Zenas Zelotes ()
The state Appellate Court has affirmed the five-month suspension of a Connecticut bankruptcy lawyer who was disciplined for having an intimate relationship with a client.
Back in 2013, Superior Court Judge Frank D’Andrea Jr. suspended the law license of Zenas Zelotes of Glastonbury. When the disciplinary case was brought against Zelotes, he represented himself and told the Statewide Grievance Committee that he did not believe it was “problematic” to have a romantic relationship with a client.
The Office of the Disciplinary Counsel thought differently, and requested a five-year suspension for violation of a rule pertaining to attorneys acting in their own self interest over those of their clients. D’Andrea found in his decision that Zelotes “knowingly injected himself” into the personal life of his client, Terry Aliano, and while in a dating relationship with Aliano, advised her about divorcing her former husband.
The judge found that Connecticut lawyers and consumers of legal services alike would consider Zelotes’ conduct “as appalling and would thoroughly disapprove,” even though Zelotes insisted his relationship, which included candle-lit dinners and movie dates, was not sexual. In its decision released Aug. 11, a panel of Appellate Court judges agreed with the trial court that Zelotes behavior was “prejudicial to the administration of justice,” in violation or Connecticut Practice Book rules.
“The defendant’s belief that his actions were proper and that he had no way of knowing that he would be subject to discipline may be an attempt to explain away and justify his actions,” Appellate Court Court Judge Stuart David Bear wrote. “But as the court found by clear and convincing evidence, his misguided belief is not a valid or acceptable defense to [the] rules.”
Zelotes met Aliano and her former husband in a New London bar in 2010. According to court records, Zelotes and his girlfriend exchanged phone numbers with the couple and began seeing them socially. Eventually, Zelotes began seeing Terry Aliano alone; over time, he said, a romantic relationship developed.
During that time, Zelotes encouraged Aliano to divorce her husband. He put his bankruptcy practice on hold to focus on representing her in the legal action, court records show. “He believed he had an obligation to help her proceed with her divorce,” D’Andrea wrote in his decision, “and to promote her welfare and make her a happier person.”
Aliano’s husband, Michael Aliano, filed a motion to have Zelotes disqualified from representing his ex-wife in the divorce case. A judge granted the motion, which led to the disciplinary case against Zelotes.
On appeal, Zelotes argued that even as a lawyer he had a constitutional right to associate with whomever he wanted.
In an interview, Zelotes said he disagreed with the Appellate Court ruling. “The court said a lawyer needs to be emotionally detached, but what exactly is the court saying? That is a very disturbing precedent,” he said. “Is the court suggesting that a husband may not represent his wife without running afoul of professional misconduct rules?”
He also said nowhere was any criticism placed on the legal services he provided for Aliano. “Essentially,” he said, “they are punishing me for being an exceptionally caring lawyer.”
A reciprocal disciplinary case was opened in the U.S. District Court regarding Zelotes’ federal law license when he notified them of the state law license suspension. That case has been on hold since the appeal in the state case was filed. Now, Zelotes said he will have to decide whether to ask the state Appellate Court to reconsider its decision, or petition the state Supreme Court to weigh in on the legal issues. Another option could be to focus on arguing against disciplinary action before the federal court.
“I’m going to have to think about whether or not I want to spend any more time trying to convince the Connecticut Judicial Branch of the error of its ways,” Zelotes said.