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

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?

Tough Talk With Judges: Dore v. Barreau du Quebec

The Canadian courtroom is not a venue for the faint of heart. It is “ground zero” for our adversarial system of justice, pitting the state against a criminal accused; corporate titans battling competitors; spouses jousting to establish a fair division of the spoils of their marriage; and average citizens seeking redress for motor vehicle accidents, human rights complaints, estate disputes and so many other legal matters that are part of everyday life.

“See you in court” is a threat that is feared by most people, with the exception of trial lawyers, who have studied, practiced and for the most part, crave the adrenalin pumping through their veins, like gladiators entering the arena.

In hard-fought cases, clients expect their lawyers to champion their cause aggressively with a “take-no-prisoners” zeal. Many trial lawyers are proud to be called “a bulldog, a bruiser, a basher, a pit-bull” and other normally unflattering nicknames.

Within this milieu it is inevitable that advocates will lock horns with opposing counsel, and judges and lawyers will occasionally spar with one other. However, there is a fine line between passionate argument and unchecked invective when the heat in a courtroom accelerates.

In a 2012 decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, Dore v. Barreau du Quebec, lawyers and judges alike have been provided with guidance on courtroom etiquette that balances an advocate’s duty to aggressively defend a client, with their obligation to maintain professional decorum.

Quebec lawyer Gilles Dore was representing an accused in a criminal matter involving a Hells Angels prosecution before Quebec Superior Court Justice Jean-Guy Boilard. During Mr. Dore’s submissions, Judge Boilard chastised Mr. Dore, saying “an insolent lawyer is rarely of use to his client”, and later criticized Mr. Dore for his “bombastic rhetoric and hyperbole” and dismissed his “ridiculous” application.

After the hearing Mr. Dore delivered a scathing letter to Judge Boilard, calling him a “coward…pedantic…aggressive…petty… arrogant… unjust…that he was of dubious legal acumen” and made “shamefully ugly, vulgar and mean personal attacks on the unsuspecting”.

Mr. Dore also wrote the Chief Justice of the Quebec Court and the Canadian Judicial Council about Judge Boilard’s behavior.

Canada’s Judicial Council determined that Judge Boilard’s remarks were “insulting and unjustifiably derogatory…displaying a flagrant lack of respect for an officer of the court”. The Council also reviewed Judge Boilard’s track record and noted he had “a penchant for leveling personal, denigrating attacks against lawyers”.

Judge Boilard responded by removing himself as trial judge on the Hells Angel’s trial, while Mr. Dore was defending himself against a complaint made to the Barreau du Quebec, who ultimately found that his letter to Judge Boilard was “likely to offend and was rude and insulting”. Mr. Dore had his license to practice law suspended for 21 days. His suspension was upheld by the Quebec trial and appeal courts.

Canada’s highest court in a 7-0 decision, agreed with the lower courts, but held that judges are not fragile flowers unable to withstand withering critiques from lawyers who argue before them.

Madam Justice Rosalie Abella said “Lawyers should not be expected to behave like verbal eunuchs. They not only have a right to speak their minds freely, they arguably have a duty to do so. But they are constrained by their profession to do so with dignified restraint.”

Judge Abella also recognized the conundrum lawyers face when provoked by opposing counsel or members of the bench noting, “…it is precisely when a lawyer’s equilibrium is unduly tested that he or she is particularly called upon to behave with transcendent civility.”

This case is important, not only for addressing the difficult topic of conflict between counsel and the Court, but also in providing a framework for lawyers and other players in the justice system to understand the boundaries when speaking out about flaws in the system they work in.

While lawyers enjoy freedom of expression, their words must still be chosen wisely in order to balance their obligations to their clients, with the professionalism required of them by their governing bodies and the public.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Lawyers’ Christmas Card Greetings

Just for fun, I’ll set out the sentiments from a few lawyers’ Christmas cards:

1. Picture an intense lawyer grilling Santa Claus on the witness stand:

“I’ll ask you again sir, did you or did you not look at my client, and in a crowded shopping mall, in front of her children, call her not once, but three times… a ho?”

2. A lawyer making closing submissions in court:

“The evidence will clearly show that my client, Mr. Claus, was not the driver of the sleigh the night that Grandma, as the charges read, “got run over by a reindeer”.

3. This time it’s a sleigh full of reindeer being pulled by Santa Claus:

“Our lawyers sure know how to negotiate an employment contract.”

4. Husband reading a Christmas card to his wife:

“Honey, our lawyer wishes us, but in no way guarantees a Merry Christmas”

5. Child sitting on Santa’s lap in a department store:

“Actually my legal counsel has advised me to plead the 5th with respect to “naughty or nice”.”

6. Santa standing outside the front door of a home on Christmas Eve
with his lawyer:

“My client would like you to sign this waiver before he descends your chimney.”

7. A lawyer sitting on Santa’s lap in a department store, reading his Christmas
wish list:

“Sympathetic judges, evidence that is irrefutable, friendly juries, no hostile witnesses.”

8. Young boy sitting on Santa’s lap in a department store:

“As to your question “Were you a good boy?”, my attorney tells me I have the right to remain silent.”

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Attorney Uses Forged Power of Attorney to “Pull the Plug” on Her Wealthy Father

Elder abuse is a world-wide phenomenon that has only recently received the attention and research dollars that it deserves. For our senior citizens who are victims of caregivers or family members, the emotional and physical damage and financial exploitation is often hidden behind closed doors.

Such is the case in an elder abuse case in Missouri that has been exposed by authorities who have charged Kansas City lawyer, Susan (Liz) Elizabeth Van Note, age 44, with first degree murder and felony forgery.

Liz Van Note’s 67-year-old father and his long-time girlfriend, who he intended to marry, were attacked by an intruder in their Ozarks vacation home. Mr. Van Note’s girlfriend, Sharon Dickson, age 59, did not survive her gunshot wounds and died at the scene.

Mr. Van Note survived and was transported to hospital, but died four days later, after his only child, Liz, gave his medical team a durable power of health care attorney, that authorized her to determine whether or not to “pull the plug”. She decided that life support should be terminated. With the death of her father and his fiance, Liz Van Note became the beneficiary of his multi-million dollar estate.

Authorities later determined that the power of attorney was a forgery.

A September 2012 criminal indictment against Ms. Van Note says that she “knowingly caused the death of William Van Note by shooting him… either acting alone or by knowingly acting together with or aiding another or others” and used a forged power of attorney to deny him potentially life-saving treatment. No charges have yet been brought against her in respect of the death of Sharon Dickson.

Two high school friends of Ms. Van Note’s have also been charged with felony forgery and second degree murder. Desre and Stacy Dory also plead not guilty.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Van Note was removed as the executrix of her father’s estate and was ordered to relinquish control of the assets in her father’s estate. She did, however, manage to post cash bail of $1 million dollars after pleading not guilty, a situation that has caused concern because Ms. Van Note filed for bankruptcy the year before her father’s death, claiming assets of $250,000 against debts of $375,000.

The obvious inference is that Ms. Van Note has already helped herself to estate assets.

Ironically, Liz Van Note practices estate law touting her “compassionate representation of clients” and expertise in end-of-life issues.

UPDATE: Liz Van Note has now been charged with the murder of Sharon Dickson. She was also jailed for contempt of court when she failed to return monies she spent from her deceased father’s estate. Charges have been dropped against high school friends, Desre and Stacy Dory, who unwittingly witnessed the forged power of attorney.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang