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Michael Land wants other male sole practitioners to learn from his sexual harassment disaster. Never meet a prospective female client alone, the Atlantic County, N.J., lawyer advises. Always have a secretary or paralegal present. Drastic and annoying measures? You bet. But Land has reason to believe in such protections. In 1996, a potential client complained to police that Land fondled her while they were alone. Police officers arrested him and handcuffed him to a pipe while they booked him. Word got around Margate and Northfield, N.J., where he has offices, and after 36 years of practice his business started evaporating. Even after a municipal court judge threw out the charge, the trauma continued. The woman filed a civil complaint in Atlantic County Superior Court. On Thursday it was over. After hearing evidence that the plaintiff was a frequent filer of bogus suits, a jury not only no-caused the sexual harassment complaint, it awarded the 60-year-old practitioner $225,000 in compensatory and punitive damages on a malicious prosecution counterclaim. It was a happy ending for Land. But he concludes, “It certainly wasn’t fun being treated like an ax murderer.” And other practitioners will agree with Land’s lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr. of Atlantic City’s Jacobs & Barbone, that the case shows that lawyers need to be wary of strangers. “You never know who is going to walk in the door,” Jacobs said in his summation. Land told The Press of Atlantic City after the verdict: “I have not seen a female client unescorted after-hours since this incident and probably never will again.” According to evidence at the trial, Land first met plaintiff Theresa Mejia, now 41, of Somers Point, N.J., at a 4:30 p.m. appointment on Nov. 20, 1996. They were to discuss whether he would represent her in a personal injury case against an Atlantic City casino. However, Land testified that after examining her file, he saw that other attorneys had declined to represent her, so he asked for a $400 payment and said he would take the case only after getting a medical opinion. The next morning, Northfield police officers in cruisers came to his home, and as neighbors gathered to gawk, he was led away to be fingerprinted, photographed and charged with sexual assault. During a 1997 municipal court hearing of her complaint and during the civil case as well, Mejia insisted that Land grabbed one of her breasts and made lewd comments. In support of her claim, her lawyer, Mark Guralnick, who heads a firm in Mount Laurel, N.J., noted that she reported the incident to the police immediately. What’s more, at last week’s trial he elicited testimony that Mejia’s story was consistent with what she told a 16-year-old nephew immediately after her visit to Land’s office. Jacobs presented evidence that Mejia had an 11-year history of filing suits. Among them, according to the account of the trial in The Press, was a claim against an attorney who wouldn’t represent her and a suit involving a casino buffet line server’s handling of a ladle. In 1997, Northfield Municipal Judge Louis Belasco Jr. threw out the criminal case against Land, and the six-member jury did the same in the civil case on Thursday. Then it voted unanimously to give Land $50,000 in compensatory damages and voted 5-1 for $175,000 in punitive damages. Two years of prejudgment interest will be tacked on. Then Land has to try to collect. Jacobs says Mejia is a person of modest means but that a lien will be filed against any recovery in an unrelated personal injury claim Mejia is prosecuting. Guralnick did not return a telephone call on Friday. Neither did Cindy Baen, a sole practitioner in Somers Point whom Land identified as Mejia’s lawyer in the pending, unrelated civil matter. SAD CYNICISM Land says his case serves as a warning to lawyers, particularly sole practitioners, against being alone with prospective female clients they don’t know. Several lawyers said in interviews on Friday that Land’s experience does have cautionary value, but that his advice has questionable merit. “I think that kind of cynicism is really sad,” says Paul Kreisinger, a sole practitioner who has offices in Rutherford and Midland Park, N.J. Yes, what happened to Land should make every lawyer think about closed-door meetings with clients. But to create a system in which no female client is seen alone would be going overboard, says Kreisinger, a former chairman of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s General Practice Section. Another former chairman, Tinton Falls, N.J., sole practitioner I. Mark Cohen, says he can’t envision a hard and fast rule on such visits, although he agrees it’s probably good to keep office doors open whenever possible and be cautious when meeting clients who make “cold calls” to set up interviews. PENDING LEGISLATION FOR DOCTORS The counsel to the Medical Society of New Jersey, Steven Kern of Bridgewater’s Kern Augustine Conroy & Schoppmann, says doctors have grappled with similar problems. Indeed, the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners is pushing legislation that would require doctors to have chaperones present when examining patients of the opposite sex. Kern says such rules will do nothing to stop harassment and false claims of harassment. Predators will always find a way to do their dirty work, chaperones or not, he says. And he says there have been cases in which filers of suspect sexual harassment claims have testified that chaperones were either “looking the other way” or were intimidated into saying that nothing happened. For both lawyers and doctors, having a third party present at all times can turn out to be expensive and unworkable, Kern concludes. Even Land’s lawyer, Jacobs, thinks a ban against one-on-one interviews is going overboard, although he says it’s his policy to keep the door open in meetings with all clients, and he usually has a secretary seated just outside his office. Given the confidential nature of attorney-client relationships, however, “there are time when you have to shut the door,” he concludes.

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