Sheldon M. Meizlish

Sheldon M. Meizlish, a 55-year member of the State Bar of Michigan who made major contributions to the development of criminal procedure and employee-benefits law, died June 17, 2017. Meizlish, of Beverly Hills, was 80 and had battled Parkinson’s disease for over 20 years. 

Meizlish was born in Flint on April 20, 1937, the son of the late Max and Lillian Meizlish, both immigrants from Eastern Europe. He moved to Detroit when he was six years old and lived in the Detroit area for the rest of his life. After graduating from Mumford High School, he earned a B.S. in accounting and an M.A. in economics from Wayne State University before attending law school. He also served in the U.S. Army Reserves.
After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1962, Meizlish commenced a practice in downtown Detroit that continued for 41 years. Upon his retirement in 2003, he received a letter from the late Lawrence P. Zatkoff, then chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. “I enjoyed having you appear in my courtroom over the past 16 years. I knew, and all of the other judges knew, that when you told us something about your case, that it was the absolute truth. That speaks very highly of you as a professional and has earned you a reputation for honesty, integrity, and attention to detail.” The framed letter was one of Meizlish’s most-prized possessions.

For the first third to half of his career Meizlish primarily handled criminal law – both trial and appellate practice. Five years into his practice, in 1967, he successfully briefed and argued the seminal case of People v. Mallory. In Mallory, the Michigan Supreme Court announced that individuals convicted of misdemeanors have a right to appellate counsel, and to have counsel appointed if they cannot otherwise afford an attorney. The court noted that even when the charge is for a non-felony “petty” offense where the maximum penalty is a few months in jail, an accused’s “liberty is involved and in jeopardy in such case. For this the constitutional right is designed to insure equality of treatment and chances for acquittal between the rich who can afford to hire counsel and the poor who cannot.”

While attempting to keep a client out of jail, Meizlish found himself in it, albeit briefly. Several years after Mallory, Meizlish was representing a client in Detroit Recorder’s Court when the presiding judge set what was then a high bond—$1,000—for a low-level misdemeanor. Meizlish’s client was unable to post the bond. After pleading with the court to lower the bond, Meizlish and the judge, William C. Hague, had this exchange:

The Court: You’re out of order counsel.

Mr. Meizlish: I know.

The Court: You’re out of order.

Mr. Meizlish: I know.

The Court: I’ve ruled you out of order. I mean stop on this case.

Mr. Meizlish: Let me * * *

The Court: Counsel, I’ll hold you in contempt of Court if you say another word on this. [...] I’m going to fine you One Hundred Dollars for contempt of Court if you say anything else.

Mr. Meizlish: I have to say another word to adequately represent my client.

The Court: I’ll hold him in contempt of Court. Sit in the box.

The judge found Meizlish in contempt a second time after discussions continued about the high bond. Meizlish got his own attorney, Coleman E. Klein. Klein filed his brief in the Michigan Court of Appeals, which unanimously reversed both contempt convictions in 1976. “An attorney cannot be held in contempt merely for asserting the interests of his client,” the court
declared in In re Meizlish. Meizlish’s “dogged attempts to have the court consider his client’s position, even after the court’s warning, displayed the zeal expected of a criminal attorney.”

As his legal career progressed, Meizlish transitioned away from criminal law and toward employee-benefits law. From his office in downtown Detroit, he frequently appeared in federal court litigating against less-than-scrupulous employers—delinquent in their obligations under collective bargaining agreements. 

While these funds are commonly known as “fringe benefit funds,” “there is nothing ‘fringe’ about the benefits Sheldon fought for,” said Joel M. Shere, a veteran attorney and close friend. Fringe benefits “include pensions, health care, vacation pay, paid time off for personal and family obligations – in short, nearly everything beyond basic salary that provide a measure of security and dignity to working men and women [who are] subject to the vagaries and downturns of our economy.” 

Meizlish was especially proud of his last case, Electrical Workers Pension Trust Fund v. Gary’s Electric Service Co. Meizlish and his client had obtained summary judgment against the defendant employer in federal district court for failing to make contributions to the pension fund. While the case was in litigation, the corporate owner drained the corporate assets—tripling his own salary, issuing loans and bonuses to himself, satisfying all creditors other than the pension fund and even purchasing a fur coat for his wife (which he identified as a bonus). Upon
Meizlish’s request, the district court held Gary’s Electric in contempt of court. Importantly, however, it refused to hold the company’s owner in contempt.

Meizlish appealed the district court’s decision to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, where the climb would be uphill. A reversal required his client to show not only that the district court had erred, but that its decision was an abuse of discretion. In other words, he had to give the appellate judges “a definite and firm conviction that the trial court committed a clear error of judgment.” 

Meizlish succeeded in convincing the appellate court that the district court had, in fact, abused its discretion in not finding the company’s owner in contempt of court. In a published opinion, the unanimous court reaffirmed that a trial court could hold a corporate officer in contempt for the corporate actions, but went further and adopted the position that an  
“inability-to-comply defense to civil contempt requires that the contemnor show that he is not responsible for the present inability to pay. If the contemnor cannot make this showing, then the [...] defense is unavailable. Thus, [...] we determine that if a corporate officer avoids a court’s order to the corporation by failing to take action or attempt compliance, ‘they, no less than the corporation itself, are guilty of disobedience, and may be punished for contempt.’ [...] Moreover, we hold that because a civil contempt ruling either attempts to coerce compliance or compensate the complainant for losses, it is fully appropriate to impose judicial sanctions on the nonparty corporate officer.” [emphasis added and citations omitted]
The panel issued its decision a few months after his retirement. 

“For Sheldon, securing these benefits was a calling, not just a job,” Shere commented. “He was a happy warrior. And thanks to his exceptional legal skills and tireless efforts, thousands of workers in our community got the benefits they had bargained for that otherwise might have been denied by recalcitrant or irresponsible employers.”

“My brother was a true mensch,” said Leonard Meizlish, who presided over the June 21 funeral in Oak Park. “It’s hard to think of a better term to describe my brother. He was honest, he was loyal, he was devoted, he was sincere. He despised lying, cheating and/or dishonesty. He believed society had an obligation to help the less fortunate. He gave his time, money and talents to help those who were less off.”

Meizlish was a devoted family man. He enjoyed photography, reading, traveling, dining and attending the circus.

Meizlish leaves behind his wife of 39 years, Dr. Aida Meizlish. He was the devoted father of Louie Meizlish, an attorney in Pontiac, devoted father-in-law of Dr. Erin Miller and brother-in-law to James Miller Jr. and Christine Fecteau. He was the dear brother of Leonard Meizlish (the late Naomi Meizlish and the late Karen Schneider), brother-in-law of Berta (Gabriel) Sava, proud uncle of Debbie (Joshua Botkin) Meizlish, Andrea Meizlish, Luis (Alma) Sava and Dalia Sava; and treasured great-uncle of Jonah Botkin, Benjamin Botkin, Teo Sava, Vera Sava and Lola Sava.