Time tested: Noted area litigator steadfast in belief of 'do the right thing'

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Photos by Tom Kirvan

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Over the past few months, as time has permitted one of Detroit’s premier business litigators, Clarence “Rocky” Pozza has been sifting through a treasure trove of memories collected over the course of a storied 42-year career in the law at Miller Canfield.

Later this month, Pozza will retire from the Detroit-based firm that he formerly served as managing director for 10 years, taking with him a time-honored saying that he has embraced throughout his life.

“It’s never the right time to do the wrong thing and never the wrong time to do the right thing.”

One case in particular illustrated that fact for Pozza, who has dedicated his career to righting wrongs for clients and for boosting the fortunes of myriad good causes that have come his way. It would be a case that helped define his commitment to ensuring that “justice is served.”

It involved a local nonprofit organization that owned a commercial property on Michigan Avenue in Detroit. Working with the aid of a real estate broker in the early 1980s, the nonprofit unwittingly leased its building to a retail shop that was peddling a particularly distasteful product – hate.

“Unbeknownst to the broker who handled the listing, the tenant was a front for a neo-Nazi organization that was promoting anti-Semitism and racist messages through the sale of various books and items,” explained Pozza, who grew up in northwest Detroit. “As soon as they realized what was happening, the nonprofit knew that its reputation would be dragged through the mud if they didn’t take immediate action. They were facing the real risk of jeopardizing decades of good work.”

Instinctively, Pozza set in motion plans to secure a temporary restraining order to prohibit the business from operating at the Detroit site, located just west of the old Tiger Stadium. The legal hitch, he knew, was that seeking injunctive relief could set off alarm bells with defenders of the 1st Amendment, who could view the attempt as a “prior restraint” of free speech.

“As such, we had to approach the matter as a contract case – that the tenant had violated provisions of the lease,” Pozza explained. “Otherwise, it had the makings of a constitutional case that would draw a lot of media attention and could drag on for months.”

Thankfully, the strategy worked, although Pozza had more than a few anxious moments in securing the restraining order.

“When we served the complaint on the business, I had the biggest process server we could find in Wayne County along with four Detroit Police patrolmen and a lieutenant, and my fellow associate, Dick Seryak, for good measure,” Pozza recalled. “Still, as we went into the store, I heard a clicking in a back room that sounded like a gun being readied. We didn’t know what could be coming next. Fortunately, we left without incident, but we didn’t stick around any longer than necessary.”

The triumph, when measured in the high stakes world of business litigation, would hardly register on the legal Richter Scale, but to Pozza it was akin to something far grander.

“In a sense, it was a ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ kind of case to me,” said Pozza, who in high school became infatuated with the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee that underscores lessons about the value of tolerance and the menace of prejudice. “That book had a profound effect on me and really piqued my interest in the law. Atticus Finch (the book’s protagonist) was the type of lawyer I aspired to be.”

After earning his diploma from Benedictine High School in Detroit, Pozza set out on “uncharted waters” at the University of Michigan, becoming in 1971 the first member of his family to graduate from college. It would be a particularly proud moment for his father, Clarence Pozza Sr., who became a widower a year earlier when his beloved wife Sybil died at age 50.

“My parents were the salt of the earth, and instilled in me a strong worth ethic and a desire to help the less fortunate,” Pozza said. “They meant the world to me.”

As does his older sister, Freida DeVergilio, who now lives in Hartland.

“She has two children and two grandchildren, and I fondly remember the time when she bought me a new white sweater to wear for a special sock hop in high school,” Pozza said. “She was always looking out for her younger brother.”

Their father, who died in 2003 at age 92, spent his career in management with Darin & Armstrong, one of the largest commercial contractors in the state during its heyday.

“He took pride in the success of the company and the fact that it never had a strike,” Pozza said of his father. “He took good care of his men. He was just a terrific guy, always kind and generous.”

Pozza gladly adopted the character traits, devoting much of his spare time to charitable endeavors over the course of his career. He has served as a board member and past president of the Old Newsboys’ Goodfellows Fund of Detroit, while also enlisting his services as secretary of the Van Patrick Memorial Foundation, an organization dedicated to cancer research efforts.

In recent years, Pozza has served as chairman of Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit, helping spearhead funding for its job placement programs.

“For nearly a century, Goodwill has dedicated its resources to ‘putting people with employment challenges to work,’ Pozza said, accentuating a phrase that has become the mantra of the organization founded in 1921. “We have developed a Green Works subsidiary that helps provide funding for our programs while also being environmentally friendly. We’ve strived to be creative in our funding approach.”

“Forward” thinking marked Pozza’s tenure as president of the University of Michigan M Club, formerly an all-male bastion. With encouragement from former U-M basketball players Steve Fishman and Bill Frauman, both attorneys, Pozza proposed breaking down gender barriers to the club, a move that was unanimously approved by its board.

“Once the motion was made, I hit the gavel pretty quickly so that there was no time for second thinking,” Pozza said with a smile. “It was a move that was long overdue, and it set the stage for female letter winners to be accorded the same kind of standing and recognition as their male counterparts.”

Pozza was a three-time letter winner at U-M as a member of the golf team, a squad that included such notables as his lifelong friend Paul McIntosh and All-Americans Randy Erskine and John Schroeder, two players who enjoyed success on the professional tour.

“Early in my law career I admit to being a bit envious of them,” said Pozza, who was MVP of the Wolverine squad his senior year. “There they were practicing their putting, while I was writing briefs.”

He honed his legal skills at U-M Law School, transferring there after his first year at the University of Detroit School of Law where he ranked first in his class. At U-M, he learned from such scholars as Yale Kamisar and Lee Bollinger.

Upon graduation in 1974, Pozza was courted by all of the major firms in Detroit before deciding to accept an offer from Miller Canfield Paddock & Stone. There, Pozza was under the tutelage of George Bushnell Jr., a president of the American Bar Association; Carl von Ende, former general counsel of Miller Canfield; and Wolfgang Hoppe, who emigrated to the U.S. from Germany as a teen-ager.

“Wolfgang was a mentor and believed in preparation, preparation, and more preparation,” said Pozza. “He was masterful in court and I learned many a valuable lesson from him.”

Pozza quickly became a rising star at the firm, eventually serving as managing director for 10 years and chairman of the board for three years. In recent times, he has co-chaired the firm’s Higher Education Practice while also finding time to co-coach the U-M Law School National Competition Mock Trial Team.

“The law is much different now,” said Pozza, who is a fellow in the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers. “Back in the ‘70s, a lot of cases went to trial. I probably was involved in a jury trial a month, which is a far cry from the pace now. ADR hadn’t taken hold back then.”

At the time, Pozza was a confirmed bachelor, who finally married in 1986 at the age of 36. He and his former wife of 28 years, Carrie, “raised two wonderful sons together,” and remain supportive of each other despite divorcing in 2014.

Their sons, not surprisingly, are their pride and joy, and Pozza beams at the success both have enjoyed. Elder son Adam is a vice president with Citigroup in New York and holds an MBA from Indiana University. His brother, Chris, who received his master’s from Eastern Michigan University, is an admissions counselor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Pozza hopes that “retirement” will afford greater opportunity to visit his sons or to share golf time with them at his winter home in the Florida resort of TPC Sawgrass.

His impending departure from Miller Canfield, however, will open up time for another legal venture in the years ahead. Pozza has confirmed plans to partner with retiring U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen and retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes in a Detroit-based mediation practice. The trio will open a Detroit office of Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services (JAMS) in the spring of 2017 following Rosen’s retirement from the federal bench.

The plans are tinged with a bit of irony for Pozza, who was secretary of the Miller Canfield recruiting committee that extended a job offer to Rosen in 1979 following his graduation from law school.

“This time, some 37 years later, he called me to gauge my interest in a job offer,” Pozza said with a grin. “I guess we’ve come full circle.”
 

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