Lawyers Immune to Ex-NFL Player’s Fraud Suit, Connecticut Court Rules

By | June 23, 2011

A state appeals court in Connecticut has ruled that ex-NFL player and investment firm founder Bob Simms can’t sue his ex-wife’s lawyers for fraud during a long-running divorce and alimony case, saying they’re protected by a centuries-old doctrine called absolute immunity.

Simms, a linebacker who played for the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1960s, claims his former wife, Donna Simms, and her lawyers failed to disclose a nearly $360,000 inheritance she received in 2006 and 2008 during a legal fight over the amount of alimony he pays. Her lawyers deny the allegations.

The state Appellate Court, Connecticut’s second-highest court, released a 2-1 ruling this week barring Bob Simms from suing the lawyers because of absolute immunity, which shields judges and lawyers across the country from civil lawsuits in connection with their actions in court. The doctrine’s purpose is to promote people speaking freely at judicial proceedings without fear of being sued and to avoid hindering an attorney’s advocacy for his or her client.

But in the dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Bishop wrote that lawyers need to be held accountable for fraudulent acts.

“Immunizing lawyers from claims based on fraudulent behavior serves no legitimate public policy,” Bishop wrote.

The issue of absolute immunity has gone before appellate courts nationwide. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a Georgia case and decide whether government officials who testify falsely while acting as complaining witnesses have absolute immunity from civil lawsuits.

Simms played in the NFL from 1960 through 1962. He founded Simms Capital Management Inc. in 1984 and now lives in Greenwich. He said he plans to appeal this week’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“Fraud is a crime,” he told The Associated Press. “For these men and women to ignore that is not in the public interest. It’s only in the interest of their selfish commercial well-being. It’s the obscenity of all obscenities.”

Simms, 72, has been trying to sue his ex-wife’s lawyers since 2009 for fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The attorneys named in the complaint are Penny Seaman, Susan Moch, Kenneth Bartschi, Brendon Levesque and Karen Dowd, all of whom represented Donna Simms in various state Superior Court and appeals court proceedings from 2005 to 2008.

Bartschi, Levesque and Dowd work for the prominent Hartford firm Horton, Shields & Knox. Bartschi declined to comment. Messages were left Tuesday for Seaman, Levesque and Dowd.

Moch denied Bob Simms’ fraud claims.

“It was a ridiculous allegation that I concealed anything from the court,” Moch said. “Unfortunately, this was an extraordinarily bitter case that’s been going on since 1979.”

Bob and Donna Simms got married in 1961 and divorced in 1979. As part of the divorce settlement, Bob Simms was ordered to pay Donna Simms alimony. The legal wrangling resumed in 1989, when she filed motions to increase the alimony while he sought to decrease or eliminate it. The case has taken a number of twists and turns over the years, including two trips to the state Supreme Court.

In 2004, after Bob Simms had sold his entire interest in Simms Capital Management for nearly $870,000, he asked a judge to reduce his alimony payments. His net worth was about $2.8 million, court documents show. A judge granted his motion and nearly eliminated his alimony payments, cutting them $78,000 a year to $1 per year.

At the time, Donna Simms was 68, was being treated for thyroid and breast cancer and had suffered a stroke. She was working as a counselor and therapist at Greenwich Hospital earning $1,625 a month plus $797 a month in Social Security benefits and $250 a month in investment income. She had a home valued at $695,000, stocks and bank accounts valued at $78,000 and a $6,000 retirement account.

She appealed the ruling all the way to the state Supreme Court, which in 2007 overturned the alimony cut and sent the case back to Superior Court.

The Appellate Court, in Monday’s decision, said Donna Simms inherited $310,000 from an uncle in June 2006 and another $49,000 from his estate in February 2008. Bob Simms claims she and her lawyers intentionally concealed the inheritance during court proceedings until May 2008, when they were forced to disclose it under a court order. A lower court judge ruled that information about the inheritance had been improperly withheld.

Bob Simms appealed to the Appellate Court after a Superior Court judge threw out his fraud claims based on absolute immunity.

Judge Stuart Bear wrote the Appellate Court’s majority opinion and was joined by Judge George Stoughton, who died on June 1. Bear noted that lawyers can face discipline for misconduct in other ways, including contempt of court rulings and complaints to the state panel that investigates attorney wrongdoing.

Bear wrote that allowing lawsuits like the one filed by Bob Simms “would have a chilling effect on the attorney-client relationship and on an attorney’s zealous representation of his or her client.”

No one answered a phone listing for Donna Simms on Tuesday.

Topics Lawsuits Legislation Fraud Connecticut

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