Judge Christine Ward signed an order permitting well-known Pittsburgh attorney Edgar Snyder’s defamation suit against his estranged wife, with whom he is engaged in a contentious divorce, to be sealed.
Billing records from the firm that filed the suit and the motion to seal show that Judge Ward’s brother has done legal work for Mr. Snyder.
A Cohen & Grigsby invoice obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shows that attorney Jeffrey P. Ward, the brother of Judge Ward, billed 42 hours to Mr. Snyder between May 15 and June 30, including a conversation with the judge.
Judge Ward said she never spoke to her brother about Edgar Snyder or his ongoing court actions.
“Not that I know of. But he frequently will pick up the phone and ask me procedural questions about how I do things or how things work in family court,” she said.
As for her brother’s representation of Mr. Snyder, Judge Ward said, “How would I know that? I don’t know what he works on.
“If somebody brings that to my attention, then I would look at it.”
Jeffrey Ward said in an interview Monday — hours before his firm discontinued the defamation action — that his conversation with his sister related to Mr. Snyder’s divorce and not the defamation case. The law firm Bunde, Gillotti, Mulroy & Shultz filed a divorce action, also under seal, on behalf of Mr. Snyder in early June against his wife of 32 years, Sandy.
“It’s in front of my sister,” Mr. Ward said of the defamation suit. “I’m not involved in that, and I don’t know anything about that,” he said.
Ethics experts say that regardless of the nature of Mr. Ward’s work for Mr. Snyder, his representation of him alone was enough to disqualify his sister from hearing the case.
“He is nonetheless assisting a client whose case is before his sister,” said Charles Geyh, a law professor who specializes in judicial ethics at Indiana University.
In addition, experts said the process by which the sealing occurred was improper.
David Anderson, a professor at the University of Texas Law School and a First Amendment scholar, said outside of any potential conflict of interest, the manner in which Mr. Snyder’s defamation lawsuit was sealed was improper.
“It should not have been sealed in the first place,” he said.
Protecting an individual’s reputation, Mr. Anderson said, is almost never a valid reason for sealing.
The defamation action began July 2, when attorney Kevin Harkins, of Cohen & Grigsby, sent a letter to Judge Ward asking permission to file the eight-page defamation complaint under seal. Ms. Snyder received notice of the motion and complaint the following afternoon in Florida.
In his motion, Mr. Harkins wrote that the “need to protect Mr. Snyder’s reputation, on which he has built his career, outweighs the common law right of access to records.
“Unless this case is sealed, the mere presence of these allegations in the public domain would harm Mr. Snyder’s reputation and would help Ms. Snyder to achieve her illegal goal,” Mr. Harkins wrote. “The public’s interest in a slander case is minimal, whereas the damage that having such statements and allegations be made public is likely to cause irreparable harm to Mr. Snyder’s reputation, career and brand, all of which are important and valuable to Mr. Snyder.”
A status conference on the sealing matter was set by Judge Ward for Monday, July 7 — immediately following the three-day holiday weekend.
Ms. Snyder said she was unable to retain an attorney on the matter quickly enough, and her side was unrepresented.
But Judge Ward noted that Ms. Snyder did have a divorce attorney who could have appeared on her behalf. Further, the judge said that Ms. Snyder could have asked for a continuance to obtain counsel, and she did not.
“If they choose to ignore the status conference, that’s not my fault,” Judge Ward said.
The judge issued an order July 7 sealing the pleadings and orders, and the next day expanded that order to include the paper and electronic docket, as well. An online search of the matter shows a docket number associated with the couple’s names, but nothing else.
In the one-page order, Judge Ward wrote that the plaintiff “has shown good cause for this matter to be sealed and the harm and prejudice to plaintiff of public access to this case outweighs the common law presumption of access to records.”
Ms. Snyder’s attorney on the defamation case, Jerry McDevitt, declined to comment.
According to the lawsuit, the Snyders entered into a memorandum of understanding with regard to the division of their assets on May 22. As part of that, they agreed that “each party shall refrain from harassing or disparaging the other.” It also provided that it would be enforceable as a court order.
Despite that, the complaint continued, Ms. Snyder “has made good on her threats to destroy Mr. Snyder’s reputation. Ms. Snyder has told numerous people, including mutual friends of the parties and a guard at Mr. Snyder’s office building that Mr. Snyder has stolen over $2 million from her.”
It noted, too, that she made the same allegation in a Protection From Abuse application against Mr. Snyder June 25. That PFA request was denied by Common Pleas Judge Gerard Bigley.
The complaint went on, “Mr. Snyder, in fact, has not stolen money from Ms. Snyder, and Ms. Snyder is aware that her statements are false.”
According to the lawsuit, Ms. Snyder “has no First Amendment right to make any disparaging allegations — even if true — about Mr. Snyder because she gave up the right to speak on that subject by entering into a non-disparagement clause in the MOU.”
The lawsuit did not include a breach of contract claim but did request from the court an injunction against Ms. Snyder from making any further false and defamatory statements against Mr. Snyder. No hearings were ever held on the matter, and no injunction was granted.
On Monday afternoon, Judge Ward said she received a hand-delivered notice from Cohen & Grigsby that the action before her was being dismissed.
Mr. Snyder said his original intent in filing the divorce and defamation actions against his wife under seal was to keep their dealings private. But after she moved to unseal the divorce case on June 23, and that occurred, he said, there was nothing left to protect.
“There’s nothing to keep quiet anymore,” Mr. Snyder said. “She made it public.”
Mr. Snyder said he was referred to Mr. Ward by another attorney at Cohen & Grigsby.
Mr. Snyder spoke to Mr. Ward initially about trying to get his wife to sign a stronger non-disparagement clause related to her separation from his law firm, where she had led his marketing campaign since the 1980s, and helped create his trademark commercials declaring, “There’s never a fee unless we get money for you.”
“If [Ms.] Snyder had obeyed the non-disparagement clause, there never would have been a slander case,” Mr. Ward said.
But Ms. Snyder refused to sign the stronger clause, Mr. Snyder said, and Mr. Ward said he might have a slander case, and suggested Mr. Snyder file a separate action.
“He said, ‘I’m going to turn you over to Kevin Harkins. I cannot be your lawyer. There’s only one or two judges who hear injunctions,’” said Mr. Snyder. “He said, ‘Edgar, conflict of interest. We do it all the time.’ He said, ‘There’s a Chinese wall that goes up.’
“Jeff has nothing to do with this [defamation case]. He did not do any work on this.”
On the Cohen & Grigsby billing invoice, Mr. Ward charged Mr. Snyder for a total of 42 hours’ worth of work. Of those 32.25 hours were for work done before the June 3 filing of the divorce. On May 16, he billed 4.75 hours on issues that included a “telephone call with Judge Ward; research re: seal orders; research gag orders; analysis of strategy.”
Mr. Ward said he called his sister that day to seek information from her about how the Richard Scaife divorce, which was sealed, was handled by the courts. Judge Ward was not involved in the Scaife case but previously served in the family division.
Judge Ward, of Shadyside, was appointed to the bench by former Gov. Ed Rendell in 2003 and was elected to a 10-year seat later that year. She won an additional 10-year retention last year. She is assigned to the civil division and handles complex civil litigation, which allows a single judge to see a matter all the way through and set up a case management schedule.
Additional entries on the invoice from May reference work by “MJM” on behalf of Mr. Ward, including May 22 “regarding gag orders against defamatory acts”; and May 29 “re: anti-disparagement clauses for Jeff Ward. Put findings in email/word document and sent same to him for his use in drafting.”
Also included on the bill are charges from May 28 for discussions by Mr. Ward with Chris Gillotti, the attorney representing Mr. Snyder in his divorce case, as well as with Gary Gentile, another family law attorney.
Mr. Ward is not listed as an attorney in the divorce case or in the defamation case filed by Mr. Harkins.
As for the defamation case, Mr. Ward said his only involvement was to turn it over to Mr. Harkins and Kelly Iverson, both of Cohen & Grigsby, “because I could not be involved.”
“The only thing I do is tell them procedurally how that complex case litigation works,” Mr. Ward said. “I do not discuss the case with my sister.”
The 10 additional hours billed by Mr. Ward occurred on June 18, June 25, 26, 27 and 30.
The work listed for those dates included an entry for June 25 for 1.5 hours for “conference with K. Iverson re: draft complaint; telephone call to Harkins”; and for 4.5 hours on June 30 for “preparation for and meeting with client; provide procedural advice to K. Harkins and K. Iverson.”
Another entry included 6.5 hours on June 27 billed for Ms. Iverson that reads “meeting with Jeff Ward and Edgar Snyder. Research on causes of action for complaint. Drafted complaint and motion to file under seal.”
Mr. Ward said he would have had no problem with his sister presiding over the defamation suit “because it was a separate matter.”
Mr. Geyh, however, said under the Code of Judicial Conduct provisions regarding family relationships, Judge Ward probably should not have been on the case.
“He’s capitalizing on his relationship with his sister for the benefit of his client,” Mr. Geyh said. “If he is billing time in a way that benefits his client in the defamation case before his sister, I’m hard-pressed to see how that doesn’t fit.”
Under the code, a judge also must recuse if the public could reasonably question the judge’s impartiality.
“A reasonable person looking at this from a distance would say, ‘What the hell? What’s going on here?’” Mr. Geyh said.
Judge Ward said that no one had asked her to recuse herself. If one of the parties involved were to have done that, she said she would have considered it as she does any other.
“What I wouldn’t do is self-recuse, because we’re not supposed to do that because what you’re doing is sending your work to other judges,” she said.
Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning praised Judge Ward as “one of the most ethical, conscientious judges in the entire court.”
“I’m sure she would properly recognize and resolve any conflict of interest,” he said. “It appears to me she did not have the chance to be aware of any conflict.”
Judge Manning said he believed it was the right decision for Judge Ward to grant the sealing request even in Ms. Snyder’s absence — because it protects both parties’ interests and is not permanent.
Mr. Anderson, however, said Judge Ward’s sealing of the entire case file and docket listing was wrong.
“The public is entitled to know there’s a lawsuit or a hearing,” he said. “If there are valid reasons for closing it, fine. That doesn’t mean you can conceal the existence of it.”
Mr. Anderson also criticized Judge Ward’s findings in her sealing order, saying that she has to justify her ruling.
“A conclusory statement like that is probably not sufficient justification,” he said. “That’s really like saying, ‘I’m sealing this because it needs to be sealed.’”
He did not, however, criticize the fast turnaround between the request to seal, and the status conference on the matter.
Typically, Mr. Anderson said, only short notice is given. While it may have been difficult for Ms. Snyder to make it to Pittsburgh in time for the July 7 hearing, she should have been able to find an attorney to represent her, he said.
Mr. Anderson said seeking an injunction was unwarranted. In a lawsuit alleging defamation, the proper remedy is to seek monetary damages, not prior restraint on a person’s free speech rights, he said.
“You can punish them afterward, but you can’t prevent them from saying it.”
Mr. Snyder also sought to keep information about his divorce out of public view, seeking through his divorce attorney, Mr. Gillotti, to have the records sealed. Ms. Snyder objected to the sealing, and, as of July 15, Common Pleas Judge Kathleen R. Mulligan ordered that the paper copy of the record held within the Department of Court Records be made available.
The documents still, however, cannot be viewed online.
Mr. Anderson said it’s a common refrain for requests like those to be made by “celebrities, the rich, and politicians.”
“Ordinary people are generally not in the business of sealing things.”
But, he continued, “The theory is if the courts are public institutions, then the public is entitled to know everything that’s going on there. I think there probably are some instances ... where it’s really just salacious gossip. But the law is pretty clear.”
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter: @PaulaReedWard.