A New Jersey lawyer is facing suspension for calling his adversary “stupid” and “bush league” at a deposition and making corruption allegations about the judge.
Clifford Van Syoc’s eventual apology for the outbursts “was eviscerated by his continued claim, at the disciplinary hearing, that the name calling was ‘understandable and justifiable’ under the circumstances,” the state Disciplinary Review Board said in urging the Supreme Court to issue a six-month suspension.
According to the DRB’s Oct. 16 opinion and other sources, Van Syoc, of Cherry Hill, represented Michele Stark and Barbara Ballistreri in a suit against their employer, the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
In November 2009, the two plaintiffs and Kevin O’Connor, the authority’s defense counsel, gathered at Van Syoc’s office for a deposition.
At one point, O’Connor began questioning Stark about a New Jersey State Commission of Investigation document that apparently was harmful to the plaintiffs’ case.
According to the transcript, Van Syoc accused O’Connor of raising his voice and “acting in a snide, supercilious, condescending manner typical of your conduct in the court room when you had the judge in your pocket.”
Van Syoc also accused O’Connor of “trying to harass” Stark, who left the room at Van Syoc’s direction, along with Ballistreri.
After that, Van Syoc declared the deposition over and, when O’Connor said he would get the judge on the phone, called him a “bush league lawyer” and referred to Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Steven Perskie as “[t]he one that committed the fraud; the one who’s going to be in the complaint I’m filing next week.”
Van Syoc called O’Connor “stupid,” and accused him of lying, withholding documents and abusing Stark.
He then ordered O’Connor out of his office, directed firm associate Sebastian Ionno to watch O’Connor “so he doesn’t try to steal anything” and told his receptionist to dial 9-1-1, though she never did.
O’Connor reported Van Syoc’s conduct to Superior Court Judge Carol Higbee, to whom the case was assigned at the time. Perskie had recused even before the deposition—apparently because of corruption allegations made by Van Syoc in unrelated litigation.
Higbee ordered the transcript forwarded to the Office of Attorney Ethics.
Van Syoc, in a brief, apologized to O’Connor and the court, but went on to criticize Perskie for his rulings in the case before his recusal.
In the ensuing ethics case, Van Syoc admitted to losing his temper but said his conduct was justified because O’Connor made Stark cry.
Van Syoc challenged some aspects of the transcript’s accuracy, contending he said O’Connor “thought” he had Perskie in his pocket, not that O’Connor actually did have Perskie in his pocket.
O’Connor called Van Syoc’s conduct humiliating and claimed he conducted himself professionally and respectfully. Pearl Caramazza, the stenographer present at the deposition, testified in kind.
The District IV Ethics Committee (DEC) found the transcript accurate and O’Connor’s and Caramazza’s testimony credible, recommending a censure.
Van Syoc’s conduct was “an extended series of willful and escalating ethical violations” that demonstrate “an attitude of contempt toward” the disciplinary system, the DEC said.
After another hearing, the DRB said Van Syoc violated Rules of Professional Conduct 3.2, failing to treat those in the legal system with courtesy; 8.4(d), engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice; and 8.2(a), making knowingly false or reckless statements about a judge’s qualifications.
The DRB called Van Syoc’s remarks about Perskie “unsubstantiated attacks.”
“Without any apparent basis, other than his own opinion, respondent declared Judge Perskie to be corrupt, in the broadest sense possible, by stating that the judge was in O’Connor’s pocket.”
The panel was divided over the appropriate discipline. The four-member majority voted for a six-month suspension, while two members, including Chairwoman Bonnie Frost, urged a censure. One member voted for a three-month suspension.
Discipline short of a suspension might have been warranted if not for aggravating factors, the majority said.
Van Syoc “has shown no genuine remorse” and has a disciplinary history, it continued.
O’Connor, of Peckar & Abramson in River Edge, says he is glad the DRB ruled as it did.
Heidi Weintraub, Van Syoc’s partner at Van Syoc & Weintraub and counsel in the ethics case, declines comment through an assistant. Van Syoc did not return a call.
Assistant Ethics Counsel Timothy McNamara, who prosecuted the case, also declines comment.
Van Syoc, admitted in 1980, was admonished in 2003 for failing to review a new client’s file for nine months, and reprimanded in 2008 for failure to communicate with a client and other errors in two employment matters.