Attorney Dwight Merriam Dwight Merriam. Courtesy Photo

Connecticut legal circles were abuzz Thursday over news that prominent land-use attorney Dwight Merriam had been arrested two days earlier on misdemeanor domestic assault charges.

The Robinson & Cole partner took a leave of absence Wednesday afternoon from the firm where he’s served for about four decades.

Now, the question, ethics attorneys say, is whether he can make a comeback at 72 years old. Merriam has had a storied career as one of Connecticut’s most-respected land-use attorneys. But how he might fare at an Am Law 200 firm with offices in six states is a different story in the age of #MeToo, a movement against sexual harassment and assault.

“He can definitely come back from this,” said Miami-based ethics lawyer Brian Tannebaum, special counsel to BastAmron. ”On the face of it, this is not the kind of offense that would result in disbarment or suspension. But we are in an environment now where domestic violence is taken more seriously. I trust the firm is concerned about what the clients might think about the situation if they were to take him back.”

Robinson & Cole’s managing partner Stephen Goldman called the allegations against Merriam “shocking and extremely disturbing.” He told the Connecticut Law Tribune Thursday that Merriam’s leave of absence was a mutual decision.

“Robinson [&] Cole and its lawyers have been strong supporters of and participants in the fight against domestic violence,” Goldman wrote in a statement. “Lawyers in our firm serve in leadership positions in the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Interval House, and an initiative led by our lawyers created the Domestic Violence Restraining Order Program, providing free legal services to victims of domestic violence. Dwight himself has been a leader in the Connecticut and National Bar for 40 years.”

Goldman said it’s not clear how long Merriam’s leave would last.

“We know little about the factual basis of the allegations that have been made against Dwight,” he said. “But this is a very serious matter for our firm, and we will be monitoring this matter on an ongoing basis.”

Simsbury Police charged Merriam with disorderly conduct and simple assault. They charged Merriam after his fiancee accused him of chasing her around his house, assaulting her with a frying pan, and leaving a softball-sized red mark with purple overtones on her hip.

Jamie Sullivan, a legal ethics expert and partner with Howard, Kohn, Sprague & FitzGerald in Hartford, said he does not believe Connecticut’s Statewide Grievance Committee will address the matter.

“This has nothing to do with the practice of law,” said Sullivan, who co-authored “Connecticut Legal Ethics and Malpractice” with attorney Mark Dubois. “In order for the Statewide Grievance Committee to be interested in criminal conduct, the crime or infraction has to be very serious. … This does not even come close to rising to that level. The bar simply will not be interested in this.”

Grievance committee counsel Michael Bowler did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Merriam serves on the Connecticut Law Tribune’s editorial board. His arrest will not affect that  position, according to Joette Katz, who chairs the board.

Morals Clause?

Merriam’s future could depend on his agreement with Robinson & Cole: whether he owns shares, is entitled to a payout, or is subject to a morals clause that might cover criminal charges or other offenses. Goldman declined to address any of these issues.

The police report states Merriam met his fiancee at the University of Connecticut Law School, where he was a professor. It does not name the woman, but notes she is Russian.

The pair started dating in 2013, and he “paid for all of her school tuition,” according to the arrest report.

The report paints a picture of a relationship in which money was instrumental.

The woman told police she would sign a prenuptial agreement to protect Merriam’s assets if the couple married, and that the attorney would pay her $50,000 to return to Russia if they separated. She said Merriam refused to pay her the money, causing the argument to escalate,

Merriam confirmed to police that he and the woman argued over money, but said it was a verbal disagreement.

“Dwight said he was not going to pay her any money because he had already paid for all of her school tuition,” the report said.

Attorneys who know Merriam rallied to support him after news broke of his arrest. Among them: Sullivan, the ethics lawyer who has known Merriam for four years and has served with him on the Connecticut Law Tribune’s editorial board.

Merriam is “an honorable person whose word is solid,” according to Sullivan. “He has a wonderful sense of humor and is a proud father.”

Merriam’s daughter is a federal magistrate judge in Hartford.

Bob Mitchell, of Mitchell & Sheahan, called him “very good-natured.”

Meanwhile, Sullivan said Merriam’s case “is definitely being talked about” in legal circles, but he expects colleagues to support the attorney.

“They will stand behind him because ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I,’” Sullivan said. “That is why God made erasers.”