Pro Bono Assignment on Behalf of Hurricane Katrina Client Leads to Sanctions
Judge rebukes New York attorney for suing diocese after woman is evicted from property being sold by the church
A pro bono assignment to defend a woman displaced from New Orleans byHurricane Katrina against being evicted in the Albany, N.Y., area has leftattorney John A. Aretakis facing a $10,000 court fine and a bill for as muchas $16,678 in attorney fees.
Northern District of New York Judge Gary L. Sharpe rebuked Aretakis forfighting the eviction of Tina Zlotnick by filing suit against the RomanCatholic Diocese of Albany, Bishop Howard Hubbard, the United States and theFederal Emergency Management Agency.
It was the latest in a five-year series of actions brought by Aretakisagainst the Catholic Church, most involving allegations of sexual abuse bymembers of the clergy. In this case, Aretakis named the Albany diocese andits bishop as defendants because Zlotnick was being evicted from achurch-owned property that the diocese was selling.
Sharpe found, however, that there is "no legitimate factual or legal basisfor the claims that are contained in this complaint." It is "crystal clear,"the judge continued, that Aretakis filed the Zlotnick claim because of theattorney's adversarial attitude toward the Catholic Church.
"That's a violation of Rule 11 as far as I'm concerned," Sharpe said."Given the nature of the allegations, given the legal insufficiency of theallegations and the factual insufficiency of the allegations, it's clear tome that this lawsuit was filed because you have your own personal agenda andyou were able to find a client that would foster your own personal agenda.Therefore, it is my intention to impose sanctions."
Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes judges toimpose sanctions on attorneys for making frivolous arguments.
In addition to the fine, Sharpe ordered Aretakis to pay for the time thatattorneys from Tobin and Dempf in Albany spent defending the diocese fromAretakis' suit, Zlotnick v. Hubbard, 07-cv-0405. The judge also gaveAretakis until Thursday to show cause why he should not also pay for the timethe U.S. Attorney's office in Albany spent defending the United States andFEMA.
Michael L. Costello of Tobin and Dempf had filed a motion in May seekingsanctions against Aretakis in the Zlotnick case. The federalattorney's office had not sought sanctions or attorney fees, but Sharpe saidthe "procedural matrix" of Rule 11 allows the judge to impose attorney feeson his own.
Sharpe ruled from the bench during a hearing on Sept. 6 in Albany.Costello subsequently filed an affidavit with the court placing Tobin andDempf's fees in the case at $14,310. Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara D.Cottrell's affidavit put the U.S. Attorney's office's time in the case at$2,368.
Aretakis said in an interview that he would challenge Sharpe's sanctionsin his filing before the court, which he expected to make today. He also willmove that Sharpe, a former U.S. Attorney in the Northern District, recusehimself from the case defended by that office and to detail any ties thejudge has to the Catholic Church and the Albany diocese, Aretakis said.
Aretakis, of Albany and Manhattan, said he was also preparing an appeal ofSharpe's Sept. 6 determination to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"My argument is going to be that he is biased and prejudiced against me,"Aretakis said. "The judge is just really trying to punish me for my advocacyof clergy abuse victims. That's it in its entirety."
Aretakis, who had never appeared before Sharpe prior to the Zlotnick matter, accused the judge of having a "pre-existing contempt for me."
Aretakis' complaint alleged that Zlotnick was mentally and physicallyharmed by Hurricane Katrina. Her apartment in New Orleans was wrecked by thestorm and she was transported by a charitable group to the Albany area, whereshe grew up and has relatives.
Catholic Charities offered her a place to live temporarily in achurch-owned building in Watervliet, outside Albany. In January, the churchinformed her that she would have to move because it was selling the building.When she refused, the diocese initiated eviction proceedings.
Aretakis was asked by the Albany County Bar Association's pro bono programto represent Zlotnick.
'DEVOID OF FACTS'
In his complaint, Aretakis charged that Catholic Charities defraudedZlotnick by promising her housing and then taking it away. The diocesecountered that the housing assignment was to be temporary, with theexpectation that the woman would ultimately return to New Orleans or findhousing on her own locally.
Aretakis also accused Albany diocese officials of generating local mediainterviews with the woman and then using the publicity to raise money fromdonors. Some of that money, Aretakis said, could have been used by the churchto defend itself against priest sex abuse charges.
Aretakis also sketched out what he labeled a possible conspiracy betweenCatholic Charities and FEMA in which the church allegedly enriched itselfthrough FEMA housing allowances by providing apartments to Katrina victims atinflated prices.
Sharpe found no merit in Aretakis' arguments that the diocese engaged infraud or other wrongdoing. But the judge was even more dismissive ofAretakis' attempt to bring FEMA and the United States into the case.
"I give you about 60 seconds to explain to me what the basis of any caseagainst the United States and FEMA is in this complaint before I issue theorder to show cause to impose sanctions," Sharpe told Aretakis on Sept. 6,according to the Northern District's transcript of the hearing.
When the attorney responded that it is "general public knowledge" thatFEMA and the U.S. government have "wasted a lot of money" in Katrina'saftermath, Sharpe shot back, "Congratulations. Why don't you run forthe Senate or President of the United States and do somethin' about it?"
After more discussion that Sharpe found unconvincing, the judge toldAretakis, "You've exhausted your 60 seconds. Thank you. You failed completelyto answer my question."
Similarly, the judge derided an affidavit filed by Zlotnick as "just moreof the nonsense that's contained in the complaint -- wishes, desires, howeveryou might want to characterize it; it is totally devoid of facts."
Sharpe declared that Zlotnick is a domiciliary of New York and not of NewOrleans, and, as such, he was dismissing her claim because there was nodiversity among the parties.
"I honestly think that this judge went so far to tar and feather me thatit is actually going to help my ability to appeal it. He wants to teach me alesson and put me out of business," Aretakis said in the interview.
Aretakis is representing numerous alleged victims of sexual abuse byCatholic clergy, and he contends his advocacy for those clients has raisedthe ire of church officials. His conduct has drawn other court fines andseveral ethics complaints against him in the 1st and 3rd Departments.
Most recently, Aretakis was fined $8,000 by Southern District Court JudgePaul Crotty for bringing what the judge called a "scurri-lous" suit againstthe Archdiocese of New York and Cardinal Edward Egan. Aretakis is appealingthat ruling to the 2nd Circuit.
Kenneth Goldfarb, spokesman for the Albany diocese, declined commentTuesday on the Zlotnick ruling. Costello did not return a telephone call.
Zlotnick was evicted in July. Aretakis said she is now living in alow-income, government-subsidized apartment in Troy, Rensselaer County.
for a listing of alternate locations.