The thing is, Dan Ruttenberg, JD ’97, never expected to be a litigator, much less appear before the U.S. Supreme Court. But there he was in April, face-to-face with nine of the “greatest legal minds in the country, and you’re arguing with them,” he says. “Justice Scalia went right after me.”
It still seems surreal as he recounts his encounter with the “Supremes” from his Tysons Corner office of SmolenPlevy, a firm founded by Mason graduates Jason Smolen, JD ’77, and Alan Plevy, JD ’77. Ruttenberg, who is believed to be the first Mason alumnus to argue before the Supreme Court, is a certified public accountant with a master of law in taxation. He is a transactional attorney whose practice areas include estate planning, tax law, and succession planning for businesses; appealing a case to the highest court in the land was never on his bucket list.
The youngest attorney to serve as president of the Fairfax Bar Association (2007-08), Ruttenberg says he always found litigating fun and takes the occasional case when it won’t interfere with his regular practice.
His first taste of advocating came while he was a law student at Mason when he sued a public company over a busted computer. “I wanted a different computer or a refund, and they wouldn’t give it to me,” he says, so he sued them in the General District Court in Arlington. “They flew out a witness from the West Coast to testify against me, but I won.”
Later, he represented his sister against her landlord, “but in over 10 years, this is my only litigation case.” The case, Hillman v. Maretta, looked to straighten out a seemingly clerical error: Warren Hillman neglected to change his beneficiary on his life insurance policy after divorcing his wife in 1998; he remarried in 2002 and died in 2008, leaving his widow out of the $124,588 in benefits. Cue the lawyers.
“I thought this was a small, slam-dunk case,” he says. “The statute was right on point.”
Yes, well. “And it didn’t just go to the Supreme Court. First, it was removed to federal court on Thanksgiving weekend four years ago. I remember that vividly because I had to learn to file in federal court over Thanksgiving. My head was spinning. I was able to get it remanded back to the Fairfax County Circuit Court, but then they tried to move it to Albemarle County, and now I had to learn the law of venue. I successfully defended that attempt and finally got to court. I won in trial court, but then it was appealed and went up to the Virginia Supreme Court. That in and of itself was a big deal for me.”
It’s also where he lost the case. “But I wouldn’t give up because I’m competitive, so I appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Everyone said, ‘You’ll never get the U.S. Supreme Court to hear it,’ but of course that just motivated me more. Lo and behold, they took my case.”
The Supreme Court accepted the case, despite overwhelming odds—of about 10,000 petitions, fewer than 80 are granted each year—based on a reading of Ruttenberg’s extensive brief. He credits his studies at Mason for polishing his writing skills.
“I was accounting and finance, a numbers guy, and I hated writing,” he says. “Mason absolutely taught me to be a much better writer.” Mason also taught him, he says, “how to think, how to have confidence in myself…. I started trusting my judgment a lot more. I thought Mason was a great law school.”
Postscript: The court found against Ruttenberg, but he still cherishes the adventure. “Part of me doesn’t realize how rare what I accomplished is,” he says.