A Connecticut panel of three Superior Court judges voted this week to fire a lawyer for doing private probate work — including work in the courts serving East Hartford and the Enfield area — while working in the state probate court administrator’s office, which supervises those courts, a state Judicial Department spokeswoman said.
The three-judge panel had held a multi-day hearing on a request by Judge Paul J. Knierim, the state probate court administrator, to fire lawyer Debra Cohen, who had worked in his office since 2005.
The firing was effective Monday, the day the three-judge panel voted, according to Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, the Judicial Department spokeswoman. She said the panel also ordered Cohen retroactively suspended without pay from May 29 through Monday.
Attribution: Posted: Wednesday, October 8, 2014
The hearing follows accusations that Cohen, who has been on paid administrative leave since last November, acted as trustee of people’s estates and paid herself more than $33,000 in conservator fees while she was also being paid for her supervisory role in the statewide probate office. She is also accused of keeping supervisors in the dark about that trustee work, going so far as to allegedly conceal fees she paid herself.
If true, the accusations, which are outlined in a letter from Probate Court Administrator Paul Knierim, represent a direct conflict of interest since Cohen was in charge of training probate judges and court staff and providing input to those same people about how to handle probate cases.
George Kelly, the attorney who will represent the Office of the Probate Court Administrator at the disciplinary hearing, declined comment about the pending disciplinary matter. Cohen’s attorney, Marc Mercier, did not return a phone call requesting comment.
In the letter, dated May 28, Knierim asked that Cohen be fired, and in the interim, her paid suspension be downgraded to unpaid while the three judges decide her fate. The hearing before judges Barbara Bellis, Robert Devlin and Maria Kahn is scheduled for Aug. 25-27 in Hartford Superior Court.
It’s unknown if the case has been referred to the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. Probable cause for a grievance would have to be found before the office would investigate whether Cohen should be punished beyond whatever the judges determine.
The letter from Knierim says Cohen’s financial stake in four probate matters “constituted outside employment that impaired her independence of judgment” and colored her ability to give judges and court staff “sound, objective and independent” legal advice. Probate courts can approve trustee fees, impose fines for breaching trustee duties and exonerate trustees from personal liability.
In addition, Cohen didn’t provide her employer notice of the conflict of interest, Knierim wrote. On the contrary, she reportedly tried hiding her trustee duties from supervisors, who were alerted only after a probate court staff member found out that Cohen was acting as a trustee for the estate of John DeRosa and questioned whether a staff attorney should be doubling up as a trustee. Cohen was told by supervisors she had to resign her trustee duties immediately.
Despite that order, she continued acting as a trustee in three other matters, officials said. She also attempted to collect fees in the DeRosa matter, after being told not to do so, according to Knierim’s letter. The letter also alleges other financial misdeeds, including an alleged “deliberate attempt” to conceal how much she paid herself while acting as conservator of the estate of Sandra Brozna.
A hearing in East Hartford Probate Court found Cohen was ordered to reimburse $33,500 in conservator fees, but repaid only $10,000.
Probate Staff Attorney Accused of Misconduct
Allegations include working secretly as a trustee
August 15, 2014
The Connecticut Law Tribune