A Pasadena Superior Court judge, in what has been described as an unusually harsh sanction, fined an Arcadia attorney more than $11,000 for filing a "frivolous" lawsuit against a former client.
Ronald N. Gottschalk, being sued for legal malpractice, had responded to the suit by accusing the ex-client and his family of alleged racketeering violations that he claimed damaged his law practice.
But Presiding Judge Richard Montes criticized Gottschalk's 71-page, $17.6-million countersuit as "vague," "poorly drafted" and the product of a "personal vendetta." Montes also said the accusations made by Gottschalk were based on privileged information from his attorney-client relationship and represented "violations . . . of the rules of professional conduct."
A copy of the judge's May 17 ruling has been sent to the California Bar Assn., but officials declined to comment on whether they were conducting an investigation. Last week, lawyers for Gottschalk's former client, whose malpractice suit is pending, filed documents complaining that Gottschalk had yet to pay them the fine.
Gottschalk, 47, a graduate of Detroit's Wayne State University School of Law who has been practicing in California since 1972, has no previous record of public discipline. The attorney, whose office address is an Arcadia apartment complex, declined to comment, except to say, "There is a substantial story here . . . but the story is not Ronald Gottschalk being sanctioned."
Although Municipal and Superior Court judges in Los Angeles County occasionally sanction lawyers, they usually impose small fines in the hundreds of dollars for procedural violations, tardiness or not revealing information requested in pretrial discovery, according to legal experts.
Sanctions in the five-digit range for unprofessional conduct or abuse of the legal process are believed to be rare, although legal organizations said no records are kept.
"You would have to get a judge pretty aggravated to hit you with that kind of money," said Gregory Long, chairman of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.'s amicus briefs committee.
"Eleven grand, you know . . . that's a good wallop," agreed Arnold Pena, who for 15 years has served as the civil courts coordinator for the Los Angeles County Superior Court system. "That's the largest I've heard of as long as I've been around here."
The case stems from a malpractice lawsuit filed in 1988 against Gottschalk by John Karatzas, a restaurant manager from Temple City. In his complaint, Karatzas contended that he paid Gottschalk $6,000 to help him recover money from a business dispute but that Gottschalk never took any action.
Karatzas further alleged that, when he tried to get his files back from Gottschalk, the attorney threatened to send him to prison and have his mother's Social Security benefits revoked.
"My intention was to hire an attorney who would solve my problems, not give me a knock on the head and bury me deeper," said Karatzas, 32, who immigrated to the United States from Greece in 1974.
Gottschalk denied the charges and, in court documents, said he broke off the relationship with Karatzas because he believed Karatzas was involved in a range of illegal practices.
"When John Karatzas confirmed to me that he was engaged in these activities and that it was his intent to continue the practices, I told Karatzas that I could not represent him any longer and I withdrew from my attorney-client relationship," Gottschalk said in a court declaration.
Lawyers for the Karatzas family denied the charges, and accused Gottschalk of inventing them to deflect attention from himself. No law enforcement agencies have contacted the Karatzas family as a result of the allegations, their lawyers said.
Gottschalk took the matter one step further in February when he filed the countersuit against Karatzas and eight members of his extended family, some of whom own a 24-hour-a-day restaurant in Sun Valley called "Big Jim's."
According to court documents, Gottschalk accused the family of running a money-laundering and drug-trafficking ring that has allegedly defrauded banks, falsified tax returns and committed numerous violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.
Gottschalk, in court documents, said he was free to make such claims because another Pasadena Superior Court judge had granted him permission to reveal information from attorney-client conversations in order to defend himself. However, Judge Melvin Grover, now assigned to the Los Angeles bench, said his ruling was not intended to provide the rationale for filing a countersuit.
"Gottschalk has chosen to use his access to the courts as a method to vent his personal conflicts," Howard Gottleib, an attorney representing four of the family members and the restaurant, said in court documents. "In doing so, he has sought to bring every imaginable claim with every privileged and damaging fact he could dream up."
Said Karatzas' brother-in-law, Jerry Rigas, who is also named in the countersuit: "He got a foot in the door and he clobbered us."
Judge Montes essentially agreed. He ordered Gottschalk to pay sanctions of $11,057.50--the amount the Karatzas family had spent on lawyers to defend themselves against his allegations.
"Judge Montes has made it clear he will not tolerate extortion . . . in his court," said Leonard Chaitin, an attorney representing Karatzas and four other family members. "Everyone who has ever consulted a lawyer or who cares about the integrity of the legal profession should applaud the judge's decision."
Montes declined to comment because the case is still pending. Meanwhile, Gottschalk has filed an amended countersuit that includes some minor changes but contains most of the same allegations. The judge will be asked to rule on it again in August when the case is scheduled for another hearing.