A New Jersey lawyer facing a six-month suspension for unseemly remarks about a state court judge at a deposition is asking the state Supreme Court to spare him—saying his comments were justified.
Part of Clifford Van Syoc’s defense, in a Nov. 6 petition, is that an audiotape of the November 2009 deposition at his Cherry Hill office—which would have been the best evidence of what really went on—was destroyed by the stenographer, who worked for his adversary.
Instead, the disciplinary tribunals relied on the stenographic transcript, which Van Syoc says did not capture the context of his remarks.
Van Syoc represented two plaintiffs in an employment suit against the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
According to the deposition transcript, defense lawyer Kevin O’Connor, of Peckar & Abramson in River Edge, began inquiring about a document apparently harmful to the plaintiffs’ case.
Van Syoc accused O’Connor of raising his voice, lying and withholding documents, “trying to harass” his clients 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 called him a “bush league lawyer” and “stupid,” 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.”
He ordered O’Connor out of his office, directed an associate 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.
Perskie had recused from the case even before the deposition—apparently because of corruption allegations made by Van Syoc in unrelated litigation.
O’Connor reported Van Syoc’s conduct to the newly assigned judge, Carol Higbee, who contacted the Office of Attorney Ethics.
Van Syoc challenged aspects of the transcript’s accuracy and defended his conduct, saying O’Connor made one of his clients cry.
The District IV Ethics Committee (DEC) recommended a censure.
The Disciplinary Review Board on Oct. 16 found 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 chided Van Syoc for, among other things, “unsubstantiated attacks” on Perskie, “[w]ithout any apparent basis, other than his own opinion.” It called for a six-month suspension, though two members voted for censure and one for a three-month suspension.
In his petition, Van Syoc claims both the DEC and DRB erred by admitting and relying on the deposition transcript when an audio recording should have been provided.
Stenographer Pearl Caramazza, he charges, gave conflicting testimony about the recording and refused to provide him with a copy, though she gave one to O’Connor, he says.
Caramazza testified that, as was her normal practice, she audiotaped the deposition but then destroyed the recording after composing the transcript. She also buttressed O’Connor’s claims that he behaved civilly and properly at the deposition.
But Van Syoc says the audio would have proved that O’Connor’s tone was grounds for unilateral cessation of the deposition, and Caramazza’s destruction of the recording amounts to spoliation, entitling Van Syoc to dismissal of the complaint.
As for Perskie, his failure to admit a voice recording or to recuse in the employment suit—based on his relationship with lawyers with whom he had once practiced at Fox Rothschild—made the remarks “more than merely Petitioner’s ‘own opinion’” and “amply supported a perception of judicial bias,” Van Syoc claims.
Van Syoc says his continued criticism of Perskie during ethics hearings was akin to a “truth” defense “based on the record of judicial conduct complained of here and the disturbing parallels with the conduct that results in this Court’s discipline of Judge Perskie.” That refers to Perskie’s 2011 censure for failing to disqualify himself from a case involving a party with whom he had a business relationship.
It was “Perskie’s conduct…that caused [his] integrity and independence to be called into question, particularly where the record is crystal clear that Perskie ‘flouted his judicial obligations and responsibilities’ in this case, just as he did in the case resulting in his discipline,” Van Syoc says.
Van Syoc further claims he was deprived of representation by counsel at the DEC hearing.
He also asks for leniency, saying the “harshness of the proposed six-month suspension, particularly when measured against Petitioner’s 33 years of membership of the Bar, his minimal disciplinary history, and his substantial contributions to the development of case law in this State, justify a different outcome of either no discipline whatsoever or a non-suspensory sanction.”
Van Syoc, of Van Syoc & Weintraub in Cherry Hill, declines comment.
Assistant Ethics Counsel Timothy McNamara, who prosecuted the case, filed a response letter Friday. He deferred to the DRB but explained that Van Syoc was denied counsel before the DEC because the attorney who appeared with him—his associate, Sebastian Ionno II—was listed as a witness. •