Sunday, December 31, 2017

Muddied Waters

A Louisiana Hearing Committee proposes  disbarment of an attorney who had defaulted on four counts of misconduct.

Two of the cases were client-related lapses; two other counts involved domestic violence against two victims.

The client matters involved accepting fees and abandoning the clients.

As to the domestic violence:

On July 23, 2014, the attorney pinned the victim (his live-in girlfriend) to the ground and told her she "deserved to die." He then rose and menaced her with a leather belt but she was able to escape.

The attorney "who consumes chewing tobacco, spat tobacco saliva in her face." He also held a straight razor to her throat.

The other victim was the attorney's ex-wife, who he kicked in the knee in 2005 and pushed  in 2010.

When they were in a family law dispute, the attorney was ordered to take a drug test. He refused and was held in contempt.

On the day after the contempt finding, he announced that he was running to replace the judge in the family case.

A hearing committee filed a recommendation for disbarment in September for misconduct that included false allegations against the judge in the family law matter. The attorney falsely claimed that the judge had altered a transcript. 

There were two client misconduct matters in that case as well. 

Per the Times-Picayune

Gretna lawyer Juan Labadie...wants to unseat Judge Michael Mentz...during this fall's elections. Mentz, who was elected to the 24th Judicial District's Division F seat two years ago, is presiding over Labadie's ongoing custody battle with his ex-wife. On Monday (Aug. 11), Mentz held Labadie in contempt of court, finding that the lawyer failed to submit to a court-ordered drug test in connection with that domestic case. Hours later, Labadie, who had previously sought to have Mentz removed from his case, launched a political campaign to unseat him.

During a hearing at the Jefferson Parish Courthouse, Judge Michael Mentz ordered Gretna lawyer Juan Labadie to serve 30 days of house arrest. The judge held Labadie in contempt of court, punishing him for disregarding a court-ordered drug test in his child-custody battle with his ex-wife.

Just hours later, Labadie responded: He launched a campaign to unseat Mentz in the Nov. 4 election. Without mentioning the judge by name, Labadie shifted his contentious divorce case into a political battle for the Division F seat on the 24th Judicial District Court.

"The concept that no man is above the law seems to ring true more of a history lesson than real life," Labadie wrote in his campaign announcement. "That should not be. The principal should be a living, breathing concept that is actively applied every day in our courts."

Mentz would not comment directly but on Thursday confirmed he will seek re-election. Judges are ethically barred from publicly discussing cases over which they preside. In his campaign announcement, Mentz said that "litigants and their counsel know that in my court they have a fair and impartial judge."

He was elected to the bench two years ago, to fill the time left on the term of Patrick McCabe, who retired early. Now Mentz seeks a full six-year term.

Labadie denied Wednesday that his motivation to force Mentz into a campaign was spite for rulings he asserts are unlawful and seem to smack of "clear politics." Nor, he said, is he trying to do politically what he has been unable to do through the courts in recent months: Remove Mentz from his domestic case. "I don't have to run against him to get him off my case," Labadie said.

Mentz inherited Labadie's divorce case from McCabe when he took office Jan. 1, 2013. By then, Labadie and his ex-wife, Lori, already were divorced for more than two years. The couple had two children. He sued her for divorce in January 2010, and she countersued the following month, accusing him of adultery and saying he fathered twins with another woman, who works at the courthouse.

Labadie said he is still in a relationship with that woman. It's not always pretty, however, judging from his July 23 arrest on a charge of domestic abuse battery involving the woman. Labadie was released on a $1,000 bond and hasn't been formally charged. "It was blown completely out of proportion, and I will be completely exonerated of that," he said.

He said his dispute with Mentz dates from April, when his ex-wife asked the judge to order him to submit to a drug test. Her attorney wrote that Labadie had shown "a pattern of irrational behavior over the past month." She cited "rambling" and "incoherent" text messages he sent to her, and she pointed to a minor traffic wreck in Marrero on April 9, when his vehicle struck the rear of another car. One of their two children was in the car with him.

Labadie denied being on drugs. His attorney, Zoe Fleming, called Lori Labadie's accusations "false disgusting allegations."

"It has been an accumulated series of actions of the law -- I'm not going to say ignored -- not followed," Labadie said. "I finally said this is not right. If I'm going to complain about it, I should put my money where my mouth is."

The qualifying period for the fall ballot begins Wednesday and ends Aug. 22. Should they both sign up to run, Mentz likely would have to step off Labadie's domestic case.

If he goes through with his campaign announcement, Labadie faces an uphill battle. It's rare for a challenger to defeat a sitting judge in Jefferson Parish; most lawyers don't even try. Plus as a West Jefferson resident, Labadie, a lawyer for 18 years, would be campaigning in an East Jefferson election district against an East Jefferson resident who practiced law for 33 years before becoming a judge. Mentz, with the backing of business interests and some of the parish's elected officials, ran unopposed in 2012.

Lori Labadie asserted that she found pills and plastic bags for narcotics storage in their house after a failed attempt at reconciliation. Despite having no evidence to support the accusation, Labadie said, Mentz sided with her.

During the week of the wreck, Labadie was defending a Waggaman man standing trial on a charge of molesting a 5-year-old girl. Mentz also presided over that criminal case. So in preparing to defend himself against his ex-wife's accusations, Labadie subpoenaed the two prosecutors on the criminal case - and Mentz. The prosecutors and judge, Labadie said, could testify whether they observed erratic behavior in the courtroom during that trial.

That would make Mentz a witness in the domestic case. As such, he should no longer preside over it, Labadie said.

Over the next three months, the district attorney's office successfully argued against having its prosecutors testify in Labadie's domestic case and state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell's office intervened for Mentz. Judge John Molaison in June shot down the subpoena of Mentz and refused to remove him from the domestic case. An appeals court declined to intervene.

On Aug. 7, Mentz gave Labadie one day to submit to the drug screen that his ex-wife sought. Labadie didn't do it, and so on Monday the judge held him in contempt of court. He  ordered 30 days of house arrest and gave Labadie until Tuesday at noon to register with the home incarceration office or be jailed, according to court records. Mentz also said he would extend the house arrest 30 days if Labadie refused to submit to a drug screen.

Labadie found some relief Tuesday when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal suspended Mentz's order. By Wednesday, he was released from house arrest, and the 5th Circuit reversed Mentz's contempt order, finding the judge did not give Labadie sufficient notice before holding a contempt hearing. Another hearing on the matter is scheduled for Monday.

"Case law holds you cannot be held in contempt for not following an unlawful order," Labadie said of the drug screen.

While Mentz wouldn't testify, Labadie said, the judge let his administrative assistant testify in a hearing last week on whether to hold Lori Labadie in contempt, for allegedly changing her phone's voicemail greeting to duck a telephone conference with the judge in April. Mentz hasn't ruled on that issue. But Labadie said that Mentz allowing his assistant to testify is more reason for why he shouldn't preside over the case.

He said he's not trying to dodge the drug screen to hide drug use. "This is a privacy issue, and this is a civil rights issue," he said.

"If submitted I would pass, but that's not the issue," he said. "My ex-wife has gotten exactly what she wanted out of this, which is to muddy the waters. And I'm not going to play that."

(Mike Frisch)

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