Attorney carries on famous family's legal tradition of excellence

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Over the course of a 20-year legal career, Joe Viviano has enjoyed his share of success stories, principally in the complex world of commercial litigation and business law.

And yet, as the father of an autistic child, Viviano hopes he made a particularly lasting impact in a case at the other end of the legal spectrum, one where vulnerable young children reside.

The case stems from a 2014 lawsuit filed against the Novi School District, alleging that it turned a collective blind eye to a series of sexual abuse incidents in which a 13-year-old autistic boy was victimized by a fellow student. Viviano recounted the history of the case in a 2018 column appearing in The Detroit News, drawing parallels to the Larry Nassar scandal that came to light three years ago.

“In 2014, I met with the parents of a 13-year-old autistic child named Joe,” Viviano wrote in the column. “They told me Joe had been molested at Novi Middle School by a much larger, emotionally impaired student. Joe described approximately 100 incidents during classes, the vast majority occurring when a teacher placed Joe and the other student alone in a small office next to her classroom. The other student admitted that he and Joe were regularly placed in this office and that numerous incidents of sexual touching had occurred.

“In the early days of this story, Joe’s parents still trusted the district to do the right thing,” Viviano noted. “They immediately pulled Joe out of school and went to the principal and superintendent. Not only was Joe’s cry for help dismissed, the school proposed to put Joe back into the exact same class schedule with the other student.”

Stymied at the administrative level, Viviano then looked to the Novi Board of Education for recourse, sending the panel a detailed letter about the abuse allegations.

“Their response to the horrific allegations outlined in the letter? Silence.”

In turn, Viviano filed a lawsuit in federal court, outlining the “soul-crushing course charted” by the Novi School District.

After the Novi School District was admonished by the federal judge assigned to the case for conduct deemed “very inappropriate,” school officials agreed to a confidential settlement, ending three years of “traumatic litigation” that left permanent scars on the plaintiff and his family, according to Viviano.

“Joe never returned to his school,” Viviano indicated. “His family will be in recovery for many years. They still hold out hope that positive change will come from their sacrifice.”

The case, of course, also took a toll on Viviano, whose family name resonates across Metro Detroit and the state of Michigan.

“What can be done?” Viviano asked about such cases. “There are no easy answers. Beyond any policy prescription, more good people need to stand up and do the right thing, regardless of the perceived cost.”

Certainly, Viviano can be counted among those “good people” who believe in transparency and a willingness to fight injustice at every turn. Such beliefs were ingrained in him at an early age by his parents, and grandparents.

His grandfather was the founder of Viviano Flower Shop, started in 1937 on the eastside of Detroit. Now based in St. Clair Shores, the business has blossomed into one of the most successful floral operations in the state and served as an early proving ground for virtually every member of the Viviano family.

Viviano and his six siblings are all graduates of Hillsdale College, where Viviano met his future wife, Laura. The couple married in 2003 and has four children ranging in age from 6 to 14. Their daughter Isabelle suffers from autism, which has severely impacted her emotional and cognitive development. Viviano and his wife have been more than up to the task, relying on each other’s strengths, the support of their extended family, and various caregivers in meeting the challenge.

A graduate of De La Salle High School, Viviano earned his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1999 and spent 7 years with Bodman.

His brother David, a former Macomb County Circuit judge, was appointed by then Governor Rick Snyder to the Michigan Supreme Court in 2013, winning election in 2014 and re-election in 2016. As a member of the state’s high court in 2018, Justice Viviano drew the ire of Republican leaders in Michigan for voting to uphold a ballot initiative designed to outlaw gerrymandering.

Viviano’s sister Kathy, who was elected to the Macomb County Circuit Court in 2010, was in private practice at separate times with both of her brothers. And despite being 6 years older than Joe, Judge Viviano said she enjoys a special kinship with her younger brother.

“We took the LSAT and the bar exam together,” she said of the legal bond that was cemented early on. “Those, of course, are two pretty big days in the life of an aspiring lawyer, and it was comforting to share those with my brother.”

For several years, sister and brother also comprised the Viviano & Viviano law firm.

“Joe is an excellent writer, one of the finest writers I’ve come across in my career,” said Judge Viviano.

“I’m so proud of what he has accomplished in his career. He has made a habit of taking it to the next level.”


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