About two weeks ago, high-profile trial lawyer Michael Stratton stepped down from his position on the New Haven Board of Aldermen, following a sometimes contentious six months on the board. The next day, news broke that a young woman Stratton had been dating had been arrested during a reported domestic dispute at his apartment.
Now, the story has taken another turn: a warrant was issued July 2 for Stratton’s arrest on charges of third-degree assault and second-degree breach of peace stemming from that June 13 incident.
The warrant was issued less than a week after New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman ordered an investigation into how officers handled the domestic call which resulted in the arrest of Courtney Darlington, 20. The internal investigation, which is still underway, has been focused on reports that there may have been a “small amount” of marijuana in the apartment and whether police followed protocol.
Stratton, 48, made a few comments on social media and to reporters after the arrest of Darlington. But he isn’t talking now. Several calls to him and his firm, Stratton Faxon Trial Lawyers, went unreturned on July 3.
The firm, launched in 2003, is normally in the news in a more positive light. Stratton Faxon’s five lawyers have won a number of multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements in personal injury and medical malpractice cases. The firm helped raise $500,000 for Connecticut legal aid agencies in a three-year campaign that ended in 2010. It also sponsors an annual New Haven road race, and its website states that the firm contributes 10 percent of all legal fees to charitable causes.
It remains to be seen whether Stratton’s troubles will affect the firm’s business and reputation. Public relations specialists who help businesses weather such storms say that while a misdemeanor charge isn’t necessarily damaging to the professional reputation of a lawyer or the firm, much depends on the circumstances of the allegation and whether the charge has anything to do with the practice of law.
Speaking in general terms, Andrea Obston, of Andrea Obston Marketing Communications in Bloomfield, said “there is a big difference between something that involves the business and something that’s personal.”
In terms of damage control, Obston said in circumstances such as Stratton’s, firms should be wary not to “act too quickly” or say too much.
“If you are their firm, what appears at the beginning may be very different than the full story,” she said. “So although you have to get out in front of the story, law firms should reserve the urge to immediately come to the person’s defense. I know it sounds horrible, but at this point, you as the employer want to stand behind your people, but you may be sorry you did because you didn’t know the whole story.”
Still, total silence isn’t advisable either, Obston said. “Usually, a statement of some kind is better than no statement at all,” she said. “It could be there’s nothing you can say, but people will fill in the blanks if they hear ‘no comment.’”
Stratton became an outspoken critic of the city’s governance from the moment he was elected to the Board of Aldermen as a Democrat in November 2013.
He took what he describes as a “trial lawyer’s” approach to solving New Haven’s financial problems, and got some push-back as a result. He organized something called the People’s Caucus, a breakaway group of alders who oppose what they call the status quo in New Haven, and worked to develop a “People’s Caucus budget” in response to Mayor Toni Harp’s proposed 2014-15 budget.
Stratton publicly criticized Harp and the Board of Education for alleged financial mismanagement, and floated a plan to file a lawsuit against the city related to his views that the city’s schools received far too much taxpayer money. “I felt like David and Goliath,” Stratton said in a brief interview.
At times, his style at board meetings was criticized as confrontational or erratic. Some people appearing before the board were subjected to the same type of intensive questioning as witnesses in a personal injury case. At least one shouting match with colleagues was posted on YouTube following a budget hearing. His outburst prompted one alder, Jeanette Morrison, to request a formal hearing on his conduct.
“I didn’t really get to know him. He had his own agenda,” said Frank Douglas Jr., who represents New Haven’s Ward 2. “Maybe he’s in the wrong business, as far as being an alderman.”
“I could take him or leave him,” Douglas continued. “He’s not going to be missed on the board.”
Stratton feels his legal troubles are the result of his ruffling the feathers of political movers and shakers.
Divorced from his second wife, Stratton said he had been in a brief romantic relationship with Darlington. They spent time together helping homeless people, he said. Although it was “wonderful,” Stratton said he was having some reservations about the relationship. Darlington began hitting him in the head and back when he tried to leave the apartment on Crown Street, prompting him to call 911.
“She struck me repeatedly,” he said. “I did nothing to resist the attack, knowing that even the slightest response would land me in jail.” In interviews with the New Haven Independent, Darlington said Stratton did not strike her that night.
Several days later, a day before the New Haven police department launched an investigation of the incident, Stratton announced he was resigning from the board, saying he had “exceeded the limit of my personal capacity to do this job.”
In a letter to aldermanic President Jorge Perez, Stratton wrote: “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve on some of the most interesting committees. … We alders have learned many facts this past term that give New Haven the opportunity for a very bright future. While I would love to assist in that transformation over the coming year, I have reached a point where responsibilities to myself and my family must come first.”
Stratton hinted that the information about Darlington’s arrest was released to the media by his opponents in City Hall to damage his reputation and bring embarrassment. But he vowed to use the event to inspire further political action. “Mayor [Toni] Harp may have just brought herself an opponent in 2015: Me,” Stratton said.
Stratton also took a stand on social media. At one point, he tweeted: “The machine is afraid. They libel and slander anyone who speaks the truth. New Haven needs an underdog.”
Stratton expressed a desire to share his side of the story, and made an appointment to speak with the Law Tribune on June 30. But he did not keep an interview appointment. “I apologize,” he said in an email later. “A very fast developing and serious issue came up with family I am now addressing.”
On July 2, New Haven police announced they were seeking Stratton’s arrest. In a statement to the media, Officer David Hartman said the police department forwarded evidence it recovered to the New Haven State’s Attorney’s Office. One published report said the evidence included video from a security camera near Stratton’s apartment. “Based on their review, an arrest warrant has been issued for Michael Stratton for the charges of assault in the third degree and breach of the peace in the second degree,” Hartman said.
Harp did not respond to requests for comment. Lawrence Grotheer, a spokesman for the city, said that since Stratton was no longer an alder, there wasn’t much for city officials to say. “There is not a comment from City Hall, because City Hall wasn’t involved,” Grotheer said. “It’s a story that certainly captured people’s imaginations on a number of different fronts.”
The misdemeanor charges may just be part of the trouble Stratton could face. The state’s Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel can launch charges of ethics violations if attorneys act in a way that calls into question their fitness to practice.
Pat King, the chief disciplinary counsel, said she is not yet involved in the Stratton case and won’t be unless there is a conviction.
Steven Seligman, an attorney with Katz & Seligman in Hartford who represents lawyers facing disciplinary actions, said he knows “nothing of the claims against Mike Stratton.” But speaking generally, Seligman said rules governing attorney discipline require the clerk of Superior Court in Connecticut to inform the disciplinary counsel when a lawyer is convicted of a “serious crime.”
A serious crime ranges from any felony, to any crime involving theft, to any charge that results in a jail sentence. Theoretically, then, a misdemeanor conviction which carries less than a year in jail could result in a disciplinary case against a lawyer. “There is always the process when a lawyer gets charged with a crime that he and his counsel have to address the potential for disciplinary actions simply arising from the fact that there has been a conviction,” Seligman said.
And even if there is no conviction, an investigation into an incident involving police actions can sometimes reveal “collateral problems,” such as a gambling habit or drinking problem that could bring an ethics violation. “Collaterally, you can have some consequences that get triggered by an arrest that may result in some disciplinary activity,” Seligman said.
But such collateral exposure does not just apply to attorneys. “All people who are accused of crimes need a criminal defense, and they also need to be aware of repercussions that an investigation or conviction can have on their ability to practice or the effect on their livelihood,” he said.•
Law Tribune web editor Karen Ali contributed to this report.