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The courts can’t blame Clifford Van Syoc for trying, but they can charge him. The Cherry Hill, N.J., lawyer must pay $58,000 in counsel fees and costs for pursuing a reverse discrimination claim that a federal judge found to be baseless. Van Syoc’s client, Todd Murphy, is a white employee of Atlantic City, N.J.’s housing authority who claimed he was passed over for promotions because of his race, in violation of federal civil rights laws. U.S. District Judge Stephen Orlofsky of the District of New Jersey, finding Murphy “failed to produce even a scintilla of evidence” of discrimination, granted summary judgment to the defense. Finding bad faith, Orlofsky dunned Van Syoc $58,000 in fees and costs under 28 U.S.C. 1927. Van Syoc appealed the judgment and the fees, arguing that the finding of bad faith was off the mark. But on Oct. 16, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed his argument as “specious.” The appeals judges found Van Syoc fit the bill as a sanctionable attorney, namely, one “who so multiplies the proceedings in any case unreasonably and vexatiously.” The panel found still more bad faith in Van Syoc’s pursuit of per quod recovery for Murphy’s wife under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and 42 U.S.C. 2000 — claims the courts have ruled out. Van Syoc, whose appeal was supported by the state chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association, says he will seek en banc review. He says he was justified in pursuing the case because his adversary, Charles Ercole, wrote a letter to his client’s insurance carrier saying the case had a 50-50 chance of going to a jury. Van Syoc took that as a measure of validity. Ercole, a partner in the Cherry Hill office of Philadelphia’s Klehr, Harrison, Harvey, Branzburg & Ellers, answers that no astute defense attorney discounts an adversary’s case 100 percent. Further, he notes, Orlofsky deemed the letter to be covered by attorney-client privilege. Somerville, N.J., solo Brian Cige, who helped prepare NELA-NJ’s amicus brief, says plaintiffs’ lawyers can take heart in the court’s designation of its opinion as non-precedential. Otherwise, he says, it might chill other plaintiffs’ lawyers from mounting a vigorous defense. The case is Murphy v. Housing Authority and Urban Redevelopment Agency of the City of Atlantic City, 01-3426 and 01-3572.

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