SAN FRANCISCO – Following remarks made to a fellow attorney during a deposition, a Southern California attorney faces sanctions from a federal judge in San Jose.
The dispute was between Peter Bertling, a lawyer for nearly 30 years of Santa Barbara's Bertling & Clausen, and Lori Rifkin, a solo practitioner from Oakland with a background in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. During a deposition over a wrongful death suit in the District Court of Northern California, Rifkin allegedly asked that Bertling cease interrupting her.
He proceeded to go on record as telling opposing counsel, "Don't raise your voice at me. It's not becoming of a woman or an attorney who is acting professionally under the rules of professional responsibility."
Judge Paul Grewal of the Northern District of California, the presiding judge, took umbrage at the remark. In his order granting motion for sanctions and discovery, he wrote, "Bertling also has stooped to an indefensible attack on opposing counsel."
In addition to the sanction, Bertling was ordered to donate $250 to the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles Foundation, an association dedicated to promoting improving the status of women in the legal system and advocating equality. Yet, it is indicative of a potentially larger issue in the legal system than one lawyer's misspeak.
In an interview with The Recorder, Rifkin noted: "This is something that almost every woman attorney has experienced again and again over their careers. This is reflective of the usual course of business which needs to change."
Expounding on the effects of Bertling's words, Grewal wrote, "A sexist remark is not just a professional discourtesy, although that in itself is regrettable and all too common. The bigger issue is that comments like Bertling's reflect and reinforce the male-dominated attitude of our profession."
A recent report from the American Bar Association found that such comments were more overt parts of discrimination in the system that has contributed to women's under-representation in the legal field at large.
Quoting from another case, Cruz-Aponte v. Caribbean Petroleum Corp., Grewal went on to say that in making such comments, an attorney "reflects not only on the attorney's lack of professionalism, but also tarnishes the image of the entire legal profession and disgraces our system of justice."
As Bertling made no apparent effort to defend any of his conduct in the case, as noted in the order, Grewal noted that such unapologetic flouting of legal guidelines left him little choice but to act.
Rifkin had moved for the sanctions against Bertling after the exchange in deposition, but she had also cited successive failures on his part to comply with discovery demands, coaching witnesses and cutting them off outright. For this, in addition to the sanctions order, the judge awarded plaintiffs the costs of their depositions and ordered Bertling's expert in the original case to be made available for a separate four-hour deposition at defense's expense.
Neither Rifkin nor Bertling could be reached for comment.
U.S. District Court for the Northern California Case number 14-cv-02730-BLF