Worth Fighting For
Oleg Roytman on democracy, civil rights, and Ukraine
Published in 2022 Oklahoma Super Lawyers magazine on October 17, 2022
“To understand what drew me to the law, you have to understand where I came from,” says Oleg Roytman.
Roytman and his parents fled their hometown of Donetsk, Ukraine, in 1980 when opportunities seemed to dry up and after increased acts of antisemitism began to terrify his parents. “Jewish people were being discriminated against severely, and the U.S. put pressure on the Russian government to help with the evacuation,” he says. “Thank God we were one of the families.”
Roytman’s father, an accomplished Russian doctor, had long grown frustrated with the Communist system. “There’s no fairness, and there’s always corruption,” Roytman says. “My dad worked his butt off his whole life and couldn’t even afford his own apartment. He was ready to leave.”
When the family arrived in Rockaway, Queens, when he was 3, Roytman didn’t speak any English. The family settled into a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood, presenting another language barrier. “Looking back now, it makes me laugh—but I didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Spanish,” he says. “We lived there for three years, and I couldn’t go out. I had no one to play with, and I felt very isolated.”
As his father worked to regain his board certification and medical license, Cold War resentment in the U.S. had reached a fever pitch, and he felt the backlash. “But,” Roytman says, “he was eventually offered a residency here in Oklahoma, and the people accepted our family. I’ve been here ever since.”
Aside from Oleg having to re-do first grade—“My English command at that point was solely from watching Captain Kangaroo”—the Roytmans thrived in Oklahoma. “Although, my mother was disappointed when she realized how small Oklahoma City was,” Roytman adds. “In Donetsk, and in New York, there were people everywhere. She’d always say, ‘But where is everybody?’”
As Roytman navigated his new world, he’d often reflect upon his old one. “Thinking about the backdrop of corruption my parents grew up against, and thinking about Putin and his regime, the way he controls the media and consolidates power … all of that has made me a deep believer in democracy and fairness,” he says. “The law was a natural fit.”
So is his practice at Tulsa’s Smolen Roytman: “I’ve only represented individuals in plaintiff’s work against bigger systems because here, in this country, at least there is recourse.”
While Roytman cut his teeth on personal injury and workers’ compensation, in the past decade his firm has been making a name for itself in civil rights, particularly with prisoners’ rights and excessive use-of-force cases against the police.
Roytman and partner Daniel Smolen won the state’s largest civil rights jury verdict in 2019 on behalf of Elliott Williams, a U.S. veteran with no criminal record, who suffered a mental health crisis in 2011 and was arrested by Owasso police at a hotel where he was threatening suicide.
“In the course of the arrest and his arrival at Tulsa County jail, Elliott broke his neck,” Roytman says. “The jail guard and medical staff all thought he was faking his injuries, so they pull him, naked, into a room that is video-surveilled for observation. This video is something like you’ve never seen before. You keep praying someone will come to help, but no one does.”
For 55 hours, Williams lay, unmoving, on the floor as jail staff would set food and water close to his body so that he’d have to reach and get it, thus “proving” he wasn’t paralyzed. After five days, Williams died of complications of spinal injuries, starvation and dehydration. “The dehumanization of this man was unconscionable,” says Roytman.
The jury delivered a $10 million verdict. “Oklahoma is a very conservative state, but the people know right from wrong,” Roytman says. “This was a case of defiant injustice.”
Roytman feels blessed to live in Oklahoma, but these days it’s hard not to think about his hometown of Donetsk, which he says has been “all but leveled” due to the Russian invasion.
“In my town, there is nothing to go back to now,” he says. “I, too, was one of those people who thought Russia would roll in and take control in a week, but if you think about the history of why Russia wants Ukraine, it’s Ukraine’s embrace of democracy and Western ideals. … They’ve got a Jewish president, which alone is incredible. Once you’ve had a taste of that freedom, it’s hard to give it up. That’s worth fighting for.”