First Department Affirms Criminal Contempt Finding.

On November 15, 2018, the First Department unanimously affirmed an Order of Judge Rita Mella of the New York County Surrogate’s Court that entered a guilty verdict on a criminal contempt claim prosecuted by Jaspan Schlesinger LLP on behalf of two of its clients.

Jaspan Schlesinger LLP’s clients were two law firms and the respondent was their former client.  At the conclusion of the law firms’ representation of respondent, he refused to pay their legal fees. The law firms, acting pro se, filed a proceeding against respondent in Surrogate’s Court alleging breach of contract and seeking to enforce a charging lien. During the pendency of that proceeding, the Surrogate’s Court issued three orders requiring respondent to make $20,000 monthly payments to the law firms’ escrow account as security for the ultimate award in the breach of contract proceeding. Over the course of eight years, respondent failed to make a single $20,000 payment notwithstanding the Court’s repeated directives.

In 2015, the law firms commenced a contempt proceeding against respondent based on his violation of the Court’s orders. Jaspan Schlesinger LLP was retained as lead trial counsel, and partner Jessica M. Baquet tried the case to a successful conclusion over twelve days in 2016 and 2017.

On appeal, the First Department affirmed the trial court’s finding that the respondent was guilty of criminal contempt, reasoning that he had knowledge of the Court’s orders and willfully failed to comply with them. The Appellate Division rejected a litany of arguments by respondent, including that his prior attorneys lacked authority to appear on his behalf in connection with the Court’s orders, and that Judge Mella erred in failing to recuse herself from the proceedings.

The case is Matter of Koeppel, ___ A.D.3d ___, 2018 NY Slip Op 07842 (1st Dep’t 2018).