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Alleged sexual misconduct by lawyers isn't uncommon. But facing punishment is tricky

Legal tech consultant Melissa Rogozinski in her apartment in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on April 24.
Mikaela Martin for NPR
Legal tech consultant Melissa Rogozinski in her apartment in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on April 24.

She was sexually assaulted eight years ago, she says, but the memory of that horrific ordeal remains clear to Melissa Rogozinski.

"It just happened so fast," she recalls.

At the time, she was living in Birmingham, Ala., eight years into running her company, ESI Roundtable. Her company offered professional education for the legal industry and specialized in tech, data privacy and data security.

Rogozinski is not an attorney but has worked in the legal industry, a field valued in the U.S. at an estimated $372.61 billion in 2022, for nearly her entire career. She found a niche with legal tech, offering trainings for lawyers.

On Feb. 3, 2016, she had worked yet another long day and needed to get out.

Rogozinski, who goes by her nickname, "Rogo," walked to a bar and restaurant called Paramount, near her apartment.

She entered and scanned for a free seat, gauging what spot would be best for a single woman out alone. The place was packed, "so I chose the place that I felt was most central, most well lit and what I thought was going to be the safest place for me," she says.

She sat down and next to her was an older man who greeted her and introduced himself as well-known plaintiff's attorney Robert Childs, co-founder of Wiggins, Childs, Pantazis, Fisher, & Goldfarb.

Wiggins, Childs, Pantazis, Fisher, & Goldfarb is known for being one of eight firms representing about 60 families of 9/11 victims that sued Iran in a 2003 civil suit claiming the nation aided the attackers. Representatives for Wiggins, Childs, Pantazis, Fisher, & Goldfarb didn't respond to NPR's requests for comment for this story.

Rogozinski isn't accusing the firm of any wrongdoing.

Attempts to contact representatives for Childs' estate were unsuccessful.

Childs knew who she was immediately, she says, because of her work with ESI Roundtable.

"At that point, when he identified knowing me in a professional manner, especially because I'm on my own, it is immediately a business meeting for me," she says.

NPR reviewed a police report from that night.

In it, Rogozinski alleges that she and Childs were having a professional conversation, when Childs suddenly turned it sexual. Rogozinski told police that she told Childs she wanted to change the subject. As she told police, that's when Childs placed his hand on her leg, quickly moved it up her thigh and groped her vagina.

Rogozinski says she was shocked. She says she ripped Childs' hand from her body and told him, "You have no right to touch me."

And according to the police report, Childs groped her vagina for a second time while saying, "I can touch you any way I want to."

"I will never forget that for the rest of my life," Rogozinski says.

Immediately, she says she froze. "Your mind is telling you that didn't just happen. And your body is just paralyzed."

When recounting these details, she became emotional, her voice nothing more than a whisper.

"It happened eight years ago, and it still has this effect on me."

"Most people would be shocked"

Rogozinski's story doesn't have the ending she would like. Instead, it's filled with frustration and disappointment at almost every step.

It also serves as a reminder that when lawyers engage in sexual misconduct, professional consequences are not always forthcoming, which can harm the legal profession in the long term, according to Gillian Chadwick, a professor of law at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.

Almost seven years ago, the #MeToo movement went global, leading to the downfall of many powerful men after victims came forward with accusations of sexual assault and harassment against them. The movement helped launch a wider examination of society's treatment of women in everyday life, at the workplace and in Hollywood.

But the legal industry, "it's not doing good, in my opinion," says Chadwick, who researches lawyer misconduct and legal issues involving gender-based violence.

Data to understand the full scope of sexual misconduct in the legal industry is not easy to come by, Chadwick says.

Several surveys, however, anecdotally indicate high levels of harassment, assault and sexual misconduct within the legal profession.

In 2020, Women Lawyers On Guard, a national network of lawyers (women and men) working on issues of sexual harassment, gender and workplace equity and women's health, released a report on sexual harassment and misconduct in the legal profession called Still Broken.

"A broad spectrum of sexual misconduct and harassing behaviors—from criminal to civilly actionable to simply unconscionable—continues to plague all walks of the legal profession," says the report. Half of respondents who reported being assaulted or harassed said that there were no consequences to the harasser even after they reported the incidents.

The study is based on an August 2019 survey, disseminated through bar associations, online groups and other networks within the legal profession. More than 2,000 people responded to the survey.

Rogozinski in the elevator of her apartment building on April 24.
/ Mikaela Martin for NPR
/
Mikaela Martin for NPR
Rogozinski in the elevator of her apartment building on April 24.

"Most people would be shocked if they knew how much tolerance there is for sexual misconduct in the legal profession from discipline authorities," Chadwick says.

Some 30,000 people are working in the federal judiciary without civil rights protections, leaving those employees vulnerable to abuse, harassment and discrimination from even federal judges.

And in February, attendees of a glitzy legal conference came forward with reports of harassment and assault. Dozens of women came forward on social media, to each other and to NPR, fed up with the industry's tolerance of men's transgressions and predatory behavior.

Rogozinski says she was moved by those women to finally come out of the shadows.

She says she wanted to show women in this space that the journey is hard but, "you can survive and thrive on the other side."

The legal industry's problem with self-regulation

In 2022, Chadwick published a paper finding that "lawyers have catastrophically failed to self-regulate with respect to sexual violence."

The paper she published analyzed cases of lawyers who have sexually abused and harassed their own clients and essentially got away with it by serving temporary suspensions but rarely disbarments from the legal profession. She found that the attorney discipline system falls far short of its main mission to protect the public and maintain the integrity of the profession.

"We see that there's still a resistance to discipline even when there is clear proof," she says.

Part of that is due to the distribution of power within the profession, which is still held tightly by mostly men, Chadwick says, and the way that the attorney disciplinary system is organized.

The licensing, disciplinary and regulatory system for attorneys is handled at the state level. That can be with the highest court in the state, usually the state's supreme court, or state bar associations, as it is in Rogozinski's home state of Alabama.

But, again, the lack of data is part of the problem in understanding the scope of the problem.

"It's not quantified, and I am not aware of any organized effort to address it," Chadwick says.

The American Bar Association, the world's largest voluntary association of lawyers, doesn't track data on how often state-level bar associations that are tasked with disciplining attorneys handle sexual misconduct cases or disbar lawyers for such conduct. The association recommends model rules of conduct for state bar associations to implement, but it's not mandatory and the ABA itself doesn't implement discipline.

Wendy Muchman, who served as a disciplinary prosecutor with Illinois' Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) for 30 years, says she handled many misconduct cases against lawyers in Illinois over her long tenure. She is now a law professor at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law. She also served as president of the National Organization of Bar Counsel, and in that role she became informed on how other jurisdictions handle lawyer-misconduct discipline.

The ARDC tracks some data on its regulatory action, but Muchman says this isn't the case in every state. Additionally, the ARDC's method of categorizing misconduct charges can be improved upon, she says. Charges of sex with a client, sexual harassment, or sexual misconduct toward fellow attorneys can all fall into different categories like "criminal conduct" or "conflicts of interest."

During Muchman's time with the ARDC, she says, she believes the commission generally took matters of sexual misconduct committed by attorneys very seriously. She says other disciplinary committees across the country, which handle cases differently, do as well.

"I feel that regulators do the best they can with the cases they get on this issue. They are, for the most part, very dedicated professionals," Muchman says. "And if they have a case that they can pursue, they will do it."

A lot of her cases resulted in suspensions, at times lengthy ones. For egregious cases, there have been disbarments, but it's not a frequent occurrence absent some truly heinous or criminal conduct, she says.

In 2015, she was involved in a case against Paul Weiss, a prominent Illinois lawyer who had been accused of allegedly exposing himself on multiple occasions and improperly touching four law firm employees. This case followed an interim suspension months earlier for similar actions, according to an ABA Journal report. It took multiple allegations of sexual misconduct before he was eventually disbarred.

According to ABA Journal, at the time of Weiss' suspension he told the outlet that "has never been criminally charged with any of the conduct and never had the allegations judged by a jury. The charges would never hold up in criminal court."

Sexual misconduct including harassment or assault in the legal profession is still a "big problem," Muchman says.

"I would say that the most difficult thing about these cases is someone has to report it," she says. But still, so many people are reluctant to report harassment or assault out of fear for their relationships, careers and livelihoods.

"To this day, I have to say it breaks my heart," Muchman says.

Regarding criticism toward disciplinary authorities in the legal profession, Muchman says, "I don't think that's entirely misplaced. But I think as you look over time, courts have more understood the serious nature of this issue and the legal profession and why this conduct by lawyers should not be tolerated."

Chadwick believes this type of behavior poses a serious danger to the profession and its integrity.

"I think the profession loses credibility," she says. "It's a matter of making sure that those who have the power of being an attorney are using it correctly."

A complaint is dismissed

Rogozinski says she struggled to regain composure in the immediate aftermath of the assault. When she did, she rushed to a friend's apartment, where she collapsed and told him what happened.

He's the one who pushed her to report the assault to police. She says he told her, "'This is a sex offense. It's a felony. And you need to report it.' And I knew he was right on everything."

That same night, she filed a complaint with Birmingham police.

Rogozinski in her apartment with her two cats, Buddy and Sweet Girl.
/ Mikaela Martin for NPR
/
Mikaela Martin for NPR
Rogozinski in her apartment with her two cats, Buddy and Sweet Girl.

Rogozinski filed a complaint a month later with the Birmingham Bar Association, the ethics and professional association for lawyers in Birmingham, enclosing her police report.

The Birmingham Bar Association completed its report and submitted its recommendation to the Alabama State Bar (ASB), the ultimate authority for lawyers in the state. It is both the licensing and regulatory agency for lawyers in Alabama and a professional association for them.

NPR is unable to confirm Childs' testimony to the Birmingham Bar Association. The Birmingham Bar didn't respond to NPR's requests for comment.

Rogozinski received notice of the ASB's decision on her complaint against Childs in November 2016: The Alabama State Bar dismissed it.

The letter said that the Disciplinary Commission "determined that there is insufficient basis for finding that there has been a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct."

Rogozinski was shattered.

"I felt my own industry had betrayed me, did not want me, rejected me," she says.

She was never given a reason for the dismissal.

Reasons why some cases are dismissed

Melissa Warnke, director of communications for the Alabama State Bar, told NPR in an email that cases are dismissed for one of two reasons: "Either the complaint lacks merit or, after a thorough investigation, it was found that it is unlikely that the State would be able to meet its evidentiary burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that an event happened."

The Disciplinary Commission acts similar to a grand jury and has the authority to take action against an attorney or to dismiss a case, Warnke said.

Rogozinski would have been unable to appeal the decision at the time.

In Chadwick's research, she says that there is significant hesitancy from disciplinary boards to act on complaints toward attorneys that do not involve a criminal conviction.

"We already know it's incredibly hard to get a criminal conviction in [sexual assault] cases. And so if there's not a criminal conviction, then these state authorities seem to feel like they don't need to act," Chadwick says.

This doesn't mean that disciplinary agencies don't act to punish lawyers if there is no criminal conviction, Muchman says.

Most state disciplinary authorities for lawyers have a rule that says it is considered professional misconduct for a lawyer "to commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer," Muchman says, citing the rule.

Alabama has a similar rule on the books.

"In Illinois and many other jurisdictions, there is case law dating back years that says lawyers are disciplined for the fact of the conduct, not the fact of the conviction," Muchman says.

If an attorney discipline agency can prove that criminal conduct occurred by clear and convincing evidence, the lawyer can be found responsible for violating this rule, she says.

"All complaints against lawyers are taken very seriously, especially those that involve the victimization of clients and other non-lawyers who cannot individually defend themselves in a court," she says.

Hearing the details of Rogozinski's case, Chadwick says, "If we can't even hold them accountable when they're leveraging [sexual violence] against their own clients, then I'm not at all surprised that we don't see them accountable" in this case.

Rogozinski's allegations against Childs also represent what some would consider a gray area for attorney discipline, Chadwick says.

"One thing that the profession has been asking itself for a long time is, 'How much should attorney discipline look into personal misconduct?'" she says.

Questions of how far should lawyers be regulated and what type of behavior can be disciplined outside the office itself don't appear to have obvious answers from disciplinary boards, Chadwick says.

Muchman agrees: "That is something that different states and different agencies might not handle the same."

"He has cost me everything"

In the years before her assault, Rogozinski was caring for her mother, who was ill with Parkinson's disease; dealing with her own diagnosis of breast cancer, cancer treatment and subsequent surgeries; and, worst of all, her mother's death.

Rogozinski moved from Alabama to Florida a few months after reporting the assault in 2016. Everything started to hit her emotionally at once and her life began to fall apart, she says.

She shut her business and filed for bankruptcy by 2018.

Rogozinski sits on the patio of her apartment.
/ Mikaela Martin for NPR
/
Mikaela Martin for NPR
Rogozinski sits on the patio of her apartment.

"I didn't have any options. I didn't have $100 to go grab groceries. I didn't have money to go rent a car and drive back to Alabama. I had no way out," she says.

Rogozinski contacted an attorney to start a civil case against Childs. There were talks between her and Childs' attorneys to reach a settlement before a suit was filed. But Childs filed for bankruptcy in 2017, putting that process on hold and potentially putting at risk any sort of damages Rogozinski could get.

"I got so angry. ... He has cost me everything. He has cost me my entire career," she recalls. Her attorney submitted to the bankruptcy court a complaint that prevented Childs from escaping personal liability to Rogozinski.

By 2018, Rogozinski and Childs reached a settlement for an amount she can't disclose because of the parameters of the agreement.

But she wasn't done.

"I knew if I held him accountable, he would never be able to hurt anybody else. I contacted the district attorney's office the day we settled in order to start the criminal charges," she says.

But charges would never be brought.

Six days later, Rogozinski received a call that Childs had died at age 71. His law firm wrote of him, "Always setting the bar high, Bob's visions were never short-sighted, his empathy all-encompassing, and his work ethic unsurpassable. He will be greatly missed."

NPR hasn't found any evidence that Childs' law firm knew about the allegations against him.

It wasn't the ending she wanted, but Rogozinski has slowly rebuilt her life in recent years. She started a new marketing and sales consulting firm that specializes in the legal industry.

"I'm not worried anymore about being blackballed in the industry," she says about coming forward now.

She is thinking about other potential victims, too scared to speak out. "How many people aren't coming forward because they're afraid of losing their paycheck?"

Rogozinski wants them to finally feel empowered to speak out and hold wrongdoers accountable.

"The only way it's going to stop is if we hold them accountable," she says. "It's time."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.