The Delaware Supreme Court on March 14 publicly reprimanded a prominent Wilmington defense attorney for a series of sexually explicit and religiously insensitive remarks he made to state prosecutors over the course of years.
The justices ordered Joseph A. Hurley, a member of the Delaware bar since 1970, to complete six months of professional training after two separate disciplinary petitions unearthed a trail of communications in which he discussed exposing himself, and made other insulting and demeaning comments to three female deputy attorneys general.
In another correspondence, Hurley referenced a male prosecutor’s Jewish faith, and suggested to him that he should be a “goat herder in Lebanon,” according to court disciplinary documents.
The per curiam order of the court required Hurley, 75, to undergo training for “professionalism, respectful treatment of colleagues and opposing counsel, and the need to refrain generally from inappropriate discussions of a sexual or religious nature when communicating, orally or in writing, in the course of practicing law.”
Hurley will be required to pay the costs of the training program and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel investigation that led to the reprimand.
Contacted on March 15, Hurley said the professional culture had changed during his time practicing law, but he has accepted responsibility for his comments and has since changed his sense of humor in the workplace.
“I stepped over a line that to me at that point was invisible,” he said.
“It’ll never happen again.”
Hurley said he has already taken steps to comply with the requirement that he complete professional training.
Hurley, who has a reputation for his outsize personality, said in the proceedings that his “arrogant and overbearing persona was known to all and appreciated by some.” But he has also criticized the disciplinary action as an attack against his right to free expression and an unfair “attorney court-martial.”
In May 2017, according to the Supreme Court ruling, Hurley circulated a 23-page document to members of the Delaware bar, knocking the proceedings as “The Salem Witch (Warlock) Trial.” The missive, titled “My Struggle, also known as ‘Hurleygate,’” defended his actions as “all in fun” and referred to the petitioners as “so-called victims.”
But a September 2017 report from the Board on Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court compiled multiple allegations of inappropriate behavior made between 2012 and 2016.
One female prosecutor said Hurley once sent her a copy of a letter, in which he stated he used to expose his “thing” to girls in a movie theater using a popcorn box he held on his lap. Another woman testified that Hurley had mused about how she and her husband would spend their first Valentine’s Day together after having a baby. On another occasion, she said, Hurley asked her to sit on his lap in a courtroom.
Other emails between Hurley and a young male prosecutor referenced masturbation and the attorney’s Jewish faith. Hurley also called the man a “certified asshole” and suggested that he would be better suited for tending goats in the Middle East.
The deputy attorneys general were not identified in the disciplinary documents. A spokesman for the Delaware Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
In a separate action, Hurley was also accused of making “antagonistic, inflammatory and demeaning” remarks about a former client during an ODC probe into a disciplinary complaint the client filed against Hurley.
The Board on Professional Responsibility consolidated the two petitions and found that his treatment violated the Delaware Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct by serving only to “embarrass, delay or burden a third person.”
However, the body rejected the ODC’s argument that Hurley knew his actions were wrong, finding that he had employed similarly suggestive humor for years and had “no conscious awareness that [such] conduct would violate the rules.” It recommended a public reprimand, with a requirement that Hurley cover the costs of participating in a professionalism program.
On March 14, the Supreme Court accepted the board’s recommendation, but disagreed that Hurley’s actions were merely negligent.
“Hurley’s excuse that his ‘arrogant and overbearing persona was known to all and appreciated by some’ does not transform—as Hurley seems to suggest—his patently offensive messages into acceptable attempts at humor,” the justices said. “Simply put, Hurley may not have agreed that his unprofessional correspondence violated the rules, but he should have known that it did. The record supports a finding of knowing misconduct.”