Baltimore attorney Peter F. Axelrad, whose aggressive courtroom manner sometimes wins him more cases than admirers, has been harshly sanctioned for conduct described as "deplorable" by a judge in U.S. District Court.
In a stinging rebuke, Judge J. Frederick Motz excoriated Mr. Axelrad for mistreating a woman as he questioned her while she gave a deposition July 20. The judge also criticized the lawyer for "vicious personal attacks" that were aimed at the woman's attorney.
"I have never read deposition transcripts that have caused me greater dismay," Judge Motz, who has served on the federal bench since 1985, wrote Sept. 29.
The sanctions Judge Motz ordered include a $1,000 fine, letters of apology and this unusual one: For six months, a senior partner in Mr. Axelrad's law firm must accompany him at any deposition in the U.S. District Court in Maryland.
"That's quite unusual. I've never seen that before," said Judge Peter J. Messitte, who sits on the federal bench with Judge Motz, referring to the need for a chaperon.
"Typically, you see judges [handing down] written or oral reprimands. There may be assessment of costs for prolonging a deposition or for causing a pleading not to be filed. Beyond that level, sanctions are less common," said Judge Messitte, who is chairman of a judges' committee that oversees lawyer discipline.
Mr. Axelrad, who has asked Judge Motz to reconsider the sanctions, acknowledged that the penalties were "embarrassing."
"In almost 30 years of practice, I have never been disciplined, sanctioned, held in contempt or sued by a client," said Mr. Axelrad, who practiced many years at the now defunct Baltimore law firm of Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman. Mr. Axelrad now is a partner at Jackson & Campbell.
Judge Motz declined a request for an interview yesterday.
A lawyer known for handling celebrated libel and slander cases, Mr. Axelrad's clients over the years include the Annapolis Capital and Washingtonian magazine. He has defended Washingtonian several times, against adversaries ranging from former White House press secretary Ron Nessen to Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.
Mr. Axelrad's troubles stem from a civil rights lawsuit brought by a Georgia woman. In an action filed a year ago, Adrienne Thornton alleges workers at a health club tried to discourage her from joining because she is black.
Mr. Axelrad is the lawyer for the parent company of the health club, which denies any discrimination occurred. The suit is pending.
To prepare for trial, Mr. Axelrad questioned Ms. Thornton in a deposition. During the sessions, she was accompanied by one of her Georgia lawyers, Diana Nelson.
Mr. Axelrad's conduct during the depositions so enraged the plaintiff's lawyers that they took the unusual step of filing a motion for sanctions with Judge Motz.
The lawyers said they objected to irrelevant, personal questions they said had been asked, including Mr. Axelrad inquiring into Ms. Thornton's religion and attitudes about extramarital sex.
They also accused Mr. Axelrad of belittling their client by repeatedly commenting "about [Ms. Thornton's] comprehension of the English language."
According to a deposition transcript, Mr. Axelrad asked Ms. Thornton: "Did you have a problem with the English language at school?"
Later, he said to her: "My question is, did you have a problem in education with English?"
Mr. Axelrad also became impatient with Ms. Nelson, the opposing lawyer, inquiring whether she was "under medication" and had "had anything to drink."
Neither Ms. Nelson nor her law firm, Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, would comment on Mr. Axelrad yesterday.
Mr. Axelrad also declined to speak directly about the sanctions. But in papers filed with the court yesterday, he asked the judge to reconsider the sanctions on the basis that "all questions posed were necessary" to his client's case.
Several local lawyers who have opposed Mr. Axelrad in court cases wouldn't speak about him publicly. They said they admired him for his tenacity, but that his caustic style was unusual in Baltimore's largely laid-back legal community.