Lawyer’s Courtroom Antics Draw One-Year Suspension; Bar Rejects “Stress of Litigation” Defense

contempt of courtA Washington State lawyer was suspended for one year following multiple instances of courtroom misbehavior and making a false report to the police.  See In re Kathryn B. Abele, Wash. Sup. Ct. (Aug. 27, 2015) (en banc).

The string of misconduct began during a 13-day trial involving a contentious child custody dispute. During the trial, the lawyer was repeatedly admonished by the court for interrupting the court and other counsel, slamming objects on the table, and other disruptive behavior. At a post-trial hearing, the lawyer let out a noise heard throughout the courthouse that the judge compared to the sound of an “animal being killed.”

At a subsequent hearing in the same case, the lawyer became angry with the judge and walked out of the courtroom while court was in session, announcing “I’m leaving. I’m out of here. … I’m abstaining completely….” After returning to the courtroom, the lawyer again yelled at the judge and was held in contempt for “screaming, yelling, jumping up and down … and then stomping out and refusing to represent [her] client.”  The court held the lawyer in contempt based on her “screaming, yelling, jumping up and down in my courtroom, stomping and then–stomping out and refusing to represent your client . . .”

In a separate matter, the lawyer knowingly made a false report to the police alleging that court security assaulted and intentionally tripped her. Security video showed the lawyer pushed her way past two marshals, but did not show her stumble or fall.

animal noisesThe lawyer’s behavior was not limited to the courtroom.  The lawyer’s calls to opposing counsel’s staff were “abusive” and required opposing counsel to implement an office-wide policy of screening the lawyer’s calls.

The bar association initiated disciplinary proceedings. As a result of the contempt finding, the bar charged the lawyer with violations of Washington Rule of Professional Conduct 3.4(c) (knowingly disobeying an obligation under the rules of a tribunal); 3.5(d) (engaging in conduct intending to disrupt a tribunal); 8.4(d)  (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice); and 8.4(j) (willfully disobeying a court order).  In addition, based on the allegation of making a false statement, the bar charged the lawyer with violations of Rules 8.4(b) (criminal act involving dishonesty or fitness) and 8.5(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation).

The hearing officer found that the lawyer violated the rules for which she was charged and recommended a one-year suspension with reinstatement conditioned on successful completion of a fitness to practice evaluation. The disciplinary board affirmed. The case was then reviewed by the Washington Supreme Court.

On review, the lawyer did not challenge the factual findings regarding her conduct, but argued her behavior was negligent and warranted only a reprimand. The lawyer further argued the “stress of litigation” should have been taken into consideration as a mitigating factor.

The Washington Supreme Court disagreed. In a 28-page opinion, the court affirmed the one year suspension and ordered the lawyer to complete an evaluation to determine her fitness to practice law prior to being reinstated.

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