Acting Supreme Court Justice Diane A. Lebedeff was censured for presiding over a case in which she had a “significant social and professional relationship” with the plaintiff, attorney Ravi Batra, in a determination released yesterday by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The commission’s ruling, which was laced with language highly critical of Justice Lebedeff, who sits in Manhattan, adopted the findings and recommendations of a stipulation worked out between the commission’s investigative staff and Justice Lebedeff’s attorney, Ben R. Rubinowitz of Gair, Gair, Conason, Steigman & Mackauf.
The determination appears in the print edition of today’s Law Journal.
One of the aggravating factors the commission’s unanimous decision pointed to was that during the five years Justice Lebedeff handled Mr. Batra’s case, she excused the defense lawyers on approximately five occasions, saying she wanted to “engage in ‘gossip’ or other social conversation not related to the case, with Mr. Batra.”
The commission also cited the judge’s appointment of Mr. Batra to a “lucrative guardianship” for which he was paid $84,000 while his personal injury action was pending before her.
Justice Lebedeff’s failure to recognize that her relationship with Mr. Batra “would raise questions whether her rulings were based solely on the merits is shocking and suggests an unacceptable insensitivity to judicial ethics,” the commission wrote.
Mr. Rubinowitz said that Justice Lebedeff accepts the censure because she recognizes that there was an appearance of impropriety. He stressed, however, that there was no claim that any of her actions were improper.
Mr. Batra said, “The fact that the judge and I were friendly is a stipulated fact in the determination and was contemporaneously known to defense counsel, who never objected.”
In his lawsuit, Mr. Batra, who once employed Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, in his practice, sought $80 million in damages for an alleged fall off a swivel chair in his office. Mr. Batra also was vice-chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s judicial screening panel for seven years until 2003. (See News In Brief for related item.)
The conduct commission initiated the investigation of Justice Lebedeff after reading a lengthy article about Mr. Batra in The New York Times in November 2003, the commission’s administrator, Robert Tembeckjian, said. In the article, one of the defense lawyers in Mr. Batra’s personal injury suit complained that Justice Lebedeff had failed to tell the defense about the $84,000 appointment she had given Mr. Batra
Mr. Batra’s suit was ultimately settled for $225,000 but not until the Appellate Division, First Department, had rebuked Justice Lebedeff for striking a third party’s pleading for missing by one day a stipulated discovery deadline.
The appeals court wrote that, had Justice Lebedeff “objectively reviewed the history of case,” she would have seen that the third party’s “slight and arguably justified delay” was not “in any way comparable to the years of dilatory practice in obstructing discovery” before the third party had joined the case.
When the case was returned to the trial court, it was assigned to a different judge as part of “a routine change in assignments,” said David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the court system.
Mr. Rubinowitz said that Justice Lebedeff had struck the third party’s pleading because that was the remedy provided in the parties’ stipulation creating a 45-day deadline for discovery.
Yesterday’s censure was the second for Justice Lebedeff. In 2003, she was censured for appointing her accountant, who was also a personal friend, to cases for which the accountant was paid $21,000 over four years. During that time, the accountant prepared Justice Lebedeff’s tax returns without charge.
The commission said that it was considering the most recent charge independently of the earlier one.
Justice Lebedeff’s handling of Mr. Batra’s lawsuit ended in 2000, three years before the first censure was issued.
For that reason, the commission wrote, it could not consider the earlier censure as containing “warnings concerning her ethical behavior” which she should have heeded.
� Daniel Wise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.