Thursday, May 2, 2013

Who Let the Dog Die?

In the sixth disciplinary proceeding involving an attorney, the Wisconsin Supreme Court imposed a suspension of two years.

One case involved frivolous litigation over the euthanization of a dog. Dogs in Wisconsin are personal property and the canine at issue had been given to the ex-wife on divorce from the plaintiff:

T.H. had formerly been married to S.H., and they had owned a Labrador retriever during their marriage.  After T.H. moved out of the family residence and while the divorce proceeding was pending, the dog resided with S.H. and the couple's son, but not with T.H.  S.H. and T.H. entered into a marital settlement agreement (MSA), which was ultimately incorporated into the judgment of divorce.  In the MSA, T.H. expressly agreed that S.H. would be awarded, inter alia, all "personal belongings and other personal property currently in her possession at the time  of the final hearing," and that T.H. was divested of any right or legal interest in any of the property awarded to S.H.  This MSA was never modified.  The dog was therefore awarded to S.H. in the divorce judgment.

S.H. had the dog euthanized at a veterinary hospital in August 2000.  T.H. learned of this fact a short time later.  He then retained Attorney Eisenberg regarding a potential claim.

Despite his knowledge of the legal characterization of pet animals as personal property and of the terms of the MSA and the divorce judgment, which awarded all personal property in her possession to S.H., Attorney Eisenberg filed a large-claim civil action on T.H.'s behalf on the theory that T.H. was the lawful owner of the dog.  Although the referee found that the initial belief in Attorney Eisenberg's office was that S.H. had been responsible, with or without her mother's assistance, for the euthanization of the dog, Attorney Eisenberg did not name S.H. as a defendant.  Apparently for strategic reasons Attorney Eisenberg named B.S., who was S.H.'s mother and T.H.'s former mother-in-law, as the sole defendant.

The court noted the referee's finding:

The referee described his view of the way in which the lawsuit was structured as follows:  "[Attorney] Eisenberg constructed a compelling narrative for the case:  vicious, vindictive ex-mother-in-law has the perfectly healthy dog belonging to her ex-son-in-law euthanized.  The only problem with the narrative was that it was untrue."

The other count involved fee-splitting allegations that the attorney had falsely denied. (Mike Frisch)

Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink

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