$1,000 an Hour Lawyer Disbarred for Appealing an Arbitration Award

BarristerRobert Bennett was a high-flying attorney in Texas with a big reputation as a go-to litigator. He included among his clients uber-wealthy financier R. Allen Stanford, sentenced to 110 years in prison for a $7 billion dollar Ponzi scheme arising from the fictional Stanford International Bank in Antigua and wrongfully convicted death row inmate Anthony Graves, exonerated in the murders of six people and released from prison.

But the case that has ended his career relates to client Gary Land who retained Mr. Bennett in 2011 to handle a breach of contract case and a potential civil rights violation action. The latter case had been turned down by other lawyers as it involved an improbable allegation that Mr. Land was being secretly surveilled by unnamed persons, possibly federal agents.

Bennett asked for and received a $50,000 retainer. Bennett was instructed by his client to forward his bills for legal services to him by email as he would be engaged in extensive travel. Bennett’s first bill arrived by email but the rest were mailed to Mr. Land’s parents’ home. When Mr. Land finally received the posted bills he learned that Mr. Bennett had already billed for $75,000 worth of legal services. Land fired Mr. Bennett and challenged the legal fees.

When Mr. Bennett agreed to act for Mr. Land he asked him to sign an agreement that any fee dispute would be subject to binding arbitration by the Houston Bar Association Fee Dispute Committee. Mr. Land had agreed and an arbitration was scheduled.

Mr. Land’s position that he had been charged excessive fees for very limited legal services was upheld by the arbitrators whose award included a provision that Mr. Bennett would not receive the outstanding amount of $25,000 and that $27,500 in legal fees would be reimbursed to Mr. Land by Mr. Bennett. The award was binding, conclusive and not appealable in accordance with the agreement between Mr. Bennett and his client.

Rather than paying the award, Mr. Bennett filed an application to the Committee for a Modification and Clarification of the award. His application was denied. Mr. Land then applied to the district court who turned the award into a court order. Bennett still refused to pay and appealed the court’s order.

That’s when the Texas State Bar commenced disciplinary proceedings against Mr. Bennett seeking a two-year suspension from the practice of law.

In a rare three-day hearing in district court Judge Carmen Kelsey upheld the Bar Association’s findings of professional misconduct based on Mr. Bennett’s failure to pay the arbitration award and his pursuit of several appeals that were barred by agreement between the parties. However, Judge Kelsey ignored the Bar Association’s submission that Bennett be suspended. She ordered him disbarred. In Texas a lawyer who has been disbarred cannot apply for reinstatement until five years have passed.

But this case is not over. Last week Mr. Bennett’s appeal from the order of the district court was argued before three judges of the Court of Appeal. Most impressive were the one thousand amicus briefs filed by local lawyers in order to show solidarity with Mr. Bennett’s position that disbarment is out of proportion to the alleged offences.

I still can’t figure out why such a notable and successful lawyer would refuse to reimburse his client a mere $27,500, only to engage in protracted, expensive, high-profile disciplinary and court proceedings?

The appeal is under reserve.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Divorce Lawyer Clandestinely Hypnotizes Female Clients

_DSC4179 - Version 2In a bizarre case out of Ohio, attorney Michael W. Fine, age 58, has been charged with numerous sexual offences arising from private appointments with a number of female clients, either in his office or in counsel rooms at the local courthouse.

The charges include rape, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, attempted rape, 15 counts of kidnapping, three counts of attempted kidnapping and two counts each of attempted sexual battery, attempted gross sexual imposition, gross sexual imposition and illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material.

Mr. Fine’s abusive activities were fostered by his ability to hypnotize his clients and take advantage of them while they were under hypnosis. The first client who blew the whistle on Mr. Fine recounted an uncomfortable feeling every time she left her lawyer’s office, with her disheveled clothing and a feeling she had lost track of time.

She reported the situation to the local police who told her not to return to his office, but she had a better idea. She continued to see her lawyer and secretly recorded what occurred. Later she played the recording and in shock and embarrassment returned to the police where they listened with mouths agape as they heard Michael Fine put her into a trance and then make outrageous sexual suggestions and physical overtures to her.

They asked Jane Doe #1 if she was prepared to wear a wire and video recorder which would be monitored by the police. The plan was that if and when Mr. Fine began his reprehensible acts they would burst into his office and arrest him. And that’s what they did.

The local bar association immediately suspended Mr. Fine from the practice of law and with the accompanying publicity 30 more women presented themselves as victims of his sex crimes. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Fine gave up his license to practice law.

The current indictments against Mr. Fine involves six women only, as many of his other victims are unable to provide sufficient evidence to satisfy the criminal burden of proof. However, police say they are continuing their investigation.

Not surprisingly, at least one victim has filed a civil suit against Michael Fine and the law firm that employed him. Her case is particularly alarming as she retained Mr. Fine to bring a civil suit for sexual abuse she endured as a child. She reportedly became close to him and considered him a second father.

Fine’s tactics included schooling his clients on relaxation and “mindfulness” techniques, a front for hypnotism and his own selfish sexual gratification.

He has plead not guilty to all charges.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

When Obnoxious Lawyers Converge, Clients Are Not Well-Served

DSC00507 (2)One of the worst possible scenarios for those unlucky enough to be involved in a lawsuit is when their respective lawyers are at each other’s throats. You may think you are being well-served by an aggressive, boorish lawyer whose focus is on denigrating and insulting opposing counsel, but you are not.

On the other hand, as a client you should be happy if you know or see that your lawyer has a good working relationship with opposing counsel, as you can be sure that the resolution of your case will not be hampered by ill-will between lawyers.

Oddly enough, some clients are disturbed when they see cooperation between their lawyers, misreading it as a sign of weakness on their lawyer’s part. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, there are lawyers who are so well-known for their cranky, obnoxious behavior that other lawyers refuse to take on cases where Mr. or Ms. Miserable is on the opposite side.

A recent example of bickering lawyers arose in a courtroom in Chicago, where last week the final act of an ongoing legal saga came to an end, with Judge Raymond Mitchell ordering both lawyers to resign from the case and their clients to retain new lawyers.

Lawyers Joel Brodsky and Michael Meschino treated their clients and the court to months of disturbing behavior while representing their clients in a business dispute, taking potshots at one another in open court, with no concern for their lack of professionalism and decorum.

At one point Mr. Brodsky called Mr. Meschino a “moron” and a “liar”. Meschino responded with words like “fat, short, and bald” complaining that “Brodsky was constantly shaking his bald head, so that a light was shining on me”. Over time, when the lawyers were in court, up to four sheriffs were present in the courtroom and on two occasions Mr. Meschino was escorted out of the courtroom by sheriffs.

Outside of court, threatening and insulting emails were the norm, and discovery of each party took place in the courthouse rather than in the privacy of a court reporter’s office, as is the usual practice.

Judge Mitchell advised Brodsky and Meschino that a copy of his order would be sent to the Illinois Attorney Discipline Commission so that appropriate action could be taken by the Illinois Bar.

Joel Brodsky is certainly no stranger to ethics complaints. He was the lawyer that acted for former police office Drew Peterson, who was accused of murdering his third wife Kathleen Savio.

Before the case was finished Mr. Brodsky was replaced by new counsel, an event that did not sit well with him. His public comments after his departure as counsel “shocked” the trial judge and resulted in an ethics investigation.

After Drew Peterson was convicted, the animosity between Brodsky and successor counsel, Steven Greenberg was so intense that Brodsky sued Greenberg for defamation, suggesting that Greenberg was a “pathological narcissist”.

Not surprisingly, Brodsky also suggested that Mr. Meschino was mentally ill.

While emotions can run high in hard-fought litigation, the behavior cited by Judge Mitchell has no place in our justice system and the harshest punishment should be levied against lawyers who embarrass themselves and the administration of justice. Sadly, it is their clients who suffer most.

Lawyer Who Played “Nazi Card” Slammed by Appeal Court

BarristerDonn Martinez was riding his motorcycle approaching a network of freeways referred to as “Orange Crush” in Orange County, California, so named because of the maze of highways that come together at this point.

Unfortunately, he lost control of his bike and was injured. He attributed the accident to a poorly lit curb in the middle of the highway that divided two converging roadways. He sued the California Department of Transportation for negligence.

Donn was an ordained minister and a member of a Christian motorcycle club called “Set Free Soldiers”. The logo of the Set Free Soldiers is a skull wearing a World War II German-style military helmet, called “Fritz helmets”. Some say they look very much like the helmets worn by the U.S. Army. His license plate read “The Evil 1”, a biblical term for “Satan”.

Mr. Martinez’s trial lawyer was concerned that opposing counsel would exploit his client’s motorcycle affiliation, portraying him as a low-life biker and thus, prejudicing the jury against him.

To avoid these kinds of tactics, pretrial orders were obtained that provided there be no reference at trial to “membership in motorcycle clubs/gangs or to stickers or emblems” used by Martinez. As well, Martinez’s termination of employment from a California school district was off-limits. Finally, the court ordered there be no evidence led to elicit sympathy for the Department of Transportation with regards to their dire financial situation.

Despite these clear rulings defence counsel, Karen Bilotti, ignored the ground rules in a manner the Court of Appeal described as “egregious” as they overturned the verdict that dismissed Mr. Martinez’s case. It began with her Opening Statement where she made numerous references to the state of the Department of Transportation’s financial status. The Appeal Court said:

“Blessed with a trial judge who allowed it, trial counsel ran roughshod over opposing counsel and the rules of evidence. We have no choice but to reverse.”

The Appeal Court described Ms. Bilotti’s cross-examination questions as “gratuitously besmirching” of Mr. Martinez’s character and despite repeated objections from his counsel that were sustained (agreed to) by the trial judge, she flippantly ignored him.

Most blatant, however, was her final question to Mr. Martinez’s wife:

“At the time of the accident, the motorcycle that your husband was riding had a skull picture on it wearing a Nazi helmet; right?”

In relation to this breach of the pretrial court orders the Appeal Court referred to “Godwin’s Law”, a term coined by American attorney Michael Godwin in 1990 that provides that the first person to introduce the Holocaust or make analogies with Nazism is the loser in any discussion or argument. Bilotti was apparently attempting to counter the positive evidence led by Martinez’s lawyer of his charitable, Christian activities.

In her closing argument Ms. Bilotti mentioned the word “Nazi” multiple times, no longer referring to Mr. Martinez’s motorcycle helmet but directly to him. The Court noted:

“The law, like boxing, prohibits hitting below the belt. The basic rule forbids an attorney to pander to the prejudice, passion, or sympathy of the jury.”

The Appeal Court concluded its opinion with a directive that the clerk of the court was instructed to send a copy of the Reasons to the State Bar (equivalent to the Law Society) notifying the Bar of its reversal of the case based “solely on prejudicial attorney misconduct”.

There is a broad line between aggressive advocacy and representation that intentionally mischaracterizes a litigant and the evidence proferred. Bilotti knowingly crossed that line, no doubt in her zeal to win at all costs.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Fashion Stylists Say Female Lawyers Lack Pizazz

DSC00507 (2)It was a beautiful day in Vancouver, hot and sunny, and with a little time to spare that day I decided to attend the swearing in ceremony of a newly appointed Court of Appeal judge, taking place at the Courthouse across the street from my office.

As I approached the courtroom I observed a sea of black-suited lawyers and slipped into one of the last remaining seats. As we waited for the proceedings to commence I noticed how many women lawyers were in attendance, more than usual, since the new judge was a well-respected female lower court judge.

Looking around I suddenly felt so out of place. I was wearing a mauve leather swing skirt, a very feminine pink and mauve blouse, and mauve three inch stiletto heels, in stark contrast to my female colleagues who were outfitted in boring black suits, mostly made of polyester, and sensible shoes that resembled oxfords.

After the ceremony an invitation was extended to join the Chief Justice for refreshments. Normally I wouldn’t hesitate to join the fun, but that day I declined, not wanting to “stand out” in the crowd. (That statement may be hard to believe, but true!)

That brings me to a controversial article in a California legal newsletter, The Marin Lawyer, written by fashion stylists Jill Sperber, also a lawyer, and Susan Pereczek, directed at lawyers in Marin County, an affluent area north of San Francisco that boasts the fifth highest income per capita in the United States at over $90,000 per annum.

In their article titled “Beyond Black: Revising the Lawyer Dress Code for Women” the stylists opine that “female lawyers in Marin are not winning their cases in the Style Department”, a statement that has elicited critical cries of blatant sexism.

As part of their investigation Ms. Sperber and Ms. Pereczek spent two mornings at the Marin County Courthouse where in their roles as “fashion police” they saw:

“mostly non-descript black pants (we counted a few skirts) with button downs or blouses in white or muted tones. Some didn’t bother with jackets. Few wore accessories.”

On the list of fashion faux pas they identified a lawyer wearing a burgundy velvet blazer on a spring day, and another in a tight knit striped miniskirt with a mismatched stripe blazer over a neon blouse, and teetering mules. It’s not a pretty picture!

Among their fashion “dos and don’ts” they suggest is a move away from black suits to a more colourful palette. They also urge female lawyers to use accessories to brighten up and polish their professional look.

A light-hearted article with good advice…what’s wrong with that?

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Winnipeg Family Law Lawyer Critically Injured in Bomb Explosion

IMG_0311 - Version 2Earlier today a bomb exploded at Winnipeg family law firm, Petersen King. The National Post reports that lawyer Maria Mitousis, age 35, is the only victim and has lost a hand in the blast. Other sources suggest she may also lose her other hand. She was rushed to hospital in critical condition.

No other details are available, such as whether the bomb was mailed or couriered to the firm and police are on the scene.

The firm has had its share of misfortune over the past several years. The “King” of Petersen King is lawyer Jack King, the wife of Madam Justice Lori Douglas who became known as Canada’s bondage judge. You may recall it was Mr. King who introduced his wife to a client who complained he was sexually harassed by Justice Douglas and her husband.

A high-profile judicial inquiry of Lori Douglas’ behaviour finally ended with her resignation as a Superior Court judge, but not before the first panel of judges adjudicating Judge Douglas’ future resigned en masse, and inquiry counsel, George McIntosh, now Mr. Justice McIntosh of British Columbia’s Supreme Court, was criticized for his vigorous cross-examination of several witnesses.

Sadly, Mr. King recently died of cancer.

It is reported that victim Ms. Mitousis is in a common-law relationship with Barry Gorlick, a Winnipeg lawyer who was recently disbarred after he admitted to 15 counts of professional misconduct. Gorlick practices at another firm in Winnipeg.

During a discipline panel hearing last fall, he pleaded guilty to 15 counts of misconduct, including failure to serve a client, failure to conduct himself in a courteous manner, breach of duty to act with integrity, and misappropriating client funds.

The misappropriation included the deliberate creation of false documents, as well as misleading his staff and partners. A total of $59,129 of client trust money was diverted for his personal use.

A terrible tragedy that hopefully will result in the speedy arrest of the perpetrator.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang