Lawyer Fined by Judge During Child Custody Battle

A judge handed a $10,000 penalty to a self-representing New York patent lawyer during a child custody hearing due to ongoing misconduct.

By Avital Borisovsky
Updated: September 24, 2015
Lawyer Fined by Judge During Child Custody Battle

“He who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.” This old saying certainly held true for New York resident and lawyer, Anthony J. Zappin, in his recent divorce-related court battle.

Zappin, a 30-year-old patent lawyer, was handed a $10,000 fine and called a “fool” by a New York State Supreme Court Judge after representing himself during a child-custody proceeding.

David S. Dikman, a New York-based family lawyer, explained that judges can levy financial sanctions when a lawyer or party conducts themselves in a manner that the court deems “frivolous.”

“The law provides that conduct is frivolous if it is ‘completely without merit in law and cannot be supported by a reasonable argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law’, or if it is ‘undertaken primarily to delay or prolong the resolution of the litigation, or to harass or maliciously injure another,’” said Dikman.

Shortly after his wife, 32-year-old Claire Comfort, gave birth to their first child in 2013, Zappin filed for divorce. This resulted in a difficult divorce and child-custody battle. 

According to Justice Matthew F. Cooper, Zappin attempted to prevent hearings and delay decision-making in court, as well as insulting previous judges and other lawyers.

“(The) plaintiff has done everything in his power to undermine the legal process and use his law license as a tool to threaten, bully, and intimidate,” said Cooper. “His ill-advised behavior seriously calls into question his fitness to practice law.”

Zappin, a graduate of Columbia University’s Law School, had attempted to disrupt the conclusion of the child-custody court proceeding and to disqualify Harriet N. Cohen, the lawyer the court had assigned to the case to protect the child’s interests. Cohen recommended Comfort have full custody of the child while permitting Zappin supervised visitation; she also requested a psychiatric evaluation of the child, to which Zappin filed a complaint. According to Cohen, Zappin had disrupted the divorce trial midway, and filed petitions against and sued Comfort, her family, and her lawyers.

After Zappin had received numerous warnings to no effect, Cooper stated a sanction was the best option in order to keep the “integrity of the judicial process.”

“This divorce case, unfortunately, presents a situation where an attorney has used his pro se status to inflict harm on his wife, their child and the court, and in so doing has caused significant harm to himself,” said Cooper.

A self-representing lawyer, especially one with no experience in family law, takes on a substantial risk, according to Dikman. “There are many nuances in constructing resolutions by settlement or conducting a trial in this field,” he said. “A lack of relevant experience, coupled with the emotional involvement, could result in serious prejudice even to a trained attorney.”

Half of the $10,000 is meant to be paid to Comfort and the other half paid to the Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection.

Zappin has vowed to appeal the sanction. 

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September 23, 2015

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