Lawyers for the city of Houston may have thought that U.S. District Judge David Hittner ripped into them during Barbra Piotrowski's recent high-profile lawsuit against the city.
As it turns out, Hittner was biting his tongue.
In a sanctions order May 5, he blistered three city attorneys and their bosses, describing their actions as, among other things, "unprofessional," "unreasonable," "unacceptable" and "appalling."
He stopped short of fining any of the attorneys, but he formally admonished one, ordered two others to attend ethics courses and set into motion a process that might see one or all of them temporarily suspended from practicing in federal court.
"The overall professional performance of the city attorney's office, including the conduct of its highest-ranking attorneys, was appalling," Hittner wrote.
The sanctions came in a suit that is the latest episode in an 18-year-old saga of a former beauty queen allegedly shot on orders of her ex-boyfriend, a health-spa tycoon. The tale has inspired a best-selling book and a made-for-TV movie.
In January, a jury in Hittner's court awarded Piotrowski $22.3 million for claims stemming from the 1980 murder attempt that left her paralyzed for life. The jury found that the Houston Police Department had been tipped about the murder-for-hire plot, and not only failed to warn Piotrowski, but actually stopped others from warning her.
Hittner cut the verdict slightly in his final judgment to $18.1 million, but he added prejudgment interest that raised the total award to about $26 million. Piotrowski's lawyers had asked him to add more than $120 million in prejudgment interest, so the smaller figure is a victory for the city.
City attorneys have expressed utter confidence that they will get the award overturned or cut on appeal.
They've hired an outside law firm to handle the appellate work; it's probably a good idea, given the inept performance at the trial level.
That performance included consistently denying the existence of a police rules manual right up until the last day of trial, when they sheepishly produced it; it included openly cooperating, in front of the jury and after Hittner warned them not to, with attorneys for Piotrowski's ex-boyfriend; it included introducing into evidence a deposition they called "a smoking gun" that proved their case, a deposition that jurors laughingly dismissed because it was unsigned, unsworn and had pages missing.
The two lawyers ordered to take ethics courses, Andrea Chan and Judith Sanchez, acted as lead attorneys throughout much of the case despite being relatively new to the job. Both graduated from law school in 1990.
"Sanchez and Chan are not alone to blame for the display of substandard and unprofessional conduct manifested by the attorneys representing the city of Houston," Hittner wrote. "The fault also lies with their superiors with the city of Houston attorney's office for their negligence and apparent lack of concern in assigning such inexperienced and junior attorneys to a complex and highly charged federal civil-rights case with absolutely no discernible supervision."
Hittner wrote that the city's "utter lack of concern and attention to the unprofessional conduct of Sanchez and Chan" was made worse because then-City Attorney Gene Locke and then-First Assistant Berta Mejia apparently ignored one of his pretrial rulings that labeled the two trial attorneys' actions as "border(ing) on the unprofessional."
A more senior attorney who took over the case as it neared trial, Rebecca Schlosser, was merely admonished by Hittner. The language was stinging, though: "Although her trial conduct was on occasion, unprofessional and negligent ... she did not participate in the pattern of discovery abuses and other misconduct that occurred prior to trial. However, Schlosser is admonished that such behavior as she exhibited during the trial is unacceptable in federal court."
Both sides in the Piotrowski suit are letting Hittner's order speak for itself: "I don't have any comment," says Locke, now a partner at Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton and general counsel for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. Current City Attorney Anthony Hall didn't return a phone call on the matter, and Piotrowski attorney Marilyn Lahr judiciously says she has nothing to add to what Hittner wrote.
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Lahr and her colleague, Steve Sumner, have been aggressively lobbying for a settlement offer from the city, in what is perhaps the most tangible sign that an appellate court could drastically alter the jury award.
Lahr said that Hittner's decision to award prejudgment interest substantially less than what the plaintiffs requested might help the settlement process. "If the final judgment had been incredibly high, the city would really have no choice but to appeal," she said. "But now, it's more of a manageable number, and there's a new city attorney who might be willing to say, 'This didn't happen on my watch' and we need to take a new look at settling."
Even though the city's lawyers escaped getting hit with the financial sanctions requested by Piotrowski's lawyers, their troubles aren't over yet -- Hittner forwarded his order to the chief judge of the Southern District, George Kazen of Laredo, "for appropriate proceedings pursuant to the disciplinary rules." After a hearing, a judge appointed by Kazen could suspend the attorneys from practicing in federal court for a period of time or reprimand them privately or publicly.
E-mail Richard Richard Connelly at email@example.com.