A New York State Supreme Court judge handed a $10,000 penalty to a pro se patent lawyer for misconduct during a child custody hearing.
Zappin, a 30-year-old specializing in patent infringement litigation, was handed a $10,000 fine and called a “fool” by a New York State Supreme Court Judge after representing himself during a child-custody proceeding.
David S. Dikman, a New York-based family lawyer, offered his opinion on the case, stating that financial sanctions are possible when a lawyer or party conducts themselves in a manner that the court deems “frivolous.”
“The law provides that conduct is frivolous if ‘it is completely without merit in law and cannot be supported by a reasonable argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law’ or if it ‘is undertaken primarily to delay or prolong the resolution of the litigation, or to harass or maliciously injure another,’” said Dikman.
Presiding Justice Matthew F. Cooper stated “(the) plaintiff has done everything in his power to undermine the legal process and use his law license as a tool to threaten, bully, and intimidate,” and that “his ill-advised behavior seriously calls into question his fitness to practice law.”
Shortly after his wife, 32-year-old Claire Comfort, gave birth to their first child in 2013, Zappin filed for divorce. This resulted in a difficult divorce and child-custody battle. Comfort is also a patent lawyer who had chosen to seek assistance from counsel.
According to Cooper, Zappin’s misbehaviour first began when he requested Superior Court Judge Anthony Epstein reconsider his prior ruling, which established that Zappin would have supervised visitation with his son and no contact with Comfort. Epstein denied the motion and suggested Zappin retain counsel, which resulted in aggressive and hostile criticism, and “inappropriate conduct” towards the judge.
Zappin had also written a note stating “You’re pathetic!” on the front of the reconsideration motion the plaintiff had given to chambers. After transferring the case to Justice Deborah A. Kaplan, Zappin had launched uncivil verbal attacks against the judge during open court.
Cooper expressed that Harriet N. Cohen, the lawyer representing the child, put forth a motion before the court to levy a fine against the plaintiff due to the complaint he filed against the psychiatric evaluation Cohen had requested for the child, as well as his behavior throughout the divorce process. Cohen had recommended the child custody agreement entail supervised visitation with the child, which resulted in Zappin requesting Cohen be disqualified.
“There is little question that the manner in which plaintiff spoke to Justice Kaplan, or, for that matter, what he wrote to Judge Epstein in the District of Columbia proceeding, constitutes a breach of the Rules of Professional Conduct,” said Cooper, stating the plaintiff’s “numerous forays into other courts include recently filing a petition against defendant in New York County Family Court; suing defendant, her family and her lawyers in the Federal District Courts for the Southern District of New York and the District of Columbia; and bringing Article 78 proceedings in the Appellate Division against the judges who have been assigned to this case.”
After Zappin had received numerous warnings to no effect, Cooper stated a sanction was the best option in order to keep the “integrity of the judicial process.”
“This divorce case, unfortunately, presents a situation where an attorney has used his pro se status to inflict harm on his wife, their child and the court, and in so doing has caused significant harm to himself,” said Cooper.
A self-representing lawyer, especially one with no experience in family law, takes on a substantial risk, according to Dikman. “There are many nuances in constructing resolutions by settlement or conducting a trial in this field. A lack of relevant experience, coupled with the emotional involvement, could result in serious prejudice even to a trained attorney,” he said.
Half of the $10,000 is meant to be paid to Comfort and the other half paid to the Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection.
Zappin has vowed to appeal the sanction.