A Connecticut attorney who impersonated another attorney in connection with a drug bust gone wrong has lost a bid to reverse a defamation verdict against him for his role-switching stunt.
The Appellate Court of Connecticut rejected an appeal by attorney Joseph Elder, who asserted that the trial judge made improper evidentiary rulings and issued faulty jury instructions that warranted a reversal.
The Sept. 29 decision upheld the $73,000 verdict for general and punitive damages against Elder in what the court called an “unusual and unfortunate dispute.”
The lawsuit stems from a July, 26, 2006, incident in Plainville, Conn. The appellate decision identified the events of that day and those that followed as facts that “a reasonable jury could have found.”
According to the decision, two police officers were posted outside the home of Erik Krajewski, a man suspected of drug crimes and one of Elder’s clients. The officers were waiting for approval of a warrant application to search the home of Krajewski, who was not there when the officers arrived but who showed up while they were waiting.
After the officers blocked Krajewski from entering his home, Krajewski used his cell phone to call Elder, who told Krajewski that without a warrant, the officers could not prevent him from entering. A scuffle ensued, and Krajewski managed to get inside and lock the door behind him. The officers forced their way in and found Krajewski flushing marijuana down a toilet. After another struggle, the officers subdued Krajewski and placed him into custody. One of the officers injured his arm during the altercation.
At that point, Plainville police Sgt. Dean Cyr arrived on the scene and was upset that Krajewski had gotten into the home. The sergeant took custody of Krajewski’s cell phone, which happened to ring. He answered the phone, noting the number of the incoming call. After Cyr identified himself, the caller — who, unbeknownst to the sergeant was Elder — hung up.
The next day, Cyr called the number to find out who had talked to Krajewski on his cell phone. When Cyr asked to whom he was speaking, Elder said that his name was “Wes Spears.” Wesley Spears is an attorney in Hartford, Conn. The decision didn’t say why Elder chose Spears’ name in identifying himself.
Some time later, Cyr made a second call to the number, which he recorded. Again, Elder identified himself as Spears. Cyr, thinking he was speaking to Spears, said that he intended to get an arrest warrant against Spears and, if unsuccessful, would file a complaint with the statewide attorney grievance committee. Cyr did not obtain the arrest warrant but did file a grievance. It was only seven months later that Cyr discovered he actually had spoken to Elder.
During the grievance investigation, Spears learned of the number that Cyr had used to make the call. When Spears called the number, he reached a woman who said that she had just been assigned the number and was getting calls for Elder. When Spears got in touch with Elder about the situation, Elder denied impersonating Spears, according to Spears’ answer to the grievance action. As a result, Spears believed that Cyr was attempting to “frame” him, the decision said, and filed an action against Cyr and the town of Plainville. During a deposition of Cyr in that action, Spears heard the recorded conversation between Elder and Cyr. Spears then sued Elder for impersonation, defamation, slander, libel, fraud and legal malpractice. Elder and Spears each appeared pro se in the case.
The appeals court determined that because the jury had awarded a general verdict in favor of Spears, it was precluded from considering the majority of issues raised by Elder on appeal. It also determined that because Elder had not objected to the other issues at trial, he could not raise them on appeal.
A man answering the phone at the office of Joseph Elder asked to be called back later in response to a question about the decision. A message later left at the number was not returned. Spears did not return calls seeking comment.
Appellate Court of Connecticut Judge Alexandria DiPentima wrote the decision. Also on the panel were judges Richard Robinson and Francis Hennessy.
Leigh Jones can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.