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Pro Se Lawyer's Divorce Leads to Sanctions Over 'Maelstrom of Misconduct'

Getting divorced? Get a lawyer. That's not just good advice for laymen, it's good advice for attorneys too.

Take, for example, the case of Anthony Zappin. A New York appellate court recently upheld sanctions against Zappin after the New York attorney represented himself in his divorce proceedings. Zappin's self-representation ended up a "maelstrom of misconduct," the court found," involving "unprofessional, outrageous, and malicious" behavior. Just how outrageous was it? Let's take a look.

"You're Pathetic! (Judicial Complaint Forthcoming.)"

Judge Mathew Cooper of the Manhattan Supreme Court issued the sanctions order against Zappin in 2015, but many of the questionable actions involved Zappin's behavior toward other judges in his long-running divorce and custody dispute. In 2014, for example, after one judge refused to reconsider a prior motion, Zappin sent the judge an almost Trumpian note:

You're pathetic! (Judicial Complaint forthcoming.)

When asked by another judge "Is there anything else, Mr. Zappin?", Zappin responded with "Yeah, your Honor. I am tired of these lies coming from you on the record."

Other attacks, Cooper wrote, were so "deeply personal, and frankly outrageous" that they could "only be described as words not said in civil discourse, let alone ones that should ever be uttered by an attorney to a judge in the context of a court proceeding."

And that's just the judges. Zappin also "actively campaigned to impugn" the reputation of the attorney representing the interests of his son, the sanctions order against him states. In one instance, he created a website with the attorney's name, on which he pledged to "keep the public apprised of your misconduct and disturbing behavior." In another, he filed, "with malice and reckless disregard for the truth," disciplinary charges against the psychiatrist the attorney for the child used.

For these actions, among others, Zappin was sanctioned $10,000, sanctions the New York appellate court found were "amply supported by the record."

A Bit of Advice for Pro Se Attorneys

What can lawyers learn from this mess? Judge Cooper offered some advice in his initial sanctions order: don't represent yourself.

[I]t is all too common for spouses who are lawyers to represent themselves in divorce proceedings. Because matrimonial practice is a specialized area of the law, with its own rules and ways, most lawyers who attempt to proceed pro se find themselves ill-equipped to competently handle the procedural and/or substantive aspects of their divorce cases on their own. And because a contested divorce is almost guaranteed to be emotionally charged, a self-represented lawyer may be hard-pressed to summon the level of rational thought and independent judgment that is required of a capable litigator.

Judge Cooper is currently being sued by Zappin, who accuses him of "extrajudicial conduct" in publicizing the sanctions order. From the looks of it, the attorney will again be representing himself pro se.

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