Sunday, July 13, 2014

13-year-old legal malpractice suit heads to trial again

Original 2008 verdict overturned because of involvement of ex-judge Ciavarella

September 18. 2013 11:14PM

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WILKES-BARRE – A lawsuit dating back nearly 13 years in a legal malpractice case that at one time included a $3.4 million verdict and ex-judge Mark Ciavarella presiding will go to trial next month.

County Judge Michael Vough met with attorneys who represent Bernadette Slusser of West Hazleton, the plaintiff in the suit, as well as attorneys who represent the defendant in the case, the Laputka, Bayless, Ecker and Cohn law firm, on Wednesday, in preparation for the Oct. 7 trial.

The case is being retried in Luzerne County Court after the state Superior Court overturned the verdict based on a ruling that Ciavarella should have recused himself because of a conflict of interest.

The original suit, which began in 2000, claimed the Hazleton law firm provided faulty legal representation in a series of lawsuits related to land transactions.

The complaint was filed in October 2002, and in February 2008 a county jury ruled Slusser should be awarded a $3.4 million verdict.

Jeffrey McCarron, an attorney for the law firm, sought a new trial in 2009 after Ciavarella and former county Judge Michael Conahan were charged with accepting millions of dollars from attorney Robert Powell and local developer Robert Mericle in exchange for rulings that benefited two juvenile detention facilities that Powell owned.

McCarron had suspected Ciavarella had a personal relationship with Powell. When he tried to question him about it during Slusser’s trial, Ciavarella angrily denounced the attorney for questioning whether he fairly preside over the trial.

A transcript of the encounter shows Ciavarella repeatedly asking McCarron about the basis for his questions and denying any relationship with Powell.

Powell had been Slusser’s original attorney. Slusser is now is represented by attorney Stephen Seach.

The case was overturned in November 2010 after the state Superior Court found Ciavarella should have recused himself based on a personal and financial relationship with Powell.

“Appellants’ counsel gave Ciavarella the opportunity to disclose this relationship and recuse himself from the proceedings. Rather than taking such steps, Ciavarella chastised counsel for raising the possibility of an improper relationship and deflected counsel’s questions,” the high court said. “All the while, Powell stood by as a silent observer.”

The court vacated all orders issued by Ciavarella and sent the case back to Luzerne County for a new trial.

A new trial was supposed to be held in January, but it had been delayed after requests made by attorneys in the case.

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