The state Supreme Court has ruled in an ex-NFL player’s case that Connecticut lawyers can’t be sued for fraud for their conduct in court cases because of a centuries-old legal doctrine.
The court’s 5-1 decision came in the case of Bob Simms of Greenwich, who played for the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers in the early 1960s and founded the investment firm Simms Capital Management Inc. in 1984.
Simms, 74, tried to sue his ex-wife, Donna, and her lawyers, alleging they 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. Donna Simms’ lawyers denied the allegations. A trial court judge ruled against Bob Simms, and he appealed.
Simms called the Supreme Court’s ruling “ludicrous” last Friday. Donna Simms said she wasn’t excited about the decision because she’s been involved in court proceedings with her ex-husband for three decades and there may be more legal fights.
Justices ruled May 10 that lawyers are shielded from fraud lawsuits under absolute immunity, a doctrine dating back to medieval England. The doctrine was intended 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.
“The mere possibility of such (fraud) claims, which could expose attorneys to harassing and expensive litigation, would be likely to inhibit their freedom in making good faith evidentiary decisions and representations and, therefore, negatively affect their ability to act as zealous advocates for their clients,” Justice Peter Zarella wrote in the majority opinion.
The court cited decisions by federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, recognizing absolute immunity for government lawyers. Justices also said Connecticut lawyers can be punished for any misconduct, including being disbarred by the Statewide Grievance Committee.
Justice Richard Palmer dissented in the ruling. He said the majority’s decision is out of step with a large majority of courts or legislatures that have declined to extend absolute immunity to include fraud. He also said the court’s majority ignored a “strong presumption” against absolute immunity.
“The majority’s decision rightly will be viewed – by nonlawyers especially – as unduly protectionist of attorneys,” Palmer wrote.
Bob and Donna Simms married in 1961 and divorced in 1979. He was ordered to pay alimony as part of the divorce settlement. The legal wrangling resumed in 1989 when she filed motions to increase the alimony while he sought to decrease or eliminate it.
The case took a number of twists and turns over the years, including three trips to the state Supreme Court.
The attorneys named in Bob Simms’ lawsuit 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. They denied the allegations.
According to court documents, Donna Simms inherited $310,000 from an uncle in June 2006 and another $49,000 from his estate in February 2008. Bob Simms claimed 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.
Donna Simms, 76, who said she gets $10,000 a year in alimony from her ex-husband, denies hiding the inheritance. She said it was unclear for some time whether she would receive any money from her uncle’s estate. When she got the money, she said she spent $200,000 on lawyers’ fees and the rest on her mortgage, medical bills and other necessities.
She said she didn’t feel strongly one way or the other about the Supreme Court ruling.
“Am I excited? No,” she said. “It’s been too long and it’s taken a heck of a lot out of me. It’s gone on for 30 years. I don’t know what to expect.”
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