By Bob Highfill
Jessie Serna, raised in Stockton, the daughter of hard-working migrant farm workers, has made a difference representing the underrepresented. She has raised her voice to help those who have no voice.
In 2020, Serna will reach a milestone, her 40th year as a private attorney specializing in medical malpractice, wrongful death and personal injury. She’s tried many cases, but her first forever will remain close to her heart.
As Serna sits behind a desk inside her office in downtown Stockton and tells the story of 13-year-old Rudy Ochoa, her eyes well-up and her voice cracks.
“It just tore my heart out,” she said. “It was so sad and still is.”
Serna was a fresh-faced, idealistic, recent graduate of Golden Gate University Law School in San Francisco. She was as green as they come, she said. She didn’t have an office yet, and worked out of a rented house she shared with a roommate in San Jose. She had an answering service and had placed a small advertisement in a local Spanish-speaking newspaper.
One day, Rudy’s parents contacted her and asked her to represent them. Their story shook Serna at her core: Rudy was with friends and had been arrested in San Jose on minor charges and was placed in juvenile hall. There, he became ill and was in tremendous pain. His mother begged the doctor and anyone who would listen to transfer her son to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Her pleas were met with deaf ears. Rudy’s condition worsened and he died inside juvenile hall in his mother’s arms.
“The only thing he had was pneumonia,” Serna said, sobbing. “They just ignored him because he was a Mexican kid. He literally dies in her arms in juvenile hall because the medical staff refused to transfer him to the hospital.”
The tragedy violated every tenet of human decency Serna swore to fight dating from her time at Edison High School in Stockton, where she was involved in student government, student activities and marched in support of the United Farm Workers of America.
Serna graduated from Edison in 1970 and became more involved in social causes at San Jose State University, where she studied law enforcement. Serna was president of MEChA, a Mexican-American student group founded in the late 1960s. She helped put together a concert at Spartan Stadium to raise funds for student scholarships and was asked to speak at Soledad State Prison. Serna was shocked when hundreds of inmates, of whom many were Hispanic, listened to her motivational message then lined up to ask questions. She saw firsthand that Latinos were being stockpiled in the legal system due to racism and the lack of education, language skills and financial resources they needed to defend themselves. Serna had worked briefly in the juvenile hall but decided after visiting Soledad she could do more for her community as an attorney.
“I’ve always had a heart for those that are uneducated and underrepresented,” said Serna, “and those people that have been discriminated based on their skin color.”
In 1974, Serna graduated from San Jose State and enrolled at Golden Gate University Law School. She was the only Mexican American, faced discrimination from instructors and judges who were raised a generation prior, but she did not relent. She was too tough. Her work ethic, resiliency and empathy had been forged at an early age harvesting the fields of the Central Valley alongside her six siblings and parents, Angie and Rosendo Serna, who provided the family with food, shelter, education and love, despite their meager wages.
“That’s why I’m so hard working, because of my parents,” Jessie Serna said. “They had us going, but they never pulled us out of school. They protected us. To this day I feel very protected and secure. They did a hell of a job.”
While in law school, Serna continued to work with the United Farm Workers and organized a fundraiser with legendary activist Dolores Huerta as her guest. Once Serna graduated from law school, she started her private law practice in San Jose to serve the Spanish-speaking community. Her life suddenly changed when Rudy Ochoa entered her life.
After taking the case, Serna sued the County of Santa Clara, the doctors and nurses at San Jose’s juvenile hall, everyone who had contact with Rudy. The County of Santa Clara conducted a grand jury investigation, which led to everyone who neglected Rudy being fired. But Serna wasn’t satisfied. She cited numerous civil causes of action, including civil rights violations. The presiding judges threw out the causes of action, other than medical malpractice/wrongful death. Not satisfied, Serna took the case to the Court of Appeals, which granted some but not all of the causes of action.
“I said, ‘No,’” said Serna said. “’I have to have it all.’”
Serna then took the first case in her life to the California Supreme Court in front of Justice Rose Byrd. Perhaps for the first time, Serna had some butterflies.
“There, I was a little nervous because now this is the big time,” she said. “I was in my mid-20s, but I was fresh out of law school and this was my very first case.”
Big firms contacted the Ochoas deriding Serna as a newbie, saying they could do more for them. But the Ochoas stuck with Serna because she was there from the start and they were not.
The State Supreme Court heard the complaint and granted Serna all of her causes of action. The case was remanded to trial court. On the day the trial was set to begin, with three defense law firms lined up against one brand-new attorney, the case of Rudy Ochoa, et al, versus the County of Santa Clara was settled for an undisclosed sum. Serna also made a claim for the parents’ emotional distress. She got that, too. Serna said lawyers have told her they have cited Ochoa v. County of Santa Clara in elderly abuse cases.
“It took us five years to go from getting the case to winning the case in Supreme Court,” Serna said. “So after that, every case for me was a piece of cake.”
The settlement put Serna on the proverbial map and her practice took off. She accepts criminal cases from time to time but prefers personal injury, medical malpractice and wrongful death.
Serna is past president of La Raza Lawyers in San Joaquin County, past president of the Trial Lawyers in Santa Clara County and has been on the Board of Governors of the State Consumer Attorneys of personal injury lawyers that represent individuals against large corporations.
Serna was married to criminal attorney Daniel V. Hernandez for 20 years until he passed away some 16 years ago. She has two sons, Ignacio Hernandez and Daniel Serna Hernandez.
Serna encourages people from ethnic communities to hang onto their native tongue and study law. She believes in empowering the less fortunate through the law and hopes someday to have enough free time to be a motivational speaker. But at age 67, though she’s a one-person law firm, Serna enjoys her work too much to slow down.
“I still get excited every day to go to work,” Serna said. “That’s my role in life – to help anyone I can.”
Serna practices law in San Jose and also has a law office in Stockton, where her large family resides.
“I feel real close to Stockton,” she said. “I have roots here. I come here all the time because my family is here, and I enjoy helping residents with their legal cases. I’ve never lost connection with Stockton.”