Connecticut judges tell parents to pay GAL or face debtor’s prison

Connecticut judges tell parents to pay GAL or face debtor’s prison

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HARTFORD, Conn., November 26, 2014 — Last Friday, Glastonbury father and healthcare executive Peter Szymonik was picking up his children from school when he received notice that Judge Elizabeth Bozzuto issued a warrant for his arrest; he had failed to pay a family court guardian ad litem’s (GAL) $9,600 tab.

Glastonbury father Peter Szymonik

The State of Connecticut Judicial Branch’s case detail shows that since the Szymonik family filed for divorce in 2006, nearly 300 actions have been filed in the case. Due to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees the conflict has generated for the dozens of professionals who have fed off the case, it is difficult to determine whether it is the parents or the judges presiding over the case who have lost control of the dispute.

“I believe it is clearly punitive and outside the power of this court to incarcerate any person on any debt other than child support” says Szymonik.

Court documents show that in 2012, Hartford Attorney Rhonda Morra was appointed to Szymonik’s child custody case to represent the will and best interests of Szymonik’s two sons, one of whom is autistic and has special needs.

“Morra has no experience with children with autism, has never practiced family law, is not registered to do business in the State of Connecticut, yet has billed over $26,000 while spending less than three hours with my sons,” Szymonik says. “Morra also lied about my sons under oath and ignored their physical abuse.”

This fall, Morra hired East Hartford attorney Adam Teller to represent her in the debt collection process after Judge Michael Albis ordered Szymonik to pay two-thirds of Morra’s bill at a rate of nearly $1,000 per month in November 2013. In October 2014, Teller filed motions in Szymonik’s divorce case seeking to hold the father in contempt for nonpayment, as well as issued subpoenas seeking records from the parties.

Despite concerns over the impact on the children’s safety and wellbeing Szymonik’s arrest could pose, court transcripts show that Judge Bozzuto entirely disregarded Szymonik’s filings seeking to strike Morra’s pleadings from the record and continue the matter until the Appellate court had a chance to review the case. Instead, Bozzuto spent the first six pages of the hearing transcript delivering a bizarre monologue where Szymonik says the judge misclassified the debt as child support, then found him in contempt without first hearing the GAL’s testimony about why sending him to jail was in his children’s best interests.

Szymonik also points out that Bozzuto previously denied his requests to continue the hearing, leaving him in a position where he was forced to choose between meeting his autistic son’s special needs and his own freedom.

“If I had appeared in court last Friday, they would have jailed me then and I would have spent the weekend in jail away from my kids — that is what they intended.”

In recent pleadings, Symonik asserts that as nonparties to his divorce case, Connecticut law does not allow the former GAL, nor Teller to file the actions for sanctions against him.

“Judge Elizabeth Bozzuto heads the Family Court’s ‘Family Commission,’ a commission loaded with some of the worst GAL’s in the state who have direct access to her,” says Szymonik. “Bozzuto blatantly violated my family’s constitutional rights, federal and state law, due process, the Connecticut Practice Book and procedure when she allowed a former GAL without legal, statutory, or procedural standing in my family matter to issue a Motion for Contempt and issue subpoenas against me. It’s outrageous.”

In a similar case last year, Mark Sargent, a Connecticut father of three, testified to the legislature that he was forced to file a federal lawsuit against Stamford Family Court Judge Jane Emons and the Judicial Branch for “issuing orders in the State of Connecticut without giving litigants an opportunity to object to the billing, professional ethics, or competence of court-appointed GAL’s without fear of reprisal, and delegating familial and parenting rights possessed by a parent with sole legal custody of his or her children to a GAL or other private individual appointed by the court.”

The lawsuit successfully sought to disqualify Judge Emons from hearing his case, as well as remove psychologist Joan Oppenheim as the court appointed GAL for cause.

In retaliation, Judge Emons appointed attorney Gary Cohen to represent Oppenheim and protect her against any claims of professional malfeasance resulting from her misconduct on the Sargent case after Oppenheim threatened to place Sargent’s children in foster care without just cause. Emons also ordered Sargent to pay Cohen $850 per hour for his services to Oppenheim. At the outset of a hearing to remove Oppenheim for cause, the court acknowledged that GAL’s are not permitted to file motions in family court proceedings, then admonished Cohen for filing several motions against Sargent on the GAL’s behalf without statutory standing to do so. Although Sargent eventually prevailed on the matter, it was not without extreme financial loss and emotional strain that deeply affected his family.

“Ms. Oppenheim has acted in her own financial interests, including by causing, through her own acts and omissions, this litigation to continue, and by causing the family to incur significant expenses to various parts of the Fairfield County Divorce Machine with whom Ms. Oppenheim has on-going business relationships,” wrote Sargent in a 2013 motion. “Ms. Oppenheim’s bills have been and remain unconscionable, particularly in light of the lack of value of, and harm created by her participation in this matter.”

This week, Szymonik sought a federal injunction against Bozzuto, Morra, and Teller for violating his civil rights which seeks to cease proceedings initiated by Morra and Teller on the trial court level. A capias hearing on Szymonik’s arrest is scheduled to take place this Friday in Hartford Superior Court, where Szymonik expects to be incarcerated indefinitely due to his inability to comply with Bozzuto’s orders to pay the $9,600 judgment in full, in addition to Teller’s fees and $500 court costs.


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