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STRENGTH for Victims

Tom Cifarelli Uses More than 20 years of Experience, Compassion, and Sheer Grit to Stand Strong and See Justice Served for Victims of Sexual Abuse and Catastrophic Personal Injuries

Over the last twenty years, Orange County native Thomas A. Cifarelli has built a plaintiff’s personal injury law firm that is unique not only in the astounding number of victories won for victims, but is also unique in its caseload. With a practice that is nearly evenly split between representing victims of catastrophic personal injuries, and victims of sexual abuse, Cifarelli’s advocacy for children in particular has resulted in published decisions including the precedent-setting invasion of privacy case M.G. et al vs. Time Warner, Inc. et al, 89 Cal. App. 4th 623 (2001) where he took on one of the largest media companies in the world and won a landmark invasion of privacy published decision on behalf of child sexual abuse victims.
“We succeed for our clients by providing strength when our clients need it through zealous, tireless and exhaustive representation,” Cifarelli says. “We will leave no stone unturned to find the evidence and argument to win a client’s case.” With three fellow attorneys, including his brother and partner Phillip Cifarelli, and a talented and reliable support team, Cifarelli has helmed his own firm since 1997, but has been passionate about fighting for victims since he was a child.

No Substitute for Experience
“My dad was a doctor and a lawyer and suggested I become a professional: doctor, lawyer, or military. I chose the law because I had a very early desire to do what I thought lawyers did: argue for the underdog,” Cifarelli says.
After graduating from UCLA magna cum laude, and earning his J.D. from Loyola Law School, Cifarelli is candid when he says he began his legal career in much the same way most young lawyers launch into their new profession. “I had a powerful drive to get to the bottom of cases. I worked hard, as an associate at two fine Los Angeles plaintiff’s law firms.”
While working at the Law Offices of Philip Michels— whom Cifarelli credits with being a lifelong mentor—the now nationally recognized sexual abuse victim’s advocate would first be introduced to sexual abuse cases. “Phil was doing a lot of medical malpractice cases at the time, and asked me to take a look at a new file that was a little different. It had a couple pieces of paper in it. It was so thin. He said he wanted me to look into it. I opened it. There were handwritten police reports which had much of the information redacted. I realized it was a sexual assault case. But it was a child-on-child sexual assault case. There were two separate police reports of the same type of assault.”
That was in 1995, and Cifarelli had no idea at the time that he was going to be thrust into the media spotlight for that case and others. He just knew that he wanted to fight for victims. “When I took my first sexual assault case in 1995, very few people were handling child sexual abuse cases and those who were often didn’t appear to know how to evaluate them, sometimes settling them for less than I would have. Although they are not cases with a lot of medical bills upon which to base the claim, they have devastating consequences that last a lifetime,” he says.

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This very first sexual assault case, VC v. Los Angeles Unified School District, involved a 1994 incident where “an extremely dangerous elementary student repeatedly sexually assaulted a 9-year-old boy, who I was honored to represent,” Cifarelli says. He and Michels took that case to trial and won a seven-figure verdict that was at the time the largest student-on-student sexual abuse jury verdict in Los Angeles.
Although Cifarelli saw his proverbial star rise following the verdict, the real reward came from seeing the victim who “suffered tremendously, but got the treatment needed to move forward and live a productive life. The victim went from a timid child to a vindicated adult. The lawsuit provided the victim with a voice,” Cifarelli says. That lawsuit also helped Cifarelli become the go-to sexual abuse victim’s attorney in Southern California, as he found an increasing passion for these specific types of cases.

Compassionate Core
“Victims of sexual abuse face life-long pain and torment and often suffer in silence. They suffer horrible injuries but the injuries may be invisible. There is also shame that often doesn’t go away. Many victims of sexual assault go on to engage in self-destructive behaviors, such as drug abuse. Suicide is also not uncommon, along with depression, and often PTSD. That’s why getting our clients into therapy as fast as possible is very important for their long-term health and wellness.” Unfortunately, he admits there are a whole lot of young victims of sexual abuse who are not getting the therapy and treatment they need.

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In fact, incidences of sexual assault on school campuses are frankly staggering. Cifarelli cites a 2004 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education which found that 10% of students will experience some form of sexual assault or harassment between the grades of K-12. “That’s hundreds of thousands of kids, just in the schools. Then there are the church cases, or sports teams. Parents turn their children over to people they think they can trust and then the worst sometimes happens. I hear terrible stories every day. These children have been abused and my job is to fix it, to give the victim vindication, and to put the institution that failed the child on trial. When, for example, other teachers are complaining of the bizarre behavior of a particular teacher, and the school refuses to acknowledge it or take action to stop it, how dare they say they are not responsible, not negligent?”
“The damage from abuse can be devastating, life-long and can impact an entire family. Many times our first task is to get them into suitable counseling right away, often working with certain state agencies aimed at providing victims of abuse with counseling and medical services. If they don’t have transportation to get to their counseling appointments, we’ll arrange it to make sure they are getting the care they need. If a client needs to get out of a bad environment, we’ll help get them into a better situation that will help them with their recovery. Victims have a tendency to want to repress their abuse, hoping the pain will go away. It never does. In fact, without prompt and effective treatment victims may have enormous problems coping with their abuse for their entire lives,” Cifarelli explains.

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A clear example of how sexual abuse victims suffer even years after the abuse can be seen in Cifarelli’s published decision M.G. et al vs. Time Warner, Inc. et al, 89 Cal. App. 4th 623 (2001). According to the decision, ten plaintiffs, including eight children and two adults, claimed that they were publicly identified without consent in a picture published in a magazine article and a television show about coaches who sexually molest their players. The plaintiffs stated that after the stories came out they were teased and harassed at school. The decision came down to who wins when free speech rights collide with privacy rights.
The defendants were represented by Harvard Professor Lawrence H. Tribe and a huge national law firm. Cifarelli won a unanimous published decision, establishing the right of his clients to be free from nonconsensual public identification in connection with the sensitive subject matter of child sexual abuse.
Cifarelli recalls that most attorneys he talked with at the time cautioned him against taking on a First Amendment case against a corporate media giant, but he trusted his gut. To this day, Cifarelli smiles anytime a news program obscures the image of an underage victim of sexual abuse or one otherwise involved in a newsworthy story. “It’s the law,” he says simply.
When it comes to helping victims of sexual abuse, Cifarelli is determined to do whatever he can, using his unique experience to help those who need it most. As such, he is happy to help fellow attorneys who find themselves in over their heads with a sexual abuse case. “Not long ago while representing two children who were victimized by a pedophile school teacher, I received a phone call from a seasoned lawyer who represented another victim of the same teacher in his own case, which he had filed in a different court house. He picked my brain about the case. We had a friendly conversation and then I didn’t hear from him for a while, but heard through the grapevine that he’d settled his case pending court approval.”
In the meantime, Cifarelli had won a favorable and widely publicized result for his own clients who had been victimized by the same teacher. “The same lawyer heard about my result and called, asking me to unwind his settlement and take it to trial. I took it over, aggressively litigated it and eventually won a recovery for the client about five times larger than the first lawyer’s settlement. That lawyer was thrilled and, of course, so was the client. We don’t accept a lot of cases, so that we can really concentrate on those we do take to win the best possible result,” he explains.
More than twenty years after taking his very first sexual assault case, Cifarelli has handled hundreds of sexual abuse cases, where the overwhelming majority of the victims are children. Cifarelli says, “I’ve handled cases against religious organizations, public and private schools, youth sports leagues, hospitals, Foster Agencies, Children and Family Services offices and private individuals.” All the while, The Cifarelli Law Firm is also handling ongoing catastrophic personal injury cases and wrongful death cases. “These involve car accidents, store-front crashes, electrocution incidents, people harmed by defective products and medical malpractice cases as well as cases involving defective medical products or devices,” he says.

Sheer Grit
In discussing some of the horrifying injuries and instances of abuse he’s seen over the years, it is undeniable that Cifarelli is moved by the suffering his clients have experienced. However, he’s very clear that it is his job to remain calm and comforting when working with victims who have already experienced so much trauma. To that end he says that a daily exercise regimen and close contact with his large Italian family, along with collaboration with fellow attorneys, are cornerstones in ensuring he remains mentally and emotionally strong for his clients. “I like tennis, running and working out. I lift weights on a daily basis starting at 5:30 am. I don’t lift the really heavy stuff I used to, now it’s about fitness and stamina. My early morning workouts keep me focused, fit and energized, so a long day at work is a breeze, physically. Being physically fit increases mental focus and gives me the strength to work tirelessly for my clients.”
The focus on his own health and wellbeing is indisputably one of the reasons Cifarelli has been able to publish articles, deliver speeches and represent plaintiffs in cases all over the state, including as part of the landmark $660 million Clergy sexual abuse settlement in Los Angeles, as well as serving as a member of Plaintiffs’ Steering and Discovery Committees in national medical device litigation.
Over the years he’s amassed numerous awards and legal distinctions, including becoming one of the youngest attorneys to earn an AV-Preeminent Rating from Martindale Hubbell, which he received after only 8 years in practice. “Very early on in my career I was fortunate to work with a prominent plaintiff’s firm where I was given enormous responsibilities over huge cases. I was working with great lawyers, running big cases, taking hundreds of depositions per year all over the country, trying and arbitrating cases and I was constantly in court. So I was able to learn more in three years than most lawyers learn in twenty,” Cifarelli says. He’s been named one of the Top 500 Plaintiff Attorneys in America by Lawdragon Magazine, and a Southern California Super Lawyer® each and every year since the inaugural list was published in 2004. Since 1999, he’s been a life member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum. He has also been selected as one of the Top 100 Trial Lawyers in California by The American Trial Lawyers Association and recently won the 2015 Litigator Award from the Trial Lawyers Board of Regents.
Cifarelli also spends a great deal of time with his own sons. “If I’m not at one of their sporting events, then we are always working out together, playing tennis, traveling or catching a game at the Rose Bowl or Pauley Pavilion. We’re big UCLA fans,” Cifarelli says with a smile. “I’m hoping one or both of them join me in the practice one day.”
In the meantime, he does get to spend his work days alongside his own brother, Philip in the firm. “He’s a very good lawyer and a trusted partner and confidante. I’ve been fortunate to work with him for the last 19 years. My sisters and their families also live nearby, and our extended family is close,” he adds.
As for the future, Cifarelli has no plans to stray from his current course of representation for victims of sexual abuse, and those who have suffered catastrophic injuries as the result of the wrongdoing or negligence of others. However, he does expect The Cifarelli Law Firm to continue to grow. “I represent clients all over California, sometimes in other states, and that will continue. We have a great team and dedicated support staff; everyone really cares about helping our clients and getting them the best possible results. We’re a boutique firm where the whole office pulls together to win cases.”
Moreover, Cifarelli is quick to point out that his firm routinely works with certain trusted fellow attorneys, and that alliances are critical to his professional success, which is contingent upon the favorable outcomes, vindication, medical treatment, counseling, and winning the monetary compensation his clients deserve.
“We are fortunate to have close friendships with some great lawyers with whom we enjoy collaborating, especially when we represent multiple clients in important cases. They’ll bring us in to some of their bigger cases. And when we have multiple clients in one case, sometimes it makes sense for us to call in separate counsel for certain clients. Bringing other great lawyers aboard can help make sure each client’s claim is appropriately addressed while also adding strong allies to a case, giving a new and helpful perspective. This team approach is a very effective way to make sure we are giving our clients the best possible representation.”

27» EDUCATION

  • BA, Magna Cum Laude, UCLA (1989)
  • JD, Loyola Law School Los Angeles (1992)

» AWARDS AND ASSOCIATIONS

  • Admitted, Supreme Court of the United States, (2001)
  • Admitted, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, (1994)
  • Lifetime Sustaining Member, Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles
  • Member, Consumer Attorneys Association of California
  • Member, American Association of Justice
  • Member, Los Angeles County Bar Association
  • Board Member, Consumer Attorneys Association of California (2000-2001)
  • 2015 Litigator Award recipient, Trial Lawyers Board of Regents
  • Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers in America, U.S. News & World Report, (2015)
  • Best Lawyers in America, U.S. News & World Report, (2011-2016)
  • Southern California Super Lawyers, (2004-2016)
  • Orange County Top 50 Super Lawyers
  • National Trial Lawyers, Top 100 Trial Lawyers in California
  • AV Preeminent Rating since 2001, Martindale-Hubbell
  • Top 500 Plaintiff Lawyers in America, LawDragon
  • Avvo 10.0 Superb Rating


Contact

Thomas Cifarelli
The Cifarelli Law Firm, LLP
7700 Irvine Center Drive
Suite 150
Irvine, CA 92618
949-356-0126
tomc@cifarellilaw.com
www.cifarellilaw.com

Jennifer Hadley

Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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