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It was a busy summer for Hilton Stein after he discovered that you can’t win legal malpractice cases if your work is as flawed as the attorneys you are suing. Going from courthouse to courthouse in a desperate salvage operation, Stein convinced judges to resurrect seven of eight cases against other attorneys that had been thrown out or crippled because his firm missed filing deadlines. These were embarrassing excursions for Stein, who as New Jersey’s best-known legal malpractice lawyer makes a living off other attorneys’ mistakes. But the judges in Essex, Hunterdon, Morris, Passaic and Bergen counties put the cases back on track after Stein presented certifications that blamed a partner’s mental breakdown for the filing errors. Stein also argued that adversaries weren’t prejudiced. The reinstatements came at a cost. Judges in four cases ordered Stein’s firm to pay adversaries’ fees and costs caused by the additional litigation. As of Thursday, the penalties were about $17,800. Stein also was occupied with personal affairs. Wounded by the incident, his five-lawyer firm, Stein, Thyne, LaGrotta, Roper & Twardowsky of Totowa, decided to split in three. Stein’s new firm will be Stein, Sommer, Engelhart & Pescatore of Fairfield. It will be a partnership accustomed to adversity. Name partners Goldie Sommer and Edward Engelhart were indicted in Passaic County last year on charges of defrauding personal injury clients, though the indictment was dismissed after more evidence was presented. “They’ve gone through a horrible ordeal,” Stein says. “But their nightmares are behind them and now they’re on a mission.” That mission, he and Engelhart say, is to de-emphasize personal injury work and devote more attention to what Stein does: sue lawyers. A Passaic County grand jury indicted Engelhart and Sommer in January 2000 on charges of theft by deception, failure to make required disposition of property received and misapplication of entrusted property, all third-degree crimes. The chief witness against them was Michael Gibson, an office manager in their former firm, Sommer & Engelhart. Their criminal defense counsel, John Arseneault of Chatham’s Arseneault & Fassett, said at the time that it was ironic and startling that Sommer and Engelhart were charged. After all, he pointed out, it was they who alerted prosecutors to Gibson, who pleaded guilty in 1997 to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the firm. According to the state’s case, based on Gibson’s information, the firm charged clients for unwarranted expenses, namely, hundreds of dollars paid to runners. And prosecutors said at the time of the indictment that there was no charge under the anti-runners law only because that law wasn’t adopted until 1999, several years after the alleged offenses. In July 2000, Judge Marilyn Clark dismissed the indictment. Acting Prosecutor Marilyn Zdobinski says that the firm’s defense lawyer met with prosecutors and argued that evidence not heard by the grand jury was vital. A new grand jury was convened, it returned a no-bill and the charge was dismissed, she says. Engelhart says the evidence included tax and financial records that showed no clients had lost money. Records on file at the Office of Attorney Ethics show that the lawyers have never been publicly disciplined and that no ethics complaints are pending, an OAE clerk says. Engelhart says there were malpractice claims by clients that were settled confidentially. Stein was involved as an adviser on malpractice insurance coverage issues, but he also won’t discuss any details. “I’ve known Goldie and Ed for 20 years, and they’re back on track,” Stein says. So, at least procedurally, are seven of eight pieces of litigation that were heading for the “case closed” cabinet before Stein started his round of resurrections this summer. Among the litigants on the other side — six as defendants and two as plaintiffs trying to collect fees from Stein’s clients — were lawyers at Newark’s Sills Cummis Radin Tischman Epstein & Gross; Saddle Brook’s Cohn Lifland Pearlman Herrmann & Knopf; and Bridgewater’s Golden, Rothschild, Spagnola, Lundell, Levitt & Boylan. Judges in the cases had taken crippling actions against Stein’s clients in the eight cases because pleadings hadn’t been filed in time. In the two collection cases, for example, judgments against the clients were entered. Most of the malpractice complaints were dismissed with prejudice after a series of missed deadlines, particularly deadlines to provide discovery. According to certifications by Stein and his partner Kenneth Thyne, it was all the result of an emotional breakdown by Thyne caused by the stress and strain of the work. Thyne said in his certification that he suffered a mental block about some files and couldn’t even look at them. The more he fell behind, the more he tried to cover up his lack of compliance with the discovery deadlines, he said. In pleadings in the eight cases that were harmed, Stein argued that the adverse orders should be vacated because of extraordinary circumstances, namely Thyne’s problems. Stein also argued successfully that the errors, committed in late 2000 and early 2001, were caught early enough to prevent prejudice to the adversaries. Last week, one case remained dismissed with prejudice, Stein says. That is Choudhury v. Theroux, MRS-L-1687-98, a suit by a doctor against lawyers who defended her in a medical malpractice case. One of the seven cases settled: Sills Cummis’ suit to collect an $80,000 fee from a former client who turned to Stein. A confidentiality agreement bars discussion of the terms, says Sills Cummis’ lawyer, Edward David of Clifton’s Welt & David. Thyne says he has consulted with a psychiatrist about his condition and is now getting back to lawyering, chastened by his experience. “I think I’m a better lawyer and a better person after what happened,” he says. Thyne says he also has offered to pay the sanctions imposed on the firm. As it stands now, the firm owes about $16,000 for work by lawyers representing Sills Cummis — Robert Fettweis, in the Newark office of Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen, and Edward David of Clifton’s Welt & David. Sanctions worth about $1,800 are expected in a case being handled by New Brunswick’s Hoagland, Longo, Moran, Dunst & Doukas, Stein says. Still to be computed are sanctions in a Bergen County case ordered at the request of malpractice defense lawyers at Roseland’s Connell Foley and Cohn Lifland. Lawyers handling the cases at those two firms did not return telephone calls. Though Stein is leaving, Thyne, Angela Roper and Daria Twardowsky will remain together. Clients are being asked to decide whom they want as their counsel, but Roper says she expects Stein will take about two-thirds of the files. Roper says partner Robyn LaGrotta is going to be an associate at Wayne’s Binder Goldstein. As for Stein, he says that as the mess is being sorted out, discovery is proceeding and trials in some of the reinstated cases have been tentatively scheduled for the autumn and winter. “There are a lot of defendants who took a large amount of pleasure out of this,” he says of his problems. “Many of them wouldn’t have guessed we would get these cases back.”

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