A lawyer who threw a cup of coffee at her opposing counsel during a deposition must pay $250 to cover the damages she caused, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held Jan. 28 (Loop AI Labs Inc. v. Gatti, 2017 BL 25485, N.D. Cal., 15-cv-00798-HSG (DMR), 1/27/17).
The sanction fight arose during an intellectual property lawsuit that an artificial intelligence company filed against a former employee and industry competitor.
The court’s order is a cautionary tale of how contentious relationships between opposing counsel can boil over, unless cooler heads prevail.
The sanctioned lawyer, Valeria Calafiore Healy, represents plaintiff Loop AI Labs Inc. ("Loop"), a Bay Area startup. She was accused of directing a series of expletives—and a flying cup of iced coffee—at an opposing lawyer who told her to “be quiet” during a deposition.
Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu ordered Healy to pay $250 to that opposing counsel, Thomas Wallerstein of Venable LLP in San Francisco.
The court said Wallerstein and Healy have had a “combative relationship” and engaged in several “cringe-worthy exchanges” throughout this litigation.
One of those exchanges occurred when Wallerstein—who is representing Almawave USA and other co-defendants—was deposing a scientist who sat of Loop’s board of advisers.
Wallerstein, reacting to what he viewed as an inappropriate objection, told Healy to “please be quiet.”
"[I]f you say that again, we’re going to walk out of this deposition,” Healy replied, according to a deposition transcript,
“Be quiet,” Wallerstein responded.
Healy then began packing. When Wallerstein advised the deponent to “take five and think about it,” Healy allegedly lost her temper.
According to Almawave’s motion for sanctions, Healy “threw her full cup of coffee across the table” and yelled “I think you should take a fucking break!’”
Loop attached a declaration from Healy to its opposition to the sanctions motion.
In that filing Healy denied throwing anything at Wallerstein. Healy said she simply “slammed” her cup, causing coffee to spill on the table. She said Wallerstein, who described the incident as an assault, was “laughing out loud” after the altercation.
Healy further asserted that Wallerstein “provoked” her through his “boorish and improper behavior,” and that he even tried to “profit personally” from the coffee incident.
Healy said Wallerstein’s wife called to report that her husband “suffered burns from the coffee spill.” Healy said she was drinking an iced coffee that “could not possibly have caused burns.” The whole thing was a “tawdry shake-down scheme,” Healy wrote.
Judge Ryu said she wasn’t impressed with Healy’s argument that, “‘The devil (my opposing counsel) made me do it.’”
Ryu acknowledged that although Wallerstein made “discourteous comments” that “reflect poorly” on him, he was not “the lone provocateur.”
“By placing the entire blame at Wallerstein’s feet, Healy glosses over how her own conduct contributed to the toxic exchanges that, regrettably, have become routine in this case,” Ryu said.
Ryu said Healy’s misconduct was also exacerbated by lack of remorse. The judge pointed to a letter in which Healy apologized “for having slammed my coffee cup” and said she should have “resisted [Wallerstein’s] provocation more effectively.”
“This amounts to ‘I’m sorry that Mr. Wallerstein is so awful,’” Ryu wrote. “Once again, Healy fails to take ownership in her own indisputably unprofessional behavior.”
Further Sanctions Possible.
Almawave requested “meaningful sanctions.” It asked the court to order Healy to cover dry cleaning bills and the entire cost of the deposition, and to revoke Healy’s pro hac vice status.
Ryu did order Healy to pay Wallerstein $250 for damages to his clothes and personal property. But she refused to grant the other relief.
Ryu said those sanctions “may well be warranted in light of Healy’s pattern of behavior in this case.” But the judge said that should be decided by the district court, which is now weighing terminating sanctions against Loop for Healy’s alleged discovery violations and “persistent refusal to follow court orders.”
Wallerstein, of Venable LLP, San Francisco, represented the defendants. Loop was represented by Healy, of Healy LLC, New York, and Daniel J. Weinberg, of Freitas Angell & Weinberg LLP, Redwood Shores, Cal.
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