Everyone knows that divorce and custody matters can be emotionally charged proceedings that tear away at the very fabric of a particular family. Many of these cases, as family law practitioners know well, also involve family members who are willing to do whatever it takes to fight for and protect the interests of a divorcing son, daughter, grandchild, sibling and the like – even when such efforts go beyond that which the litigant family member may want for him or herself.
Whether a family member provides financial support by paying for the litigant’s counsel fees, or is calling the shots/making strategic recommendations directly or indirectly to the litigant’s attorney (where issues of attorney/client privilege come into play), family member involvement is a common and largely accepted component of family law practice. In fact, in many cases such involvement can prove vital to ensuring that a litigant has the necessary familial support system in place to get him or her mentally through a proceeding.
Can such involvement, however, reach a point that it negatively impacts upon the very interests of the litigant that the family members seek to protect? Even worse, can it have a detrimental impact upon you as the attorney representing such a litigant?
I present to you the case of the Gottliebs, whose son Michael was getting divorced from his wife Lauren in a Manhattan proceeding. Michael and Lauren had an 8-year old daughter, and the relationship started to fall apart after Michael suffered a brain aneurysm in 2008 and Lauren started having disagreements with Michael’s parents about his course of medical treatment. In 2013, the Honorable Ellen Gesmer granted primary custody of the child to Lauren, and went so far as to allow her to “exclude the paternal grandparents and other members of the father’s family” from seeing the child, which is telling of the level of the Gottliebs’ misconduct.
Despite Michael indicating that he was not seeking primary custody of the child, the Gottliebs were found to have dragged on what should have been a simple divorce matter for five years simply to maintain their relationship with their granddaughter. Judge Gesmer ultimately fined the Gottliebs more than $200,000 for violating her Order to disclose who was paying Michael’s legal fees (it turned out that Michael’s parents had entirely funded his litigation expenses).
More concerning is that the sanctions extended well beyond the Gottliebs personally, as yesterday Judge Gesmer handed down a decision sanctioning their lawyers to the tune of $317,000 fine for facilitating their directive to “go after the mother with a vengeance.” The judge even referred the lawyers to the state disciplinary committee, concluding that the lawyers acted in an “evasive”, “uncooperative” and “not credible” manner.
This case should not only serve as a cautionary tale to family members who, in their efforts to do what is best for the family member litigant may ultimately step over the line of being a supportive family member into something far worse and destructive, but also to lawyers who are willing to do whatever the family member of the client asks of him or her during the course of legal representation rather than put an end to it before it is too late.