Lisa Zenzen Baker, 1961-2003


Sunday, December 14, 2008


Problems that are not
addressed just multiply

By David Baker
Posted Sunday, December 14, 2008

Back in early 2007, the partners at the Albany law firm of O’Connell & Aronowitz had a decision to make.

Should they try to arrange a resolution of allegations that a member of the firm, Stephen Coffey, had tried to get a potential client’s lawsuit dismissed?

Or should they ignore the letter, sent to every one of the firm’s partners, that described what any reasonable person would conclude was an attempt to stall the firm’s evaluation of Lisa’s wrongful death case until a stay had expired and the defendants could ask a judge to throw the case out of court?

Their decision was that they would ignore the allegations, thus becoming part of the alleged conspiracy. Then Coffey wrote an extraordinarily angry letter in which he cited unspecified “..assaults on me and my office,” and threatened legal action if the allegations against the firm were made public.

Coffey also suggested that his conduct be reported to the Committee on Professional Standards, evidently well aware that the committee would take no action against a high profile attorney who sits on a panel that can remove judges from office.

He was right: In September, six months after the complaint was made, the committee said it found no misconduct. But it did not present to me a shred of evidence that a proper investigation had taken place, such as providing me with copies of the firm’s response as it does in many complaints against attorneys.

Before sending a complaint to the committee I had filed a lawsuit against Coffey, O’Connell & Aronowitz, and another lawyer in the firm, Brendan Tully (State Supreme Court, Albany County, Index Number 1179-07). That case was dismissed, not on the facts but because causing distress by nearly destroying a lawsuit while pretending to consider taking the case is not a basis in law for a claim for damages.

But in the order dismissing the claim, Supreme Court Judge, Leslie Stein wrote: “While, under certain circumstances, such conduct as failure to respond to telephone calls and e-mails, and even “lying” about having filed papers with the Court could, if true, subject an attorney to professional discipline or other legal consequences, and certainty should not be condoned …”

And that was before I found out that one of O’Connell & Aronowitz’s clients is the Healthcare Association of New York, which includes among its members Samaritan Hospital, and that the firm was actively promoting its representation of hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

In other words, the firm apparently has a glaring conflict of interest and could never have taken my case against Samaritan Hospital. This is supported by the fact that there is no indication in court records in Rensselaer and Albany counties that O’Connell & Aronowitz has ever represented anyone in a case against Northeast Health. If it had, it couldn’t now represent the interests of the hospital, as it is doing.

Now the clerk of the court at the appellate division has written to me saying the complaint against Coffey and his firm was investigating by a panel of attorneys, and that the committee’s determinations “are generally not reviewable.” But, he says, I could asked for a reconsideration of the ruling if I think my complaint was not properly evaluated.

The clerk’s letter comes after three letters were sent over two months to Appellate Division Judge Leslie Stein.

Before her appointment to the mid-level appeals court, Stein was the judge who made that written comment that Coffey’s conduct, if true, could subject an attorney to professional discipline.

Now, a year after writing the comment, Stein is a member of the court that rules on and imposes penalties for misconduct – but only if the Committee on Professional Standards puts a case before the court.

Which, as Coffey clearly knew, it would not do.

So this week I wrote to the Committee on Professional Standards and asked for a reconsideration of its determination that there was no misconduct by Coffey and O’Connell & Aronowitz. Included with that request was one of the letters to Judge Stein, which contains seven questions that the committee should have asked during any proper investigation of my complaint.

So the committee may or may not now take action against the attorneys. Either way, it will be reported here, and details of what happened during the three months that Coffey claims to have been considering the case will feature prominently and permanently on a Web page, now under construction, that will list virtually every lawsuit filed against Capital Region medical providers over the last 10 years; the ones the newspapers in this area never reported while they earned hundreds of thousand of dollars in advertising revenue from those same providers.

It won’t make Coffey or his firm look good. But it wouldn’t be happening if, back in 2007, those partners at O’Connell & Aronowitz had not decided to defend a rogue attorney who evidently thinks he is above the most fundamental rules of his profession.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Did they ask?

Questions for Coffey and
the lawyers' committee

The third letter to Appellate Court judge Leslie Stein asked several questions about the decision by the Committee on Professional Standards that there was no basis for a finding of misconduct by Stephen Coffey and his firm, O’Connell & Aronowitz. Here are five of them:

1). On what date exactly did Mr. Coffey or anyone in his law firm start representing the interests, directly or indirectly, of any of the defendants in my medical malpractice/wrongful death action? The apparent conflict of interest documented in my complaint to the Committee should, of course, have been enough on its own to warrant serious disciplinary action. What was the respondents’ response to this allegation? Since the Committee, by its stated finding, maintains that it was unfounded, why would it – if only to protect its own reputation and that of the bar – not provide to me evidence that there was no basis for the allegation?

2). When exactly did Mr. Coffey decide that he would not take my case? Was it in early December of 2006, when he returned the medical records to me with a rejection letter? If so, why had he not had a medical review done – a review for which I had paid him $1,500 on September 16, 2006 – in the three months during which the medical file was in his possession?

3).Why did an associate at the law firm, Brendan Tully – 48 hours before the return date on the defendants’ motions to dismiss the entire action for failure to prosecute, and after failing to respond to repeated telephone and e-mail messages over three days – urge me not to file an affidavit opposing the motions if it was not his intent – as I allege – to allow the defendants’ motions for dismissal to be granted by default?

4). What specifically did Mr. Coffey mean, in his letter to me dated January 8, 2007, by my “…assaults on me and my office.”? What was the nature of these “assaults” and what evidence does he have of them?

5).What did Mr. Coffey say about me to the Committee? Apparently assured of complete confidentiality, he could say anything he wanted without fear of it being even disputed, still less disproved. Given his other statements in his January 8, 2007 letter, it is reasonable to assume that he justified his conduct by disparaging me. Why did the Committee not disclose his statements to me for my response?

--David Baker

Friday, December 12, 2008

Closing argument

The case against Steve Coffey

“Ladies and Gentlemen:

“You have heard the facts in this case of alleged misconduct against Stephen Coffey, Esq., Brendan Tully, Esq. and the law firm of O’Connell & Aronowitz.

“The case in question is a medical malpractice/wrongful death action against Samaritan Hospital of Troy and other defendants. This lawsuit is currently active in state Supreme Court in Saratoga County. It's about the treatment given to my wife, Lisa, who suffered from insulin-dependent diabetes and who died three weeks after she was found in her hospital bed near death and – according to Samaritan’s own records – with a blood sugar level at almost zero.

“ I am now conducting the case without legal representation.

“You have heard how in August 2006, Mr. Coffey of O’Connell & Aronowitz contacted me and offered to review the case – which had been abandoned by another attorney – but that in fact, as I allege, his intention was to get it dismissed for failure to prosecute.

“As is demonstrated in the documents presented to you, the Court had given me a limited time to find another attorney or proceed on my own. After asking for and being paid $1,500 for an expert’s assessment of the medical file, Mr. Coffey informed me in writing that he had complied with a verbal directive from the Court that he formally request an extension of the stay and that he inform the defendants in writing of his request.

“However, as you saw, he later admitted in writing that at the time he sent that letter he had not made any written request to the Court or contacted the defendants’ attorneys.

"Mr. Coffey also said he would need to examine my former attorney's file on the case.

"He didn't do that either.

“Between getting the money for the expert review and the expiration of the stay, Mr. Tully ignored repeated and increasingly urgent e-mails and phone message from me. It is clear the two of them were trying to run out the clock.

“When the stay expired, the defendants’ attorneys filed a motion for dismissal. This was denied after I served an affidavit in opposition, an affidavit Mr. Tully, just before the deadline, tried to dissuade me from filing.

“The Court, in its decision extending the stay, ordered me to pay $300 costs to the defendants’ attorneys for the unnecessary motion.

“I paid the money to the attorneys. Mr. Coffey said he would reimburse me but he did not do so until after I sued him in Small Claims Court, went to a trial and then threatened to enforce the judgment I obtained from the Court.

“And Mr. Coffey later admitted in a response to a discovery demand that no expert's review was done in the three months the medical records were in his possession .

“That was the initial complaint. But it didn’t end there. There is also the evidence that O’Connell & Aronowitz and Mr. Coffey himself had an clear conflict of interest that would have precluded the firm from even considering taking my case.

“ I direct your attention to a press release distributed by O’Connell & Aronowitz in October 2007 that announces the formation of a unit within the firm to represent hospitals in matters related to Medicare and Medicaid.

“Based on statements made on a local radio station by Mr. Coffey and other members of O’Connell & Aronowitz, it is clear that the firm’s plans for this new unit were in place before Mr. Coffey contacted me in August 2006 and offered to review my case against Samaritan Hospital.

“This, of course, would be a serious violation of ethical standards and further evidence that the intention of Mr. Coffey and Mr. Tully was to have my claims against Samaritan Hospital dismissed.

“As you have seen, on the Web site the firm lists the Healthcare Association of New York as a client. This association represents more than five hundred healthcare facilities in the state, including Northeast Health, Inc., the company that owns Samaritan Hospital.

“Further, a search of online court records in Albany and Rensselaer counties has produced no indication that O’Connell & Aronowitz has represented any party in any action against Northeast Health, Inc. or the entities it owns.

“Instead the evidence shows that the firm is in fact representing the interests of the defendants in my action and was planning to do so at the time Mr. Coffey contacted me, ostensibly to review my case.

“I ask that you, the members of this panel, impose upon Mr. Coffey, Mr. Tully and the law firm of O’Connell & Aronowitz a penalty appropriate for the outrageous and unethical conduct alleged in this complaint.

“Thank you.”

(Last month, the Committee on Professional Standards, after a six-month "inquiry" said in a one-sentence letter that there was "no basis for a finding of misconduct" against the lawyers. This determination is apparently standard in 97 percent of complaints filed with this committee. And if the attorney is prominent or well connected, the chance of disciplinary action is zero.

Stephen Coffey is, of course, very well known. He is also vice chairman of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which disciplines judges.