Later this week, Daniel E. Casagrande will receive the 2019 Marvin J. Glink Private Practice Local Government Lawyer of the Year Award from the International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA). In this edition of Suite Talk, Business Journal Senior Enterprise Editor Phil Hall speaks with Casagrande about his award-winning work at the Danbury firm Cramer & Anderson LLP and some of his high-profile cases involving zoning and real estate issues.
First, congratulations on the award. How did this come about?
“I’ve belonged to the IMLA for over 20 years, and it is a premier North American organization that serves people practicing in the area of municipal law. I’ve gone to their conferences and taken advantage of their resources and their website, which is excellent. So, in the course of getting the emails from the organization, I discovered there was this Marvin Glink Award. My partners convinced me to apply for it. And I was like, ‘Come on, it’s like winning the lottery.’ I got some really good letters of recommendation from Mayor Boughton and from Les Pinter, who is the deputy corporation counsel. And they made the mistake of giving it to me.”
And this is not your first award. In 2018, didn’t you receive the Connecticut Giant Slayer Award from the Connecticut Law Tribune?
“Yes, I got that last year. I’m not used to getting awards and being in this kind of a limelight.”
The IMLA award focused on your work as a municipal lawyer. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with this aspect of the profession, what does a municipal lawyer do?
“It’s challenging and terrifying at the same time. You’re practicing in a fishbowl. If you hired me as a lawyer, all of our communications would be confidential. For a public entity, you are subject to Freedom of Information laws and unless it is a serious privileged issue, everything you do is on the front page of the paper.
“But what I like is that it is kind of like being a litigator, which essentially is what I am. It is interesting because every case you have is different and requires you to learn new facts and a body of law. I’ve done a lot of tax appeals for municipalities over the years, which required me to learn how to appraise property — you essentially have to become an appraiser. I’ve done construction contracts and litigation over the years, so you have to learn how a contractor and an owner operate in a complex construction environment. You draft ordinances. I drafted the massage-parlor ordinance and that required me to immerse myself into ordinances all across the country to spot the constitutional issues and come up with a document that is now pending before the Danbury City Council. I do land use, which involves issues about the due process clause, the takings clause and how far government can go in regulating private property.
It’s been very fulfilling. I’ve been lucky enough to practice in these various areas while maintaining excellence.”
Is this where you initially wanted to focus your career?
“When I went to Fordham Law School, all I wanted to do was come back to Danbury and do residential real estate closings. I had no idea what was out there. I was lucky enough to get high marks in the first year of law school. The first year is everything and opens a number of doors. Because of that, I was awarded a clerkship on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals for Judge William Mulligan.
“The Second Circuit is widely known as the best court in the U.S., other than the Supreme Court. It is right in the center of Manhattan and has a high number of competent lawyers and judges, and it opened my eyes to a world of litigation. I was very interested in criminal law and trial work and after I finished my clerkship, my former professor at Fordham named Charles Stillman offered me a job at his firm. He had a white-collar boutique law firm. We did a lot of securities work and tax work for people. I went there for five years and it was not easy. I was commuting from Connecticut every day, but I got the chance to work with the best litigators in the country.
“But I realized pretty early on that I did not like the chaos in Manhattan. I grew up here. My family is here and I love Danbury. After five years, I realized that I had enough. I wanted to live past 40. I came up here and took a job. Cramer is my third firm since I came up from the city and it is, by far, the best firm that I’ve ever worked for.”
Is it typical for cities to have outside counsel serving as a municipal lawyer?
“A large city like New York has an in-house corporation counsel, so they have hundreds of lawyers that work there. And there are some towns in the state that have internal employees of the city. But even in those towns — especially in the larger municipalities — an in-house department is often not sufficient to handle the workload.
“In Danbury, I’ve been the outside assistant corporation counsel since 1990. Basically, what I’ve done in working for Democratic and Republican administrations is whatever the in-house folks are not able to do. They will get it out to me and we have the resources to do what is necessary to handle the litigation and assignments.”
You mentioned the massage parlor ordinance. What was the story behind that?
“There is a very well-regarded police officer in Danbury named Lt. Mark Williams and he had been investigating allegedly illegal massage parlor establishments. As a result of that, he came to the city and said, ‘It doesn’t work to just arrest the johns or the prostitutes. The prostitutes are really the victims here with the Asian trafficking.’ What he suggested and what I was assigned to follow up on was an ordinance that creates a licensing scheme for the owners of these massage establishments that involves very strict controls over them and basically allows the city to shut them down if they don’t comply with the regulations. That is pending before the City Council and we are hopeful it will pass pretty soon.”
You are a former president of the Connecticut Association of Municipal Attorneys. What are some of the top issues facing you and your peers?
“One of the perennial issues you face is: who’s the client? Is the client the mayor, the council, the city, the town engineer? Often, you will have different individuals who are going to clash with each other. The general rule is the client is the municipality. That is a very general statement, and it is one of the things that is always a challenge to a municipal lawyer.”
What are some of the cases you are working on?
“I am representing a private property owner in Bethel who was denied a special permit to do a crematory in an industrial park. The interesting thing about the case was that he goes to the zoning commission in Bethel and says, ‘Can you put a crematory in as a permitted use in the industrial park zone?’ And they said, ‘Sure, we’ll put it in.’ They put it in and gets his engineers and comes in with a site plan and asks for a special permit, and they deny it. It’s like Lucy with the football. I am now representing that person in an appeal to the appellate court.
In the other case, I represent a nonprofit group called Rescue Candlewood Mountain and they are fighting a solar project on Candlewood Mountain Road in New Milford that was approved by the Connecticut Siting Council over a year-and-a-half ago, and we’ve been litigating it ever since. That project would involve the clear-cutting of 56 acres of core forest. My clients believe in solar power, but this is the right project in the wrong place.”
Are today’s young law school graduates looking to become municipal lawyers?
“We just hired a young person out of Quinnipiac and he wants to do land use and environmental work. That’s our bread and butter. We do a huge amount of land use and environmental law. We’re not Hartford and we’re not New Haven, where you can make $150,000 a year. But a lot of young people with their huge amounts of law school debt gravitate to the big firms. We’ve been lucky to attract very talented people.”
What advice would you give to young lawyers who want to follow your career example?
“My advice would be don’t do it if your only objective is to make money. There are too many graduates out there now chasing too few jobs. Do it because you are really interested in the law. And you have to be passionate about helping people because that’s what we do, helping people.”