In 1814 British scholar and writer Henry Kett wrote “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client”, a truism if there ever was one, and later adopted by the Supreme Court of the United States who wrote “the adage that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client” is the product of years of experience by seasoned litigators. (Kay v. Ehrler, 499 US 432, 437 (1991)
A classic example of the danger of acting “pro se” or for one’s self is illustrated by Anthony Zappin, a 30-year-old New York lawyer who made the disastrous mistake of acting for himself in his own divorce.
Married to lawyer Claire Comfort in 2013, the couple separated shortly after their son was born. Zappin’s path to self-destruction began after he entered into a consent order dated November 2013 where he agreed to have no contact with his wife and supervised access to his son.
In April 2014 Superior Court Judge Anthony Epstein found that a motion filed by Mr. Zappin was “replete with intemperate and uncivil language…redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous”. Judge Epstein also criticized his counsel skills, a comment that Zappin, a junior lawyer, took great exception to.
In May 2014 Judge Epstein rendered a further decision throwing out Zappin’s application that he reconsider his prior ruling. By this time, Mr. Zappin’s bad behavior was escalating as evidenced by the handwritten note he attached to his reconsideration motion that read “You’re pathetic! (Judicial Complaint Forthcoming)
On March 3, 2015, Justice Deborah A. Kaplan rendered oral reasons in open court that apparently displeased attorney Zappin. When she concluded she asked Mr. Zappin if there were any other matters for her to consider. He answered:
MR. ZAPPIN: I just want to make it known on the record that I am tired of the lies coming from the court and tainting of the record, knowing full well this is going to go to the Appellate Division. And we’re gonna be in the Appellate Division tomorrow, getting a stay, and then we’ll go back down to D.C. on Friday, and we’re going to open up to Ms. Comfort’s domestic violence petition, and we’re gonna have a hearing down there in from of Judge Blant, because that’s who she lied to, saying that she filed the motion and we’ll have him make a finding of domestic violence. So that’s all I have to say.
THE COURT: Are you finished?
MR. ZAPPIN: Oh, I’m finished, your Honor.
Penning the disciplinary judgment in respect of Anthony Zappin, Justice Matthew F. Cooper wrote:
(Zappin’s) “contemptuous remarks directed towards Justice Kaplan — made to her face in her own courtroom in front of attorneys, litigants and court staff — were not restricted to the statements quoted above. Without reciting the other deeply personal, and frankly outrageous, verbal attacks that plaintiff launched against Justice Kaplan when he was before her on March 3, 2015, they can only be described as words not said in civil discourse, let alone ones that should ever be uttered by an attorney to a judge in the context of a court proceeding.”
But Justice Kaplan was just one of Mr. Zappin’s victims. He also targeted a lawyer ordered by the court to represent his son’s interests, regaling her with scathing comments. Later he established a domain site in her name and on this website wrote missives like:
“Harriet You’re a very sick and greedy woman. I pray for you and hope you seek help. Also, “I intend to keep the public apprised of your misconduct and disturbing behavior.”
The child’s lawyer retained a court ordered psychiatrist to provide expert testimony, a task that was met with Mr. Zappin’s pernicious complaint to the psychiatrist’s professional organization, and although quickly dismissed, caused considerable anxiety and harm to the innocent expert.
Most damaging, however, was Justice Cooper’s conclusion that Mr. Zappin’s “ill-advised behaviour seriously calls into question his fitness to practice law” and indicates a “personality that makes (him) incapable of properly parenting the parties’ child”.
Zappin was fined $10,000. The trial to resolve the issues takes place in November 2015. After all this, one can only hope Zappin finally hires a lawyer.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang