Insurer Punished Because Client was a Total Boor

Lawyer Suspended for a Year For Abusing Paralegal

This case is only tangentially about insurance. It is really about the problem an insurer finds itself when it insures a lawyer who treats his staff like serfs, harassers his paralegal, and is excessively boorish. The insurer paid $300,000 (its limits) and the lawyer was suspended from practice for a year.

Disciplinary Counsel v. Skolnick, 2018 OHIO 2990, No. 2017-1735, Supreme Court Of Ohio (August 1, 2018)

FACTS

Howard Evan Skolnick, of Cleveland, Ohio, Attorney Registration No. 0061905, was admitted to the practice of law in Ohio in 1993. In a formal complaint filed with the Board of Professional Conduct on May 22, 2017, relator, disciplinary counsel, charged Skolnick with a single violation of Prof.Cond.R. 8.4(h) (prohibiting a lawyer from engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law) for verbally harassing his paralegal for more than two years.

Based on the parties’ stipulations and Skolnick’s hearing testimony, the board found that Skolnick had engaged in the charged misconduct and recommended that he be suspended from the practice of law for six months, with the entire suspension stayed on the condition that he engage in no further misconduct. No objections have been filed.

Misconduct

Almost immediately after L.D. began working as a paralegal at Skolnick’s law firm in August 2011, Skolnick began criticizing and verbally harassing her. He hurled insults and called her stupid, dumb, fat, “whorey,” and bitch. Skolnick also called L.D.’s husband a “douche bag” and made fun of her mother, though he had never met her. Uncomfortable with Skolnik’s behavior, L.D. soon began looking for a new job. As she could not afford to leave the firm until she had secured new employment, she responded to over 100 employment advertisements, but her job search was unsuccessful.

Skolnick’s verbal insults and harassment continued throughout L.D.’s nearly two-and-a-half-year tenure with the firm. At some point, L.D. began recording those interactions.

Skolnick sexually harassed L.D. While Skolnick drove L.D. and another female employee to lunch, he remarked that the two women should give him “road head” so that he could rate their performances on a scale from one to ten.

As a result of Skolnick’s harassment, L.D. suffered from anxiety, sleep disturbances, depression, and poor body image. Those symptoms persisted even after she left the firm to take a new job in January 2014. A clinical psychologist who evaluated L.D. the following October reported that her symptoms meet some of the criteria for a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder.

Skolnick stipulated and the board found that his conduct adversely reflected upon his fitness to practice law in violation of Prof.Cond.R. 8.4(h).

Sanction

When imposing sanctions for attorney misconduct, the Supreme Court considers several relevant factors, including the ethical duties that the lawyer violated, the aggravating and mitigating factors listed in Gov.Bar R. V(13), and the sanctions imposed in similar cases.

The parties stipulated and the board found two aggravating factors: Skolnick engaged in a pattern of misconduct and caused harm to a vulnerable employee. As mitigating factors, the board found that Skolnick did not have a prior disciplinary record, presented evidence of his good character, cooperated in the disciplinary process, acknowledged his misconduct, and expressed remorse for his behavior.

Skolnick testified that after receiving a letter from L.D.’s counsel accusing him of sexual harassment, discrimination, and creating a hostile work environment, he agreed to mediate those claims. He never denied L.D.’s allegations and quickly settled her claims for $300,000—the limits of his insurance coverage—to avoid causing her any additional trauma. Skolnick also testified that he hired a human-resource specialist to revise the firm’s employee handbook and to provide sexual-harassment training to himself and his staff.

During L.D.’s two-and a-half-year tenure, Skolnick berated her for her physical appearance, dress, education, and parenting skills. He called her a bitch, a “hoe”, a dirtbag, and a piece of shit, and he told her that he hoped she would die. And because L.D. recorded her interactions with Skolnick on more than 30 occasions, the justices of the Supreme Court had the opportunity to hear Skolnick’s outbursts for ourselves.

In light of the longstanding and pervasive nature of Skolnick’s degrading verbal attacks against his paralegal, we believe that a sanction greater than the stayed six-month suspension recommended by the board is necessary not only to protect the public and the dignity of the legal system but also to deter future misconduct of this nature by Skolnick and other attorneys licensed to practice law in this state.

ORDER

Howard Evan Skolnick is suspended from the practice of law in Ohio for one year, with the final six months of the suspension stayed on the condition that he engage in no further misconduct. If Skolnick fails to comply with the condition of the stay, the stay will be lifted, and he will serve the full one-year suspension.

ZALMA OPINION

Not really an insurance case other than Skolnick was lucky that LD was willing to accept his available policy limits as a settlement. One would expect that he had personal assets.  I would expect that the insurer refused to renew his policy. The punishment, although greater than requested by the disciplinary counsel, was kind.


© 2018 – Barry Zalma

This article, and all of the blog posts on this site, digest and summarize cases published by courts of the various states and the United States.  The court decisions have been modified from the actual language of the court decisions, were condensed for ease of reading, and convey the opinions of the author regarding each case.

Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant  specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 50 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and zalma@zalma.com.

Mr. Zalma is the first recipient of the first annual Claims Magazine/ACE Legend Award.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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