Thursday, December 18, 2008

This is the Connecticut Court System in a nutshell:

Probate Judge Told To Pay $23,000

Berlin Colleague Rules Against Him

November 28, 2004 By KIM MARTINEAU, Courant Staff Writer

PORTLAND -- Daniel Kauczka thought he'd be in good hands with Richard Guliani, the lawyer he hired to set up and manage a trust fund for his ailing wife. Who wouldn't? Guliani was also the local probate judge.

But last week another judge confirmed Kauczka's more recent fears that his trust in Guliani had been misplaced. The judge ordered Guliani to pay his client $23,000 for legal work he should have, but did not, perform.

The ruling by Berlin Probate Judge Walter Clebowitz against his fellow probate judge is the latest in a series of complaints about Guliani's performance.

The Statewide Grievance Committee, which investigates complaints of lawyer misconduct, has cited Guliani three times for failing to respond to the committee.

The council on probate judicial conduct has cited Guliani for failing to make timely payments to the probate retirement fund and overpaying himself three years in a row - once by $17,000.

A parental rights case dragged on for months because Guliani failed to transfer the case to juvenile court. Another judge did some of Guliani's work when he disappeared from his probate office for days.

Guliani's conduct has troubled those who two years ago supported his run for judge, a part-time job that pays about $50,000 in salary and benefits. Judge James Lawlor, who oversees the state probate system, is also distressed. He proposed a law earlier this year that would have given him the authority to assign a new judge to cases languishing in a sitting judge's court, but the legislature did not pass it. Currently, he has limited power to act.

"I wish the problems in Portland could have been resolved earlier," he said.

"I don't think it reflects well on the judge, the system or the court."

In several recent interviews, Guliani defended his record as a lawyer and a judge. He downplayed the complaints against him and said he tries his best to respond to clients and those appearing in his court. Although in recent letters to Berlin Probate Court he alluded to an illness, he declined to elaborate.

Guliani stepped down as fiduciary for the Kauczka trust last year. His clients, Daniel and Marilyn Kauczka, spent nearly $28,000 on lawyers and accountants to straighten out the trust.

Clebowitz found that Guliani failed to deposit checks, file annual accountings of his work or even return his clients' phone calls. He ordered Guliani to reimburse his clients all but a $5,000 trustee fee.

"If he had responded to the reasonable requests of the Kauczkas, their accountant and attorney for information, all these fees and costs would have been avoided," Clebowitz wrote in a decision Nov. 22.

Guliani vowed an appeal to state Superior Court. He defended his handling of the Kauczka trust and accused Kauczka's new lawyer, Brad Gallant, of overcharging, calling it "an outrageous money grab."

As an attorney, Guliani has been cited three times by the Statewide Grievance Committee for failing to respond to the committee handling grievances against him. Two of the grievances were upheld, including one from a lawyer who sued Guliani for payment of $5,500 in legal work.

As a probate judge, Guliani was admonished once by the council on probate judicial conduct, which investigates complaints of judicial misconduct. The head of the probate assembly at the time, Newington Probate Judge Sheila Hennessey, complained in 2002 that Guliani made late payments to the probate retirement fund and filed late financial reports, state records show.

Her complaint alleged that Guliani overpaid himself three years in a row, including an overpayment of $17,000 in 2000. The money was eventually returned, with interest. The probate council privately admonished Guliani. When the problems continued, he was publicly admonished a year later.

The Portland Democratic Town Committee endorsed Guliani for a fourth term in 2002.

Chairman Stephen Kinsella said he was unaware Guliani had been cited by either the grievance committee or the probate council, but he said the matter would be discussed when the committee meets next month.

"I wish I had known. I would have taken this up with the town committee a long time ago," said Kinsella, an attorney for the city of Hartford.

"If he's doing anything illegal or unethical, then he needs to step down."

Kauczka and other former clients have indicated Guliani may be running his private law practice, at least some of the time, out of town hall. First Selectwoman Susan Bransfield said she has not received any complaints, but if true, it would probably be considered improper. Guliani acknowledged he sometimes meets with clients at town hall.

"This practice isn't totally unusual," he said.

Probate administration has had to intervene in several cases before Guliani's court in the last two years. In January 2003, his clerk, Janice Visinski, told probate administration that the judge had been gone for days and was not returning calls, state records show.

Someone had come to the court asking for custody of a dead person's remains. Middletown Probate Judge Joseph Marino handled the matter, but also had concerns.

"Janice has a stack of papers, 6 to 10 inches high, awaiting signatures or other action - clearly more than just four days worth," Marino told a staff lawyer, who made note of the call.

In another case, a child custody matter dragged on for months because the file was not transferred to juvenile court promptly, state records show. After his calls were not returned, the juvenile court judge asked state probate court administrators to intervene.

Other complaints were made anonymously. In 2003, a woman claimed she was unable to reach anyone at the court during hours it was supposed to be open.

"This lady did not want her name used as she was concerned that she will have to appear before this judge," another probate administration memo reads.

On Nov. 17, Kauczka, 56, took half a day off from his job as a custodian at the East Hampton library to appear in probate court - in New Britain. Guliani, citing child-care conflicts, did not attend the hearing - one he had asked the court to reschedule twice before.

In court, Kauczka recounted his problems, starting from his first meeting with Guliani, in 1998. Then he began to have trouble reaching his lawyer.

"Basically all he was was an answering machine," he testified.

Unpaid tax bills started arriving at his home, he testified. On the rare occasion he reached his lawyer, he said, Guliani assured him the problems would be fixed. But as time wore on, Kauczka became skeptical.

He hired a new lawyer, Gallant, last year and together they petitioned Guliani to provide an accounting of his work. In November 2003, Guliani provided it. The two-page document accounted for the mutual funds and other assets in the trust. But it showed no record of any work Guliani had done.

"He didn't do any of the things you'd expect a trustee to do," Gallant told Clebowitz.

"You have the poor people relying on him thinking their problems are getting solved, but in fact, their problems are getting worse."

Marilyn Kauczka, 66, has advanced Parkinson's disease and is now in a nursing home. In his decision Monday, Clebowitz found that Gallant's bills, for nearly $23,000, were reasonable and due to Guliani's inattention as a trustee.

More than money, Daniel Kauczka wants an apology.

"I would like him to come up to me and say, `I slipped up on this and I'd like to make it up to you,'" he said. "Evidently I'm never going to hear that."

The above came from the Hartford Courant website.

Fair use of copyrighted material

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