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

Judge’s Child Support Ruling Goes Viral

_DSC4179 - Version 2Life isn’t always fair, but Carnell Alexander expected that a judge in Michigan would right the wrong. As he described it:

“How can you start a case with a lie? The mom lied. The process server lied. Now I have to pay for it.”

In 1987 a young woman gave birth to a child. In order to get welfare funds from the government she was obliged to fill out a form indicating who the father of her child was. She named Carnell Alexander as her child’s father.

She then filed a court action alleging he was the father and sought child support.

A process server was hired to personally deliver the court documents to him, as was required by law.

A court hearing took place but Carnell Alexander wasn’t there. He was in jail serving time for a juvenile offence.

Later in the early 90’s Carnell was checked in a routine traffic stop and advised there was a warrant for his arrest. The police officer told him he was a “deadbeat dad”.

You can imagine his surprise…he had never received notice of the paternity hearing as he was behind bars at the time, and he swore he had no children.

He began searching for the woman who had named him as father so he could prove he was not, through DNA testing, but his efforts failed until 2013 when a paternity test was administered.

With his grade 8 education and no assets or income, he could not afford a lawyer, but each occasion he went to court he repeated the refrain that he was not the child’s father.

But the government wanted him to pay arrears of child support of $30,000, so he showed up in court on his own expecting that justice would prevail. Boy, was he wrong!

Judge Kathleen McCarthy said she was “outraged that Mr. Alexander for two and a half decades failed to take this matter seriously.”

She said that Mr. Alexander should have filed documents protesting paternity years ago and because he did not, he must pay the support.

Yes, even though he had no notice, was not the father, and the child’s biological father was in his life, he must pay.

Feeling helpless, Mr. Alexander went to Michigan radio station WXYZ who broadcast his story.

And yes, Judge McCarthy was outraged about that too saying:

“I am outraged at the media for the willful misrepresentations of the facts of this case. Casting this court in a negative light.”

Due to the media exposure Carnell Alexander now has a pro bono lawyer, Cherika Harris, who has vowed to continue the fight for him.

As for Judge McCarthy, it is not the radio station that has cast a negative light on her court. She did that all on her own.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Court Takes Evidence of Parental Alienation Seriously

_DSC4851A Court in Belgium has ordered a 13-year old girl to check into a psychiatric facility so that experts can figure out why the young girl refuses to look at or speak to her father, after her parent’s high-conflict divorce.

Father’s lawyer said that both parents lashed out at each other during their tense separation and divorce, and ultimately, their daughter lived primarily with her mother and maternal grandparents.

But nobody can point to an incident that would cause a child, who otherwise had a loving relationship with her father, to turn against him. Even the mother’s lawyer agreed that he was a normal father, with no evidence of personality issues or sexual abuse.

Respected psychotherapist Lut Celie opined:

“The father and mother parted on bad terms during the divorce battle with each parent trying to blacken the other. This went so far as to affect the child whose character was not fully developed.”

The Court was told that during a four-year period father and daughter had over 100 visits and each and every time, she refused to interact with him.

During the girl’s first communion at church, she became upset that her father was present and made such a public scene, he was forced to leave the church.

Rather than suggesting that mother and grandparents try to persuade their daughter to engage in a normal father/daughter relationship, a judicial direction that is often futile, the judge removed the girl from her mother’s care and control and into treatment.

Mysteriously, the teenager refuses to explain her behaviour. Kudos to the judge for his determination to get to the bottom of her conduct.

Mom, of course, is furious with the judge’s decision, saying:

“My little girl is being taken from the warmth of her home and away from her school where she is happy and has many friends. This is so heartless… It’s just because her father is insisting. She’s 13 years old now and old enough to know her own mind.”

Sure sounds like parental alienation syndrome…and if it is…it’s despicable, but hopefully not too late.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Family Law Lawyer’s “Social Media Strategy” Leads to Suspension From Bar

10950859361151CDPEven the best lawyers don’t win every case they take on. While a client deserves the best defence or offence possible, sometimes the facts cannot be marshalled in a client’s favour, despite a lawyer’s competence and zeal.

Other times, the law simply does not support the position advanced by counsel on behalf of a client. In cases like these, most lawyers are smart enough to tell their clients, in writing, that their chances of success are dim and the cost of pursuing a weak claim may be unjustifiable.

Remarkably, many clients continue to pursue a case even in the face of such an opinion and that is certainly a client’s prerogative.

Family law lawyer Joyce Nanine McCool acted for mother, Raven Boyd, in a difficult custody case that included allegations that the children’s father had sexually abused them.

After rounds of litigation before two different judges, Judge Deborah Gambrell and Judge Dawn Amacker, of Mississippi and Louisiana respectively, Ms. McCool was disappointed with her lack of success in proving her client’s claims and decided to implement an out-of-court strategy.

She initiated an online petition that implored potential supporters to:

“Sign our petition telling the judges that there can be no justice … if the law and evidence is ignored, Ask yourself, what if these were your daughters? … Horrified? Call the judges and let them know.”

The website promoting the petition also contained information that was not to be made public due to a sealing order. As well, Ms. McCool linked audio recordings of her client questioning the children about the alleged sexual abuse, again contrary to an order made by the Court.

But there was much more…the website provided misleading and inflammatory statements about Judges Gambrell and Judge Amacker and their alleged refusal to listen to recordings of the children accusing their father of molestation:

“Now consider that no judge has ever heard those recordings. Why? Because for 4.5 years, they have simply refuse (sic) to do so. On August 16, 2011, Judge Deborah Gambrell in the Chancery Court of Marion County, Mississippi, once again refused to admit all of Raven’s evidence, including these recordings, and ordered that H (REDACTED) and Z (REDACTED) have visits with their father in the house where they both report having been molested by their father in the past.”

However, that statement was completely false as Ms. McCool later admitted she did not bring the recordings to court and did not seek to enter the recordings as evidence at any time, either before Judge Gambrell or Judge Amacker.

Ms. McCool’s media campaign also included the posting of misleading articles online, and twitter rants with links to the online petition:

“Judge Gambrell at it again – turned a 4 YO child over to a validated abuser – PLEASE TELL ME WHAT IT WILL TAKE FOR EVERYONE TO SAY ‘ENOUGH’.”

“Make judges protect H (REDACTED) and Z (REDACTED) from abuse by their father!…”

Judge Gambrell brought a formal complaint about Ms. McCool’s behaviour to the Bar Association after receiving a barrage of telephone calls from members of the public and multiple copies of the petition and assorted tweets.

The disciplinary panel determined that Ms. McCool knowingly, if not intentionally. resorted to a campaign intended to “intimidate and influence the judges’ future rulings in pending litigation…and threatened the independence and integrity of the judiciary…causing the judges to be concerned for their personal safety”.

An aggravating factor was the use of the internet, a medium that would display Ms. McCool’s unprofessional tactics for a long time to come.

Her punishment? A suspension of one year and one day, together with a mandatory ethics program.

Clearly a stiff penalty, to lose one’s source of income for a year, but Ms. McCool’s lack of remorse and lack of understanding as to the consequences of her behaviour contributed to the panel’s decision.

Her zeal to win her client’s case made her lose sight of her obligations as an officer of the court, a mistake that will be costly for her.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Witty Judge Pens Acerbic Judgment

GEO CASUALMr. Justice Joseph Quinn of the Ontario Superior Court well-deserves his international reputation as a clever intellect, a raconteur of immense talent, and a really funny scribe.

In one of his latest judgments, The Hearing Clinic (Niagara Falls) Inc. v. 866073 Ontario Limited, et al., 2014 ONSC 583, his acerbic wit shines as he records his fond memories and legal findings of a 72-day trial, spread over three years, that dealt with the allegedly fraudulent sale and purchase of a hearing aid business in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

The star witness in the case was Stefan Fridriksson, an audiologist who purchased a hearing aid business from the corporate defendant. While his lawyer referred to him as “Dr.”, Quinn J. put an end to that designation upon learning that the title was prohibited by the College of Audiologists and Speech-Language Pathologists of Ontario.

Blessed with an orderly mind, Justice Quinn set out a Table of Contents with headings that include:

“Is There a Doctor in the House?

“Fridriksson plays Lieutenant Columbo with Inspector Clouseau results”

“All the Madness That’s In Your Head”

“….Nor Hell A Fury Like an Audiologist Scorned”

“Fridriksson The Fabricator”

While trial counsel usually turns to the back page of Reasons for Judgment to see the results of a trial, in this case, the Table of Contents gave it all away.

Yes, the trial got off to a shaky start, described by Justice Quinn in his first paragraph:

“Leave an untruthful man in the witness box long enough and he will reveal himself to the world. Here ends the lesson, but not the story.”

Unfortunately, the first witness was Dr., no make that Mr. Fridriksson who according to Quinn J. “sub-let the witness box for 26 days” with dire results:

“He entered the box as an articulate professional with impressive academic credentials, displaying what appeared to be a sound and comprehensive recollection of events. When he stepped down, after more than 14 days of withering cross-examination, he was noticeably dazed, his credibility was reduced to existential confetti and he even appeared to be physically shorter than when the trial began.”

Fridriksson turned out to have a less than credible curriculum vitae. Where he noted he was a professor he wasn’t, when he said he was an adjunct professor, he wasn’t that either. What was he? An unpaid lecturer!

But that was the least of his problems. The Court identified the often troublesome task of determining credibility:

“We have no special powers in that realm and, wherever possible, avoid reliance upon darts, dice and Ouija boards. However, rarely, has a witness generously offered up so many reasons to be disbelieved. Fridriksson was an evidentiary gift who kept on giving. He ignored rule number one
in the Litigants’ Credo: “Know thyself, because others soon
will.” Enough of this preamble. Come with me now on a visit to the phantasmagorical work of Fridriksson. Pack light.”

But the quips keep on coming, like an avalanche:

“For Fridriksson truth is like a spandex undergarment:he can stretch it to fit anything.”

“Readers must never forget. This is a key witness for a plaintiff alleging oral false misrepresentations.”

“I do not know who enjoyed this cross-examination more, me or (defendant’s counsel). The only thing missing was popcorn.”

“His testimony deserves a special descriptor, coined for the occasion: “incredibull.”

This judgment tickled me so much that I recommend you read all 326 pages…it’s a laugh a minute. Oh, yeah, Fridriksson was awarded $423.00 in damages.

One last zinger:

“Fridriksson has taken everyone on a hideously time-consuming and obscenely expensive journey down his private yellow brick road to the outskirts of the Emerald City where, it appears, he has a residence. It was not a worthwhile adventure,” the judge writes.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judge Sentences Family Lawyer to Jail and Hefty Fine for Alleged Sarcasm

DSC00507 (2)I guess he woke up on the wrong side of the bed….what else could explain the short-tempered reaction of Chief Judge A.J. “Buddy” Welch Jr. of Henry County Juvenile Court in Georgia to family law lawyer Ella A.S. Hughes?

In the midst of his decision to remove Ms. Hughes’ client’s children from their home and into the custody of the child protection authorities, the following exchange took place:

“Judge Welch (to Hughes): “That expression, ma’am, just cost you $100. You are removed from the court approved list.”

Hughes tries to speak up, but Welch tells her to stop.

Judge Welch: “Your sarcastic looks and your sarcastic attitude is unacceptable to this court. You are removed from the appointed list. You can reapply at some other time. You can stay on the cases that you presently have but if I ever see that action from you again I can assure you that appropriate actions will be taken. Do you understand that, ma’am?”

Hughes: “Yes, sir.”

Judge Welch: “You may not like my rulings but you can surely appeal them.”

Hughes: “If I may, Your Honor, the only thing I did was bow my head to write down what you were saying.”

Welch: “No, ma’am. You did not. Now you have tested the court’s patience. I find you in willful contempt of this court. You are fined $1,000 and you are given 10 days in jail. Take her into custody. I want the record to reflect that the attorney I just had to hold in contempt was not just bowing her head but she was giving sarcastic, unprofessional looks, body action that showed her disgust for the court’s ruling and disrespect for the court in its entirety.”

And off she went to jail…for a few minutes…paid her fine and headed to the courtroom where her next client awaited her.

The Georgia Appellate Court overturned the contempt finding made against Ms. Hughes…Just another day in the life of a trial lawyer.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judge “Flabbergasted” By Lawyers Who Ignore Litigation Rules

BarristerIn a deservedly condescending judgment from the English High Court, Family Division, one can feel the frustration of Mr. Justice Holman as he describes the “titanic” litigation between Sandra Seagrove and Lawrence Sullivan, the unmarried parents of three children, ages 23, 20, and 10 years old, who looked to him to sort out the single issue of the division of the home they shared during their 20-year common-law relationship.

Noting that the couple spent only a few days to litigate parenting issues, Justice Holman pointedly observes that Ms. Seagrove has expended $800,000 and Mr. Sullivan over $500,000 in legal fees on a piece of property that is worth less than a $1 million dollars, amounting to a legal conundrum worth half of that.

But Judge Holman identifies another problem and that is counsels’ inability to follow the Rules of Court, rules enacted to control the needless expansion of family litigation, to ensure that cases are managed proportionately to their value to the litigants.

He quotes the Rule that provides that counsel may only submit 350 pages of documents, limited to one A4 size ring binder or one lever arch file, and the Rule that limits the number of case authorities to ten, unless the scale of the proceeding warrants it.

To his dismay, both sets of counsel, a senior and junior for each party, have paid no attention to the established practice directions or the recent decision of Mr. Justice Mostyn on document production, and the maximum number of cases to be relied on. Justice Holman says:

“Having referred to the completely disproportionate costs that have been incurred, I turn now to the documentation which underlines the scale and intensity of this dispute.

There were delivered to the court yesterday, or the day before, five large lever arch bundles of documents, which comprise over 2,000 pages, inclusive of the respective skeleton arguments, which are each just under 25 pages.

There were also delivered to the court two large bundles and one more slender bundle containing no less than 32 authorities. As if that were not bad enough (as I will later describe), I was, frankly, flabbergasted this morning when the solicitors arrived at the court at about 10.10 am with another large cardboard box containing an additional five large lever arch files of additional documents (these are the ones with lavender coloured card on their spines).

I have been told that those additional five bundles contain around a further 1,500 pages of documents. So, in aggregate, at the outset of this hearing, these parties are expecting consideration of all or part of 3,500 pages of documents as well as all or part of the 32 authorities. This needs to be considered within the framework that rule makers and the most senior judiciary have endeavoured to establish in order to ensure the proportionality of litigation.”

Mr. Justice Holman next entertains counsels’ submissions justifying their wholesale disregard of the Rules of Court, dismissing them in short shrift, and reminding counsel that courts cost money to run, and that if they wish to overindulge they are best to go the route of arbitration!

A slap in the face indeed, as it is well-known that one of the benefits of arbitration is reduced time, paper and costs!

The judge’s remedy? An adjournment to the next day and the following order:

“Except for the two skeleton arguments and the chronology, every single piece of paper that has so far been lodged will be taken away from this courtroom now. All the bundles of authorities will be taken away from this courtroom now.”

The postscript to the reported judgment of Seagrove v. Sullivan 2014 EWHC 4110 is:

“[NOTE: On the following morning the parties announced that they had reached a comprehensive settlement; and the judge was invited to make, and did make, a “Tomlin order” in which their detailed agreement is contained in a confidential schedule.]”

Why does a judge need to embarrass and humiliate counsel, including two Queen’s Counsel, to ensure that time and money is not frivolously wasted, and how unhappy were the parties when they received the judge’s indictment of their high-priced counsel?