Suder is the legal warrior in 2 lurid sex-abuse cases

January 12, 1994|By Jonathan Bor and Mike Klingaman | Jonathan Bor and Mike Klingaman,Staff Writers

She represents plaintiffs in two of the most lurid sex-abuse cases to hit Baltimore in years -- those of a famous doctor accused of luring patients into bed and a former teacher charged with terrorizing boys and girls into sex.

The cases against Dr. Neil Solomon and John Joseph Merzbacher have given attorney Joanne Suder an unmistakable image: that of a crusader for the rights of ordinary people who feel exploited by people they thought they could trust.

Many in the legal community see Ms. Suder as someone on a legal roll.

"She is a very caring person who identifies very strongly with her clients, almost to the point where she doesn't see the other side of an issue," said a lawyer who has opposed her many times in court.

"Once you get these cases, the floodgates open. It feeds on itself," said the lawyer, who asked not to be identified.

Although her work had generated headlines before, nothing in her career had generated the attention drawn by the Solomon case. Three women, all represented by Ms. Suder, filed lawsuits last summer charging that Dr. Solomon lured them into sexual relationships that have poisoned their lives ever since.

The women's suits, seeking damages of $140 million, have whipped up a storm. Solomon was a former state health secretary, a friend to four governors, a nationally syndicated health columnist, the author of several diet books.

In October, a state licensing board took his license and forced him to promise never to seek reinstatement.

That month, emboldened by those who had stepped forward in the Solomon case, a woman approached Ms. Suder with her accusation that Mr. Merzbacher had sexually assaulted her at gunpoint while he was her teacher at Catholic Community Middle School in Locust Point. Ms. Suder contacted the state's attorney's office -- and, last Thursday, Mr. Merzbacher, 52, was jailed on an 86-count indictment charging him with sex crimes against 10 students at the school two decades ago.

Ms. Suder has filed $350 million in lawsuits on behalf of five former students against the Archdiocese of Baltimore. She estimates that 40 former students have approached her with similar allegations against Mr. Merzbacher. While acknowledging the publicity over the Solomon and Merzbacher cases, Ms. Suder says she hasn't done anything recently that she hasn't done before. In 16 years of practice, she has represented brain-damaged babies, neglected nursing home patients, breast cancer patients and parents who have lost their children to medical mistakes.

"I think I have always been involved in serious cases," said Ms. Suder. "It just happens that some of the cases I've been into are things that interest the media, such as sex abuse." Ms. Suder, who reluctantly agreed to an interview yesterday, doesn't downplay the gravity of the Solomon and Merzbacher cases but insists that other cases interest her equally. Currently, she and her husband, Robert, are representing several women who may die of breast cancer because their doctors allegedly misread their mammograms. She was reared in Treasure Island, Fla., and educated in Catholic schools. Of six siblings, all but one are lawyers.

While in high school, she volunteered as a candy-striper in a nursing home. There, a former journalist lay paralyzed, unable to speak or move anything but a hand. "No one came to see him and everyone talked about him like he wasn't there," she said. "I sensed that, although he was paralyzed, he was very much aware of everything going on around him. I remember spending a lot of time one day with him and trying to communicate with him."

Searching for clues about the man who had been so coldly dismissed, she read through his records. She discovered he had had a fascinating career with the Wall Street Journal. She fed him, talked to him, and developed a way of communicating in which he could register responses by squeezing her hand. When she returned to school that fall, she knew she might never see him again.

"I left this big note on his bed about everything he liked and needed. He died around Christmas."

The Suders were married right after she graduated from high school. The two attended the University of Baltimore law school, "Bob" graduating a few years ahead of his wife. While in law school, she was already pregnant with their first child and went into labor during a constitutional law exam. She finished the exam, then had the baby in the hospital. Brian is now 17. The Suders' second child, Jennalee, is 9.

After spending a few years with the public defender's office, Ms. Suder joined her husband in full-time private practice. She says they also represent accident victims, lawyers accused of malpractice and people who believe they have been defamed.

In a pending case, she has charged disc jockeys Don Geronimo and Mike O'Meara of WJFK-AM/FM -- the radio team, "Don and Mike" -- of invading a woman's privacy by "outing" her on the air as a lesbian.

The plaintiff, a promotions director with a competing radio station, said she did not feel comfortable bringing the matter to a public forum until, on another lawyer's recommendation, she met with Ms. Suder.

"My decision to go through with the lawsuit had a lot to do with her," Dawn Tritaik said. Said Baltimore Circuit Judge John Themelis, who knew Ms. Suder in law school: "She is a very intelligent and pleasant person who happens to be an extraordinarily brilliant trial lawyer."

In the malpractice arena, lawyers describe her as a tough but careful litigator. "She is very easily in the top 10 [malpractice attorneys] in the city," said Walter Tabler, the former director of the state Office of Health Claims Arbitration, which hears all malpractice cases in Maryland.

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