The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Statewide Grievance Committee in a case involving whether to discipline attorneys from two notable Connecticut firms, Day Pitney and Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder.
The state’s high court ruled 5-0 Thursday that the plaintiffs had no standing to raise the issue, which involved grievance complaints against seven attorneys in a malpractice case.
Attorneys for plaintiff Daniel D’Attilo initially filed complaints against his former attorneys, alleging the lawyers had conspired to deprive him of millions won from a $25 million medical malpractice settlement. D’Attilo was severely injured at birth, and suffers from cerebral palsy as a result. He was born in a Stamford hospital with severe brain damage, allegedly caused by a doctor’s mistakes.
Local grievance panels dismissed the complaints against five of the seven attorneys, after finding no probable cause or unethical conduct. Cleared were Koskoff attorneys James Horwitz, William Bloss and Joel Lichtenstein, and Day Pitney’s Keith Gallant and Rebecca Iannantuoni.
The complaints against the remaining two attorneys—Michael Koskoff and Kathleen Nastri of the Koskoff firm—were found to be supported by probable cause and were referred to the SGC. That committee issued reprimands to both attorneys. It reprimanded Nastri for failing to keep billing records. It also cited the attorney’s failure to explain to the plaintiffs that a particular provision in the retainer agreement, drafted by Koskoff, affected the applicability of the fee cap statute and could be subject to different interpretations. As for Koskoff, the committee reprimanded him for failing to keep proper records.
Howard Altschuler, the attorney for the family, claimed the local panels had improperly dismissed the complaints against the five attorneys, and sought an independent review of all seven complaints under a trial court’s inherent authority to oversee attorney conduct.
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which the court granted. The trial court concluded that the plaintiff lacked standing because he had not been aggrieved by the defendants’ actions. The state’s high court agreed with Superior Court Judge David Sheridan.
“Our examination of the record on appeal and the briefs and arguments of the parties persuades us that the judgment of the trial court should be affirmed,” the high court wrote.
A $58.6 million jury verdict in 2011 in favor of the family was eventually settled for $25 million. Both law firms were named in a 16-count civil suit for illegally taking $4.3 million in unearned fees and using elaborate tactics to escape detection by the probate court system. Day Pitney attorneys were brought into the case to create a trust fund for the disabled boy.
The family claimed the Koskoff firm defrauded them and illegally misappropriated funds by retaining 28 percent of the $25 million settlement, in violation of the 10.64 percent cap fee set by the state’s general statutes, which governed the retainer agreement. The family also claimed, the state’s high court wrote, that the Koskoff firm charged more than $600,000 in litigation expenses, for which there were no original invoices or other proof of validity. With regard to Day Pitney, the plaintiffs claimed their attorneys committed legal malpractice when they set up a trust for the child in a way that caused him to have to pay $65,000 annually in trustee fees, potentially for decades, including the creation of a foundation that would be funded by at least $5 million on Daniel’s death. That foundation would be controlled by the Day Pitney attorneys or their successor, who the state’s high court said, would receive unspecified legal fees “forever.”
Altschuler had said the grievance committee abused its discretion and acted arbitrarily in the handing of the grievance complaints.
Altschuler told the Connecticut Law Tribune Friday that “Supreme Court ignored the main arguments we raised at oral arguments. They previously carved out an exception for the requirement of standing when it came to protecting the integrity of construction bidding for public contracts, and we asked them during oral arguments to protect the integrity of the grievance process by carving out an exception to standing. I’m disappointed. This decision tells me they [the high court's justices] are willing to ignore evidence of abuses by grievance officials because the Supreme Court did not carve out the same exceptions to protect the integrity of the grievance process that they did to protect the integrity of construction bidding.”
The Koskoff firm and Lisa Morra, a spokeswoman for Day Pitney, declined to comment Friday. Michael Bowler, bar counsel for the SGC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment by press time. Connecticut Solicitor General Jane Rosenberg, who represented the defendants in oral arguments, was on vacation Friday and unavailable for comment.