Will Rosdil came out of retirement to take on the case of a man who lost his home to foreclosure. He’s still at it.

An attorney for a mortgage company vented to a Big Island judge in February about what he saw as the overzealous tactics of Will Rosdil, the lawyer for one of the company’s borrowers.

James B. Nutter & Co. had foreclosed on Rosdil’s client. But over several years Rosdil had filed a flurry of motions in different courts trying to show that the foreclosure should be vacated.

“It is not something that needs to be relitigated, regurgitated ad infinitum,” Nutter’s attorney said.

But Rosdil didn’t agree. Maybe it didn’t need to be argued forever – his client needed money as soon as possible – but there was still plenty to discuss.

“May I speak now?” he asked the judge.

Rosdil just keeps speaking.

Will Rosdil at his office in Hilo
Will Rosdil at his office in Hilo, surrounded by case files of clients he has represented since he “retired.” (John Hill/Civil Beat/2023)

A decade ago, a Big Island judge asked him to come out of retirement to represent a different Nutter borrower pro bono, or without pay.

Since then, the 78-year-old lawyer has wielded tactics that a different Nutter attorney recently described as “scorched earth” in representing three clients who took out reverse mortgages with the company.

He won the first case relatively quickly. But in the other two, he faced loss after loss.

Then, in March, came a spectacular turnaround. The Hawaii Supreme Court vacated Nutter’s foreclosure on the home of Elton Namahoe, triggered nine years earlier by the Kurtistown homeowner’s alleged failure to make a $500 repair on a rotten porch railing and leaky carport.

The Supreme Court agreed with Rosdil that Nutter had committed fraud against the court by assuring that all the proper foreclosure steps had been taken when they had not. Besides, the court said, basic fairness should have dictated against a person being kicked out of his house over such a minor repair.

It was a major victory for Namahoe – and a stunning vindication for his scrappy attorney, who got involved only after Namahoe had lost his house.

It was the culmination of a 50-year career marked by what Rosdil’s colleagues call an unusual dedication to detail and never-say-die advocacy for clients.

“He’s the little guy standing up against the big guy,” said Nornan Wessel, who’s worked as his paralegal and administrative assistant since the 1990s. “He likes that a lot. He stands up for his clients the same way he’d stand up for himself.”

Rosdil keeps working despite his age and not needing the money, said Paul Hamano, who took a summer job with him in 1988 and then just kept going. He now has an office down the hall from Rosdil’s.

“Something else is motivating him, obviously,” Hamano said.

From Indiana To Vietnam To Hilo

Rosdil grew up in a largely Polish neighborhood in East Chicago, Indiana, in the shadow of oil refineries and steel mills. He came back from the Vietnam War with what he describes as a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder. But he credits a program for veterans like him at Indiana State University for getting him back on track.

When his parents moved to Hilo in the 1970s, he came for the summer, thinking he was going to some place more like Waikiki. But he loved the ocean and the weather, and the chance in a small town to do things as a lawyer, like jury trials, that would require far more dues-paying in a big city.

His first big break as a lawyer came when he won a $240,000 award for a client who claimed he’d been defamed by a local radio personality who called him a “no-good haole.” Over the years, he took on a wide variety of clients – from cowboys laid off by Parker Ranch to a man who got stiffed when his rich wife divorced him.

He made something of a subspecialty of suing other lawyers who he alleged had been less than diligent – in other words, not at all like him.

The common thread is an immersion in details and aggressive – some of his opponents might say over-the-top – advocacy.

“I’ve been doing these kinds of cases since day one,” he said.

He now works alone out of office in a creaky old building in downtown Hilo at the end of a dimly lit hallway. It looks more like the shady digs of a hardboiled detective than the office of a well-to-do attorney.

Stairs leading to Will Rosdil's law office in Hilo
Rosdil operates from a law office in downtown Hilo, only a block or so from where he started his law career. (John Hill/Civil Beat/2023)

Rosdil splayed in one of his office chairs as he recounted how a childhood in industrial Indiana led to a law career in Hilo.

He grew up within a couple of blocks of what was then the world’s largest oil refinery, and was attending a Catholic school, when something happened that would send his life in a different trajectory: His father got a job at an oil refinery in Iran.

The family went from the grim industrial environs of East Chicago to a home with a couple of servants in Iran. Rosdil went to a British school, where he wore a white shirt with a tie and shorts. Classes started at 6 a.m.

Later, when his father got a job in Saudi Arabia, Rosdil attended the American Community School in Beirut.

With a high-quality education, he got into Oberlin College in Ohio. But instead of going to classes, “I basically hitchhiked for a year,” he said. The school asked him not to come back.

Instead, he joined the Army and spent a year in the Demilitarized Zone in Korea and then a year in Vietnam, where he went on patrols every other night for 10 months.

“I was troubled, to say the least, when I got out,” he said.

The program for vets with PTSD helped and he graduated from college. He got married, and his wife suggested he go to law school. He chose the University of New Mexico, because the school paid for everything and even arranged a teaching job for his then-wife.

His parents by that time had moved to Hilo. He had not seen them for several years during the time he dropped out of school and joined the military. But after a year of law school, he was no longer “the wayward son” and they invited him out for a visit in 1970. Few in his family had made it past high school, much less law school.

A Sleepy, Rainy Town

Instead of Waikiki, he found a sleepy town where “there wasn’t a McDonald’s. I’m not sure there was a stoplight.” The big excitement that year was the opening of a J.C. Penney’s.

But even though it “rained for 40 days and 40 nights,” he took to the weather and the ocean. And when he graduated from law school, he accepted a job with the firm now known as Carlsmith Ball, founded in Hilo in 1857, where he had worked during his summers in law school.

But he lasted only three years and in 1976, set out on his own.

“I don’t think Will is a corporate kind of guy,” Hamano said. He’s less inclined than some lawyers to get along with everyone else in the firm – more of “an independent guy who calls all the shots.”

His first big break on his own was the case of Water Pacheco, a Hilo radio personality

Newspaper account of William De La Mare's lawsuit against Walter Pacheco
Hawaii newspapers covered William De La Mare’s lawsuit against radio personality Water Pacheco. (Screenshot/Newspapers.com)

Rosdil’s client was William De La Mare, who owned a couple of clothing and gift shops that also sold gear for smoking marijuana – head shops.

Pacheco and De La Mare got crossways when the businessman refused to advertise on the KHLO radio station, according to media accounts at the time.

In his lawsuit, De La Mare alleged that Pacheco went on air and called him a “no-good haole” who “no like local people” and ran a “hippie store” that sold “pupule” (crazy) things.

Pacheco said De La Mare “takes advantage of local people,” according to the lawsuit. The radio station did not produce a recording of the 1975 radio show, but De La Mare jotted down notes on a paper bag while listening to the broadcast.

As a result, De La Mare alleged, he’d been threatened and lost business. The stress caused his separation with his wife, and perhaps because of the negative publicity, burglars ransacked his stores.

A jury awarded De La Mare $240,000. He eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount after Pacheco appealed to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Rosdil got a writ requiring the owners of the station to sell a property in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to satisfy the judgment. It turned out the Michigan sheriff’s deputy he contacted was someone he had gone out on patrols with him in Vietnam. He got the money and his fees were enough to help grow the firm.

A Short-Changed Husband And Some Stiffed Cowboys

Rosdil took on a wide variety of cases over the years.

One client was a young man who’d gotten divorced from his rich wife. Rosdil said the ex-wife’s law firm had found the man a lawyer, who got him almost nothing in the divorce settlement. But Rosdil was later able to reveal what the first attorney had not – that the ex-wife was worth $20 million, making his client eligible for half of that. When a judge awarded him a couple million dollars, Rosdil thought he should push for the full $10 million. But the client’s family convinced him it was enough.

He represented Parker Ranch cowboys in wrongful termination suits after a new supervisor brought in to cut costs started slashing benefits and laying them off.

One case involved a truck driver who died in an accident caused by a runaway truck exit that had been designed improperly. Rosdil won his family $147,182.

Another client was a student at Hawaii Preparatory Academy who was the victim of a severe hazing. Rosdil’s firm also handled the case of a man who with his wife had sought marriage counseling, only to have his wife take up with the counselor.

One of the common threads has been Rosdil’s willingness — in fact love — of going to trial in front of a jury. He estimates that he lost only one jury verdict in maybe 50 trials, although judges sometimes altered or set aside the judgments. In effect, Rosdil said, the judges in those cases were saying “You somehow had the ability to inspire insanity in these people. You made an argument that appealed to their emotions.”

Despite a sometimes “abrasive personality,” Wessel said, Rosdil excels at ingratiating himself with juries.

“It’s not what you expect,” Wessel said. “He’s very courteous in front of the jury.”

Rosdil was so in love with trials, in fact, that after he “retired” in the early 2000s, he pursued an interest in film-making, reasoning that it required some of the same skills he had used to impress juries. He and his current wife relocated to the East Coast so he could study at the New York Film Academy. He learned that film-making involved far more than an instinct for the dramatics of a courtroom. But he did manage to sell a treatment that he wrote in one of his classes involving a Big Island judge.

A Call From A Judge

Rosdil had whittled down his practice to a half dozen cases still on appeal in 2012 or ‘13, when Judge Glenn Hara called him during a court recess. Rosdil had told Hara that he was willing to represent clients who could not afford to pay. Now Hara was hearing a case of a man who was facing a reverse mortgage foreclosure for allegedly failing to make repairs. The judge wanted to know if Rosdil was still willing.

“‘I want you to represent him, I don’t want you to charge him, I want you to do it pro bono’,” Rosdil recalls Hara saying. “So I said OK.”

Rosdil looked through the files and concluded, “We win.” Nutter appealed and Rosdil won again.

Eventually, he found out about the two other cases involving Nutter borrowers.

Rosdil has not only covered the costs of the extensive litigation himself – he has helped the clients in other ways. In the case of Elton Namahoe, who recently prevailed in the Hawaii Supreme Court, he’s connected his client with medical coverage and a social worker, Wessel said.

He’s filled out paperwork to get him into housing and made sure his Social Security checks followed. He even got Namahoe a cell phone so they could communicate more easily, Wessel said, though that turned out to be a dead end when the client didn’t take to it.

It’s not as if Rosdil has taken a vow of poverty to help clients. He admits he’s done very well. He and his wife of 35 years, a successful artist who was born in North Vietnam, live in a house in the woods near Volcano with banks of windows and skylights, and a wraparound porch, to keep things cheery despite 200 inches a year of rain.

Will Rosdil at his home in Volcano
Will Rosdil finds a refuge in his light-filled house in Volcano, where his wife has an art studio. (John Hill/Civil Beat/2023)

Still, Rosdil is perplexed by his failed attempts to get big-name lawyers to sign on as co-counsel in his Nutter cases. All they wanted to talk about was how much money the case might be worth and whether the clients might die before they conclude, he said.

“Lawyers have some duty to these people who are injured,” Rosdil said.

Not ‘Part Of The Club’

Unlike some lawyers, Rosdil is not known as a “pillar of the community,” Wessel said, or as someone with extensive political connections.

“I don’t think they respect him,” Wessel said. “He’s not part of the club, necessarily.”

But Hamano sees a funny kind of appreciation from lawyers on the other side.

“In a strange, paradoxical way, they appreciate Will because he gives them so much work,” he said.

But there’s more to it than that: “I think there’s a high level of respect they have for a guy that is so tenacious,” he said.

And for local clients, his outsider status can be a selling point. He’s not a part of anyone’s good old boy network.

“They feel that someone like him who’s not local is more effective as an attorney,” Hamano said.

Elton Namahoe at the nursing home where he now lives
After he lost his house in a foreclosure, Elton Namahoe lived in a van and on the beach. He now lives in a nursing home. (Courtesy: Will Rosdil/2023)

It helps that they know how willing he is to go the distance, as he did in the Namahoe case. “Most people wouldn’t have gone that far,” Hamano said.

Indeed, throughout Rosdil’s career, “All the opposition knew very well that he was willing to go to trial and that’s very important.”

Rosdil says he has no illusions, though, about how the lawyers on the other side feel about him.

“I can tell you, they don’t like me,” he said. He thinks they see him as overly aggressive, even though Namahoe “went from nothing to this. What did I do wrong?”

In one of his two remaining Nutter cases, Rosdil is awaiting a response from the Hawaii Supreme Court on his writ of mandamus to remove the judge for what Rosdil describes as a litany of failures. The next step in the Namahoe case, meanwhile, is for the Supreme Court to remand it to a Circuit Court judge.

Rosdil intends to see them through. It’s hard to imagine him ever quitting. Wessel recalls a friend many years ago saying he would skip Rosdil’s retirement party.

“I’ll go to the next one,” the friend said.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author