A federal appeals court upheld sanctions against a veteran Florida bankruptcy lawyer who called a judge’s findings “half-baked,” and then sent a bottle of wine to his chambers with a handwritten note.
The case raised an interesting question, at least in theory: What First Amendment rights do lawyers have to get sharp with judges?
Lawyer Kevin Gleason disagreed with a ruling by Bankruptcy Judge John Olson, and he let the judge know it.
“It is sad when a man of your intellectual ability cannot get it right when your own record does not support your half-baked findings,” Mr. Gleason, whose practice is based in Hollywood, Fla., wrote in a brief filed in April 2011.
The dispute concerned commissions Mr. Gleason’s client received from a real estate deal. Judge Olson ruled that the commissions had to be turned over to the administrator of the client’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan. Mr. Gleason believed they were exempt.
A couple weeks later, Mr. Gleason delivered a bottle of wine to Judge Olson’s chambers, with a hand-written note that read: “Dear Judge Olson, A Donnybrook ends when someone buys the first drink. May we resolve our issues privately?”
Judge Olson returned the bottle. According to Mr. Gleason, Judge Olson never read the note; it was still sealed when he got it back.
A panel of bankruptcy judges in the Southern District of Florida voted to suspend Mr. Gleason from practicing before the court for 60 days. The court didn’t consider whether Mr. Gleason’s criticisms of Judge Olson’s legal findings were correct, only his tone in conveying them. Mr. Gleason told Law Blog he has already served the suspension.
Mr. Gleason appealed the sanctions finding to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. He argued — and still does — that he got the law right and Judge Olson got it wrong. Sure, Mr. Gleason said, he could have pointed out the judge’s alleged errors with more diplomacy, but doesn’t he have a First Amendment right to be tetchy?
No, the 11th Circuit said in a ruling Monday.
“Gleason has identified no authority supporting his contention that the First Amendment shields from sanctions an attorney who files an inappropriate and unprofessional pleading and then contacts a presiding judge ex parte with an offer to share a bottle of wine and ‘privately’ resolve their dispute,” the court wrote.
Courts can impose sanctions for “inappropriate and unprofessional documents” based on their inherent power to oversee lawyers who practice before them, the 11th Circuit said.
Mr. Gleason said he was consulting with his lawyer on his next move. The case, he said, has “significantly negatively impacted my practice.”