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A 75-year-old attorney has been disbarred for what an appeals court described as a history of “reprehensible, unprofessional behavior” that included threatening judges, defying court orders and disrupting the legal process. A referee of the Appellate Division, 1st Department’s Disciplinary Committee had recommended that the attorney, maritime expert Kenneth Heller, receive a suspension of at least two years. But the appeals court said Thursday that only his removal from the bar would suffice. “In light of the cumulative evidence of respondent’s 24-year history of sanctions, his perverse and persistent refusal to accept adverse rulings, reflective of an utter contempt for the judicial system, and his consistent, reprehensible, unprofessional behavior, which has included screaming at, threatening and disparaging judges, adversaries and experts, intentionally defying court rulings, and disrupting and thwarting proper legal process through both physical and verbal aggression, we are of the opinion that the appropriate sanction here is disbarment,” the unanimous court wrote in In the Matter of Kenneth Heller, M-1748. Heller did not return a call to his office, and his attorney, Robert E. Sokolski, declined to comment. The appellate panel, which included Justices Milton L. Williams, Alfred D. Lerner, David Friedman, George D. Marlow and Luis A. Gonzalez, based its ruling largely on three cases. One involved a 1996 personal injury suit Heller brought against a Manhattan garage, claiming he fell and sustained permanent injuries because of a faulty freight elevator. A jury awarded Heller $2.3 million, which was later reduced to $1.3 million by the trial judge. The 1st Department vacated the verdict in a 4-1 ruling in Heller v. Provenzano, 257 AD2d 378, finding that it would be a “gross injustice” to allow the verdict to stand. It also upheld a $10,000 trial court sanction against the lawyer for his behavior. The appeals court in Heller v. Provenzano found that Heller had spoken to prospective jurors before trial and tried to curry favor with Latino jurors, telling them his wife was Hispanic. He also wandered around the courtroom after the trial judge ordered him to sit down and described, while on the stand, a prior fatal accident in the garage elevator that the judge had forbade him to discuss. One dissenting judge on the Provenzano panel, Justice Richard T. Andrias, said Heller’s verdict should stand. Though the judge disapproved of Heller’s conduct and the conduct of his attorney, Judge Andrias said there were doubts that Heller spoke to jurors before the trial. He noted that the defendant did not challenge the jury and did not move for a mistrial until after the verdict was delivered. In its disciplinary opinion, the 1st Department returned to Provenzano, recounting a “shouting tirade” Heller had with the trial judge when he was under direct examination. Heller, the court said, threatened to report the judge to the Commission on Judicial Conduct. The appeals court also cited Heller’s conduct while litigating a personal injury suit stemming from a helicopter crash in Uruguay. Heller had accompanied four of his clients to a psychiatric examination by a doctor hired by the defendant. Heller, the court said, “was confrontational, made insulting remarks … and interrupted the examinations frequently, often in a loud voice.” At one point, the court said, Heller told the doctor, “Listen, I could take you. I’ve taken bigger guys than you, and you don’t scare me. Don’t think you can push me around.” The court said Heller interrupted one examination at least 49 times and repeatedly called the doctor a “charlatan.” Heller’s conduct continued after the trial judge ordered a referee to supervise the remaining examinations. The referee later said Heller “was so vehement and violent that [the referee] feared for his safety.” He instructed a court officer to attend the sessions. In a third case, the court said, Heller used “harassing tactics” against a pro se litigant and failed to pay sanctions in a timely fashion as ordered by the court. “Respondent’s persistent misconduct, up until and including this proceeding, in the face of 24 years of prior sanctions and published criticisms, indicates that the most serious sanction is warranted,” the appeals court wrote. Mady J. Edelstein represented the Departmental Disciplinary Committee.

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