Since being handed a $10,000 penalty by Justice Matthew F. Cooper on September 18, Anthony Zappin, a New York patent lawyer, has filed a notice of appeal against the judge’s decision and continues to seek increased custody rights. He currently has supervised visitation with his son.
“When we got a copy of the order, it was shocking,” said Zappin, who had counsel for seven months before going pro se due to what he believed were unreasonable costs.
Zappin hopes that vacating the motion will increase attention to a decision he calls “destructive” and “not in the best interest of the child.”
After details of Zappin’s case appeared online, he was fired from his $230,000-a-year job as an associate at the Mintz Levin law firm in New York.
Cooper made the decision to fine Zappin $10,000 after a child custody hearing, stating the lawyer was a “fool” for going pro se, adding that based on his “ill-advised” actions throughout the case, Zappin’s fitness to practice law” should be questioned.
Zappin has since stated that Cooper’s issued order was based on information provided from past judges and the lawyer representing the child.
“Cooper didn’t chastise me for any misconduct in front of him,” said Zappin, who explained that the case had been in front of many other judges – including Judge Anthony Epstein and Justice Deborah A. Kaplan. “If Judge Epstein and Justice Kaplan thought my conduct was so outrageous and I was committing misconduct, they had the power to sanction me,” Zappin claimed.
According to Cooper, Zappin had written “You’re pathetic!” on a note to Epstein, which Zappin has argued he did not write. “There was evidence before the court that I did not write the note,” Zappin said, stating that the issue has not been raised again since.
Family Lawyer Magazine asked New York family lawyer and AAML Fellow Leigh Baseheart Kahn to review and comment on Justice Cooper’s underlying decision. “In a matrimonial action the consequences of being found not to have adhered to [court] standards can go well beyond potential professional discipline, as demonstrated in this decision,” she noted. “Justice Cooper not only finds that the plaintiff’s behavior ‘seriously calls into question his fitness to practice law,’ but notes that this conduct led to arguments, by the defendant and the Attorney for the Child, that called into question the plaintiff’s ability to ‘properly parent’ the parties’ child.”
In Cooper’s decision, the judge stated that Harriet N. Cohen, the lawyer representing the child, asked Zappin to pay the fees owed to her and the psychiatrist chosen to evaluate the child – fees that Zappin has refused to pay.
According to Zappin, the refusal to pay was due to the unfair amount he was being charged by Cohen and the psychiatrist. He stated the fees were to be paid 50-50 by him and his ex-wife, Claire Comfort, however this did not occur. “The attorney of the child has written off Claire’s fees,” said Zappin, explaining Comfort was billed less than him. “What [I] requested was proof of payment from Claire to her.”
Zappin believes the psychiatrist did not have experience with “child custody matters” and “was never there to evaluate the child.” He claims that the psychiatrist never met his son and only appeared in court once throughout the case. “I had very justifiable concerns about [the doctor],” Zappin said.
Controversy surrounded Zappin when a website was published, which according to Cooper, included postings against Cohen, such as: “Harriet. You’re a very sick and greedy woman. I pray for you and hope you seek help.”
Zappin has since explained that the website was created by his father and the controversial messages never appeared on the website, but instead were private emails sent to Cohen from his father. After learning about the website, Zappin asked his father to take it down.
Zappin admits that it’s easy to get angry or emotional throughout a case, especially when representing yourself.
“I think that Justice Cooper’s decision highlights a critical point, which is that there is a distinction between ordinary pro se litigants and attorneys who represent themselves,” Kahn explained. “It is clear that courts will be mindful, even when an attorney is representing himself or herself, that the attorney continues to be an officer of the court, and must be held to the same standards of conduct and professionalism as when he or she represents another client.”
In his notice of appeal, Zappin will argue against Cooper’s claims and reasons for the sanction. He is working with three experts to disprove domestic violence allegations from Comfort and make changes to the child custody agreement.
“Supervised visitation is not supposed to be a long-term thing,” explained Zappin. “I’ve [had] two years now of supervised visitation without one single issue…the court keeps giving me good reports from the supervisors.”
Zappin feels the penalty ordered by Cooper was not in the best interest of his son. “How can this decision be in the best interest of the child when the fallout has been so consequential…basically destroying earning power and the livelihood of one of his parents,” he said. “My biggest concern is for [my child]. He is going to have to read this decision, he’s going to read about a lot of bad things about his father and a lot of things that are not true.”
The next court hearing is scheduled for November.