Anyone who’s been through the legal system –or contemplated going to court– knows how nasty litigation can be. But a recent case out of Ventura County shows the type of behavior you couldn’t even make up.
In the case of Crawford v. Chase, a lawyer (who once ran in an election to unseat a judge) filed a lawsuit against Chase Bank on behalf of himself and his mother, who is now deceased. The lawyer claimed that the bank had transferred over $200,000.00 from his mother’s bank account to an annuity, based on the recommendation of an investment advisor. The problem was that the bank had been given written instructions by the elderly woman not to withdraw or transfer more than $5,000.00 without first contacting the son (the lawyer).
The trouble began when Chase decided to take the deposition of the lawyer’s brother. The lawyer, who served as attorney of record for his brother, resisted the taking of the deposition for months. Finally, on April 21, 2014, after he had been sanctioned $1,600.00, the lawyer and his brother client showed up for the brother’s deposition. As soon as his brother was sworn in by the court reporter, the lawyer pointed a can of pepper spray at the Chase attorney’s face from about three feet away. The lawyer said, “‘if things get out of hand, I brought what is legally pepper spray, and I will pepper spray you if you get out of hand'”. The lawyer then produced a stun gun and pointed it at the Chase lawyer’s head. The lawyer said, “‘if that doesn’t quell you, this is a flashlight that turns into a stun gun'”. The lawyer then discharged the stun gun close to the Chase attorney’s face.
Not surprisingly, Chase terminated the deposition and filed a motion to have the case dismissed. In opposing the motion, the lawyer started off by writing:
Present Plaintiff and future train passenger, Douglas J. Crawford, submits this humble opposition paperwork in response to Defendant J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., aka “Heavenly Father”. . . . Plaintiff submits to “former” D.A. [the trial judge], currently masquerading as a Superior Court Judge, that the requested “sanction” by our Heavenly Father does not go far enough and requests this Court to sentence Plaintiff to death pursuant to Cal. Penal Code Section 190.2 and the imposition of sanctions against Plaintiff of not less [than] $265 million dollars for the “alleged” assault that occurred on April 21, 2014 by Plaintiff against our Heavenly Father’s only begotten son, Walter Johannes Robert Traver [Chase’s attorney]. Plaintiff has submitted a “Proposed” Order stating as much for [the judge’s] rubber stamping.
The lawyer also filed a statement of disqualification against the judge, claiming among other things that the judge’s prior rulings against him showed bias; that the judge kept a picture of Robert E. Lee in his chambers and was actually a relative of Lee; and that the judge and another judge worked in the Attorney General’s office at the same time and that the lawyer ran against the other judge in a judicial election; and finally the trial judge and the judge that the lawyer challenged in the election shared membership in the California District Attorneys Association.
The trial judge, the Hon. Vincent J. O’Neill, Jr., dismissed the statement of disqualification and granted Chase’s request to dismiss the entire case. The court described the lawyer’s behavior as “the most outrageous behavior that I have ever heard of in my life by an attorney”.
The lawyer appealed and represented himself. Writing for a unanimous three-justice panel, the Hon. Arthur Gilbert wrote “[I]f ever a case required a terminating sanction, this is it”. Justice Gilbert pretty much summed up his thoughts in the opening paragraph of the Court of Appeal’s decision, entitled Crawford v. JPMorgan Chase Bank (appeals case no. B257412):
The practice of law can be abundantly rewarding, but also stressful. The absence of civility displayed by some practitioners heightens stress and debases the legal profession. Those attorneys who allow their personal animosity for an opposing counsel or an opposing party to infect a case damage their reputations and blemish the dignity of the profession they have taken an oath to uphold.
Crawford was certified for publication, which means it can be cited as precedent throughout California and is binding on all trial level courts in the state.
The good news is that in most cases things don’t get out of hand. Indeed, people should see the courts as a place they can turn to help resolve disputes they cannot resolve themselves. On the other hand, the legal process is costly, uncertain, and –at least in this bizarre case– potentially dangerous.
The facts of your case should be the deciding factor whether to press ahead with a case, settle outside of court, or do a combination of both, i.e., settle some issues and litigate others.