For the first time in Connecticut, a federal judge has ruled that attorneys with the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Council should be granted the same immunity from lawsuits as judges and state prosecutors.
U.S. District Judge Robert N. Chatigny in New Haven opined that a suspended New Britain lawyer, Jacek Smigelski, cannot pursue his claims of constitutional violations against judges and the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Council. Smigelski’s lawsuit claimed the judges and Assistant Disciplinary Counsel Suzanne Sutton fabricated evidence against him when he was accused of wrongdoing for paying himself $66,838 from a client’s trust account.
Chief Disciplinary Council Patricia King argued Smigelski’s 15-month suspension should stand. She further argued that Sutton, who was named as an individual defendant, and the office should be granted immunity from such lawsuits. Chatigny agreed. In dismissing Smigelski’s lawsuit, the judge said the immunity exists even when an assistant disciplinary counsel is accused of intentional misconduct.
"Like prosecutors in the criminal justice system, disciplinary counsel prosecuting grievances against attorneys need absolute immunity so they can perform their duties free from fear of suits for damages," Chatigny wrote.
Former Chief Disciplinary Counsel Mark Dubois, who in 2004 helped create the Judicial Branch office that investigates and prosecutes lawyer discipline matters, said the ruling was an important one. "This was huge, as far as I’m concerned," said Dubois, who is now practicing with Geraghty & Bonnano in New London.
"When we were setting up the disciplinary office, we took the position that our jobs were akin to criminal prosecutors and that the substantive law regarding their immunity should apply to us," Dubois said. "I can’t think of another case where the office had the opportunity arise to argue that issue as a legal matter, and to get a decision on it from a federal court judge."
Although not a binding decision in terms of precedent, Dubois said the decision will undoubtedly provide "compelling authority" should other lawsuits against the office arise in the future.
"It’s not binding precedent because it’s not an appellate court, but it is persuasive precedent," Dubois said. "The first thing judges want to know when they confront an issue, is, ‘How did other judges rule?’ This is pretty important because it’s an articulation by a federal court judge that there should be prosecutorial immunity under these circumstances."
A similar lawsuit Smigelski filed against Dubois for prosecuting the disciplinary case was dismissed last week. Superior Court Judge James Abrams granted a motion for summary judgment, finding there was no evidence that Smigelski’s due process rights were violated. "The court finds that no issue of genuine material fact exists and finds that the defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the issue of whether the plaintiff’s rights were violated," Abrams wrote.
Smigelski had his law license suspended in 2011 for overbilling a client in a probate case. The discipline case against Smigelski was filed in 2006, after former client Stanley Kosiorek learned Smigelski had charged him $66,838 to handle a real estate closing that was tying up his father’s estate.
At the time, Kosiorek told an appellate court judge he was "speechless and stunned" by the size of the legal bill, which he had expected to be tens of thousands of dollars less. As a result of that complaint, the grievance actions were launched. Smigelski was ordered to pay back what he had taken from the Kosioreks.
Smigelski responded with a flurry of pro se filings. Vowing not to quit, he sued the judges involved in the case, Dubois and the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel because they tried to stop him from collecting the bill.
Because the timeframe of his suspension has passed, Smigelski is now entitled to reapply to have his law license reinstated, but he has not yet done so. On Thursday, May 16, he declined to comment, other than to say the court decisions would be appealed. "Everything is up in the air because of pending litigation," Smigelski said.•