The Difference Between Zealous and Zealot

/ 25.Sep, 2012

Lawyers have an obligation to zealously represent their clients.  The preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct specifically states “[a]s advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client’s position under the rules of the adversary system.”  However, there is a line between zealous advocacy and zealotry, as John O. Murrin, III, a Minnesota attorney recently found out.  Mr. Murrin was suspended from the practice of law for six months for his activities in three separate lawsuits he commenced to recover money he and his wife lost in a Ponzi scheme.  The first suit, brought in 2007, included nearly 50 defendants, contained 493 paragraphs on 131 pages, and listed 27 counts.  After several attempts to amend the complaint to make it comprehensible (or more incomprehensible, the proposed Fifth Amended Complaint, named 43 defendants, contained 945 paragraphs on 165 pages, and listed 64 counts), the court dismissed the complaint against all but two defendants with prejudice, and without prejudice against the remaining two.  Among other things, the court admonished Murrin for “cit[ing] to statutes which have been repealed, renumbered, or never existed.”  Following dismissal of the claim, several of the defendants sought sanctions, and sanctions were awarded for over $463,000.

Murrin (through his wife, also an attorney) then filed another complaint in another county which included 30 defendants, 626 paragraphs on 153 pages and listed 35 counts.  Defendants removed to Federal District Court, and the judge compared Murrin’s “litigation strategy” to “peine forte et dure—a method of torture by which heavier and heavier weights are placed on the chest of a defendant until the defendant either confesses or suffocates.”  The court eventually entered a judgment of $1,760,000 against the Ponzi schemer and his company.

Subsequent adversary litigation took place in bankruptcy court in which a 45 page complaint was filed.  According to the court “It is an understatement to note that the wording of the text was dense, repetitious, fervid, and hyperbolic.”

Murrin’s conduct during his disciplinary proceeding caused the referee to find: “that Murrin’s “attitude toward the evidence presented at  [the]  hearing approaches the delusional in its unfailing rejection of the reasoned, learned criticisms of his litigation conduct.” The opinion on Murrin’s conduct does present some of the more entertaining reading in a disciplinary opinion since Philadelphia’s own Allen Feingold was disbarred for attempting to choke a 74 year old judge pro temp at a settlement conference (among other things).  However, there is an important lesson, while attorneys are to be zealous in their advocacy, zealotry will not be tolerated. -Josh J.T. Byrne, Esquire