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Cop-Shoving Judge Ruled For Atty Paying Him A $35K Debt

Law360 (November 22, 2020, 11:32 PM EST) -- New York state court administrators are questioning a Buffalo judge — already under an ethics investigation following an altercation with police — after he ruled in favor of an attorney in 2018 who owed the judge thousands of dollars.

An investigation by Law360 shows that New York State Supreme Court Justice Mark Grisanti failed to disclose a financial relationship with attorneys he presided over, raising questions about whether he violated ethical standards in the courtroom. The judge was already under investigation by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct for a separate incident outside his home this summer.

Justice Grisanti has faced scrutiny since June, when neighbors accused him and his wife of assault in the aftermath of a street brawl where the shirtless judge pushed and threatened an officer while boasting about his relationship with the mayor and police. The judge, a former state senator appointed to the bench in 2015, was never arrested or charged.

In 2018, court records show, Justice Grisanti granted a judgment of about $18,500 in favor of a private girls school represented by attorneys Matthew Lazroe and Peter J. Pecoraro. At the time, the attorneys still owed the judge $8,000 on their $35,000 purchase of his former law practice, according to Justice Grisanti's judicial ethics filings, court records and an interview with Lazroe.

A spokesman for the state courts told Law360 on Nov. 17 that they will be looking into the handling of the case. Court officials will question Justice Grisanti and determine whether they should take administrative action or refer the matter to the Commission on Judicial Conduct, the spokesman explained, which has the power to discipline or even remove judges for misconduct.

Newly retained counsel for Justice Grisanti, Terrence M. Connors of Connors LLP, did not directly answer questions but rejected the idea that the judge had acted unethically in the case, which he called an "an uncontested debt-collection action."

"This was not a matter where the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned," Connors said. "State law and rules define specific situations in which a judge is required to recuse himself. None of those specific situations applied here. Otherwise, it is a matter of judgment and opinion whether a judge should recuse himself."

But outside legal ethics experts contacted by Law360 disagreed, saying Justice Grisanti appeared to have crossed the line.

Justice Grisanti's arrangement with Lazroe and Pecoraro appears to have run afoul of judicial ethics rules and advisories, said Ronald Minkoff of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz PC, a member of the executive committee of the New York State Bar Association who is serving on several ethics committees.

"During the time the payments are due, the lawyer who bought the practice shouldn't appear in front of the judge, because the lawyer owes the judge money and there is a clear conflict," he said. Minkoff noted the analysis was his own and that he does not speak for the bar association.

Indeed, at least six nonbinding advisory opinions published over the past 25 years by the New York Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics warned judges in Justice Grisanti's position against presiding over cases like Lazroe's.

"A judge who is being paid money by an attorney in concluding a prior business arrangement between them must disclose that relationship and, subject to remittal, recuse himself or herself from presiding over cases in which the attorney appears for a period of two years from the date of payment," reads one opinion from 1997.

The rationale rests on the rules of judicial conduct, specifically the admonition to "avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety." The rules prohibit judges from engaging "in financial and business dealings that ... involve the judge in frequent transactions or continuing business relationships with those lawyers or other persons likely to come before the court on which the judge serves."

Law360 reviewed Justice Grisanti's self-reported ethics disclosures covering calendar years 2014 through 2019. While the judge identified Lazroe and the now-deceased Pecoraro as making $730 in combined monthly payments to him over four years to buy Grisanti & Grisanti, he did not disclose that those attorneys had a case before him, filed in 2017. Pecoraro withdrew as counsel for the school and was replaced by Lazroe before the judgment was issued.

Justice Grisanti's disclosures also seem to have understated his income from the attorneys, pinning it at below $5,000 annually when those monthly payments would add up to $8,760 a year.

"The judge makes every effort to make accurate and appropriate financial disclosures," said Connors, claiming that Justice Grisanti "forgave much of the debt from a colleague who was gravely ill in 2017 and died in 2018," referring to Pecoraro. "The judge is in the process of reviewing the available records, and if an amendment to his disclosure is necessary, he will act accordingly."

Lazroe confirmed that he and Pecoraro had paid "something like" $35,000 for Justice Grisanti's law practice, but rejected the notion that the judge might have been partial to him because of the debt, which Lazroe said has since been repaid. He declined to say how much he was paid for his work on the case.

The woman whom Lazroe sued on behalf of the private school seeking unpaid tuition, Stephanie Satterwhite, said she was in the dark about Justice Grisanti's relationship with Lazroe before being contacted by Law360. Had she known, she would have fought the case harder and asked for another judge, she said.

"It seems as if this is something that's not right," said Satterwhite about Lazroe's financial relationship with Justice Grisanti during her case.

Court documents show Satterwhite acknowledged the debt and agreed to pay it. So far, she said she has paid $8,633 in garnished wages as of late October, leaving a debt of just under $10,000.

Lazroe also has a different case currently before Justice Grisanti that has been pending since 2017, where he is representing a client suing a car dealership for fraud and seeks $25,000, plus treble damages and attorney fees. Lazroe requested the Niagara County case be marked "commercial," typically indicating that more than $100,000 is in dispute. A status conference is scheduled for Dec. 16.

Justice Grisanti's attorney claims the case was transferred to his client sometime this year for settlement, but that he "did not make any rulings" and "will not preside over the case, if it does not settle through mediation," when it would be assigned to a different judge next year.

When asked whether he has an ongoing relationship with the judge, Lazroe hurried off the phone on Tuesday.

"Listen, I can't make any more comments about my relationship with the judge or anything like that," he said, hanging up.

Justice Grisanti has also reported in his ethics filings that he has accepted between $40,000 and $120,000 in the past two years from law firms for client referrals he made before he took the bench. The judge's attorney did not respond to questions for details on which law firms paid the judge, raising questions about whether he has presided over other attorneys with whom he has a financial relationship.

"After the judge took the bench, he made all appropriate filings and disclosures with the Office of Court Administration, including disclosure of any referral fees," the judge's attorney said, noting that judges are permitted to accept such fees.

Following questions from Law360, Justice Grisanti has already recused himself or been removed from more than a dozen cases involving Buffalo and its police department in the aftermath of the June incident. Police body camera footage published by Law360 in October shows the judge shoving a police officer and threatening him while bragging about his ties to senior city officials.

The judge was never formally arrested or charged despite being handcuffed and detained. While the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct did not confirm or deny the judge was being probed, the Erie County district attorney says the watchdog's investigators have been gathering information on Justice Grisanti.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that Minkoff's views are his own.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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