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How Not To Do-It-Yourself In Divorce (And Why You Shouldn’t Anyway) In Queens

Anthony Zappin likely had no idea how substantially his life would change when he decided to represent himself in his divorce.

A new dad, he apparently believed his marriage to wife had reached its end, but was still very invested in maintaining a relationship with the couple’s new son. Though he had representation for a number of months, he eventually found himself in a situation where he would be taking issues to trial while acting as his own counsel. There’s an old saying about lawyers who represent themselves: they have a fool for a client.

As a patent attorney with a major firm, it appears that Zappin decided he had the credentials and objectivity to handle the case himself once it shifted from a custody dispute in DC Superior Court to a divorce action in Manhattan Supreme Court.

As a result of that choice, Zappin hasn’t just lost custody of his child. The West Village resident has also lost his job, and lives under the terms of a five-year restraining order.

According to court records and media reports, Zappin’s case includes some elements that would be all too easy for a person to fall into in the heated course of a divorce and custody battle, and shows exactly why an experienced divorce attorney is a key player when it comes to making sure your divorce is handled cleanly and in the most advantageous way for you.

Angering judges, attacking your spouse’s lawyer, and refusing to pay your child’s attorney are all great ways to lose your case, and according to various tabloid accounts, these are all tactics that Zappin engaged in during the course of his fight with his wife.

In April 2014, DC Superior Court Judge Anthony Epstein determined that a motion filed with the court during the initial custody dispute was full of “intemperate and uncivil language about which the court previously cautioned him.” Later, when Judge Epstein declined to reconsider his ruling on that motion, Zappin presented yet another motion to reconsider, with a note attached that said, “You’re pathetic! (Judicial complaint forthcoming!).”

Judges have enormous power in their courtrooms, and these provocations went over as well as one would expect.

Once the DC custody matter was merged with the New York divorce action, the conduct eventually prompted a strong rebuke from Justice Matthew Cooper, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge. Finding that Zappin had engaged in “aggressively hostile” behavior, he issued a $10,000 fine to the Columbia Law graduate, determining that Zappin had “used his law license as a tool to threaten, bully and intimidate” his ex-wife, judges, and fellow attorneys involved in the matter.

According to Judge Cooper, Zappin had made personal attacks against his wife’s attorney, made disciplinary complaints against an expert witness, and refused to pay for the attorney appointed to represent his son’s interests. Even after the court ordered him to pay, he insisted he would retaliate if the attorney took action to collect.

She did so, prompting a business associated with Zappin, according to court records, to buy the lawyer’s name as a website domain and post negative comments about her on the website. Zappin has claimed that instead of website posts, these were emails between his father and the attorney, and that Cooper’s ruling is inaccurate.

At the time that the Manhattan court made these findings and issued the $10,000 fine, Zappin worked for Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky Popeo PC, a large firm in Manhattan, where he earned some $230,000 a year as an associate. Because of Judge Cooper’s statements that Zappin’s ability to practice law ethically may be compromised, the firm felt the need to let him go.

When lawyers and people in the legal profession are accused of misconduct by a judge, the professional consequences for them can be enormous. But for anyone arguing any case before a judge, acting in ways that are unprofessional, discourteous, or unethical will be grounds for the judge to take extreme measures to correct the behavior.

There are right ways and wrong ways to approach a divorce case that’s gone to trial. It’s important to note that the vast majority of divorces are resolved between the parties through negotiation, and never even get to the courtroom. Judges prefer this outcome, and in general, the parties to a divorce seem to prefer the outcome when they get to decide it themselves.

So keep in mind that the cases that do advance to trial, and especially those that drag out for years, are usually extremely hostile actions between one or both parties who are absolutely committed to total victory.

When one of those parties is not being advised by counsel, a judge can easily decide that this desire for an unrealistic outcome, and unwillingness to negotiate a settlement, is a form of amateurism, and that the unrepresented party is being unreasonable by virtue of not understanding the process and procedure of a divorce or custody case. Once a judge decides that you are to blame for a case going awry, you’ll rarely achieve an outcome you like.

Consider the alternative approach. When you work with an experienced divorce lawyer in Queens, you’ll avoid the costly mistakes that can incite a judge’s anger. You can count on an objective professional to draft motions, negotiate terms, or litigate a divorce or custody dispute on its merits, by arguing facts and making a compelling case.

People in the heat of a divorce are often unable to put their feelings aside and make cooler-headed decisions. That’s exactly why they need lawyers.

At Zelenitz, Shapiro & D’Agostino, we provide sound advice, tough negotiation skills, and experienced litigation services even in difficult divorce cases. Our attorneys are broadly experienced, and can deliver the level of legal guidance and protection you need to fight your best case for the terms that matter for you. Call us today at 718-523-1111 for a free consultation with an experienced Queens divorce attorney.