17 Years in Prison for Divorce Fraud

BarristerCalifornia businessman Steven Zinnel, age 50, thought he could get away with cheating his wife, his two teenage children, and the bankruptcy court, but he was wrong….boy was he wrong!

Zinnel and his wife, of Gold River, separated in 1999. By 2001 their uncoupling got even more ugly when he told his wife she would get nothing, no assets or support because he was filing for bankruptcy.

Zinnel systematically funnelled millions of dollars into the names of other persons and true to his word, filed for voluntary bankruptcy in 2005. He also laundered money through shell corporations in order to conceal his true income.

Shockingly, he did all this with the assistance of lawyer, Derian Eidson, age 50, who used her trust account, her personal account and a corporation she owned to return the funds to Zinnel after his discharge from bankruptcy.

But he didn’t stop there…Zinnel went on to initiate an FBI investigation of his ex-wife, displaying a hatred that knew no bounds and that eventually led to his own demise.

In the course of the investigation, authorities uncovered Mr. Zinnel’s bankruptcy and divorce fraud. Before U.S. District Court Judge Troy Nunley he was sentenced to 17 years and eight months in prison, fined $500,000, and ordered to disgorge the sum of $2.8 million to the state.

Judge Nunley in bankruptcy court and the 3rd District Court of Appeal in respect of his divorce matter condemned Zinnel for his narcissistic arrogance, and found that while he was articulate and charismatic he used those traits for his own selfish purposes.

Yorba Linda lawyer Ms. Eidson, was disbarred and sentenced to 10 years and one month in prison for money laundering. She was also fined $200,000. Her undoing began when she commenced an intimate relationship with Zinnel and became a victim of her own greed.

As for Mr. Zinnel, his phone call to his son when first imprisoned shows that he still doesn’t get it…he told his son that he was “railroaded” and blamed his ex-wife!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Even Divorce Lawyers Can’t Afford to Hire a Divorce Lawyer

It should come as no surprise to anyone that most Canadians cannot afford a lawyer. In fact, lawyers often joke that if they had to pay a lawyer, they too couldn’t afford it. Nowhere is this dilemma more obvious than in family courts.

It is now commonplace to see self-represented litigants dueling with lawyers in most of our family courts in Canada. In British Columbia a parent or spouse can apply for custody and child and spousal support in the Provincial Court, which is purposely “user-friendly”. The Provincial Family Courts across Canada have successfully implemented reforms including plain-language court documents that are readily decipherable by lay litigants. The judges in Provincial Court are accustomed to hearing cases without lawyers and graciously assist those who act for themselves.

However, to obtain a divorce or property division, the only venue is each province’s Supreme Court, sometimes called “Queen’s Bench”, a most inhospitable environment for in-person litigants.

In a 2011 survey of Ontario divorce lawyers, conducted by Professor Nick Bala of Queen’s University Law School, he found that 48% of 167 responding lawyers indicated they were seeing many cases with at least one lay litigant and more cases where at some point in the litigation, neither party had counsel.

As family law becomes increasingly more complicated, despite the Canadian government’s sensible introduction of both Child Support Guidelines in 1997 and Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines in 2006, there are minefields enough for lawyers, never mind those who are forced to act as their own lawyer.

Will a lay litigant understand that in calculating their income for the payment of child support they must consider and understand complex nuances such as the possibility of the exclusion of non-recurring income; the need to include all of their capital gains income in their calculation and not just the portion they see on page two of their tax return; and their ability to deduct business expenses, union or professional dues and carrying costs? I doubt it. Not all lawyers have figured it out yet!

But affordability is not the only reason litigants refuse to retain counsel. There is another group of litigants who believe they can handle their divorce case just as well as a lawyer can. This smaller segment often become serial litigators who, because it costs them nothing, bring multiple frivolous applications, although some would say that lawyers do the same thing! Often when offered pro bono counsel, they decline.

Problems abound for all involved in the family justice system in the wake of the impact of lay litigants. Judges who must ensure that justice is both done, and seen to be done, are at the centre of the dilemma. If they provide too much help for an in-person litigant, that litigant’s spouse will see it as an unfair advantage and often, the court Rules that govern court procedures are less stringently enforced when it comes to litigants with no lawyer.

As well, litigants that pay for their own lawyer often become disenchanted with their counsel when they see their lawyer “helping” their estranged spouse who has no counsel. Lawyers are bound to treat participants in the justice system with courtesy and respect, traits that are frequently misconceived as their lawyer being “too friendly” with their opponent. Fee-paying litigants resent their lawyer telling their spouse what the law is or how the court process works.

For lawyers the problems are multiplied. They must walk a fine line in dealing with an unrepresented spouse and must ensure that all communication with an in-person litigant is documented in writing, with no exceptions. Of course, their clients are even more unhappy since it is their clients who pay the bills for the extra time and effort required to work with a lay litigant.

Lay litigants have also been known to send abusive communication to their spouse’s lawyer and from time to time, report their spouse’s lawyer to the Law Society, a complaint which can cost a lawyer hours of wasted time to respond to the often ill-founded allegations.

Is there a cure? They say that recognizing a problem is the first step to solving it. Certainly, the issue can no longer be avoided. It has taken centre stage as a result of lawyers, judges, court administrators, law professors, lawmakers, and the Canadian public decrying the slow demise of Canada’s family justice system.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judge Presides Over His Own Divorce Case

GeorgiaLeeLang016

How would you feel if your jurist husband filed for divorce and coincidentally had his divorce petition assigned to his courtroom?  Hard to believe, but that is exactly what occurred with Texas Judge Miguel (Mike) Herrara.

 

In Judge Herrara’s discipline hearing he acknowledged that the same day he filed his divorce petition he learned it had been assigned to his courtroom. He didn’t think it was a problem because he and his wife, Melissa Carrasco were “trying to save the marriage and he did not want to do anything on the case”. (In my 28 years of practicing family law I have never seen a litigant file a divorce petition, while seriously “trying to save the marriage”).

He explained that he saw his role in the divorce as that of a husband, not an attorney or judge and justified his behaviour, saying:

“I did not care to place my family in the same position as other litigants find themselves, in conflicts and court hearings, which, for the most part only benefit the attorneys financially. It is really sad and embarrassing to see the reputation of some of the litigants being dragged in the mud in these court proceedings.”

Judge Herrara’s breach of ethics may have escaped scrutiny if he and his wife reconciled, but that didn’t happen. Instead, she retained lawyer Angelica Carreon who filed a counter-petition for divorce against Judge Herrara.

This did not please the judge who asked his wife why she was involving Ms. Carreon  who he alleged did not like  him. In his testimony he admitted that he refused to recognize the “legitimacy” of Ms. Carreon’s representation because she had improperly solicited his wife as her client, had campaigned against him during judicial elections, and was “dishonest, unethical and unreasonable”.

Several months after the judge’s original filing he terminated his divorce petition, leaving his wife’s counter-petition to be determined. At this stage, Ms.  Carrasco’s lawyer filed a motion requesting the judge to produce certain documents. Judge Herrara responded by filing a motion in his court for an order to extend the time beyond the normal time-frame for responding to the document request. He also filed a motion for a protective order.

Again, Judge Herrara did not recognize the absurdity of filing motions in his own court, saying that he did nothing wrong as he did not rule on the motions. But that wasn’t the end of his problems. His wife’s lawyer began filing motions requesting that he recuse himself from officiating over a number of other cases that were scheduled to be heard in his courtroom. Ms. Carreon alleged that Judge Herrara could not be fair and unbiased, because of the difficult professional relationship that had developed between them over her representation of Ms. Carrasco.

Many of the recusal motions were resolved by moving the cases to another judge, but several others remained in his courtroom and were not referred out. But, Herrara wasn’t done yet. He filed yet another motion to intervene in certain recusal cases because he wanted his views to be heard by the court. He testified that if he agreed to recuse himself he would be admitting the truth of Ms. Carreon’s allegations and would suffer at the polls in the next election.

The Texas Discipline Commission found that Judge Herrara failed to comply with the law, demonstrated a lack of professional competence, and engaged in wilful and persistent conduct that was inconsistent with his judicial duties.

They also determined that Judge Herrara showed no genuine remorse and continued to believe his conduct was justified.

His discipline? Six hours of instruction with a “mentor”. In 2016 he was re-elected for an additional four-year term.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

When Will Our Judges Speak Out Forcefully Against Perjury?

_DSC4851In yet another British Columbia family law decision, the court fails to denounce, in the strongest terms, a litigant whose testimony is rife with lies. Yes, this judge addresses credibility, but in the same anemic way that permeates most family law cases, namely ” I accept the evidence of the claimant where it differs from the evidence of the respondent.”

That’s it, no rebuke, no censure, not even an award of special costs, despite the litigant’s devious conduct requiring untold extra preparation and court time to present a narrative that is flagrantly false, requiring a robust defence….yes, a rebuttal to a pack of lies.

Ngo v. Do 2017 BCSC 83 focuses on the breakdown of the marriage of a Vietnamese couple who agreed they married and immigrated to Canada in 1994. From that point on the parties’ evidence is sharply divergent.

He said their marriage ended two years later, in 1996, while she maintained they lived together as husband and wife in the family home in East Vancouver until their separation in 2012. When asked where he lived after 1996, since he alleged he did not live with his wife and children,  he was unable to provide a single address, except to say that he lived in East Vancouver with a friend.

When asked to explain how it was that he and his wife added three additional children to their union after his alleged departure in 1996, he acknowledged that despite the shattering of the bonds of matrimony, they remained intimate with one another.

The date of separation was critical to a determination of the wife’s interest in two homes, a crab boat, and a license to catch crab. Ms. Ngo testified their first home was purchased in 2000 and became the family home where she and her husband raised the children, for all but one year of their marriage.  She believed the home was registered in her husband’s name. Not so, said Mr. Do. He testified that the home’s owner was Mr. Den Van Ta, who he said he barely knew, although he had earlier said Den Van Ta was”like a brother” to him.

A second home in Maple Ridge was purchased in 2004, however, Mr. Do said it was purchased by his cousin, Kevin Phan. He testified that he lived with the children in the home from 2004 to 2008 rent-free and that Ms. Ngo was not permitted to live there. Ms. Ngo gave evidence that her husband told her the second home was rented out, but in 2006 he moved the family to the second home for a year, advising her that it was a more convenient location to travel to his employment in Maple Ridge.

Eventually the Maple Ridge home was registered in Mr. Do’s name. He explained that his cousin took pity on him and gifted the property to him in 2007. However, land title documents described the transaction as a cash sale for $445,000, subject to his cousin’s existing mortgage. Mr. Do sold the Maple Ridge home in 2009 netting $145,000 in profit.

Mr. Do’s lucky streak continued. He advised the court that the first home in East Vancouver was later gifted to him by Mr. Den Van Ta. The statement of adjustments described the transfer as a “gift of equity from the seller to the buyer in the amount of $269,000.” He also purchased a vessel and crab license sharing the cost equally with Mr. Den Van Ta, who, no surprise here, later gifted his one-half interest in their crab business to Mr. Do, gratis, for free.

The parties’ two eldest children corroborated Ms. Ngo’s evidence, while Mr. Den Van Ta was called to back up Mr. Do’s version of events with respect to the first home and the crab business. He was less than impressive. Mr. Phan was not called to testify leaving the court to draw an adverse inference.

The outcome? Mr. Do’s evidence was rejected and all the family property was shared equally. However, nowhere does the court suggest that Mr. Do’s perjured testimony is an abuse of process or of such a character as to bring the administration of justice into disrepute. Can anybody reason why Ms. Ngo was not awarded special costs, which is a full reimbursement of every penny she paid to her lawyer to respond to her husband’s pernicious lies? The court’s apparent trivialization of perjury by failing to award  special costs to Ms. Ngo sends a strong message to litigants that perjury is acceptable.

Pulitzer prize-winning author James B. Stewart succinctly writes in “Tangled Webs: How False Statements are Undermining America”: “Our judicial system rests on an honor code: “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Perjury is not acceptable behaviour.”

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Christmas Parenting Conflicts

GEO CASUAL

Christmas is supposed to be the happiest time of the year, but we know that for some it is a lonely, regretful time, remembering the sorrows of seasons past.

In homes divided by separation and divorce, the areas of conflict arise from the dynamics of struggling to ensure you see your children, and the difficult discussions between former spouses about sharing their children’s holiday time.

When former spouses remarry and introduce new partners into the family, it is not unusual to hear complaints of resentment and  recrimination focused on the new stepmother or stepfather.

Perhaps one of the most annoying irritants is hearing  8-year-old Johnny call his father’s new partner “Mom”.  An unkinder cut is hard to imagine for newly divorced parents.

One parent was so disturbed she asked a judge to intervene to stop her young son from calling her ex-husband’s fiancee “Mom”.  She was also opposed to her ex’s girlfriend having increased input into her son’s life.

In this case the parents shared legal custody but Johnny lived primarily with his father. New Jersey Judge Lawrence Jones found that both parents and father’s fiancee contributed to Johnny’s well-being, but noted that while the fiancee’s opinions were welcome, it was up to Johnny’s biological parents to make decisions for Johnny.

However,  the Judge declared that it was up to Johnny to decide how he wished to refer to his parents and his father’s fiancee, mainly because the young boy was mature enough to decide for himself. The Court said:

“At this challenging point in his growth and development, he certainly does not need his parents, or a stepparent, or the court, hoisting further unnecessary burdens upon his fragile shoulders by micromanaging his words and thoughts, or commanding him how to address his stepparent in order to please his mother or father.”

I’m sure Johnny’s mother thought the decision was unfair to her, but the reality is that it is not about her feelings, it’s about her son’s self-determination and development.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It All Seemed So Good: Toronto Neurosurgeon Arrested for Murder of Wife

GeorgiaLeeLang025Mohammed Shamji had it all:  a beautiful wife, who was herself a family doctor, three lovely children, and a PhD from Duke University in biomedical engineering, which paved the way for his reputation as a world-renowned neurosurgeon. But the family was hiding a secret…according to news reports, the Shamji’s had visits from the police more than once for allegations of domestic violence and neighbours reportedly heard them fighting.

Tragically the ultimate weapon for men that engage in family violence was unleashed when Dr. Sahmji, age 40, allegedly murdered his wife, Elana Fric-Shamji last week in their garage. He was arrested on Friday and is in police custody charged with first degree murder. The media reports that Dr. Shamji placed her body in a suitcase and dropped her  beside a river in suburban Toronto, where she was found the day before her husband was arrested.  The coroner determined she died from strangulation and blunt force trauma.

It is impossible to pigeon-hole Dr. Shamji as he does not fall within the typical profile of a husband (or wife) who murders their partner, which includes severe mental illness, previous felony convictions, lower intelligence, and more cognitive impairment than in other types of murders. However, eschewing political correctness,  it may well be that his cultural upbringing played a role.

The killing of a female intimate partner or spouse is referred to as “uxoricide”. Statistics reveal that of 2,340 partner murders in America in 2007, female victims made up 70%. In South-East Asia 55% of all murdered women died at the hands of their partner, in Africa it is 40%, and 38% in the Americas. It is reported that approximately 7 women are killed per month in England and Wales, 4 women per month in Australia, and in the United States it is 76 women per month.

Dr. Elana Fric-Shamji had recently filed for divorce and expressed relief that she was on her way to a new life. This stage of separation is the most dangerous time for women. Her last tweet on November 27, 2016 was lively and upbeat, displaying a photo of her and a fellow female physician. Her children have now been placed with their maternal grandparents. How very sad…

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judge’s Decision Results in Tragedy

BarristerHave you ever thought about how judges make decisions? Frankly, I rarely think about this as my focus is simply on persuading a judge to see it my way. But learned scholars have studied and researched the psychology of judicial decision-making with interesting results.

The authors of “Blinking on the Bench: How Judges Make Decisions”* say that judges are predominantly intuitive decision makers, a characteristic that unfortunately can lead to flawed decisions. Of course, some intuitive decisions are accurate, but as between those kind of decisions and  the more academically rigorous “deliberation” method,  acting on gut feelings or hunches can be a dangerous way to adjudicate matters of critical importance to participants in the justice system.

A case this week out of Madison, Kentucky highlights the impact of judges’ “getting it right”.

Local prosecutor Chad Lewis was in court in Madison on October 6, 2016 seeking an arrest warrant against Laura Russell’s husband, Anthony Russell, age 51. The couple was divorcing and it was going far from well. Charged in August 2016 with strangulation and domestic battery for allegedly attacking his wife on several occasions. Mr. Russell was out on bond of $500.00 and subject to a restraining order, that he apparently ignored.

This court appearance was scheduled after Ms. Russell advised the police that her husband was continuously stalking her. She was upset, intimidated and frightened.

Judge Michael Hensley presided at the hearing, however, he refused to issue a warrant for Mr. Russell’s arrest and instead issued a summons requiring Mr. Russell to attend court on  October 11, 2016 after the three-day long weekend.

Mr. Russell did not show up at court on October 11 and neither did his estranged wife. They were both dead. Mr. Russell went to Ms. Russell’s home on October 7 and stabbed her multiple times. He then  committed suicide, blowing his head off with a pistol…a tragedy that devastated Judge Hensley.

The judge released a statement to the press expressing his condolences to Ms. Russell’s family, saying he felt “horrible about her death” and understood that his sincere regret would not “bring her back”. He explained that he didn’t believe there was “probable cause” to issue a warrant and said “I made what I thought to be the correct legal decision…obviously I made a decision that had the most tragic result possible”.

Prosecutor Lewis criticized Judge Hensley for failing to accede to his request for a warrant for stalking. Meanwhile, Ms. Russell’s lawyer suggested that it was Mr. Lewis’ fault as he could have asked for a warrant for multiple breaches of the restraining order, instead of seeking a probable cause hearing for a new charge of stalking.

Judge Hensley also announced that he would institute a new procedure in respect of arrest warrants, by ensuring that a hearing be scheduled for the day the warrant request is made.

 Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

*Chris Guthrie,  Jeffrey J. Rachlinski & Andrew J. Wistrich