Jacek Smigelski, a New Britain solo who has been repeatedly disciplined for unethical conduct, was suspended from the practice of law this month by New Britain Superior Court Judge Patty Jenks Pittman.
His client fund accounts are being secured by Hartford lawyer Bozena Wysocki, of Brignole, Bush & Lewis, who was appointed trustee, with instructions to present an accounting to the court within 90 days.
Smigelski’s best-known offense stems from his representation of the heirs of Stanislaw Kosiorek, who upon his death at age 83, left his house to a woman he had married only a year earlier. Smigelski struck a fee deal with the heirs for an hourly payment at $225 or a one-third contingency for a positive result.
The attorney then persuaded the woman to relinquish her claim to the house in return for $35,000, the money to come from proceeds of the house’s sale. The house was sold at the end of 2006, and the estate received the net sum of $155,300. Smigelski charged $70,833 for his services.
The Kosioreks pursued a disciplinary complaint, and protested to the probate judge, and Smigelski was ordered to repay $55,000 of his fee as excessive. He refused, on grounds that he had made a valid contract with his clients, and because the money was “gone.”
Connecticut Chief Disciplinary Counsel Mark Dubois, whose office has followed Smigelski’s career for years, said the “rule of reasonableness” controls, as embodied in Rule of Professional Responsibility 1.5(a). Smigelski has previously been reprimanded in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2006. After the last reprimand, he was required to take an ethics course.
In addition to disciplinary complaints, the Kosiorek family, represented by New Britain lawyer William Sweeney, sued to recover the missing funds from the house sale. They were paid only $88,000 of the nearly $200,000 value.
A New Britain jury last year determined that Smigelski breached his contract and wrongfully converted funds. The Kosioreks were awarded $55,000, plus $21,000 in interest. The jury also authorized punitive damages, allowing the judge to triple the actual damages and bringing the total to nearly $227,000. Sweeney also sought and won reimbursement for attorney fees and expenses that he estimates at $71,000.
In an interview, Sweeney said none of the money has been paid, and that Smigelski’s suspension is overdue. “He’s legend around here,” said Sweeney. “There’s not a lawyer in New Britain who’d have one good word to say about him.”
Smigelski filed appeals of the disciplinary findings, and had been seeking en banc review before the Connecticut Supreme Court. He has also sued Dubois, accusing him of withholding evidence and committing fraud. And he’s sought a new disciplinary hearing. Time ran out on the last of those measures last week, and his suspension for one year and three months began with Judge Pittman’s order.
Attempts to contact Smigelski were made by phone and e-mail, but he did not respond. His attorney web site was still accessible on March 18, with no mention of his unlicensed status. Trustee Wysocki did not immediately return a call for comment.
The license suspension does not mean Smigelski will stay out of court. He had been enmeshed in a separate probate court scandal, representing attorney John T. Nugent in the now-infamous Smoron Estate case.
Valuable land owned by Josephine Smoron in Southington was supposed to be left to one of her farmhands, Sam Manzo. But attorney Nugent secretly changed Smoron’s will to create a result benefiting a major local developer.
Former Southington Probate Judge Brian Meccariello was reprimanded for his part in the case, and farmhand Manzo is fighting to get is inheritance.
Pullman & Comley lawyer Elliot Gersten is representing Manzo. “Bill Sweeney deserves a lot of credit for his perseverance, working to get Smigelski out of the picture,” Gersten said.
As for the housing sale case, although a one-third contingency fee is common in personal injury cases, it is seldom found in a real estate transaction. Dubois, the chief disciplinary counsel, said that before 1970, attorney “minimum fee schedules” assigned fees as one percent of the mortgage, or one per cent of the purchase price, depending on whether the lawyer represented the buyer or the seller.
After fee schedules were outlawed, and the U.S. Supreme Court authorized lawyer advertising as a First Amendment right, fees in real estate transactions have “gone down and down,” Dubois said.
In Fairfield County, some buyers’ lawyers will charge nothing just for the sake of getting the title insurance premium, because the sale price, and the premium, can be so big. Elsewhere, it’s a flat fee, plus the title insurance premium, said Dubois.
“Smigelski’s fee was based on a combination of real estate and litigation, a blended contract that had a contingent fee based on the value of the real estate,” Dubois noted, adding, “At the end of the day, it all comes back to Rule 1.5(a), the total fee has to be reasonable.”
Attorney Suspended Following Excessive Fee Complaint
New Britain solo has been in repeated trouble with state authorities
Thomas B. Scheffey
March 21, 2011
Connecticut Law Tribune