(CN) - The Ohio Supreme Court has reprimanded a Cleveland lawyer who accused a judge of staring down his client in a divorce case.
Stafford & Stafford attorney Nicholas Gallo had been practicing law for six months when he stepped in to represent Jeffrey Rymers on June 3, 2009.
Gallo had not yet met Rymers, the client's estranged wife or her attorney, and it was his first trip to the Lake County Courthouse in Painesville, Ohio.
"He was, however, aware that Mrs. Rymers was in a relationship with Lake County Common Pleas Court Judge Eugene Lucci," the court summarized.
Gallo saw a man repeatedly enter and exit Lucci's suite. After Gallo met Rymers, the opposing counsel appeared with a copy of Lucci's motion to intervene in the divorce case.
Gallo called his boss, Joseph Stafford, and described the man in the hallway. Stafford told him it sounded like Lucci.
Rymers then told Gallo that Lucci was looking in their direction. Gallo turned and saw the man in the hallway. Later, Gallo found a photo of Lucci on the Internet to compare with his recollection of the man he saw.
Gallo responded to the intervention motion by arguing that Lucci was "improperly using his position as a presiding judge to advance his personal interests, by attempting to insert himself into an action in which he has no legitimate interest."
He also accused Lucci of "engaging in a pattern of harassing and threatening conduct" toward Rymers and Stafford based on his position as judge.
Gallo and Rymers submitted affidavits stating that they had seen Lucci staring at Rymers. One week later, Gallo left the Stafford firm for unrelated reasons.
Lucci filed a grievance, claiming that he was falsely accused of abusing his office. The judge also claimed to have "witnesses and irrefutable, conclusive evidentiary proof" that he was not the man in the hallway.
After reviewing video footage of the courthouse on that fateful June day, Gallo realized that the man in the hallway was actually Lucci's bailiff. He withdrew his affidavit.
The disciplinary board ruled that Gallo had not acted out of dishonesty or deceit, but that he had failed to independently verify the identity of the man in the hallway before making accusations about Lucci.
A five-justice majority of the Ohio Supreme Court accepted the board's recommendation for a public reprimand.
"Given the evidence that Gallo relied on and the minimal effort that he undertook to confirm the identity of the man in the hallway before making serious allegations against Judge Lucci, we do not find that he had a reasonable factual basis for his statements," the unsigned decision states.
Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Terrence O'Donnell dissented from their colleagues, stating that the complaint against Gallo should have been dismissed.
"Mr. Rymers mistakenly confirmed that the man was Judge Lucci. Gallo was aware that Judge Lucci was involved in a relationship with Mr. Rymers' wife and that she and the Rymerses' children were living in the judge's home. It was reasonable to believe that his client would recognize Judge Lucci," Lundberg Stratton wrote.
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