It takes a special level of lawyerly obnoxiousness to get a Miami-Dade circuit judge to declare, "Oh my God, I'm done. Goodbye. Not doing this," in the middle of a hearing. That very level of obnoxiousness has gotten South Florida lawyer Jeffrey Norkin suspended by the Florida Supreme Court for a very heavy-handed two years.
In fact, the Supremes found Norkin's in-court antics so severely unprofessional they had no problem using this ruling as a very public and dramatic warning to other Florida attorneys to be more civil. They declared that "his unprofessional conduct is an embarrassment to all members of the Florida Bar" and warned other lawyers to study the decision as a "glaring example of unprofessional behavior."
The Supreme Court's findings paint Norkin, a Plantation-based lawyer, as something akin to a boisterous reality-TV contestant who simply wasn't there to make friends. Norkin wasn't blowing up courts with profanity-laced tirades, however. Instead, he was faulted for his incessant yelling, nasty tone, interrupting judges, and accusing both judges and opposing council of illegal behavior.
Norkin was representing the defendant in a case involving a fallout between former business partners of the Homestead-based Floors to Doors Inc. Gary Brooks, a 30-year member of the Florida Bar with a spotless record, was representing the plaintiff and filed the original complaint with the Florida Bar. Brooks, 71 at the time, was suffering from health problems and has since died.
Brooks and the two judges in the case all agreed that when things were going his way, Norkin would act in a professional manner, but when hearings weren't going in his favor, Norkin would scream and belittle everyone else involved.
In fact, in this particularly case, Norkin believed that the judges involved were somehow in cahoots with the other attorneys. He accused one judge of being at the "beck and call" of the plaintiff and asked another point blank if she liked the other lawyer better than him.
In fact, Norkin tried to have the original judge, Ronald Dresnick, removed from the case by falsely insinuating he was in some sort of illegal conspiratorial relationship with the plaintiff.
Dresnick, however, was often fed up with Norkin's antics. Here's a selection of Dresnick's quotes, cited by the Supreme Court.
- "Excuse me, sir. I've had enough with you. You only like it when it's going your way and you don't see it any other way."
- "I am finding these hearings with you extremely difficult. You talk very loud. I am telling you at every hearing. You are very angry; you make me angry. I don't like angry lawyers."
- "I am a low-volume, low-key guy until I get pissed off. You know what pisses me off? People coming in here and raising their voices at me."
- "You come in like a bull in a china shop. You do it every time. I don't know if you are trying to piss me off or what, but you do it."
Dresnick had appointed a senior judge to act as a provisional director of the company and a mediator between the two feuding business partners to break ties on any business disagreements during the proceedings, but Norkin complained that the mediator was too partial to the plaintiff. He also refused to have his client pay for his share of the mediator's fees and threatened to lodge a lawsuit against both the sitting judge and the senior judge.
Eventually, Dresnick became so fed up with Norkin that he chose to recuse himself from the case and was succeeded by Judge Valerie Manno Schurr. Manno Schurr also quickly tired of Norkin. Some key quotes from Manno Schurr during hearings:
- "I'm done. You do this to me every single time you are in front of me, whether it is in motion calendar, in my office, or it's a special set or today. You yell at me and you scream at me, and I'm asking you to please stop. I'm done."
- "You yell at me every time we have a hearing."
- "Oh my God, I'm done. Goodbye. Not doing this. Not going to be questioned by you. You do this to me every single time."
Norkin tried to defend himself by claiming that his voice was naturally loud and that he has a tendency to talk louder when he feels he isn't being heard. He also claimed he had "depression, attention deficit disorder, anxiety, and physical impairment due to an atrophied optic nerve which can prevent him from identifying nonverbal cues."
Norkin had previously been suspended for 30 days in 2004 for similar behavior.
A referee who had reviewed the complaint suggested a mild 90-day suspension. The Florida Bar had originally sought a one-year suspension. However, the Florida Supreme Court justices decided that neither suggestion was enough and slapped Norkin with a two-year suspension and a public reprimand. He will also pay nearly $8,000 to the bar in legal costs.
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The court also recommended that Norkin submit himself to a mental health evaluation and undergo any suggested counseling. Norkin says he is already working with a behavioral therapist to correct his behavior.
The court also cited recent bar surveys that said lawyers in Florida have recently become less civil to one another, and their ruling left little doubt that the Supremes would like lawyers to watch their manners more often in court.
"Screaming at judges and opposing counsel, and personally attacking opposing counsel by disparaging him and attempting to humiliate him, are not among the types of acceptable conduct but are entirely unacceptable," the court wrote. "One can be professional and aggressive without being obnoxious."