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.