Lawyer's 'intimidating and degrading conduct' was 'a business model of sorts, based on fear,' state supreme court says

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Tennessee gavel

The Tennessee Supreme Court has disbarred a Nashville, Tennessee, lawyer, citing a pattern of “egregious” communications apparently intended to intimidate and humiliate the opposing counsel to gain an unfair advantage in litigation. (Image from Shutterstock)

The Tennessee Supreme Court has disbarred a Tennessee lawyer, citing a pattern of “egregious” communications apparently intended to intimidate and humiliate the opposing counsel to gain an unfair advantage in litigation.

In a Feb. 16 decision, the state supreme court disbarred lawyer Brian Philip Manookian of Nashville, Tennessee. The decision rejected a hearing panel recommendation for a two-year suspension, according to a Feb. 16 press release.

Manookian “engaged in this long pattern of intimidating and degrading conduct” to succeed in a medical liability case, the Tennessee Supreme Court said. The aim was to coerce the opposing counsel “into standing down to avoid personal humiliation and emotional distress for them or their families. A business model of sorts, based on fear,” the state supreme court said.

“To say that Mr. Manookian engaged in multiple offenses is to understate,” the state supreme court said. “Despite lectures, fines, sanctions and suspensions from judge after judge, Mr. Manookian did not choose merely to continue engaging in misconduct—each time he received the expected negative reaction to his behavior, he responded by escalating it.”

The Legal Profession Blog and the Volokh Conspiracy published parts of the majority opinion.

A dissenting justice said she would have affirmed the two-year suspension because Manookian was not given fair notice of the court’s intent to increase the discipline to disbarment.

Manookian, who has been licensed in Tennessee since 2007, faced ethics charges related to his conduct in a medical liability case in which Manookian represented a plaintiff suing HCA Health Services of Tennessee. His opposing counsel was at one time Manookian’s employer. The opposing counsel had fired Manookian because of alleged work issues, the Tennessee Supreme Court said.

Among the alleged harassing communications cited by the state supreme court:

  • After the opposing lawyer asked for supplemental discovery responses, Manookian emailed the lawyer, saying he hears that the lawyer’s daughter has a job with a particular employer. “What a fantastic opportunity; particularly given her history of academic failure and alcohol and substance abuse,” Manookian wrote. “I happen to have some very close friends at [name of daughter’s employer]. I will make it a point to see what I can do regarding her prospects there.”

The opposing counsel testified that his daughter had a 4.0 grade-point average when she left her high school to attend another school, but she had been suspended for drinking some wine before school on her 18th birthday. The opposing lawyer sought sanctions.

  • Manookian’s sanctions response included a “footnote 1” with information about the opposing lawyer’s son. Manookian said the son had exchanged “sexually graphic emails with a much older man for the sexual gratification of the older man,” and Manookian represented the son in the matter.

The opposing lawyer explained that while his son was in college, the son was contacted over the internet by a person claiming to be a woman. She included purported photos of herself that portrayed “a beautiful woman.” The opposing lawyer asked Manookian, still employed at his law firm at the time, to investigate. Manookian discovered that the sender was a man, figured out where he was, and sued him. The defendant paid a financial settlement. The case was not sealed, but few people knew about it.

  • A judge granted a motion for sanctions and ordered Manookian to pay the opposing lawyer more than $5,500 in attorney fees. Manookian then sought to show bias by the judge; a successor opposing counsel opposed the disqualification.

Manookian sent multiple emails to the successor opposing counsel that led the opposing lawyer to seek a series of sanctions. In one email to the successor opposing counsel, Manookian claimed that the lawyer’s brother, a retired judge, would say the sanctioning judge is corrupt. In a second email, Manookian asked the successor opposing counsel to listen to a voicemail and confirm that the voice was his brother’s. The successor opposing counsel did not respond to either email.

Manookian then emailed the successor lawyer, saying he sees that his emails are being opened at the IP account associated with the opposing counsel’s home address, which he listed. Manookian also listed the name of the opposing counsel’s wife, the names of his daughters, a description of the wife’s vehicle, and the vehicle’s VIN and license plate numbers.

The successor opposing counsel was “unsurprisingly” upset, the Tennessee Supreme Court said. He updated his home security system, alerted family members, took Manookian’s photo to the security guard for his building, and increased the frequency of his handgun training. He noted the make, model and color of Manookian’s car and looked for it near his property.

The Tennessee Supreme Court said disbarment is “clearly justified.”

“Victimizing the families of opposing counsel and causing well-founded concern for their well-being and safety is an especially grave offense and a profound dishonor as a lawyer,” the state supreme court said. “Lawyers in litigation may be expected to assume the risk of a certain amount of rough-and-tumble. Their families do not. In preying on the families of opposing counsel, Mr. Manookian crossed the Rubicon.”

The ABA Journal was unable to reach Manookian at phone numbers found on the internet.

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