How “Uncivil” Can a Lawyer be in Court? The Groia Case

GEO_edited-1If you are a litigator in Canada you should know the name “Joe Groia”. He is a masterful legal advocate from Ontario who specializes in securities law. His prominence in the legal profession was capped this week when Groia v. The Law Society of Upper Canada (now the Law Society of Ontario) was argued before the Supreme Court of Canada. (Law Society of Upper Canada v. Joseph Peter Paul Groia, 2012 ONLSHP 94)

Why is Mr. Groia suing Ontario’s Law Society and why would the Supreme Court of Canada agree to hear his case? In June 2012 the Law Society held that Mr. Groia had professionally misconducted himself while defending his client John Felderhof in an action taken against him by the Ontario Securities Commission. You may recall that Mr. Felderhof was second in command at Bre-X Minerals Ltd, the Canadian-owned gold mine in Borneo that turned out to be a fraud, leaving thousands of investors with losses of hundreds of millions of dollars after investing in the bogus company.

Groia’s representation of Mr. Felderhof was second-to-none, as Mr. Felderhof, after 160 days of trial, was acquitted of all charges. However, the Law Society took it upon themselves to call Mr. Groia to account for his allegedly “uncivil” behaviour during the proceedings, conduct so egregious that during the trial, lawyers for the Ontario Securities Commission asked the judge to stop the trial arguing that he had lost jurisdiction by failing to rein in Mr. Groia’s outrageously rude behaviour in the courtroom. That application failed and the trial continued.

Two Ontario courts reviewed and upheld the Law Society’s ruling against Mr. Groia, describing his trial conduct as “unrestrained invective”, excessive rhetoric”, “theatrically excessive”, “sarcastic and petulant”, “more guerrilla theatre than advocacy in court”, and “attacks on the prosecutor’s integrity”.

Nonetheless, it is noteworthy and significant to Mr. Groia’s defence that the trial judge did not hold him in contempt, neither did he report Mr. Groia’s trial behaviour to the Law Society.

Groia, in rebuttal offered the following arguments:

1. He cast no personal aspersions against opposing counsel, but only targeted the Securities Commission and the prosecution;

2. His basis for alleging prosecutorial misconduct was based on his reasonably held views;

3. His language was mischaracterized by the Law Society and the courts;

4. The tone of the trial was an important factor in assessing his conduct, particularly in light of the prosecutor’s behaviour;

5. The Law Society retroactively applied standards of the “civility movement” to his conduct; and

6. His obligation as an effective advocate outstripped any absence of civility.

Without reading the whole of the transcripts of the trial, it is difficult to assess whether Mr. Groia’s behaviour fell so far below the standard of professionalism of a barrister that he ought to have been sanctioned by the Law Society. His original punishment was a two-month suspension of his license to practice law and an order that he pay costs of $250,000. This penalty was later reduced by the courts to a one-month suspension and $200,000 in costs.

Mr. Groia would, of course, argue that even reading the transcripts one would not be in a position to assess the conduct and roles of each of the counsel and judge at the trial and that may very well be true. It’s the old story that “you had to be there” to understand the dynamics.

Media reports from the hearing in the Supreme Court of Canada this week, appear to underscore the high court’s focus on the absence of disapproval from the trial judge, who was best placed to determine whether Mr. Groia’s conduct sunk to a level where he deserved to be chastised or disciplined.

As a trial lawyer in hard-fought cases, I tend to agree that it is not the Law Society’s place to interfere as a back-seat referee in a hotly contested proceeding where an unsuccessful defence will lead to dire consequences for the accused.

The Supreme Court of Canada clearly wants to provide guidance to litigators. We must now wait to see what the Supremes think…

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I Didn’t Do It: Is There Justice for the Wrongfully Convicted?

_DSC4851My sense of justice really comes unglued when I read about another poor schlep who has spent years in prison for a crime he or she did not commit.

One of the most recent is Romeo Phillion, now 74-years-old, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering Ottawa firefighter, Leopold Roy in 1967. Mr. Phillion spent 31 years behind bars, mainly because of his initial false confession, quickly recanted, which resulted in a plea deal, and the despicable suppression of crucial evidence by the Crown, that would have exculpated Mr. Phillion.

Nothing really important…just uncontroverted evidence known by the Crown, that Romeo Phillion was two hundred kilometres away from the murder scene. You mean he was somewhere else? Yes, that’s right. You mean the real killer is still at large? Yes, again, that’s correct.

It’s a tie as to which family should feel more aggrieved, Mr. Roy’s or Mr. Phillion’s.

While I am a law and order defender, what really galls me is the lack of remorse of police and prosecutors in botched criminal cases. In Mr. Phillion’s case, retired Superintendent John McCombie said “Everything I did, I did according to the law”, also noting that he was “surprised and disappointed”, presumably because Mr. Phillion was set free. The level of arrogance is astounding.

Even with this evidence and Mr. Phillion’s release from prison in 2003, the Crown insisted that he be retried, maintaining this position until 2009 when all charges were dropped. In May 2012 Mr. Phillion filed a $14 million dollar lawsuit, which no doubt will be vigorously opposed by the Crown.

Quebecer Rejean Hinse is another victim who never received an apology. Imprisoned in the 1960’s for an armed robbery conviction, he served eight years of a fifteen year sentence. However, justice was still illusory after the Quebec Court of Appeal quashed his conviction because the Crown, in their wisdom, only entered a “stay of proceedings”.

A “stay” puts the case on hold for one year or permanently, but provides no resolution as to guilt or innocence. Clearly not a satisfactory outcome for an innocent accused.

Mr. Hinse was able to take his case to the Supreme Court of Canada where the Court ruled there was insufficient evidence to convict. Despite his acquittal, he had to fight for financial compensation, finally in 2011 receiving $4.5 million in a settlement with the Quebec government and obtaining a judgment against the federal government of $8.6 million. Not surprisingly, the feds are appealing the order that they pay millions in compensation.

The road to a declaration of innocence is long and tortuous. Of course, Canada is not alone in its reluctance to implement a process where the wrongfully convicted can have speedy access to independent review procedures, DNA testing and the like. Criminal justice reformers have recommended an independent committee, outside of the criminal justice system, to address these horrific cases, a plan that is long overdue.

In a recent Illinois case, 50-year-old Andre Davis, who served 32 years in prison for the 1980 rape and murder of three-year-old Brianna Sickler, was exonerated when it was determined that blood and semen at the crime scene was not Davis’. Nonetheless, State Attorney Julia Reitz could not bring herself to admit the unbelievable injustice of Mr. Davis’ wrongful conviction, instead remarking they would not retry Andre Davis because of the age of the case and deceased or missing witnesses.

While it is difficult to find Canadian statistics on the number of wrongfully convicted, the University of Michigan has established a national registry for the United States where they record 891 wrongfully convicted persons between January 1989 and March 2012.. These numbers do not include another 1,170 victims who were exonerated in “group exonerations”, cases where thirteen separate “police scandals” have resulted in overturned convictions.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be tried and convicted at trial, endure an unsuccessful appeal, perhaps even a further appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, and then languish in prison for dozens of years, for a crime you didn’t commit.

When Rejean Hinse was asked by the media to describe his time in prison, he showed them a picture of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” to explain the utter despair he suffered. No amount of money can atone for a life in prison.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judge Kreep Censured for Courtroom Levity

GeorgiaLeeLang100Judges hold a special place in the community and are expected to adhere to a set of rules and ethical standards that the average Joe or Jane can choose to ignore. But judges also have their own distinct personalities, biases, attitudes, and ideologies, which they labour to keep in check in order to ensure that justice is both done and seen to be done.

Some judges display severe personalities, no off-the-cuff quips and nary a smile adorns their face, while others have effusive, even bubbly personalities and seem to enjoy interacting with lawyers and the public.

A good example of the latter is Judge Gary Kreep of the San Diego Superior Court who, as a newly elected judge, was criticized for the levity he displayed as he presided over the cases that came before him.

He ended up in judicial disciplinary proceedings before the Commission on Judicial Performance over a number of issues related to his election to the bench, and for comments he made in court, most of which were relatively harmless, but could easily be misconstrued.

When a female litigant appeared before him he commented that he “loved her accent”. Ms. Hernandez was a United States citizen who spoke fluent English with a Mexican accent. He also quipped that he had “no intention of deporting her”.

When it was suggested to him that his comments belittled her, he acknowledged that his reference to deportation was inappropriate but explained that he was simple trying to “get a laugh and put people at ease”.

Judge Kreep also liked to use nicknames for the lawyers, clerks, and interns that regularly appeared in his courtroom. With respect to three legal interns from the Public Defenders Office, he called them “Bun head”, “Dimples” and “Shorty”. Shorty was 6 feet 7 inches tall and testified before the discipline board that Judge Kreep called him Shorty at least ten times while court was in progress.

He also had a penchant for commenting on the attractiveness of the women who appeared in his courtroom, saying, “She’s a pretty girl, you know you could smile”, or “the lovely attorney showed you the form, correct?”

A deputy city attorney, who was pregnant, was the recipient of his attention as well. On one occasion he said to defence counsel, “Let’s get on with this, we don’t want Ms. S. to have her baby in the courtroom.” During other appearances he said “It’s getting closer Ms. S.” and “She wants to go home and have her baby, I’ll pick on her today.”

In criminal court he interacted with a female accused charged with prostitution who entered a guilty plea. He asked her “Ma’am, anything I can do to get you out of the life?” Later he asked her, “Is it you like the money or just like the action?” The accused began responding only to be cut off by Judge Kreep who asked “Are you going to try to get a job at the bunny ranch in Nevada?” This comment was in regards to the accused’s statement that she might leave California. His final remark was “I don’t think it’s a good lifestyle choice, but it your lifestyle choice and it’s your decision.”

At the discipline hearing Judge Kreep testified that his comments were intended to show support for her predicament, and also to persuade her to change her conduct and lifestyle.

In response to the whole of the allegations against him arising from his courtroom decorum, Judge Kreep acknowledged that he ran the proceedings in a casual matter and admitted that his comments could be taken as offensive or demeaning, although that was never his intention. He denied that his levity rose to the level of sexual harassment.

The offenses arising from his election campaign included his failure to report campaign expenses, and the use of his personal credit card and bank account to pay campaign expenses.

The discipline panel found that he engaged in one act of wilful misconduct, 17 acts of prejudicial misconduct and 11 acts of improper action, leading to the most severe form of censure. A minority of the Commission panel would have liked to see his removal from the bench, however, it was noted that most of his offenses occurred during his first year as a judge and he had changed his behaviour since then.

As for his in-court comments, in my view they were neither offensive nor demeaning, although admittedly, calling intern lawyers by fanciful nicknames was a bit odd. It seems to me that Shorty and the others could and should have addressed their discomfort with their nicknames directly with Judge Kreep, who by all accounts appears to be a congenial, likeable fellow.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Family Law Lawyer Creates Fake Accounts for Opposing Counsel

GEO CASUALTwo busy family law lawyers in Illinois, Michelle Mosby-Scott and Drew R. Quitschau spent hours sparring in court as opposing counsel on dozens of cases.

However, their professional relationship became complicated, even sinister, when Ms. Mosby-Scott learned her colleague had set up a false Match.com account in her name, describing her as separated from her spouse, an agnostic, and a fan of grocery stores, all restaurants, the Pizza Ranch, and buffets.

Ms. Mosby-Scott obtained a court order compelling Match.com to provide her with the details of the IP address related to the fake account, which led to Mr. Quitschau’s doorstep.

He had also downloaded photos from Ms. Mosby-Scott’s law firm website and added them to her Match.com account.

But he didn’t stop there. He created false accounts in her name with the Obesity Action Coalition, Pig International, Auto Trader, Diabetic Living, and Facebook, not to mention posting negative reviews of her legal skills on martindale.com and lawyers.com.

As a result she began receiving harassing emails and phone calls from these organizations.

When approached by Ms. Mosby-Scott and the managing partner of his law firm, Mr. Quitschau denied any involvement but an IT expert was retained who confirmed that Quitschau was lying. He was immediately fired from his law firm partnership.

Ms. Mosby-Scott obtained a restraining order against Mr. Quitschau and his conduct is the subject of a pending hearing before the Hearing Board of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. Ms. Mosby- Scott remains mystified as to Quitschau’s motive, conduct which caused serious emotional distress for her and her family.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Should Canadian Judges Wearing “Trump” Attire be Disciplined?

BarristerIs discipline in order for an Ontario judge who went shopping wearing a “Make American Great Again” t-shirt? What about a judge sitting in court the day after the American election wearing a baseball cap with the same logo?

Local resident Lorne Warwick was also shopping when he saw Justice Toni Skarica, of Ontario’s Superior Court, with the allegedly offensive t-shirt, describing his attire as “shocking” and a “flagrant display” of support for a politician who openly discriminated against Mexicans and Muslims. Mr. Warwick complained to the Canadian Judicial Council, suggesting that Judge Skarica’s fashion choice represented a breach of impartiality rules for judges.

In a letter dismissing Mr. Warwick’s complaint the Canadian Judicial Council referred to his concerns that President Trump was a serial liar, racist, and demagogue and that Judge Skarica’s “embrace” of such a man rendered him unfit to be an impartial arbiter for Canadian citizens before his Court.

The Council was persuaded by Judge Skarica that the t-shirt was simply historical memorabilia that had been given to him by his brother who had been in Washington, DC. He had worn the shirt to show a friend and without thinking, wore it to the grocery store. He confirmed he had not participated in the Trump campaign, had not donated monies, and had never been engaged in activities with the Republican party. Most importantly, he vehemently denied he was a racist.

However, the story for Judge Bernd Zabel is markedly different. He’s the judge that wore a Trump baseball hat in court on November 9, 2016. He apologized for his admitted “lapse in judgment” characterizing it as an attempt at failed humour. He also said:

“This gesture was not intended in any way as a political statement or endorsement of any political views, and, in particular, the views and comments of Donald Trump. I very much regret that it has been taken as such,” he said.

However, a transcript from the court proceedings revealed his support of Donald Trump:

“Brief appearance with the hat. Pissed off the rest of the judges because they all voted for Hillary, so. I was the only Trump supporter up there but that’s okay,”

“Just in celebration of a historic night in the United States. Unprecedented”

Interviewed by the Toronto Star newspaper, Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Ontario Criminal Lawyers’ Association opined:

“Judges like Zabel are outliers in an otherwise elite court led by an innovative and hard-working chief justice. He should have matched their demanding work ethic, read their judgments, or sought their wise counsel,…
Instead, he has besmirched his position and embarrassed his colleagues and he should step down immediately, pending judicial council review, if he has any respect left for the court, and the public.”

A record number of 81 complaints to the Ontario Judicial Council followed, resulting in a directive that Judge Zabel no longer conducting court hearings. His conduct is the subject of a hearing before the Council scheduled for August 23, 2017.

Admittedly Judge Bernd Zabel has called into question his ability to impartially adjudicate matters that come before him, particularly where they involve visible minorities or members of the LGBTQ community. Judges hold a place of honour and prestige in Canadian communities and the slightest taint of bias is sufficient to attract pointed scrutiny and perhaps severe discipline.

Sitting since 1990, Judge Zabel is an experienced jurist who crossed the line, although it should be pointed out that support of Donald Trump does not necessarily mean that a Trump fan endorses every part of his philosophy. Nonetheless, it is one thing for a lay person to support Mr. Trump, but quite another for a judge from the bench to endorse a politician of any stripe.

It remains to be seen whether Judge Zabel’s behaviour results in his removal from the bench.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Ungrateful Children? You’re Not Alone.

GEO#1What everybody wishes for...a big lottery win, happened in 2011 to an English couple, Dave and Angela Dawes. They won $131.3 million dollars (US) in the Euromillions lottery, open to residents of the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man. Not surprisingly, David Dawes left his job as a factory worker, ready to enjoy the good life.

Ecstatic about their good fortune, they were equally generous with their family and friends, sharing $32 million dollars with them, as well as starting their own charity. Over a two-year period, two million dollars was gifted to Mr. Dawes' 32-year-old son Michael, who had served in Afghanistan, and his partner Jame Beedle, age 34.

Michael and his partner quickly blew through the money and wanted more. Dave Dawes expressed his concerns to his son, but the tipping point occurred when a dispute broke out at a birthday party for Michael's step-mother, his father's wife.

Mr. Dawes was not pleased when his son showed up at the party with no gift for his wife. Michael insisted the flowers he brought her was the best he could do for a "woman who had everything". As a result of their heated exchange, accompanied by too much alcohol, Michael and his father became estranged and Michael filed a lawsuit against his father.

He alleged that his father had promised he would "always be looked after". In reliance on that alleged promise, Michael Dawes said he had given up his position as a Lieutenant with the Royal Navy Fleet Auxiliary. He had previously worked as a lecturer at Southampton University and was an IT expert.

Michael asked the court to order that his parents be obliged to continue with their financial support so long as they were alive, explaining that the original funds he received helped him with his mortgage, afforded him the opportunity to purchase a BMW, and allowed him to provide funds to his friends and his partner's family.

At trial the evidence showed that over $1.3 million US had been spent by Michael in the first month, followed by an injection of $650,000 US into a house in Portsmouth, and the gifting of $300,000 US to friends. It was revealed that Michael and his partner were spending $40,000 US a month, described by the court as "some sort of Walter Mitty existence."

Mr. Dawes' counsel commented that his client's generosity "had not been repaid with gratitude... and his client's son has "developed a sense of entitlement."

Meanwhile, the ungrateful son suggested his father "showed arrogance and ungenerosity of spirit"...saying that his father's attitude changed from humbleness to grandeur.

A decision from Judge Nigel Gerald was handed down quickly, dismissing son Michael's lawsuit and saying that: “There was no basis on which any rational or normal human being could conclude that they could go back for more money whenever they wanted.” Judge Gerald remarked that Mr. Dawes could stop “bailing out his profligate son”.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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