Trials & Litigation

Client shouldn't be punished with judgment for no-show lawyer at arbitration, appeals court says

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A lawyer’s failure to show up at an arbitration hearing should not result in a judgment against her client, a New Jersey appeals court has ruled.

The unpublished Sept. 24 opinion (PDF) said the client, grape seller Giuliano S.R.L., should not have to “bear the brunt of counsel’s apparent confusion or neglect,” report the Daily Record and

The unnamed lawyer first reported that her wallet had been stolen and she decided it was unwise to travel to the March 2014 arbitration hearing without credentials or money, according to the appeals court opinion. The trial judge questioned the lawyer’s story and concluded she lacked credibility, then entered judgment against her client for more than $41,000. The judge indicated, however, that he would reconsider if the lawyer produced a police report.

After the report was produced, the trial judge concluded there were inconsistencies between the lawyer’s story and the report, and he denied reconsideration of the judgment. “Notwithstanding the judge’s skepticism,” the appeals court said, “the police report supported the contention that something happened to counsel the night before the arbitration and the reasons offered for failing to appear were not entirely cut from whole cloth.”

Indeed, the opinion said, the trial judge’s order denying reconsideration appeared to show he believed that the lawyer’s version of the lost-wallet story “was a product of the septuagenarian attorney’s confusion.”

The appeals court noted the judge said in a letter to ethics regulators that lawyer appeared to have age-related mental problems.

The appeals court reinstated the suit, saying it was guided by the principle that a lawyer’s mistaken conduct in such a setting “should not be visited upon an innocent client.” The rules “are not a trap for the unwary or the careless, nor do they serve the interests of justice when used to inflict harm when life’s unforeseen vagaries arise and prevent compliance,” the appeals court said.

The Daily Record identified the lawyer as Patricia Rosenblatt, who is listed in New Jersey as administratively ineligible to practice law. She is also licensed in New York; its directory says she is “due to reregister within 30 days of birthday.” The phone number listed for her is no longer in service.

The publication identified the trial judge as Donald Coburn, who is himself 76. He works part-time after state law forced him to retire from a full-time judgeship at age 70.

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