An attorney’s refusal to answer some questions about his handling of an estate within his own family has resulted in a suspension of his Connecticut law license for 18 months.
Noah H. Starkey, a solo practitioner in Manchester who is licensed to practice in both Connecticut and Massachusetts, will have to pay his brother in law and sister in law from a judgment of about $300,000 before he can apply for reinstatement. Starkey will also have to pass a multistate professional responsibility course as part of the terms of his discipline handed down on April 2 by Superior Court Judge Carl J. Schumann.
Starkey, who was admitted to practice in Connecticut in 1975, could not be reached for comment for this article.
A federal lawsuit filed in Massachusetts in 2008 first raised the claim that Starkey hindered his wife’s brother and sister from collecting their share of the family inheritance after their mother and aunt’s deaths. As the lawsuit played out, a judge ruled that Starkey had violated court orders by failing to respond to discovery requests. A judgment was entered against him to pay his wife’s siblings the $300,000 that was their claimed share of the inheritance, but it was not paid.
The state of Massachusetts has not yet decided whether it will take action to revoke or suspend Starkey’s license for any professional rule violations there. Suzanne Sutton, the first assistant chief disciplinary counsel for Connecticut, said it is typical for the state where the violation occurred to take grievance action first. But since there was no indication that Massachusetts officials were taking any action, and possibly because Starkey’s primary place of business is in Connecticut, the disciplinary case was launched here first.
"I asked for him to be suspended for no less than four years," Sutton said.
Although allegations were raised in court documents that Starkey had swindled his in-laws, neither the grievance nor the civil lawsuit established that any assets were misappropriated. Sutton said Starkey’s refusal to cooperate with the discovery requests for information in the civil lawsuit were top among the ethical violations he committed. "He engaged in conduct that was prejudicial to the administration of justice and that’s a clear violation," Sutton said.
Additionally, Starkey did not answer requests for information in the grievance complaint itself, which was itself a violation.
The problem for Starkey started back in 2000, when he began handling probate matters for his wife and her relatives.
In 2004, Gertrude Harhay, who was Starkey’s mother-in law, died. Starkey and his wife, Gertrude M. Starkey, took control of the estate, as counsel and executrix. Since Harhay’s two sisters also died within a seven-year time frame, with Starkey and his wife saw to handling their estates as well.
That itself was not a violation of any ethics rule, but Starkey’s subsequent refusal to cooperate with official inquiries about his handling of the estates clearly rose to the level of rule violations, Sutton said.
When Gertrude Starkey’s brother and sister, George Harhay and Anne Harhay, sought to recover what they believed was their share of the estates, Starkey and his wife told them there were no assets left and refused to present documents to back that up.
In the decision that resulted in the $300,000 judgment, U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor said the case illustrated "the degree of venom and utter confusion that can arise from disputes among family members."
In arguing her disciplinary case against Starkey, Sutton relied largely on the record from the federal lawsuit. In that record, Ponsor had pointed out that the case was an example of "how the judicial process can be abused."
Starkey represented himself in the disciplinary proceeding, as he had in the federal probate case. Starkey argued he tried his best to comply with the discovery requests in the federal case. He also argued that that his failure to pay the $300,000 judgment imposed by the federal court should not be considered to be a violation. "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law in good faith belief that no valid obligation exists," Starkey stated in court briefs.
Although he did not elaborate in court documents, Starkey said he planned to challenge the enforcement of the $300,000 judgment. If he chooses to do so, Starkey could still appeal the decision in his grievance case as well.
In arguing for leniency in the grievance case, Starkey conceded that he didn’t answer the grievance complaint. He said the allegations raised in the federal lawsuit were "baseless" and forever imprinted in the public record. "The depressing and devastating personal, social and economic harm can never be undone," he wrote to the judge. "Particularly given the Internet."•