Writing that it had to protect the public, a state appeals court has disbarred a Manhattan lawyer for what it said was “egregious and outrageous” conduct during a long, bitter divorce and child custody battle with his now ex-wife.
Anthony Jacob Zappin, once an associate at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, was found to have lashed out for years while representing himself during legal warfare with Claire Comfort, his former wife who is also an attorney.
The court pointed to a litany of findings by a matrimonial judge who’d indicated that Zappin’s behavior seemed to know no bounds. The judge’s findings included: That Zappin set up a fake website about the attorney representing the child in the custody action and posted derogatory messages about her, sent text messages to his wife threatening her with the loss of her law license and professional ruin, and baselessly accused his father-in-law of being a child sexual abuser who could harm his 3-month-old son.
The judge also found that: Zappin pursued frivolous litigation against his wife, her parents and her lawyers, he tried to defame the child’s attorney, and he filed a police report that falsely accused his wife of committing domestic violence against him, the court continued.
He also engaged in acts of physical abuse against his wife, gave false testimony and introduced as evidence altered text messages at the custody trial, and put forward misleading expert-witness testimony, the court went on.
And, the court said, he repeatedly showed disrespect for both the court and counsel, including by flouting the directives of three judges, two matrimonial justices and a judge of District of Columbia Superior Court.
These were many of the findings laid out by a unanimous Appellate Division, First Department, panel decision that said Zappin, a patent attorney admitted to the New York bar in 2011, must be disbarred. The panel’s opinion relied not on conduct or malpractice that affected Zappin’s clients, but rather on his own pro se lawyering actions that seemed to spin out of control.
Yet to the last, Zappin, a 2010 graduate of Columbia Law School, remained unbowed, fighting judges and the courts at every turn, including in his challenges made to the First Department. Those included allegations of First Department justices having conflicts of interest; allegations of fraud by the Attorney Grievance Committee that sought to have Zappin disbarred; and a request that sanctions be imposed against the committee’s counsel.
The panel found that all such accusations and requests were baseless, and it denied Zappin’s related motions that a 2016 order finding him guilty of professional misconduct be vacated, and that the grievance committee’s reply to a referee’s report on Zappin be stricken.
Instead, First Department Justices Rolando Acosta, Rosalyn Richter, Sallie Manzanet-Daniels, Troy Webber and Marcy Kahn wrote that Zappin’s inability to admit his own wrongs further weighed in favor of disbarring him.
“Notwithstanding the repeated acts of egregious misconduct respondent has committed over the course of several years, he has neither demonstrated any remorse nor any acceptance of responsibility for his intolerable actions,” the panel wrote.
It also pointed out that he had been found—first via a 100-page decision issued in 2016 by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Matthew Cooper, who helped preside over the divorce and custody proceedings—to have violated seven New York Rules of Professional Conduct: 22 NYCRR 1200.0 Rule 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation); Rule 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice); Rule 3.1 (frivolous litigation); Rule 3.3(a)(1) (knowingly make a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal); Rule 3.3(a)(3) (knowing use or offer of false evidence); Rule 3.3(f)(2) (undignified or discourteous conduct before a tribunal); and Rule 8.4(h) (other conduct adversely reflecting on fitness as a lawyer).
Zappin, who according the panel now resides in West Virginia and is admitted to practice law there, said in a lengthy email to the Law Journal on Thursday that the panel’s ruling “is one of the most corrupt and retaliatory decisions ever issued by any court.”
For one, he wrote, it’s retaliatory because he claimed there is “a motion to enjoin the disciplinary proceeding detailing the misconduct of the Attorney Grievance Committee and the First Department [that] was fully briefed in federal court awaiting a decision any day.”
He then went on to accuse the judges who’ve handled his matters of wrongdoing, and he claimed the First Department’s decision was based on false reports and was issued without him getting an opportunity to be heard.
“In the meantime, I intend to appeal and continue to fight in federal court, while keeping my website up-to-date with new filings,” Zappin added. He also expected to ultimately have his license reinstated, he said.
The panel’s March 8 opinion, which said that Zappin’s name should be immediately stricken from New York State’s roll of attorneys, was limited to considering whether to affirm a judicial referee’s recommendation to disbar Zappin.
The First Department had granted an October 2016 motion from the grievance committee that sought confirmation, based on the doctrine of collateral estoppel, of Cooper’s findings that Zappin had committed misconduct. The appeals court then sent the matter to a referee only for the purpose of considering mitigating or aggravating evidence, and recommending, in turn, an appropriate remedy.
The referee endorsed disbarment, and the panel agreed.
In accepting the referee’s assessment, the panel noted that “the Referee rejected respondent’s mitigation evidence, finding incredible respondent’s accusations of domestic violence by his then-former wife, noting their rejection by both the D.C. police and the courts in D.C. and New York; that respondent’s deposition testimony as to the sporadic counseling he received in law school and his occasionally taking antidepressants while in college did not constitute mitigation; that his charitable work was insignificant; and that his therapist’s letter and the similarly worded letters of four character witnesses provided no basis for mitigation.”
The justices also quoted the referee as having written: “[Zappin’s] numerous instances of misbehavior may have all occurred in the same litigation, but it was extensive and unbridled. … The record demonstrates [respondent's] unfitness for the practice of law, from which the public should be protected by ordering his disbarment.”