The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has suspended former Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Willis W. Berry Jr. from the practice of law for one year and a day for defrauding a former law client in the settlement of her personal injury claim before becoming a judge.
On Thursday, the high court adopted the Oct. 30, 2013, report and recommendation of the Disciplinary Board for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
The extra day added to a one-year term of suspension means that, when it runs out, Berry would be required to petition for reinstatement to the bar.
According to the Disciplinary Board’s report, board members Gerald Lawrence and Howell K. Rosenberg dissented, saying they would have imposed a shorter suspension.
In November 2009, a unanimous, eight-member Philadelphia jury awarded $180,000 in punitive damages and close to $10,000 in compensatory damages against Berry after finding that he defrauded plaintiff Denise Jackson in a simple slip-and-fall case he handled in 1993 by settling her claim in exchange for a North Philadelphia property located next to Berry’s former law office without her knowledge. Jackson also alleged Berry later transferred the property to a corporation in which Berry is the sole shareholder.
While visiting Chester County Court of Common Pleas Senior Judge Charles B. Smith had subsequently remitted the punitive damages award of $180,000 to $20,000, the state Superior Court eventually reinstated the jury award.
The board said in its October 2013 report and recommendation that there were no other cases identical to Berry’s and that a suspension of a year and a day “serves to protect the public and preserve the integrity of the legal profession.”
“Respondent imposed a business transaction on Ms. Jackson without her knowledge or consent,” the board said. “This is serious misconduct and cannot be remedied in the eyes of the public by private discipline.”
Counsel for Berry, Samuel C. Stretton of West Chester, Pa., said he was “very disappointed” the Supreme Court adopted the board’s recommendation.
“There was no reason to suspend him for a year and a day, a man who is now 71 years of age,” Stretton said.
Stretton contributes an ethics column to Legal sibling publication Pennsylvania Law Weekly.
While the board’s report and recommendation focused mainly on Berry’s conduct before becoming a judge, Berry’s time on the bench was not without controversy.
In June 2009, according to court papers, the Court of Judicial Discipline found that Berry brought the judicial system into disrepute and committed the crime of diversion of services.
The court found that Berry violated the state constitution and brought his judicial office into disrepute by running his real estate business out of his chambers. Berry may have violated the state’s theft of services statute, prohibiting people in power from diverting services for their own personal benefit, the court said, because he used the resources of his judicial office for his personal benefit, varying from not having to pay salary and benefits to Carolyn Fleming, Berry’s judicial secretary who also managed his rental property business, and not having to pay office overhead.
The CJD suspended him for four months without pay.
Berry, who had been a judge since 1996, recused himself in July 2009 from hearing major felony, non-homicide cases in the criminal trial division after the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office requested his recusal from all criminal cases.
He was subsequently been reassigned from the criminal trial division to the civil trial division.
He retired from the bench in August 2012 after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.