STORY BY: BUENA VISTA UNIVERSITY
In David vs. Goliath style, BVU alum Brad Schroeder stands up for what is right against a city municipality… and wins.
Brad Schroeder, Class of 1994, has a relaxed manner that reflects his roots growing up on the family farm near Remsen and is an interesting contrast with the fact he’s a practicing lawyer with an unprecedented win in a class-action lawsuit against the City of Des Moines for charging an unlawful utility franchise tax to MidAmerican Energy customers.
As a lawyer who believes in putting himself in the shoes of others and who strives to help others whenever he can, it’s not surprising to hear his philosophy behind his law firm. “We strive to serve clients as we would want to be served – honestly and aggressively,” said Brad. “It’s a variation of The Golden Rule, but it also adequately captures how we as lawyers should value our relationship with our clients.”
If a client cannot find someone to represent her in a case like this, then who will speak up?
In 2004, a Des Moines resident approached Brad regarding a questionable city fee on her MidAmerican Energy utility bill. Brad pursued the case, filing the initial suit against the City of Des Moines in July 2004, which eventually became a class-action lawsuit that would stretch over nine years and include two appeals by the city to the Iowa Supreme Court, and one appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which were all denied. Eventually, the City of Des Moines was ordered by the court to refund just under $40 million to those who paid the fee, and the distribution of refunds are still being determined by an outside claims administrator.
According to Brad, this was a very unusual case. “Few class-action lawsuits ever go to trial, as most get settled at some point, so there is very little case law about them. There are some judges who serve their entire time on the bench and never preside over a class-action suit.”
It truly was unusual for Brad, as he was new to litigating class-action lawsuits and had to weigh numerous aspects before agreeing to take the case. “This definitely fit the category of ‘out of the ordinary’ for me,” said Brad. “I had to really think about if I could get a good result for my client. I knew I would have to hire experts, which gets expensive very quickly. I hadn’t taken a case like this before, so I reached out to a couple of other attorneys who had class-action lawsuit experience, especially with municipalities, to have them involved with the case and to share litigation costs. Teaming up is often the only way to make these larger cases happen.”
According to Brad, partnering with other lawyers on a lawsuit is often done on a case-by-case basis, and is often determined by the size of the litigation involved. “Sometimes it’s a better fit to have more lawyers involved, sharing expenses and sharing workload. I couldn’t have handled this case just by myself, especially during trial times and depositions.”
When the city was given an opportunity to prove their costs in managing the right of way for the utility company, Brad had to hire his own experts to refute the city’s experts, including economists, city financial people, and arborists to testify during a three-week trial. That added to the growing financial costs, but it also added to the growing hours invested in the case by everyone involved. Doing what is right helped keep Brad going as things continued to stretch on. “There were some long days, but you have to latch on to the idea that what is right is right. There are people who are willing to stand up and processes in place to hold city organizations accountable.”
Having a passion for helping others and ensuring clients have the right to legal counsel, it was important to Brad that the plaintiff had access to an attorney who would take her case. “If a client cannot find someone to represent her in a case like this, then who will speak up?” said Brad. “Most people would be in a small claims suit and never get past the front door. With this type of case, if you can’t aggregate the suit, you can’t do it. Class-action sometimes is the only way to right certain wrongs.”
By stepping up to take on a city municipality, Brad felt a little like David versus Goliath, but he felt a duty and responsibility to do his best to ensure his client’s voice was heard. “There is a sense of security for someone like the city, knowing they have a lot of resources at their disposal. They often make things like this go away and exert influence with legislature,” said Brad. “Often, you think you can’t fight city hall. It’s difficult to win, but it’s important that when someone is right in challenging the actions of a municipality or a government entity, that there is an avenue for them to stand up and say, ‘this isn’t right’ and be vindicated. It’s a pretty important part of our process in the U.S. and in many places that just wouldn’t happen.”
Brad credits his time at BVU for preparing him to handle the nine-year class-action case. “In my experience, hard work has always been part of BVU’s identity. The work ethic I picked up at BV definitely came into play during the case. During my time as a student, it was reinforced to work hard, be diligent, and do the right things, and that has worked for me in my career.”
Brad started out at Buena Vista University as a math major, but he became an English major after he really enjoyed a dynamic literature class. An English degree had Brad thinking about his career options, which, for him, led to becoming a lawyer. “It was always in the back of my mind, and there are a lot of things you can do with that profession, so I went for it.”
He attended law school at the University of Iowa, graduating with his Juris Doctorate in 1997. “I found that a liberal arts education was so helpful to the law school experience. It gave me exposure to a lot of different subject matters, and my experience at BVU left me well-prepared for law school.”
After graduating from the University of Iowa, Brad became an associate lawyer at Crawford Law Firm in Des Moines, where he was previously a clerk. During that time, Jerry Crawford was the sole proprietor of the firm, and Brad began to think about starting his own practice, which he did in 2001.
In the spring of 2003, J.D. Hartung, a fellow associate lawyer at Crawford who also left to start his own practice, found office space in the historic Equitable Building in downtown Des Moines and called Brad. They had previously talked about starting a practice together, so Hartung & Schroeder, LLP was formed. By September 2013, the firm had to move to a larger location in the Homestead Building as their practice had grown to include four lawyers and three staff members. Their law firm represents clients in a wide variety of areas, including family law, personal injury cases, business litigation, contract litigation, and some criminal defense work.
“I started out with no clients in 2001, taking it on faith that it would work out. I began to spread the word and do right by people, do good things, and discovered that it does come back to you,” said Brad.
After the recent class-action case, Brad has seen an increase in class-action suits and consumer protection cases coming in their door. “I’ve gotten the reputation of someone who will take on a challenge, but we’re being selective in taking class-action suits,” said Brad. “The best cases are the ones where I have the opportunity to do a good job for someone, and it makes sense for me and for the client. I have to find the balance of what can I do, and yet still keep the doors open.”
With his class-action lawsuit experience, lawyers with litigation in other states have contacted Brad to be their local counsel when they need a lawyer on the ground in Iowa to handle certain matters. “Since it is so rare for a class-action case to make it to trial, other lawyers are always looking for someone who has that experience to work with. I’m glad I can help and share what I have learned,” said Brad.
Brad makes an effort to balance his work with time for his family. He lives in Pleasant Hill with his wife Tammie, a financial advisor with Edward Jones, their son Luke who is 12, and twin girls Lauren and Samantha who are nine.
He also still finds time to be active at BVU. “I’ve been involved with the President’s Advisory Council for a couple of years. It’s a great way to stay plugged in to what’s going on around the campus,” said Brad. “I always try to attend as many alumni events as I can and encourage other people to attend.”