Judge Lamberth Sanctions Paul Weiss and Former Partner Alex Oh
Lawyers can “Break Bad” and veer from ethical and professional standards. Somehow this is not so hard to envision. Legal misconduct occurs more than most expect. And the system reacts in variety of ways – professional responsibility enforcement actions and judges stand as the two most important watchdogs over legal professional conduct.
In a curious and headline-making case, Judge Royce Lamberth, who is known for his willingness to tackle difficult situations, ended a show cause proceeding stemming from alleged misconduct against Paul Weiss and specifically, its partner, Alex Oh. The case is even more interesting because Alex Oh was appointed to serve as the SEC’s enforcement director, and surprisingly, resigned from the position days after taking office, when Judge Lamberth’s proceeding was initiated.
The case arose when Judge Lamberth questioned whether Paul Weiss and its former partner, Alex Oh, should be sanctioned for negatively characterizing and attacking opposing counsel while representing Exxon Mobil in a long-running civil Alien Tort case involving claims that the Indonesian military engaged in sexual assault, kidnapping, torture and other cruel acts while providing security services at Exxon’s natural gas facility.
Alex Oh and her colleagues were specifically cited for characterizing opposing counsel as being “agitated and combative,” “unhinged,” “agitated” and “aggressive” during a deposition. In addition, Alex Oh was cited for characterizing opposing counsel as engaged in “browbeating and disrespectful behavior.” Judge Lamberth specifically cited such statements as “impugning opposing counsel’s character without evidentiary support.”
Paul Weiss and Alex Oh filed responses to Judge Lambert’s show cause order, and Judge Lamberth recently issued his decision (here) in which he decided to impose a lesser sanction of admonishment. Judge Lamberth declined to impose monetary penalties or refer the matter to disciplinary authorities.
Paul Weiss and Al Oh effectively apologized in their responses, and Judge Lamberth noted that if an attorney apologizes the sanction of admonishment often suffices. But Judge Lambert went on to state
Both should have known better than to impugn another attorney’s character without reviewing the entire record. And neither should have made those accusations without evidentiary support. The court cannot allow such misconduct to occur without at least rebuking counsel.
Oh apologized for her behavior and specifically, “the breakdown of civility that occurred during and after this unfortunate deposition.” On the other hand, Oh said she believed in good faith that the “characterizations of opposing counsel’s demeanor . . . were fair and supported by evidence.”
And, true to form in the legal profession, Oh’s opposing counsel responded to the “half apologies” as “doubling-down on their aspersions.”