May 23, 2012 § 4 Comments

Sometimes you get so boiling mad when you’re served with outrageous pleadings, or you get an exorbitant discovery dump, or opposing counsel is a jackass, or the judge rules against you and you know — just know it deep down in your aching heart that the ignorant so-and-so did not even look at the cases you gave him and had his mind made up and etc. — or the whole injustice and inequity of it all is so overwhelming, that you sit down at your computer and dash off a rabid response accusing that lawyer and/or the judge of all manner of immoral, unethical, unhealthy, unsavory and illegal misfeasance, malfeasance and faux pas.

Admit it. You’ve done it. Or at the very least dreamed about it. All of us have.

The thing is, most of us then hit the “delete” button, or tear up the paper and wait until reason returns, or smile at the mental imagery and shrug it off.

What happens, though, when you get carried away and don’t find a way to stop yourself from doing something over the top?

The latest example is in Berryman v. Lannom, decided by the COA on May 22, 2012. In that case, the chancellor ruled that the Berrymans had let the statute of limitations expire before filing their wrongful death claim, so she denied their claim to a portion of wrongful death proceeds that had been interpled in chancery court. Then she ruled that their version of the court proceedings offered pursuant to MRAP 10 — because the case was tried without a verbatim record — was not accurate, and accepted the other party’s version of the facts. To cap things off, the Lannoms’ attorneys presented the clerk with the court’s order the very day it was entered and got their interpled funds, all that was there. 

Obviously perturbed at the way things had gone, the Berrymans appealed. Although the COA decision does not recite exactly what the appellants charged in their briefs, it does say this:

“¶9. The Berrymans argue the chancellor erred both by denying them any portion of the interpleaded funds and by denying their motion to stay disbursement of the funds to [the Lannoms] pending appeal. They also argue [the Lannom’s] attorneys violated the ten-day automatic stay of judgment by presenting the order of disbursement to the chancery clerk the same day as the hearing.

“¶10. The Berrymans further assert the attorneys’ actions violated ethical rules, meriting sanctions. We find this allegation to be wholly baseless and focus our opinion solely on whether a reversible procedural error was committed. The Berrymans also describe the chancellor’s decision to deny their motion to stay as “a perversion of the administration of justice” and request we appoint a new chancellor on remand because Chancellor Vicki Cobb abdicated her role as “officer of a court of law and equity.” Because this last argument—which has no support in the record—shows disrespect for the chancellor, we sua sponte strike this argument and its contemptuous language from the Berrymans’ brief. M.R.A.P. 28(k). We focus solely on whether the chancellor erroneously applied the law or was manifestly wrong. See McNeil, 753 So. 2d at 1063 (¶21).” [Emphasis added]

Contemptuous language, indeed. Charging a lawyer with ethical violations and a chancellor with abdication of her role as officer of a court of law and equity are serious allegations that you’d better be prepared to back up with evidence, and I mean strong evidence. It’s like pointing a gun at someone who you think is out to do you harm; you’d better be right, and you’d better be sure sure the gun is loaded, and you’d better be prepared to pull the trigger, or you will be the one who gets it. The courts do not consider charges like those to be trivial, and you should never toss them around without a firm basis in fact. If you do, you will be the one who comes off looking unethical and outside the bounds of law and equity. Why would you think that your clients would want their interests to be represented by someone that out of control?

MRAP 28(k) allows the appellate courts to strike any disrespectful language from briefs and even empowers the court to “take such further action as it may deem proper.”

MRCP 12 (f) permits the trial court on motion of any party or on the court’s own initiative, to strike any and all “immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter.”

MRCP 11(b) provides that the trial court can sanction an attorney for filing papers that include scandalous or indecent matter, or are filed for the purpose of harassment or delay. The sanctions include reasonable attorney’s fees.

UCCR 1.01 specifically states that “The dignity and respect of the court shall be preserved at all times.”

Rule of Professional Conduct (RPC) 3.5 prohibits a lawyer from engaging in conduct intended to disrupt a tribunal.

RPC 8.2 (a) says that “A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge … “

The preamble to the RPC includes this language: “A lawyer should use the law’s procedures only for legitimate purposes, and not to harass or intimidate others. A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers, and public officials. While it is a lawyer’s duty, when necessary, to challenge the rectitude of official action, it is also a lawyer’s duty to uphold legal process.”

Lawyers make a living on controversy and conflict. But you are there to help your client find a way through it to a better place, not to make it worse. Don’t hit the print button until reason returns. And if you just can’t help yourself, print it and trash it. You owe it to yourself and your client. 

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