Jefferson, who authored the California Evidence Benchbook, took Ralph Fornos under his wing – and the university did likewise, making its campus more accessible to he and other disabled students. Fornos was inspired to apply her experience as the wife of a quadriplegic living a full life.
“It was perfect timing and meant to be,” said Fornos. “The ADA passed in 1990, and went into effect in 1992. We passed the bar in 1993. We were maybe among the first lawyers to really focus on it.”
In those days, people who worked with the couple said their palpable romance and connection was evidence of what life could be for the wheelchair-bound.
“I met Mayra and her late husband many years ago. I think it was at a disabilities expo, and they were shopping for new vans and wheelchairs,” said Tommy Hollenstein, 49, an advocate and former client of Fornos. She won a discrimination case on his behalf. He is now an artist beloved in the disabled community. Hollenstein can’t use his hands, instead drizzling paint as his electronic wheelchair moves on canvas. He then rides through with his wheels to complete the picture. He became a minor celebrity for doing this with his dying guide dog, whose paw prints cut a path through the paint alongside his wheels.
Hollenstein was 24 when he rode his mountain bike off a dirt hill in a San Fernando Valley accident in 1985 and landed in a trench. He does a lot of volunteer work today in one of two charities Fornos founded or helped create. Ralph’s Riders, named after Fornos’ husband, is a support group where the disabled can learn everything from resources and product information to how to go on a first date in a wheelchair.
“They were an amazing couple,” Hollenstein said of Mayra and Ralph. “They clearly loved each other.”
In disability parlance, it’s called “not seeing the chair.”
Her personal experiences quite obviously color everything Fornos does in the courtroom and in her law practice. It is difficult to include all that Fornos involves herself with, the scope of her impact, because it is widely recognized as ridiculously surpassing the law. While she’s known in the legal world for her disability rights work, Fornos sees herself more broadly. On top of winning settlements and justice for her clients, she seeks help and support for them.
“I want to be helping the whole person, from the time they are injured to getting them resources and support,” Fornos said.
She would be the first to point out that there are attorneys out there filing bogus claims about disability discrimination that are out for the money, and she is particularly sensitive to the small business person’s frequent complaint that they can be shaken down for minor technical violations of the complex law. She is, after all, a small business owner herself with a small staff of six.
Said opposing counsel Hunt, “she’s really for the cause more than just a quick settlement.”
Fornos said she couldn’t help but be changed by her husband’s accident and her life with him as a quadriplegic. “Yes, you can win people a lot of money, but now what? You have to help people with that. I wake up every morning with the joy of that. Asking, how can I get them to change their mind today, and see this differently, at a job or a government office? Had I not gone through the pain, really, I’d just be a lawyer.”
Nancy Wride is a journalist and local editor reporting news for the Long Beach website, Belmontshore.patch.com
All photos: Lori Shepler
Tags: Americans with Disabilities Act, civil justice system, health care reform, Law school;
Category: Special Reports;