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N.J. Judge Faces Discipline for Disparaging Remark on the BenchJudge Frank Leanza admitted during a disciplinary hearing last week he shouldn't have labeled a landlord's excuses for ignoring summonses "a lot of bullshit" but says he was just overly frustrated with the man he characterized as a "slumlord" who for years ignored fines and orders to fix his apartment buildings. Leanza's lawyer said that even a light amount of discipline would be untoward, given the landlord's alleged disregard for the process of law and manipulation of the legal system.
New Jersey Law Journal2007-09-12 12:00:00 AM
Municipal Judge Frank Leanza admits he shouldn't have labeled a landlord's excuses for ignoring summonses "a lot of bullshit" but says he was just overly frustrated with the man he characterized as a "slumlord" who for years ignored fines and orders to fix his apartment buildings.
During a hearing on Thursday, Leanza, a judge in Guttenberg, N.J., for 17 years, told the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct that his remark from the bench was spurred by acute frustration over a man who had contemptuously ignored court orders to fix his properties or to pay fines.
Leanza told the ACJC that the landlord, Dr. Esmat Zaklama, an anesthesiologist, had dodged summonses and warrants until he was arrested on March 7, 2006, and brought before Leanza. At that point, he had racked up at least $200,000 in fines.
Leanza said Zaklama told him he had not answered the summonses or warrants because he had been away. That's when Leanza described the excuse as "bullshit." Leanza, whose private law practice takes him to various municipalities in Hudson County, told the ACJC he had run into Zaklama on numerous occasions in town halls. "I knew he hadn't been away," Leanza said in response to questioning by his lawyer, Alan Zegas of Chatham, N.J.
Leanza, Zegas and ACJC Counsel Candace Moody told the ACJC before the hearing began that they all agreed to the underlying facts, including that of Leanza's description of Zaklama's excuse, and that they were only there to discuss the level of discipline, if any, that should be recommended.
Moody is seeking a reprimand for Leanza's alleged violation of Rule 2:15-8(a) (4) and (6) and Canons 1, 2 and 3 of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
But Zegas said that even a light quantum of discipline would be untoward, given Zaklama's alleged disregard for the process of law and manipulation of the legal system.
"Dr. Zaklama has a history in North Jersey of being a slumlord," said Leanza. Summonses issued to him by Guttenberg and other towns would go ignored for years, and fines continued to mount up. "The police had to find him and arrest him," he said.
Leanza said Zaklama had appeared before him once before and, facing high bail, appeared to fake a heart attack but then checked himself out of the hospital the next day without undergoing any tests. He apparently did so again during the March 7, 2006, hearing when Leanza, after reviewing the list of complaints, considered setting bail at $1 million.
"He grabbed his chest again," said Leanza. "We [the judge and court staff] looked at him and laughed. We assumed he again feigned a heart attack." Eventually, Zaklama walked out of the courtroom, he said.
"I was as frustrated as I could be," said Leanza, adding that he only wanted Zaklama to repair his properties before someone died or was seriously injured because of the properties' lack of compliance with sanitary and safety codes. "I just wanted to get the violations fixed," he said.
Leanza, a partner with Leanza & Agrapidis in Hasbrouck Heights, also testified that at the time he made the remark, he was under stress due to personal problems. His wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to her shoulder. She still is undergoing treatment, he said, and at the same time they are raising a 3-1/2-year-old son. At one point, he broke down and sobbed as he spoke about his wife.
Leanza told the ACJC that he feared losing his job as the town's municipal court judge because it provides his only health insurance coverage. "Right now, my health benefits are paramount to my family," said Leanza, who added that he pays $40,000 to $50,000 a year for his wife's treatment.
"I lost my cool, my judicial temperament," Leanza said of the hearing.
Moody questioned Leanza only briefly. She asked Leanza whether he could offer any assurances that there would be no similar incidents in the future.
"I had exemplary conduct for 17 years before this and a year after. I think I've learned my lesson."
Moody asked what he would do if Zaklama appeared before him again in the future.
"I think I would have to recuse myself," Leanza replied.
The ACJC reserved its decision, which ultimately will be reviewed by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The case is In the Matter of Judge Frank Leanza, ACJC Docket 151-06.