Stanley Feldstein, FDIC’s Longtime Attorney in Puerto Rico and Leader of Legal Fight to Close La Princesa Jail, Dies at 97
‘Feldstein put down roots in Puerto Rico and embraced the island’s language and culture with relish’
SAN JUAN — Stanley L. Feldstein, a giant of Puerto Rico’s legal community for more than 40 years who recovered millions of dollars on behalf of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in connection with a string of bank failures in Puerto Rico and whose class-action lawsuit prompted the 1976 closing of the notorious La Princesa jail in San Juan, died of a stroke on March 20, in Laguna Hills, Calif. He was two months shy of his 98th birthday.
Feldstein, whose razor-sharp intellect and prowess in the courtroom distinguished him as one of Puerto Rico’s most formidable litigators, sued the Puerto Rican government in 1975 on behalf of hundreds of inmates at La Princesa who for years had been held in such deplorable conditions that a federal judge called the jail “a notorious monument to man’s inhumanity to man.” The jail was permanently shut down in 1976 after Feldstein presented overwhelming evidence that inmates as young as 15 were routinely crammed into windowless dungeons, deprived of access to water and medical care, and left to be assaulted, tortured, and at times murdered with impunity by other inmates.
Feldstein’s law firm also became the de facto legal arm of the FDIC in Puerto Rico between the late 1970s and the early 1990s as the federal agency pursued professional liability and negligence claims against the former directors and officers of some of the island’s best-known banks. One of Feldstein’s earliest successes was against the former directors and officers of Banco Crédito y Ahorro Ponceño, which was among the largest banking companies in Puerto Rico for most of the 20th century and was led by some of the island’s wealthiest and most prominent families before the Puerto Rico Treasury Department shut down the bank and appointed the FDIC as receiver.
Gustavo Gelpí Jr., chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico, said he knew Feldstein for more than 50 years and considered him “a relentless and zealous advocate, particularly on behalf of our society’s less fortunate.” Feldstein always imposed the highest standards on himself, Gelpí said, and by example challenged others to do so as well. “This inspired me to become a lawyer and ultimately led me to the federal bench,” added Gelpí, whose father was a longtime law partner of Feldstein’s. “Stanley was always there for me as a source of inspiration, moral support, and, most importantly, as a friend and role model.”
Feldstein’s San Juan law firm, which he co-founded in the 1950s with a classmate from Columbia Law School, Harvey Nachman, cut its early profile by obtaining monetary recoveries on behalf of longshoremen and seamen who were killed or injured on the job. For many years thereafter, the firm became instrumental in the development of maritime law in Puerto Rico.
In the early 1970s, the firm scored one of its biggest victories when it obtained monetary recoveries for the families of victims of the 1970 plane crash that killed two coaches and 12 players on Puerto Rico’s national women’s volleyball team as they were returning home from a match in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican boxer Carlos Teo Rosario Cruz, a former world lightweight champion, and his wife and two children also perished in the crash.
On the strength of these and other high-profile victories, Feldstein’s firm was catapulted to the top tier of Puerto Rico’s elite, go-to litigation boutiques, attracting major institutional clients from the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico, including the FDIC. Among Feldstein’s law partners over the years were Hector M. Laffitte, who went on to become a U.S. District Court judge in Puerto Rico, and Gustavo A. Gelpí Sr., a litigator at McConnell Valdes, whose son Gustavo is chief judge of the federal courts in Puerto Rico. Edward A. Godoy, a 15-year veteran of Feldstein’s firm, is now a sitting U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Puerto Rico.
Feldstein himself was offered a Bankruptcy Court judgeship, but turned it down to guide his firm during a time of rapid growth. By the time he retired in the 1990s, Feldstein’s reputation had reached such heights that the remaining partners at the firm—then called Feldstein, Gelpí & Gotay—kept his name on the door until the firm’s dissolution in 2003.
In retirement, Feldstein spent several years in Mount Dora, Fla., before settling down in Laguna Woods Village, a sprawling community of more than 16,000 seniors in Orange County, Calif. First as president of his homeowners’ association, and then as a member of the entire community’s 11-member governing board, Feldstein galvanized homeowners in demanding reform of the community’s finances. Feldstein’s mastery of financial minutiae (he had a background in accounting) and his impassioned arguments for transparency and accountability regularly reached thousands of homeowners over the community’s dedicated cable channel and laid the groundwork for the eventual departure of the community’s controversial management company. Feldstein was nearing his 94th birthday when he finally retired from the board.
Known as much for his generosity of spirit and affable demeanor as he was for his legal talents, Feldstein commanded a special respect among the island’s state and federal jurists. José Antonio Fusté, a former chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico, said after learning of Feldstein’s death that he considered Feldstein “a gentleman of utmost integrity and a master of the law” who “earned the respect of judges, opposing counsel, clients and the Bar.” Fusté added: “Stanley never allowed the adversary process to blind his openness to change a particular view over issues. He was a voluntary participant in securing fair and impartial administration of justice to all.”
While practicing law in Puerto Rico, Feldstein also taught at the University of Puerto Rico School of Law and served a term as president of the United Jewish Appeal on the island. He and his wife spent weekends with their two children on a small farm that they owned in El Verde, Puerto Rico, where Feldstein shed his suit and tie and indulged his love of nature by driving a tractor, swinging a machete and roasting pigs during the holidays for his employees and friends. Several of Feldstein’s partners and employees spent most of their careers with his firm and remained close to Feldstein for many years after his retirement.
The seventh of eight children born to Romanian and Polish immigrants, Feldstein was born in Brooklyn and grew up in North Merrick, Long Island, where his father was a farmer and milkman. Barely 5 feet 6 inches tall when he graduated from high school, Feldstein’s yearbook page summed him up this way: “Small in stature yet mighty in mind.” Feldstein served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War II and then, with help from the G.I. Bill, obtained his bachelor’s degree from Hofstra University—the first member of his family to graduate from college. He went on to earn his law degree at Columbia University, where he became a close protégé of the legendary antitrust professor Milton Handler.
In the early 1950s, Feldstein took a vacation to Puerto Rico, where his two older brothers were living, and fell in love with the island’s natural beauty and its people, especially a green-eyed beauty named Astrid Soto, who would become his wife for the next 65 years. Feldstein put down roots in Puerto Rico and embraced the island’s language and culture with relish. Although he did not know any Spanish when he arrived, he took the bar exam in Spanish barely a year later and passed on the first try.
Feldstein is survived by his wife, Astrid Soto Feldstein of Laguna Woods, Calif.; his daughter, Hydee R. Feldstein of Los Angeles; and his son, Luis A. Feldstein of Tustin, Calif., both attorneys; his grandson, James P. Gregora of Los Angeles; his sister, Mildred Urling of Huntington Beach, Calif.; and numerous nieces and nephews throughout the mainland United States and Puerto Rico. Feldstein’s grand nephew, Joseph G. Feldstein, is an attorney at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Puerto Rico. In accordance with Feldstein’s wishes, his body was cremated in Orange County on March 22 and his ashes will be returned to rest somewhere along the shores of his adopted homeland, Puerto Rico.