A local attorney ethics panel has recommended that a Morristown matrimonial litigator be admonished for disparaging remarks he made about his former law partner, who now is the Morris County prosecutor.
The District XA Ethics Committee (DEC) said Willliam Laufer of Laufer, Dalena, Cadicina, Jensen & Bradley violated two of the Rules of Professional Conduct when he made the remarks about Morris County Prosecutor Fredric Knapp to an adversary, in the courtroom during a break in a domestic violence hearing.
The committee, in its recommendation to the state Office of Attorney Ethics, said Laufer violated R.P.C. 8.4(d), for engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, and R.P.C. 8.4(e), for insinuating that he had the power to influence a government official.
The committee said Laufer should be cleared of a third charge under R.P.C. 8.4(c), saying there was no evidence his conduct amounted to dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.
The state Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Review Board will ultimately determine whether the committee’s recommendations should be upheld.
The DEC made its disciplinary recommendation to the OAE in a letter dated Dec. 27 and marked as received by the OAE on Jan. 19. It said there was no “clear and convincing evidence” that Laufer knowingly engaged in inappropriate behavior. “The dispute between the parties is over respondent’s intent,” the committee said.
Nevertheless, the committee said, there is no dispute that Laufer made the remarks at issue. The committee based its recommendation on the DRB’s 2013 ruling in In re Van Syoc, in which an attorney, using a phrase identical to that of Laufer, claimed he had a judge “in my pocket.”
In a separate report filed with the OAE last December, the committee said it “does not have a ‘firm belief or conviction’ that respondent engaged in intentional misconduct,” but added that there did not have to be a finding of intent.
“Without any precedent, we will not require intent to prove a violation,” the committee said.
According to the complaint filed by the OAE, the remarks were made during a Dec. 1, 2014, hearing before Morris County Superior Court Judge Louis Sceusi. Laufer represented a woman, identified as L.I., in a domestic violence matter. The husband, identified as T.I., was represented by Angelo Sarno of the Hackensack office of Snyder Sarno D’Aniello, Maceri & da Costa.
L.I. had alleged that T.I. improperly obtained a videotape that was admitted into evidence. Laufer told Sceusi he was going to refer the matter to the prosecutor’s office for investigation.
During a recess, Sarno asked Laufer whether Knapp had been his former law partner, the OAE complaint said.
Laufer, the complaint said, acknowledged that Knapp was his former partner, and that Knapp was “in my pocket.”
“He does whatever I ask he does, 20 years he is my partner,” the complaint quotes Laufer as saying.
Laufer, according to the complaint, said he was responsible for obtaining Knapp’s appointment and added that he “didn’t want [Knapp] around any more” because he was not “very productive.”
The conversation was picked up by the courtroom’s recording system, and was overheard by T.I., who later requested and obtained a copy of the recording, the complaint said.
The hearing resumed on June 16, 2015. T.I. read portions of the recording into the record and said he feared being harassed and arrested.
Sarno requested that Knapp recuse himself from the investigation, and Sceusi said he would leave that decision to Knapp, the complaint said.
After learning of Laufer’s statements through a newspaper report, the complaint said, the prosecutor’s office issued a statement saying Laufer’s allegations were “totally and completely false.”
Knapp then referred the matter to the OAE.
During hearings before the committee, Laufer acknowledged making the remarks but insisted they were not made seriously.
“It was bad humor,” Laufer told the committee, composed of attorney members Gregory Bevelock and Kevin J. O’Connor, and public member Janet Detaranto. “But it was humor.”
The panel said that in the Van Syoc case, “there was no discussion or requirement that intent be proved; rather, the focus was on the fact that the statements—which on their face undermined the integrity of and public confidence in the judicial system—were made in front of respondent’s clients and the court reporter.”
The statements ended up directly affecting a court proceeding, the panel noted, and “although Respondent did not cause his statements to be published in the newspaper, the fact of the matter is that they were published, thereby further undermining the public’s confidence in the judicial system.”
On Feb. 23, Laufer referred a request for comment to his attorney, Lawrence Cohen of Lavery, Selvaggi, Abromitis & Cohen in Hackettstown, who said, ”There was no finding of intent. This was a joke. This was a facetious conversation between two attorneys who knew each other.”
The committee’s findings and recommendations, he said, “set a kind of dangerous precedent to other lawyers.”
“You have to be very careful of what you say, no matter what the setting,” Cohen said.
If the DRB does decide to accept the committee’s recommendation for admonishment, Laufer will accept that decision, Cohen said.
“It’s the lowest form of possible discipline,” Cohen said.
The DEC said there were substantial mitigating factors, including Laufer’s lack of any prior disciplinary issues, his services as a former president of the Morris County Bar Association, being a founding member of the Morris County Bar Foundation, and his volunteer work with local charities.
Knapp, who took office in 2014 after being nominated by former Gov. Chris Christie, declined to comment since the matter is still pending.