Bullying lawyer suspended from practice for two years

Okay, so this may not exactly shock anyone, but I think it’s worthy of note: The Florida Supreme Court has suspended an attorney for two years in response to his repeatedly confrontational, disrespectful, and bullying conduct toward another lawyer in a litigation matter.

Deborah Cassens Weiss reported for the ABA Journal:

The Florida Supreme court has suspended a lawyer for two years for rude conduct and recommended that the case be studied “as a glaring example of unprofessional behavior.”

The court rejected a referee’s recommended sanction for Jeffrey Alan Norkin as too lenient, saying a two-year suspension is appropriate given Norkin’s “appalling and unprofessional behavior.”

The main object of Norkin’s ire was a 71-year-old attorney named Gary Brooks, who was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and kidney cancer at the time and has since passed away. The Court noted that Brooks had a “lengthy and unblemished” legal career.

This portion of the Court’s lengthy opinion, quoted here by Weiss, gives you some idea of how bad Norkin’s behavior was toward Brooks and others:

“Competent, zealous representation is required when working on a case for a client. There are proper types of behavior and methods to utilize when aggressively representing a client. Screaming at judges and opposing counsel, and personally attacking opposing counsel by disparaging him and attempting to humiliate him, are not among the types of acceptable conduct but are entirely unacceptable. One can be professional and aggressive without being obnoxious. Attorneys should focus on the substance of their cases, treating judges and opposing counsel with civility, rather than trying to prevail by being insolent toward judges and purposefully offensive toward opposing counsel.”

In my judgment, Norkin’s behavior went way beyond “rude,” the term used by Weiss to describe it. For a copy of the full Florida opinion, go here.

Concerns about bullying and incivility exhibited by lawyers have been raised repeatedly in bar association journals. Anecdotally, at least, the legal profession ranks high in the frequency of reports and complaints about bullying, both within law firms and between opposing counsel.

Not included in Weiss’s article was another piece of the Court’s opinion: It approved the referee’s recommendation that Norkin “undergo a mental health evaluation and participate in any recommended counseling.” I don’t know anything about Norkin beyond what I’ve read in the article and opinion, but this makes sense. Perhaps counseling will lead him to address the sources of his behavior and allow him to someday return to practice in a better state of mind, to the benefit of all concerned.

9 responses

  1. Thanks for the post David. This year in Western Australia we had a criminal law practitioner struck off for rudeness, bullying and racial discrimination. It seems some practitioners don’t understand the meaning of professional courtesy, not to mention decent standards of behaviour toward fellow human beings. For a copy of the case see LEGAL PROFESSION COMPLAINTS COMMITTEE -v- in de BRAEKT [2013] WASC 124
    https://jade.barnet.com.au/Jade.html#article=293493

  2. Hello, I just read the article, I have not read the opinion yet, but Mr. Norkin posts extensively in the comments section of the ABA article. I honestly don’t know anything more than what I read here in your blog post and in the article, but it’s hard for me to tell if Mr. Norkin was the bully or the target. Yes, he seems to have “issues” but who wouldn’t after being bullied for two years? Maybe I’m just over sympathetic to people who end up looking like jerks after being bullied, but it happened to me. I got “laid off” after more than seven years of putting up with a bully supervisor. By the time that happened I know I looked like a crazy emotional wreck who was an abusive employee, and my boss looked like poor old Mr. Boss who is being terrorized by his subordinate. Mr. Norkin has now last his family, his career, and may be made a national example of bullying in the legal profession. I was never rude or lost my temper with opposing counsel or a judge, but by the time I got “laid off” there were a ton of examples of me yelling at my boss, walking around the office muttering under my breath about him, etc. and I could be made an example just as Mr. Norkin if I couldn’t get a fair hearing, or even if I could get a fair hearing! So much of my boss’s bullying was so subtle and was damaging in such small and unnoticeable increments, there’s nothing in particular I can point to (well, not nothing, but it’s the cumulative effect of seven and a half years of mistreatment, and as usual, each incident is minor and seems like I’m being hyper sensitive, whereas my boss, and just about anyone else I worked with, can point to my outbursts and disrespectful behavior). Mr. Norkin has lost a lot and I can understand being completely fed up and at a breaking point, and just not caring what people think anymore. I’m not trying to be a flamer or troll or whatever, I’m just wondering if maybe Mr. Norkin was judged too quickly and harshly?

    • Beck, thank you for your comment, and yes, Mr. Norkin’s exchanges on the ABA Journal site are worth checking out for anyone who wants to hear his perspective on this. However, I’d strongly recommend reviewing the full opinion (35 pp.) before suggesting that Mr. Norkin merely has “issues” and is actually a victim in all this. I don’t think you’ll confuse your own experience with his after reading it, including references to a previous disciplinary matter in which Norkin was cited for similar misconduct, culminating in a 2003 court opinion.

      Your comment also calls to mind a post I wrote earlier this year about bullies claiming victim status:
      https://newworkplace.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/when-workplace-bullies-claim-victim-status-avoiding-the-judo-flip/

      Yes, sometimes the roles of bully vs. target are hard to delineate, but I have to say this is not a matter of Norkin being judged “too quickly.” Too harshly is another question, perhaps, as the Florida court imposed a sanction well beyond the referee’s recommendations in terms of the length of the suspension. I’m not sufficiently versed on similar cases to be able to make a call on whether the suspension is disproportionately long.

      I do think there’s a bigger picture here that relates to the socialization of attorneys and distinctions between what constitutes zealous advocacy vs. misconduct. I think Norkin’s behavior clearly crosses that line (and then some), but he’s not alone for sure. From my concededly more distant perch — and now especially after reading the tone and substance of his comments on the ABA Journal site — I do think he would benefit from counseling, and perhaps after doing so he’ll be able to return to practice in a healthier state of mind.

  3. Um, wow, yeah, I’ve lashed out at my boss in our offices but certainly nothing like that! It’s amazing how much getting bullied can skew one’s perspective. Every time I see someone lose their temper I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, “maybe they’re just reacting to a horrible situation,” I think to myself. I wonder if the rules of professional conduct apply to attorneys all within one office, my boss had certainly acted disrespectfully towards me, sabotaged me and humiliated me in public. But I was disrespectful too, and two wrongs certainly don’t make a right. But I could see how it might help someone being targeted, if they can bring a complaint before they lose their cool…

    Thank you for pointing me to the “judo flip” posting, I’ve read it before but I read it again, it helps me remind myself I’m not crazy. I’ve read pretty much everything I can on this topic, your blog and website, the WBI blog and website, the Namies’ book, and plenty of other stuff, it’s comforting, and I thank all of you for your work.

  4. It doesn’t matter if Norkin is obnoxious or his conduct was over the top. That doesn’t relieve Florida Supreme Court of its duty to apply the disciplinary rules correctly while protecting Mr. Norkin’s free speech rights. The Florida Supreme Court didn’t do that. Simply because someone is an attorney doesn’t mean he can be sanctioned for his speech. The speech has to be interfering with the public administration of a pending case. That’s the only time an attorney’s speech can be proscribed more than a private citizen. Some of what Norkin is accused of arguably falls into that category, but a great deal of it does not. For example, a private letter sent to opposing counsel criticizing him for handling the case is certainly protected speech.

  5. Too bad you have no idea of the facts of the case. You don’t know them because the Florida Supreme Court concealed them, although they were fully briefed and proven.

    Brooks filed a sham complaint, which was dismissed on summary judgment. It was based entirely on lies. The Court also granted summary judgment on the countercliam for abuse of process filed by Norkin and a jury determined that Brooks’ misconduct damaged Norkin’s client via a verdict in the amount of $318,000.

    Brooks was the criminal here, and Norkin knew nothing of his health problems. In fact, it was because he was dying that Brooks had the audacity to defraud the court and to file the bogus bar complaint against Norkin.

    Norkin’s conduct was not bad in any way. Judges reacted badly to his arguments a few brief times out of over 40 hearings and an 8-day trial in the case.

    You assume the Fla. S. Ct. is accurate. But here, the story is just how inaccurate they are. They defamed Norkin and they are the ones, along with the Bar, guilty of m\conduct here.

  6. Brooks was the bully claiming victim status. Not me. I did not bully him. He bullied me.

    I was and am the victim in all of this. I won the case against evil opponents and resistant judges.

    Find someone else who won summary judgment on an abuse of process counterclaim. If you can, you’ll shock me.

    • Good for you, Mr. Norkin, for standing up for yourself and shame on Florida Supreme Court. You would think they work for Sony Pictures.

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