Tried and true: Attorney carries on 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, Alice and Tony, and his grandparents, Elizabeth and Frank.

His grandfather was the founder of Viviano Flower Shop, a business he started in 1937 on the eastside of Detroit. Now based in St. Clair Shores, the business has fittingly 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.

“It seems that we all worked there at one time or another, and it was a great place to learn and develop a work ethic that would be beneficial in our respective careers,” Viviano said.

One of seven children, Viviano and his siblings are all graduates of Hillsdale College, the private liberal arts school that prides itself on high scholastic standards and institutional independence. It was there that Viviano met his future wife, Laura, a Colorado native who pursued a teaching career before a certain matchmaker’s work bore fruit.

“In college, I was friends with Joe’s sister Melina, who deserves the credit for bringing us together,” said Laura, who holds a master’s degree in reading education from Oakland University. “He was a senior when I was a freshman, so we only dated a short time and then we carried on our relationship long distance by e-mail and phone until I moved back to Michigan.”

The couple was married in 2003 and now has four children – Emily, Tommy, Isabelle, and Mary, ranging in age from 6 to 14. Their daughter Isabelle suffers from autism, which has severely impacted her emotional and cognitive development.

“It is a daily challenge for the two of us as parents on how best to love and care for our daughter,” said Laura. “She has special needs and we as a family have a responsibility to respond to those needs in the best way possible. There’s nothing easy about it at times, especially when she acts out or is afraid of something. It constantly tests us.”

Thankfully, 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. Viviano’s father, retired chief judge of the Macomb County Circuit Court, is among those who are duly impressed.

“Joe has a very full plate as an attorney and litigator, but he is able to balance his work life with the needs of his family,” said the elder Viviano, a former assistant prosecuting attorney in Macomb County who began his judicial career as a probate judge. “I marvel at his smarts and his patience. He sets a great example in every aspect of his life.”

That comment is seconded by Will Forrest, Viviano’s partner in the Birmingham-based firm of Kienbaum, Hardy, Viviano, Pelton & Forrest. The two partners have known each other since their days at Bodman in Detroit and Forrest was instrumental in convincing Viviano to merge his Sterling Heights–based firm (Viviano Law) with Kienbaum Hardy in January 2019.

“Joe has the very rare combination of being wicked smart, a relentlessly strategic and creative thinker, and a wonderful human being,” said Forrest, a magna cum laude grad of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “If you gave me 10 Joe Vivianos, I could rule the world.

“While Joe has earned his reputation as a highly skilled commercial litigator, he has also taken important cases on behalf of abused women and children,” Forrest added. “He cares deeply about those clients and cases – particularly the protection of autistic kids. I’m proud to be his friend and his law partner.”

With strong roots in Macomb County, Viviano has brought a number of key clients from there to the Kienbaum Hardy base, representing departments headed by County Executive Mark Hackel and Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, a former member of the U.S. Congress.

Viviano has been particularly busy on Miller’s behalf, handling a number of lawsuits and legal actions that resulted from a December 2016 sewer collapse in Fraser that created a giant sinkhole.

“The issues have been ongoing over the past three years as we try to hold those responsible for the collapse, while also ensuring that each municipality pay its corresponding share of the cost of a special assessment approved in 2017 to cover the repairs,” Viviano said. “Commissioner Miller has displayed incredible leadership throughout this ordeal, which was a health emergency affecting hundreds of thousands of residents in the county.”

Miller, a former Michigan Secretary of State who spent 14 years in Congress, said that Viviano has proved to be a “critical component of the team” that she has assembled since taking office in late 2016.

“Joe has truly done a masterful job for us and the citizens of Macomb County in handling a number of outstanding lawsuits that we inherited, while also dealing with all the issues related to the sinkhole crisis,” Miller said. “The challenges have been many and they have been complex, but Joe has a unique ability to problem-solve and to offer the kind of legal expertise that we need to address these ongoing issues.”

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, where he was mentored by Tom Van Dusen.

“When I joined Bodman, my brother David told me to ‘look for someone you’d like to be in 30 years,’” Viviano said. “That ‘someone’ turned out to be Tom, who is one of the truly great gentleman in the law. With his demeanor, he has a knack for taking the pressure out of a room or a courtroom. He has been such an influence on me throughout my career.”

He can say much the same about the two other lawyers in his family, brother David and sister Kathy.

A former Macomb County Circuit judge, David 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. Justice Viviano joined a fellow Republican appointee on the court, Justice Elizabeth Clement, in the political crossfire.

“I’ve always been proud of David, but perhaps never more so than when he stood his ground and followed the law in rendering his decision,” said Viviano of the 4-3 ruling permitting the people to vote on a ballot measure targeting politically motivated redistricting. “My brother and Justice Clement received a lot of unwarranted and unprincipled criticism for the way they voted, but they both deserve the highest respect for not letting outside influences sway their decisions.”

Justice Viviano, in turn, said he has “the utmost respect” for his brother, who has managed each of his judicial campaigns.

“Joe is an extremely talented lawyer who is very passionate about the work that he does,” said Justice Viviano. “He’s a man of principle and integrity, and I consider myself truly fortunate to have him as a brother.”

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, a time that afforded the future judge an opportunity to fully appreciate his legal talents firsthand.

“Joe is an excellent writer, one of the finest writers I’ve come across in my career,” said Judge Viviano, who holds an MBA and a law degree from Wayne State University. “I’m so proud of what he has accomplished in his career. He has made a habit of taking it to the next level.”