Was that Wrong? Tomfoolery and a career marked by a consistent inability to comply with the ethics rules.

It’s rare that a court appearance results in a transcript that, when presented without indicia of being an official record of a judicial proceeding, might pass for comedy.  Whether an Abbot & Costello routine of yesteryear, or a Charlie-scene in the most recent episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Today’s story brings us one of those rare moments.

But first . . .

. . . Was That Wrong? is a semi-regular column on Ethical Grounds. The column features stories of the absurd & outrageous from the world of legal ethics and attorney discipline. My aim is to highlight misconduct that I hope you’ll instinctively avoid without needing me to convene a continuing legal education seminar that cautions you to do so.

The column is inspired by the “Red Dot” episode of Seinfeld. In the episode, George Costanza has sex in his office with a character known only as “the cleaning woman.”  His boss finds out.  Here’s their ensuing exchange:

(Scene) In the boss’ office.

  • Boss: I’m going to get right to the point. It has come to my attention that you and the cleaning woman have engaged in sexual intercourse on the desk in your office. Is that correct?
  • George: Who said that?
  • Boss: She did.
  • George: Was that wrong? Should I have not done that? I tell you I gotta plead ignorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon, you know, because I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you people do that all the time.
  • Boss: You’re fired.
  • George: Well, you didn’t have to say it like that.

The full script is HERE.  The scene is HERE.

This morning, I stumbled across an article that ran in the Baltimore Sun earlier this month.  As bar counsel, a basketball fan, and a lawyer who appreciates court opinions that cite to pop culture, the headline caught my eye:

Reflexively, I clicked.

As a basketball fan who went to law school in D.C., I’ve often wondered what happened to the rabid Washington Bullets fan whose incessant heckling of visiting teams secured him some level of fame.  I now have my answer.

In this opinion, the Maryland Court of Appeals disbarred him.

The opinion and the Sun article recount the story far better than I’ll be able to.  The twists, turns, and continual “it can’t get any crazier . . . oh, wait, it just got crazier” are well worth the read.  Still, a few thoughts.

I’ve read my fair share of disciplinary opinions.  It’s not uncommon to want to skip to the end to learn the result.  The Maryland court immediately quashed any interest in missing even a single sentence with this opening line:

  • “While a missed court date by an over-scheduled attorney who relies on office staff to meet the demands of a busy schedule or a good-faith fumble in the filing of a continuance motion would not ordinarily result in disbarment, the circumstances of [the lawyer’s] cases are far from typical.”

Interest piqued, I continued reading.

As I did, I noted statements that aren’t common in disciplinary opinions.  For instance, the court’s observation that the lawyer’s “lengthy disciplinary history since his admission may be unique in the annals of the bar.”  And the court’s remark that the lawyer, over the course of a lengthy career, “may have the unique distinction of having violated three iterations of the rules of professional conduct.”  By then, which was only page 3, I knew we had a potential Was that Wrong? on our hands.

Anyhow, after the court laid out the lawyer’s significant disciplinary history, it turned to the most recent charges.  Here’s what happened.

The lawyer was double-booked in two different courts.  So, the lawyer asked his assistant to file a motion to continue one of the scheduled cases.  The assistant – who was disbarred himself in 2013 – prepared the motion, signed the lawyer’s name, and filed it.  The motion included a statement that opposing counsel, Mr. Palisano, had no objection.  Alas, Attorney Palisano had left opposing counsel’s office months prior.

Understandably, the trial judge wanted an explanation. Eventually, the lawyer appeared. The ensuing exchange is what reminds me of a comedy routine.  It has all the hallmarks of the confusion that Charlie causes on Sunny. It also resulted in the lawyer being charged with making a false statement to the trial court.  Here’s how I envision the screenplay:

*********

Court: We’re going to get right to the point. It has come to our attention that you simply cannot comply with the ethics rules.  We’ve sanctioned you numerous times over the years and now this:  you weren’t exactly candid with the trial court when it asked about the motion that your disbarred assistant filed after signing it as you.

Lawyer: Who said that?

Court:  Well, you admitted to the trial court that you hadn’t signed the motion, but only after this exchange:

  •  TRIAL JUDGE: Sir we received your written motion by consent to continue this matter this morning. Is that right?
  • LAWYER: I believe – that’s what my office manager told me, Judge. He is now in the hospital.
  • TRIAL JUDGE: But this motion is signed by you, Sir.
  • LAWYER: Yes, it is.
  • TRIAL JUDGE: You’re counsel of record in this case?
  • LAWYER: No question about it.
  • TRIAL JUDGE: Correct?
  • LAWYER: Absolutely.
  • TRIAL JUDGE: You signed – you signed this motion though, Sir, instead, that’s what – is this your signature?
  • LAWYER: My name is on it, but my officer manager who’s been my office manager for 10 years.
  • TRIAL JUDGE: Sir?
  • LAWYER: Yes.
  • TRIAL JUDGE: Are you representing to this Court that you did not sign this motion, you had – you authorized someone who is not a member of the bar to sign this motion?
  • LAWYER: I’m saying I signed it, but I didn’t know that – I didn’t talk to Mr. Palisano, I didn’t know that Mr. Palisano’s name was in it, and . . .
  • TRIAL JUDGE: How could you not know if you’re signing it?
  • LAWYER: Mr. Palisano’s name was not in it when I signed it.
  • TRIAL JUDGE: When you signed it?
  • LAWYER: That’s right.
  • TRIAL JUDGE: So, you’re saying this document was altered after you signed it, Sir?
  • LAWYER: No, I’m not saying that. I’m just saying I did not sign anything that had Mr. Palisano’s name in it.
  • TRIAL JUDGE: So, are you saying that this is not your signature on the motion?
  • LAWYER: May I see it again?[1]

 Lawyer: Was that wrong?  Should I have not done that? I tell you I gotta plead ignorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon, you know, because I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you people do that all the time.

Court: Disbarred.

Lawyer: Well, you didn’t have to say it like that.

***********

As always, be careful out there.[2]

costanza

[1] In real life, on the day after the hearing on the motion to continue, the lawyer’s assistant sent a letter to the trial court apologizing for making a mistake when using an old “template” motion.  He stated that he filed it in a rush, having just left the hospital against doctor’s orders after arriving for a routine exam only to be told that he required an emergency amputation. You can’t make this stuff up.

[2] The Shakespeare quote?  Referring to the lawyer’s prior disciplinary history and its relevance to the decision to disbar, the Maryland court wrote “It has been said that ‘what’s past is prologue,’” a line from Act II, scene 1 of The Tempest.

Prior Was that Wrong? posts:

Prior Entries: