A New Jersey attorney who leveled an obscene invective at a Pennsylvania lawyer engaged in an animal-rights demonstration, and who twice afterward publicly defended his language, has been hit with an ethics grievance and a criminal complaint.
The altercation took place on Feb. 20 at the Philadelphia Gun Club in Bensalem, Pa., where member Richard Shackleton -- who practices law in Ocean County -- had just taken part in a live pigeon shoot. Outside the club, lawyer Marianne Bessey was participating in a protest by SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness), a Geneva, Ill,-based advocacy group.
As Shackleton departed, he yelled at Bessey out the window of his SUV, "Go fuck yourself, you rotten cunt." She captured the incident on video and filed a complaint with the Bensalem police, who identified Shackleton by his "GO METS" license plate.
The police did not pursue charges at the time, but on May 5, Bessey filed a private criminal complaint in Bucks County district court, accusing him of disorderly conduct and harassment.
Also on May 5, Stuart Chaifetz, a SHARK employee, filed a grievance with the District III-A ethics committee in Ocean County. Shackleton's firm, Shackleton & Hazeltine, is in Ship Bottom, and he has been the Long Beach Township attorney since 1976.
Chaifetz asserts Shackleton violated Rules of Professional Conduct that bar criminal acts that "reflect adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer," RPC 8.4(b), and conduct, in a professional capacity, "intended or likely to cause harm," RPC 8.4(g).
Shackleton's public statements after the Feb. 20 incident were what Chaifetz says met the "professional capacity" requirement of RPC 8.4(g).
Chaifetz attended a meeting of the Long Beach Township commissioners on April 9. Shackleton was present, and, during the public comment period, Chaifetz asked him to apologize for his "vile and reprehensible" words. Shackleton's response, again captured on video, was, "I'm happy to say that, what I said, I meant every word of it."
Shackleton was still unrepentant during an NBC News interview at his law office, aired April 19, in which he said of his words to Bessey, "I think that's what she is and I think she deserved it."
"If he had apologized, we would not be here today," says Chaifetz. "When he said she deserved it -- no one deserves to be treated like that."
Chaifetz says in the grievance that Shackleton's behavior "adversely reflects on his characters and fitness as a lawyer," especially because of his position as a township attorney. On April 24, SHARK organized a protest outside the Long Beach municipal building, calling on the township to fire him.
Citing a "public outcry in the community," Chaifetz enclosed DVD recordings of the Feb. 20 incident and the NBC interview as well as an Asbury Park Press editorial and a letter from the New Jersey Women Lawyers Association published in the New Jersey Law Journal, both of which were critical of Shackleton.
The criminal acts referred to in the grievance are those alleged in Bessey's private criminal complaint. She accuses Shackleton of disorderly conduct under 18 Pa. CSA 5503(a)(3), for yelling at her, and of harassment, under 18 Pa. CSA 2709(a)(3) and (4), based on his "repeated intimidating and obscene behavior" in twice publicly reaffirming his words, which she called "very upsetting and frightening." She also included a DVD of the original incident.
Under Pennsylvania's criminal procedure rules, a district judge, on receiving a private complaint, sends it to an attorney for the Commonwealth, who decides whether to prosecute it. If he or she declines, the complainant can petition the Court of Common Pleas for review.
Bessey did not file the ethics grievance herself, she says, because the issue was not about her but about holding Shackleton accountable for words that could have been directed at any woman. "He didn't have the slightest clue who I was," she says. "All he knew was that I was standing outside the gun club videotaping."
Shackleton referred a request for comment to his lawyer, Jeffrey Pollock at Fox Rothschild in Princeton. "We are reviewing the allegations, we deny that they have any merit and will vigorously defend them," Pollock says.
"If swearing in public in a private capacity is a sanctionable offense, you're going to lose half the lawyers in New Jersey," he adds.
Pollock says he has discussed with Shackleton the possibility of a suit against SHARK, but no decision has been reached.
In an interview in April, Shackleton mentioned possible claims for malicious interference with contract, based on SHARK's attempt to get the town to fire him, and civil RICO, because "they are using this to raise money."
He said he does not normally use such language but "representatives of SHARK have been harassing the devil out of us," going onto a neighbor's property, climbing stepladders and using video cameras and even posting an online video of his 11-year old granddaughter shooting. "Finally, I had had enough."