Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer
April 1, 2008 7:14 PM
The Court of Special Appeals heard arguments Tuesday that a woman who tried to have her then-estranged husband killed should not have to pay his attorneys’ fees in the couple’s child-custody case.
Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., a Court of Appeals judge specially assigned to the case, intensely questioned the wife’s attorney, saying that in light of the shooting, the lower court judge presumably had a legitimate basis for concluding that Elsa D. Newman’s claim that her husband had sexually abused their two sons was false and filed in bad faith.
Such a conclusion was not “clearly erroneous” and gave Montgomery County Circuit Judge James L. Ryan, who has since retired, grounds for awarding attorney’s fees, Murphy added.
“That’s a pretty significant fact,” Murphy said of the effect Newman’s plot to have her now ex-husband Arlen J. Slobodow killed would have on a judge hearing Newman’s claims of sexual abuse.
A judge could reasonably doubt the credibility of a wife’s allegations about her husband after she has tried “to wipe him off the face of the Earth, for God’s sakes,” added Murphy.
In response, Newman’s attorney said a woman’s plot to kill her husband does not necessarily undermine the credibility of a claim of sexual abuse by the man, and may in fact lend the allegation more credence.
“About half of the mothers would probably say ‘I’d shoot him’” if asked in a survey what they would do if they discovered their husband was abusing their children, said attorney Paul Victor Jorgensen, a solo practitioner in Middletown.
But Murphy appeared unconvinced, telling Jorgensen he would have a very difficult time convincing the three-judge Court of Special Appeals panel that Ryan erroneously awarded attorney’s fees to the man Newman had plotted to kill.
Newman, a lawyer, is serving a 20-year prison sentence for masterminding a plot to have a friend shoot Slobodow during the course of their divorce and child-custody feud. Slobodow was shot in the right leg during a 4 a.m. attack in his home on Jan. 7, 2002.
The attack was committed by Margery Lemb Landry, who was godmother to the couple’s two elementary-school-age boys, Herbert and Lars. Landry is also serving a 20-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in September 2002 to assault, burglary and reckless endangerment.
The attack occurred as Newman and Slobodow were more than two years into divorce and child-custody proceedings, during which Newman accused Slobodow of having sexually assaulted their children. The divorce was granted three weeks after the shooting.
A year later, Newman was ordered to pay Slobodow’s attorney’s fees of $130,000 on the grounds that her claims of abuse were made in bad faith. Newman appealed the order.
A case for abuse
Jorgensen argued to the intermediate court that his client had never had the opportunity to fully air her claim that Slobodow had abused their children and, therefore, Ryan had no firm basis for deciding the claim was made in bad faith. Newman wanted to put on a case of abuse before the shooting but “events overtook” her, including her arrest, trial and incarceration, said Jorgensen.
But Murphy said imprisoned convicts can and often do exercise their ongoing right to file civil claims and have their day in court.
“That’s her own fault” for not following up on her allegations of abuse, Murphy told Jorgensen. Murphy added that nowhere in the voluminous litigation record is there any indication that Newman ever asked the circuit court to permit her to put on evidence of abuse, or that a trial judge had rejected such a request.
A judge could reasonably conclude from Newman’s failure to make such a request that “she didn’t want to show her hand that she didn’t have any evidence to support these allegations” of abuse, Murphy said.
He was far less critical in questioning Slobodow’s lawyer, Stacy B. Talbott, who urged the court to preserve the award of attorney’s fees. Talbott said Ryan’s award was valid in light of Newman’s “baseless, false allegations of sexual abuse,” without which Slobodow would not have had to pay his attorneys so much.
Murphy asked Talbott if attorney’s fees are appropriate in divorce and child-custody cases, which are very often emotional and can involve wild allegations in which one parent might sincerely believe abuse is occurring if they see even a cut on one of their children.
“It’s a sad fact … when there is marital strife,” Murphy said. “The emotional price in these cases is frightening.”
Talbott, a solo practitioner in Rockville, responded that attorney’s fees are often awarded in family-law cases when a claim is unjustified.
The other two judges sitting on the Court of Special Appeals panel, Arrie W. Davis and Sally D. Adkins, were largely silent during the argument session.
The case is Newman v. Slobodow, September Term 2002, No. 02846.
Maryland Daily Record