Good Rhode Island Divorce Lawyer Falls Prey to a Judge With Her Own Agenda!
It goes without saying that clients of Rhode Island Divorce Attorneys bear their own set of risks when it comes to having their cases heard before justices and magistrates of the Rhode Island Family Court. It is the nature of the beast of our legal system. Nothing that is worth fighting or arguing for comes without its risks and Rhode Island Divorce Attorneys are no exception. But make no mistake about it, the price a Rhode Island Divorce Attorney may pay for zealously representing you may be greater than you might imagine. For a Rhode Island divorce attorney in the early years of building a law practice a judge has the power to ruin a legal career, even one built on hard work, integrity and high moral standards.
Enter Associate Judge Laureen D'Ambra to the Rhode Island Family Court bench. Appointed for life, Associate Judge Laureen D'Ambra was entrusted with Washington County Family Court's Domestic Calendar covering not only divorce and child support matters but also placement and protection from abuse matters prior to the September 1, 2008 rotation of judges.
Entrusted with the various cases and controversies presented before her, Judge Laureen D'Ambra had a broader obligation to consider, not just to the individuals present in her courtroom but also how her decisions affected the broader family unit.
Sadly, I was only one of many attorneys practicing divorce law in Rhode Island who discovered all too quickly that Judge Laureen D'Ambra was ill-prepared for the Washington County Domestic Calendar. Judge D'Ambra's lack of fundamental knowledge about divorce proceedings and family law principles of Rhode Island Domestic Relations Law was evident in statements she boldly professed on and "off the record" of the court.
It goes without saying that more senior and knowledgeable judges such as Judge Stephen J. Capineri and Judge Howard I. Lipsey, and magistrates such as Magistrate John J. O'Brien, Jr. and Magistrate Jeanne L. Shepard would not make not such statements. This is not purely based upon their experience but because they make concerted efforts to know the law entrusted to them and they remain informed about cases affecting their decisions.
In my humble opinion, a true jurist realizes both the power and responsibility that has been entrusted to him or her. Though perhaps reasonably unfamiliar with constantly changing procedures and policies in the family court system, a true jurist is nonetheless cognizant of the fundamental statutes and case law that will factor into the decisions the jurist will deal with on a daily basis during his or her tenure.
To the average citizen, the family courts are the embodiment of justice for family related issues within Rhode Island. Citizens reasonably and rightfully expect that judges and magistrates will undertake their duties in such a way that the law will be upheld and that justice will be afforded to those who come before the family court in honesty looking for it.
Family law practitioners not jaded by long continued practices that hold lawyers up as icons of disrepute may likewise hope to strengthen the public view by promoting justice in their cases.
However, as Socrates spoke in one of his countless orations, "It is not uncommon for two people of similar mind to disagree as to the meaning of something upon which two minds would be expected not to differ." Thus, it is most certainly reasonable that neither Rhode Island Divorce Attorneys nor their clients will always agree with the decisions made by the judges and magistrates of the Rhode Island family court, including Associate Justice Laureen D'Ambra.
There is, however, a substantial difference between a jurist who makes decisions reasonably in conformity with the law and those who make decisions with a total disregard for the law or worse yet a lack of knowledge of the area of law in which they are expected to serve the public.
After more than a year of contemplation following an event I was subjected to by Associate Justice Laureen D'Ambra I have decided that my story is a tale best told to illuminate Rhode Islanders and fellow Rhode Island practitioners of the possible dangers of practice here in Rhode Island and particularly before Associate Justice Laureen D'Ambra.
In July of 2007, I was the attorney for the defendant in the divorce of Sullivan v. Sullivan before Associate Justice D'Ambra. Prior to the beginning of the trial, I raised an issue regarding property held in Mrs. Sullivan's name in Connecticut during the marriage. I expressed to the court that it was my intention to prove that the Connecticut property had been co-mingled with marital assets, that the Defendant had worked on the property and thereby enriched it and that the Connecticut property was, in fact, a marital asset.
The result? Prior to hearing any evidence and seemingly unaware of case law regarding this issue Justice D'Ambra asked one question.
Justice D'Ambra: "Is Mr. Sullivan's name on the deed to the property?"
Attorney Pearsall: "No, but . . . [cut off by the judge]"
Justice D'Ambra: "Then he's not getting any of it and I don't want to hear it at trial."
At the beginning of the plaintiff's case in the trial, the Plaintiff called a Connecticut resident to the stand. A subpoena was issued and served upon the Plaintiff's witness requiring him to return to court to be called by the Defendant in the Defendant's case-in-chief as is his right.
Opposing counsel objected that it was burdensome to require the witness to return to court when he was there at the moment. Despite the prejudice to Mr. Sullivan, Judge D'Ambra unilaterally quashed the subpoena and told the witness he did not have to return. Judge D'Ambra then insisted that I ask all my questions of the witness upon cross-examination, thereby limiting me to the scope of direct examination questions. It also prevented me from the additional time to gain additional information about the witnesses' testimony to attack his testimony and impeach his credibility.
On one particular date scheduled for trial Mr. Sullivan was shaking his head and passed me notes about various issues as is typical in court proceedings as clients make notes on issues and particular points they believe needs to be addressed. As I recall it was Judge D'Ambra's attempt to force the parties, particularly Mr. Sullivan, into a settlement and it conveniently took place "off the record." During the discussion, Judge D'Ambra stopped and addressed my client, Mr. Sullivan, directly.
Though brief, the exchange was as follows:
Judge D'Ambra: "What is your problem, Mr. Sullivan?"
Mr. Sullivan: Um..ah...[sitting there stunned].
Judge D'Ambra: "What do you want out of this Mr. Sullivan?"
Mr. Sullivan: [Looking at me for approval to speak.]
Attorney Pearsall: [Knodding for Mr. Sullivan to stand and speak.]
Mr. Sullivan: "I want to tell my story. I want to tell what really happened."
Judge D'Ambra: "Well that's not going to happen. You're not going to get to tell your story."
Significantly, the plaintiff called a witness on the first day of trial from Connecticut. The man was her ex-husband with whom I knew from case research had continual contact and business dealings with Mrs. Sullivan.
My client was certain the ex-husband lied and that documentation could be obtained to proved that he had lied on major issues. A subpoena was issued and served upon the ex-husband in Rhode Island to call him in the presentation of our case.
As legal practitioners know, service within the state's geographical boundaries creates jurisdiction over the witness and requires the witness to appear.
Despite our right to call this witness in the case-in-chief, Judge D'Ambra quashed the subpoena and limited me to cross-examination of the witness thereby prejudicing Mr. Sullivan's case and compromising his right to call witnesses in support of his case.
However, these were minor in comparison to what was to occur to me and would continue to the present date.
Several days into the trial, specifically on Monday, July 23, 2007 at approximately 2 p.m. we were to begin the second day of Mr. Sullivan's case.
I walked into court prepared to question the next witness. Suddenly Judge D'Ambra took on a serious tone and called witnesses, specifically the assistant court clerk, the clerk of court and one of the sheriff's who testified that they smelled marijuana emanating from me on the previous Friday that the judge had heard Mr. Sullivan's testimony.
It took me more than a few minutes from the shock to realize what was occurring, not only in front of witnesses, counsel and sheriffs but BY them.
I requested immediate drug testing in the Providence Family Court to prove the allegations false and that is precisely what occurred an hour later. I was cleared of any marijuana on the previous Friday due to marijuana's latency in the human system.
It was perhaps most shocking because I have been an anti-drug advocate on all levels since my teenage years and I remain so today. Those who know me know that I am the last person to be accused of drug use.
However, the full nature of what happened can only be appreciated by reading the transcript of the proceeding.
Shortly I will post the transcript which is a matter of public record and explain the aftermath of what in my opinion was a tremendous act of judicial misconduct by Judge D'Ambra and what I believe was a strategic move as well.
It is perhaps the events that followed after I sped to Providence and thought I cleared my name by a completely "clean screen" for any form of drug or alcohol use that became most troublesome.
The following day, unbeknownst to me, Mr. Sullivan had been directly corresponding with the opposing counsel, Attorney Lise Iwon regarding the case without contacting me and proposing settlements while I remained his counsel of record.
I would not and could not continue as Mr. Sullivan's attorney on ethical grounds and filed a motion to withdraw with the court. While the court was held up with another matter Mr. Sullivan formally terminated my services so that he could speak with Attorney Iwon about settling the case.
I approached Judge D'Ambra and presented the original test results showing that I had tested "clean" by the Rhode Island Family Court's lab system. The form was quickly taken from me. No apology. No statement on the record about the proceedings. I was excused and Judge D'Ambra noticeably made sure I had exited the courtroom before she continued with the proceedings which I later understood were settled that day by Mr. Sullivan and Attorney Iwon under terms that in my professional opinion were horrendous and which compromised a civil action he had going. Mr. Sullivan had previously rejected terms similar to those finally agreed to on the record. Later he would blame me for the settlement he himself agreed to with Attorney Iwon.
Yet the story doesn't end here, rather this was it's beginning. It should be of interest both to Rhode Island Divorce Lawyers and to individuals who come before Judge D'Ambra in any divorce matter.
Within five (5) days after July 23, 2007, on which the accusations were made against me, I was receiving calls from colleagues asking what happened with Judge D'Ambra. Within seven (7) days I began to receive my first cancellations from established consultations who cited rumors that I had drug addictions and they could not risk their family law matter on a lawyer who was subject to such rumors.
Within the tenth (10th) and fourteenth (14th) days following July 23, 2008 I was in various courts sitting behind numerous attorneys who conveyed the story of the allegations to each other even though many of them did not know me by sight and were unaware that I was sitting right behind them.
In one case, one practitioner conveyed that I had been accused of being on marijuana during the course of a trial and that it was uncertain as to what I did or if I had cleared my name.
In another instance I overheard three practitioners who did not know me by sight discussing it and the allegations were not of marijuana use but rather that I had been using "cocaine" during a trial and there were concerns that I might have to be restrained when allegations came to light.
In yet another instance, the story escalated that it had been determined that I was a "heroine addict" due to my abnormal performance in court and Judge D'Ambra had ordered me to go for random drug testing.
In another case, I was simply a drug addict and Judge D'Ambra had addressed my conduct on the record and it was uncertain if a complaint would be filed against me with the Professional Conduct Committee or if disbarment might be considered.
Now keep in mind, that within 2 weeks I went from representing a client in a trial to being accused of marijuana use which was proven to be unfounded, to being talked about so much by my legal colleagues with extraordinary embelishments that were threatening to tear my reputation and my practice apart.
Within 5 weeks , I had lost approximately mor than a dozen consultations and one existing client who felt the rumors might carry over to the chances of success in the case.
My office phone stopped ringing. I heard court clerks, courtroom sheriff's and even judges discussing the matter. The allegations and the fact that I had cleared myself leant nothing to the situation because noone checked on the "facts". Clearly rumor and conjecture have more value among my colleagues in the Rhode Island Bar than evidence and truth.
Our economy was beginning to worsen and my demise at the hands of Judge D'Ambra came at the worst time possible. By association the colleagues in my office share suffered as well.
With little left to lose, I filed a Complaint with the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline against Judge D'Ambra. An investigator was assigned to the case and presumably a subcommittee was formed to review the facts of the case. I was told I would be interviewed. In fact, I informed the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline and their chosen investigator that I had additional evidence, which if necessary could be presented at hearing and/or to the investigator when it came time for my interview.
My Complaint against Judge D'Ambra related to her direct violation of the Judicial Canons in at least three instances. After seven months of what I can only suspect was stalling and allowing the matter to grow stale, I received a call from the Commission's inspector to "soften the blow" that I would be receiving a letter of dismissal from the Commission regarding my complaint.
The commission could find no basis after investigation for my complaint. A copy of my Complaint against Judge D'Ambra to the Commission on Judicial Discipline and Tenure is attached for public consideration and comment.
[To be continued... and you'll hardly believe what happened next.]Authored By:
Christopher A. Pearsall
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