When the Foxes Watching the Fox House get Caught

By: Michael Seinberg

If you are a regular reader of this newsletter, you know that New York is beset with ridiculous, sometimes laughable, lawsuits.  After reading many of these cases you may asked yourself, “what kind of lawyer would even take that case?”  In many of these cases, the lawyers should be sanctioned by the courts, but too often, they are not.  Indeed, when a group of plaintiffs’ attorneys – who have even denied the existence of frivolous lawsuits — were shocked (shocked!) when the courts failed to sanction the attorney who targeted them with a frivolous case.

But for those truly terrible practitioners of law, we have the Committee on Professional Standards.

This committee looks into all complaints against lawyers from drug abuse to theft, and if solid evidence surfaces, they refer the case to the Appellate Division. The committee, also know as the Attorney Grievance Committee is supposed to have 21 lawyers and non-lawyers who look at complaints. This week, the chief attorney for the committee as well as two members, resigned suddenly under the cloud of an investigation by the state’s inspector general for the Unified Court System.

The attorneys in question include Peter Torncello, chief attorney for the committee, who has held the job for a whopping 2 ½ years and two associate counsels Elizabeth Devane and Steven Zayas. Ironically, the guy Torncello replaced, Mark Ochs held the job for 20 years before retiring in November 2010.

So you have three lawyers in charge of keeping other lawyers honest, but it seems that they may not have been able to hold themselves to that standard. Each and every one of these people earned in excess of $100,000 per year, and the allegations hold that there were discrepancies in reporting the time they worked.

If we can’t even trust the watchdogs to honestly carry out their duties, then the whole system is in serious question.

We know that lawyers who file frivolous cases are not sanctioned often enough by the courts in New York.  That needs to change and judges need to feel empowered to bring sanctions against those attorneys.  But for the truly bad actors, the criminals exploiting the system and their clients, any lapse in enforcement is patently unacceptable.  We hope that the Committee for Professional Standards can get their house in order quickly, because without oversight, our civil justice system may become far worse than it already is.  And that’s saying something.

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