Legal Ethics

NY Appeals Court Affirms Jailing of State's ‘Most Obnoxious Lawyer’

A man once described as “New York’s most obnoxious lawyer” has once again been slapped down by the state’s courts.

Kenneth Heller’s most recent battle with the courts was over a 30-day sentence and $10,000 fine imposed by a New York judge after the onetime lawyer ignored court orders to turn over his files in a wrongful death case.

The brief New York appeals court opinion issued yesterday didn’t get in to the details, but said the contempt finding and punishment against Heller were warranted, reports the New York Personal Injury Law Blog. The court also rejected Heller’s appeal of an order denying him a fee in the case because it was not challenged “in a timely and proper manner.”

“I’ve been practicing 25 or 26 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” says the lawyer who fought to obtain the files, Michael Feldman of Jacoby & Myers. Heller “likes to be in a street fight. That’s his mentality.”

“I think the court system was fed up with his nonsense and saw through his shenanigans,” Feldman told the ABA Journal in an interview.

Heller had represented Ruby Emanuel in a maritime wrongful death action until he was disbarred in 2004 at the age of 75 for a history of “reprehensible behavior” and “utter contempt for the judicial system.” In the words of a Village Voice article labeling Heller “New York’s most obnoxious lawyer,” he was the only lawyer in the city ever to have been disbarred for “simply being obnoxious.” The New York Personal Injury Law Blog posted the story and another article about his disbarment.

Heller had won a $25 million verdict for Emanuel that was overturned on appeal, and the widow sought out Feldman as her new lawyer. But Heller wouldn’t give up the files, and Feldman couldn’t obtain records from the defendant since they had been destroyed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

A 2004 story in the New York Law Journal had details of an appeals court opinion affirming the disbarment. The opinion said Heller’s unprofessional behavior “included screaming at, threatening and disparaging judges, adversaries and experts, intentionally defying court rulings, and disrupting and thwarting proper legal process through both physical and verbal aggression.”

Heller’s conduct in Emanuel’s case wasn’t at issue in his disbarment. But Heller was still in a fighting mood in a court hearing on the files issue, according to the 2007 account in the Village Voice. Before the hearing, “Heller looked like just another elderly trial buff, wearing high-waisted, suspendered khaki pants and sneakers with Velcro straps,” the story said. He didn’t seem to be listening much when his lawyer advised him to be polite and let him do the talking.

“Then the judge, Howard Silver, walked by,” the story continues. “ ‘Kiss my tuchis!’ Heller spat at him. A few minutes later, Jacoby & Meyers lawyer Michael Feldman, who took over the negligent-death lawsuit from Heller, entered the courtroom. Heller’s angry greeting? ‘Schmuck!’ ”

Feldman obtained a $3.65 million settlement for Emanuel. He says the appeals court made the right decision to uphold Heller’s punishment. “What he had most notably done was deny Ms. Emanuel her day in court by hijacking her file,” he said.

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