Mistaken disclosure of confidential documents leads to suspension for lawyer representing Infowars host
Updated: A Connecticut judge has ordered a six-month suspension for a lawyer representing Infowars host and founder Alex Jones because the attorney “carelessly” handled confidential documents mistakenly released to the opposing counsel in a defamation trial against Jones.
The confidential documents, which were subject to a protective order, included medical records for Sandy Hook plaintiffs in Newtown, Connecticut, who contended that Jones’ lies about the 2012 shooting massacre amounted to defamation. Jones had claimed that the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was a hoax.
In a Jan. 5 decision, Judge Barbara Bellis of Waterbury, Connecticut, suspended lawyer Norm Pattis for his handling of the “sensitive discovery materials” that were mistakenly released to a lawyer for plaintiffs suing Jones in Texas for his hoax claims.
Pattis represented Jones in a Connecticut defamation case over the false Sandy Hook claims; his firm released the records to a bankruptcy lawyer who released them to the Texas lawyer representing Jones, whose paralegal released them to the opposing counsel.
Not only did Pattis’ firm improperly release the records, “he did so carelessly, taking no steps to designate the materials as protected by court order, mark them as confidential, or inform the recipients that they were in possession of sensitive and protected documents,” Bellis said.
Litigants and their lawyers expect that their confidential information released during discovery will be safeguarded, Bellis said.
“Litigants routinely turn over their most private and sensitive information to opposing counsel who are total strangers and reasonably expect that opposing counsel will safeguard the information without even the need for a protective order,” Bellis wrote. “Indeed, our civil justice system is premised on the trustworthiness of lawyers—officers of the court.”
Pattis told the Associated Press that he planned to seek a stay of the discipline order while he appeals it. Bellis refused to stay the suspension during a Jan. 11 hearing, Law360 later reported. Pattis tweeted that he will appeal.
When the suspension was issued, Pattis was representing a member of the Proud Boys extremist group who was being tried in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot. Later, court records indicated that he was no longer on the case, Law360 reports.
An associate at Pattis’ firm had provided the records on a hard drive to a bankruptcy lawyer representing Jones’ company, Kyung Lee, who provided them to the lawyer representing Jones in the Texas trial, F. Andino Reynal.
Reynal’s assistant sent a link to the documents to the opposing counsel. The link was supposed to be for a file containing supplemental production, but it mistakenly provided access to the other materials, including the medical information and previously undisclosed text messages, Bellis said.
Realizing that the materials contained confidential documents, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Mark Bankston, alerted Reynal, who told Bankston to disregard the link and told his assistant to deactivate the link. Reynal had 10 days to claw back the material. When he did not do so, Bankston reviewed the materials. His team deleted the medical records but used the text messages during cross-examination of Jones.
Reynal had not asked for the medical records or the plaintiffs’ tax, employment and financial records. Instead, he sought deposition transcripts and text messages produced by Jones and other defendants in Connecticut. Lee had sought all the Connecticut discovery, but he had no idea that it would include the plaintiffs’ medical records.
Another lawyer no longer representing Jones had initially given the documents to Pattis’ associate and had included a warning to Lee, Pattis, the associate and others that said Lee might not be authorized to access some of the documents because of the protective order.
No one at Pattis’ law firm responded to the confidentiality warning. Lee obtained a copy of the protective order. Soon after, Lee received a hard drive in a bubble wrap envelope with no warning about the confidential material.
“The Connecticut plaintiffs’ sensitive information, which should have been safeguarded and which was also protected by the court order, was carelessly passed around from one unauthorized person to another, without regard for the protective over, and with no effort to safeguard the Connecticut plaintiffs’ sensitive, confidential documents,” Bellis wrote.
Bellis cited mitigating factors, including that Pattis has no prior public disciplinary record, and that there was no dishonest or selfish motive. An aggravating factor was that Pattis invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when he was questioned by disciplinary counsel. Another factor is his nearly 30 years of law practice, amounting to substantial experience.
Bellis said Pattis violated lawyer ethics rules that require competence, safeguarding of property, fairness to the opposing counsel and a responsibility to supervise others, and that ban conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
Jones was ordered to pay nearly $50 million in damages in the Texas case and nearly $1.5 billion in Connecticut, according to past coverage by the New York Times.
Updated Jan. 11 at 8:25 a.m. to report that Norm Pattis is no longer representing a member of the Proud Boys extremist group. Updated Jan. 12 at 8:35 a.m. to report Judge Barbara Bellis refused to stay the suspension.