The Curse of the In-Person Litigant

GEO_edited-1I guess I’ve been lucky because I have never had to do a trial where the opposing party acted in person, “pro se”, as they call it in the United States.

Why lucky? Because some of the worst trial horror stories involve litigants acting for themselves while their spouse has to pay a lawyer hundreds of dollars an hour to respond to often marginally relevant or unreasonable litigation tactics.

A good example is the case of G.T. v A.T. 2014 NY Slip Op 24035 where Mr. T., a well-educated engineer, just short a few credits for his doctorate degree, turned what should have been a three-day trial into a 12-day debacle.

Judge H. Patrick Leis III of the New York Supreme Court described Mr. T.’s behaviour in the opening paragraph of his Reasons:

“This case highlights the difficulties that arise when one party uses their self-represented status as both a sword and a shield in an attempt to gain undue advantage and behaves in a manner that the court would never tolerate from an attorney. The manner in which the defendant presented his minimal evidence, fueled by his own emotional agenda, lacked direction, reason and oftentimes was totally devoid of probative value.”

In many family law cases a case management judge is assigned to deal with all pretrial matters and preside over the trial. Such was the case in G.T. v. A.T., where Mr. T. and his wife brought their procedural issues to Judge Leis for resolution.

During this 18-month period Mr. T. expressed his satisfaction to the Court with the way these preliminary matters were handled.

Nothing Mr. T. said pretrial could have foretold the application he brought when the trial commenced.

With almost no notice to his wife’s lawyer, Mr. T. argued that Judge Leis should recuse (remove) himself as the trial judge because he had been “disrespectful of the parties’ culture and faith, repeatedly pressuring Mr. T. to retain counsel with coercion and threats”.

Mr. T.’s complaints of judicial threats were held to be without foundation, Judge Leis pointing out that he was in receipt of five letters from Mr. T., all glowing with praise of the judge’s pretrial rulings. Remarkably it was Mr. T. who was disrespectful, advising the judge that if he did not recuse himself he would report him to the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

But that was just Day 1. Mr. T. wasted additional court time with a rambling, unfocused, and mainly irrelevant opening statement, the gist of which was his desire to reconcile with his wife.

He then cross-examined his long-suffering wife for four days, ignoring the Court’s direction that he should ask questions of her, not deliver time-consuming, self-serving statements.

He also disregarded the Judge’s evidentiary rulings and even after admonishment carried on with lines of questioning that were beyond the scope of the trial. He refused to abandon his recusal argument and raised issues about orders pronounced by the court months before. Worst of all, he was rude and nasty, shouting aggressively at his wife and her lawyer.

Of course, the main victim of his flagrant abuse of the court system was his wife, who had to take an additional nine days of holiday from her workplace to complete what should have been a three-day trial, and was now subject to ever-increasing legal fees.

Interestingly, Mr. T. had quit his job shortly after the couple separated, a tactic that was futile, since Judge Leis imputed $120,000 income to him, despite his refusal to work.

Unfortunately, short of finding a belligerent litigant in contempt of court, all a judge can do is award costs. That’s just what Judge Leis did, saying:

“Simple justice dictates that the defendant who chooses to function from a position of anger and resentment, not be allowed to purposely drive up the plaintiff’s counsel fees and act in such an inappropriate manner, without being made responsible for all of the trial fees. Therefore, in an exercise of this court’s discretion, the defendant is responsible for all of the plaintiff’s counsel fees for trial.”

You think Mr. T. is done with court proceedings? Think again…there’s always the appeal court.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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One thought on “The Curse of the In-Person Litigant

  1. My ex-husband did this. He is an attorney himself. He dragged me through the court for two years (my divorce took more than 3 years and cost me more than $300,000 in attorney fees). I had a three-day court trial, though I had been in court many times prior to this. It was a nightmare. In the final judgement, the judge acknowledged that my ex was making outlandish demands to drive up my attorney fees and drag out the divorce.

    I could write a book about my experience being cross-examined by him. Imagine that, being cross-examined by your ex-husband for hours and hours. The judge ended up cutting him off.

    I’m glad someone finally wrote about this tactic. It’s abysmal and shouldn’t be allowed. He never even produced his tax returns either, but I produced probably 10,000 pages of documents before it was all over. I could go on an on. It’s an abuse of the system. The first judge awarded me some attorney fees; the last judge didn’t, but forced him to pay other money that compensated me for 1/3 of them.

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