Lawyer Sanctioned for "Hijacking" Case for His Own Cause

By Mark Hamblett
New York Law Journal

August 21, 2008

An attorney who used his pro bono representation of a woman in a state eviction proceeding to attack the Roman Catholic Church for clergy sexual abuse and the federal government for its response to Hurricane Katrina has been hit with heavy sanctions.

Northern District of New York Judge Gary Sharpe blasted attorney John A. Aretakis in a 46-page opinion Monday that cited the lawyer for "scurrilous" claims and "monstrous" allegations in his representation of Tina Zlotnick, who was relocated to church-owned property in the Albany area after being evacuated in the wake of Katrina.

Sharpe ordered Aretakis, of Albany and Manhattan, to pay a total of $16,678 in attorney fees to his adversaries and gave him a strict warning to avoid all sanctionable conduct in the future.

"There was nothing in the assignment and nothing in Ms. Zlotnick's legal dilemma that should have caused Mr. Aretakis to hijack her litigation for his own personal reasons," Sharpe said in Zlotnick v. Hubbard, 07-CV-405.

Sharpe issued several rulings. He refused to reconsider a 2007 ruling in which he ordered the attorney to pay the church's reasonable attorney fees. He also imposed additional sanctions in the form of paying the attorney fees of the federal government.

Finally, Sharpe refused to recuse himself from the case, although he conceded that an earlier statement made by him to the effect that three-quarters of Aretakis' complaint in the eviction matter dealt with sexual abuse was "inaccurate."

"Furthermore, this decision serves as a written warning that the court will not tolerate sanctionable conduct by Mr. Aretakis in any future litigation before this court," the judge said, adding that he was forwarding a copy of the decision to Northern District Chief Judge Norman Mordue for consideration of possible disciplinary measures.

Sharpe set the church's reasonable attorney fees at $14,310 and awarded $2,368 to the federal government.

Aretakis vowed to appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, saying Sharpe's decision was an attempt to "chill" his free speech.

"Our country was founded on principles involving freedom of speech and the opportunity to criticize public officials," he said. "This decision should be read in its entirety by every lawyer or citizen who cherishes these fundamental rights. It is a historical fact that over the decades that politicians, law enforcement and the courts have helped the Catholic Church avoid our criminal and civil courts and responsibility for their priests having sex with our children."

Aretakis added, "In my opinion, this judge is attempting to punish me and attack my credibility for my extensive efforts as one of two lawyers in the state of New York who have effectively exposed these issues."

When Zlotnick was displaced in 2005 from her New Orleans home by Katrina, a charitable group helped move her to her native New York, and Catholic Charities offered her temporary lodging in a church-owned building in Watervliet, outside Albany.

But in January 2007, the church informed Zlotnick that it was selling the building and she would have to move. When she refused and the church initiated eviction proceedings, Aretakis was asked by the Albany County Bar Association's pro bono program to represent her.


Aretakis filed a diversity action in federal court for breach of contract, fraud, detrimental reliance, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of fiduciary duty and unjust enrichment. He named as defendants the Albany archdiocese, Bishop Howard Hubbard and various nonprofit agencies, as well as the federal government and its Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Sharpe dismissed the federal case for lack of diversity jurisdiction after the church argued that Zlotnick was a resident of New York.

According to Sharpe, Aretakis used the lawsuit to launch broadsides against the Catholic Church for its handling of the priest sex abuse scandals.

The judge said Aretakis had ranged far afield from the eviction case. The attorney claimed officials of the archdiocese had generated local media interviews highlighting the plight of Zlotnick to raise money from donors and speculated that the church had used the money to defend itself in the sex abuse scandals.

Aretakis also raised a possible conspiracy between the church and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, alleging that the church enriched itself with inflated housing subsidies paid out by the agency.

According to a transcript from a hearing on possible sanctions last Sept. 6, Sharpe gave the attorney "60 seconds" to explain his basis for dragging the agency into the lawsuit.

When Aretakis said it was "general public knowledge" that the U.S. government had wasted a lot of money in the aftermath of Katrina, Sharpe had had enough.

"Congratulations. Why don't you run for the Senate or president of the United States and do something about it?" the judge said.

He also took note that Aretakis, who has represented alleged clergy abuse victims in the past, has been fined by other courts and had several ethics complaints filed against him.

Aretakis was fined $8,000 last year by Southern District Judge Paul Crotty for bringing "scurrilous" charges against the Archdiocese of New York and Cardinal Edward Egan. That sanctions decision was upheld this year in a summary order by the 2nd Circuit.

Michael L. Costello of Tobin and Dempf, who represented the church, filed a motion for sanctions in May 2007. That was followed by the Sept. 6 sanctions hearing. In his complaint, Aretakis also had targeted Costello for his role in defending the church.


In his sanctions decision issued Monday, Sharpe said there is no good-faith legal or factual basis for suing the federal government.

"[I]t is absolutely improper for a trained lawyer to file a bogus federal law suit in an effort to vent about his personal dissatisfaction with government," Sharpe said.

"As for the Church defendants," the judge said, "the court has already recited the scurrilous allegations concerning sex abuse, the identification of specific priests as sexual predators, and other sundry allegations that have absolutely nothing to do with this lawsuit, including an ad hominem attack on defense counsel."

Ken Goldfarb, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, said the diocese was pleased with the decision.

"This just reaffirms the position we have held all along in dealing with this attorney," he said.


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