A federal jury took barely three hours yesterday to throw out claims from a former staff attorney with the First Department’s disciplinary committee that she had been fired in retaliation for the exercise of her First Amendment rights.
The unanimous, eight-member Southern District jury rejected the civil rights suit brought by Christine A. Anderson, who claimed she was fired in 2007 because she objected that officials at the committee were “whitewashing” complaints and giving preferential treatment to attorneys with connections.
The jury credited the claims of the Office of Court Administration and three individual defendants that Ms. Anderson had been fired for insubordination. The state argued that she had exaggerated her complaints and had spurned numerous opportunities to repair her frayed relationship with her direct supervisor, Sherry K. Cohen, the committee’s deputy chief counsel and a defendant in the case.
The other two individual defendants were Thomas J. Cahill, who at the time was the committee’s chief counsel, and David Spokony, the First Department’s deputy clerk.
One of Ms. Anderson’s lawyers, Rory J. Bellantoni, in his closing statement yesterday morning had asked the jury to award Ms. Anderson $298,000 for lost wages and “substantial” damages for pain and suffering.
The jury, which returned a unanimous verdict as required, consisted of five women and three men.
Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, who presided over the three-day trial, had dismissed Ms. Anderson’s claims that she had been discriminated against on the basis of race and national origin on a motion for summary judgment (NYLJ, April 30). Ms. Anderson is Jamaican.
Mr. Bellantoni, who left the bench over the summer after six years as County Court judge in Westchester, said after the verdict that Ms. Anderson is “weighing her options.”
John McConnell, the First Department’s clerk, said, “We are delighted with the verdict.”
The verdict embraced Assistant Attorney General Lee A. Adlerstein’s closing argument that Ms. Anderson “resented” Ms. Cohen’s detailed style of management and resisted numerous efforts to repair her relationship with Ms. Cohen.
In 2001, Ms. Anderson, now 64, was hired as a staff attorney at the committee which is responsible for policing the conduct of attorneys practicing in Manhattan and the Bronx.
Ms. Cohen, who had been with the committee since 1993, became deputy chief counsel in 2003. Sometime thereafter, she became Ms. Anderson’s supervisor.
There was no dispute that the relationship between the two was fraught. Both lawyers testified that in July 2006 a confrontation had occurred in Ms. Anderson’s office when Ms. Cohen, with the door closed behind her, refused to accede to Ms. Anderson’s demand that she be let out.
A panel convened by the First Department’s then clerk, Catherine Wolfe, to investigate an “incident report” filed by Ms. Anderson, resulted in a decision that Ms. Cohen should apologize to Ms. Anderson and take a management course. The panel also recommended that Mr. Cahill make it clear that the lines of authority within the office made Ms. Cohen the direct supervisor of Ms. Anderson.
Ms. Anderson had testified that her relationship with Ms. Cohen began to deteriorate in August 2005, when the two disagreed over the wording of a private admonition that both agreed should be given to a lawyer.
Ms. Cohen wanted references that the attorney had made misrepresentations taken out. When Ms. Anderson refused, Ms. Cohen took the file and rewrote the recommendation, which had to be approved by the committee’s policy committee.
Prior to Ms. Cohen’s revision, Ms. Anderson testified that she had objected that the report had been “whitewashed” and “sanitized” to affect the outcome of the case.
As the relationship became increasingly tense, Ms. Anderson testified that she was fearful of Ms. Cohen and refused to meet with her alone. Ms. Wolfe meanwhile counseled Ms. Cohen to take notes of her contacts with Ms. Anderson and to have a second person in the room.
Mr. Bellantoni described Ms. Wolfe’s advice as designed to develop a paper trail to create a pretext for firing Ms. Anderson.
Ms. Anderson testified that in fall 2006 she again clashed with Ms. Cohen over the handling of several other cases.
In February 2007, Ms. Anderson stated, she had complained to Mr. Cahill that attorneys with political connections or ties to those on the 64-member disciplinary committee got preferential treatment. The same was true, she said, for lawyers who hired attorneys who had previously worked at the committee.
However, Mr. Adlerstein in his closing dismissed claims that Ms. Anderson had complained directly to Mr. Cahill, saying she only had made “general statements” that lacked specifics.
Referring to the fact that Mr. Cahill, a former Southern District U.S. attorney, denied that the February 2007 conversation ever took place, Mr. Adlerstein charged Ms. Anderson had made the conversation up “out of whole cloth.”
Ms. Anderson had “exaggerated” the incident with Ms. Cohen in her office in an effort to get rid of her as her supervisor, Mr. Adlerstein said.
Mr. Bellantoni’s partner, John Lovett, had delivered the opening statement for Ms. Anderson and handled much of the witness examinations. He was not in court yesterday due to a family medical emergency.
Assistant Attorney General Wesley E. Bauman had delivered the opening statement for the four state defendants.
@|Daniel Wise can be reached at email@example.com.