Three Cook County candidates for judge have past disciplines

Update (2/27/18): After Injustice Watch published this story, another candidate with past discipline from the Illinois Supreme Court was added to the ballot. The candidate, Ubi O’Neal, was removed from the ballot in early January after missing a deadline, but his candidacy for the Willis vacancy in the 2nd subcircuit was restored after he challenged his removal, saying that he had missed the deadline because the Illinois State Board of Elections mistakenly notified him of the wrong date. Read our full story about the fourth candidate with past discipline.

Gwendolyn D. Anderson was once suspended from practicing law after she engaged in misconduct in a series of cases, including cursing at jurors that convicted her client in one case, and trying to avoid paying a malpractice judgment in another.

Thomas R. Molitor was censured after he failed to properly serve a lawsuit on behalf of his client and then repeatedly misled her into thinking the case was moving forward.

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Travis Richardson was censured after he took more than $23,000 as a fee for his work helping a client recover almost $75,000 improperly seized by government agents, though no fee agreement ever was signed.

Beginning on February 21, Cook County voters will start heading to the polls to winnow down the field of 110 judicial primary candidates vying to fill 39 vacancies on the bench. For the majority of races in which there is no partisan contest, the primary elections serve as the final word in who will become a judge in Cook County. This article is part of Injustice Watch‘s continuing coverage prior to the March elections.

Anderson, Molitor and Richardson are now among the candidates running in the March primary to win election as Cook County Circuit Court judges.

The three misconduct cases all date back years and were identified during an Injustice Watch review of the public records of the current judicial candidates. Such discipline by the Illinois Supreme Court, following proceedings before the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, are rare—roughly two in every thousand registered attorneys in Illinois are disciplined in any given year.

Legal experts said that such discipline is not necessarily decisive in determining whether a candidate is fit for office. David Melton, senior advisor to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, noted that the facts of each case matter—and that cases where the lawyer has engaged in a dishonest act should draw concern.

A client feels misled

Rosemary Newton described in a recent interview how Molitor, a Winnetka attorney, would respond when she asked about the progress of a lawsuit over a car accident that he was supposed to be handling on her behalf.

“I would call him and call him…he’d get on the phone with me and ruffle papers and say, ‘Oh yes, there’s a continuance until October 22nd, they’re still doing discovery,’” Newton recalled.

Thomas R. Molitor

Cook County judicial candidate Thomas R. Molitor

In truth there was no lawsuit moving forward. Molitor had mistakenly listed the defendant’s address incorrectly, so the sheriff’s deputies had never served the summons on the defendant, a necessary prerequisite for the case to proceed. The hearing board in Molitor’s disciplinary case found that Molitor did not correct the error even when he was notified that the defendant had not been served, and that Newton only learned the truth so belatedly that she was barred by time from re-filing the lawsuit.

In 2001 the Illlinois Supreme Court censured Molitor, who is now a Democratic candidate in the 12th subcircuit. “I screwed up and I owned it,” Molitor said in an interview, describing the issue as a paperwork error that “had absolutely nothing to do with ethics or moral turpitude.”

That is not how Newton sees it. “Tom lied to me, continued to lie to me on the phone for over a year,” she said. “I’m outraged that he thinks that he can be a judge, I’m outraged that he thinks he even has the right to sit on the bench…I never got a dime and he never made one effort to contact me, he never apologized.”

A series of misconduct cases

The Supreme Court suspended Gwendolyn D. Anderson for 18 months in 2001 based on findings that she committed misconduct in five cases over a decade. The discipline came after the hearing board found that Anderson, now a Democratic candidate in the 5th judicial subcircuit, had “aggravated her misconduct by failing to take responsibility for her actions and inactions, showing little remorse for her misconduct, and suggesting an inability or unwillingness to conform her future practice to acceptable standards.”

Among the hearing board’s findings:

After a client was found guilty of murder in 1995, Anderson cursed in open court and struck a sheriff’s deputy. She was handcuffed and led from the courtroom, though later found not guilty of battery.

Another case involved Anderson’s failure to properly serve a lawsuit on a police officer whom her client was suing for a wrongful arrest. After a U.S. district judge dismissed the case based on that failure, Anderson filed a series of papers trying to reverse that dismissal. After she appealed the lawsuit’s second dismissal to the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, that court ruled that Anderson had engaged in a frivolous appeal and ordered her to pay a disciplinary fine, referring to her arguments as a “a tiring series of unsupported excuses for her lack of diligence.” The appeals court added that Anderson’s “performance falls far short of the level of professionalism demanded by this court and by her client.”

Anderson did not tell her client that the case had been dismissed, however, or that she had been sanctioned by the appeals court, the disciplinary board found. Despite his efforts to contact her, she did not communicate with him for almost three years, and by the time he learned of what had happened, he was unable to obtain an attorney to sue her for malpractice.

In a third case, after Anderson had failed to timely file a lawsuit on behalf of a client injured in a car accident, the client sued her for malpractice and won a $30,000 judgment. But Anderson sought to avoid the judgment, the hearing panel found, by a series of actions including failing to provide an accounting of her assets, and transferring the title of one of her two luxury cars to her mother.

The ARDC’s hearing board found that her actions “involved dishonesty and deceit” and “were intended to harass” her former client.

Though the hearing board found that Anderson, who had tried many murder trials, was an “able” lawyer of “good character,” her “failure to take responsibility for her actions is an aggravating factor and we are disappointed by her persistent reluctance to do so.”

Still, the board found that most of the misconduct was caused by poor management of her law practice, rather than incompetence or dishonesty. The hearing panel recommended that Anderson be suspended for three months with nine months of probation.

The ARDC administrator, however, petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court for a harsher sentence, arguing the hearing board and the appellate review board erred in not finding that Anderson bore more responsibility for her misconduct, and that her “attempts to blame her clients and office staff for her misconduct, and intentional dishonesty” warranted a longer suspension. The Supreme Court of Illinois agreed and increased her suspension to 18 months.

In a written statement, Anderson told Injustice Watch: “[T]he matters raised by the ARDC were resolved nearly two decades ago and stemmed from internal management issues at my then law firm, which were subsequently rectified.”

She also highlighted her more than 30 years of experience. “I am confident that the depth of my experience as an attorney practicing in a wide range of capacities, including before the United District Court, the Illinois Appellate Court, as well as my work as an assistant public defender of Cook County, a federal defender and a hearing officer for the Board of Elections will be an asset that I will bring as a judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County.”

Anderson is currently being sued for malpractice, court records show. Sandra White alleges that she hired Anderson’s law firm to pursue a personal injury case in February 2016, but that Anderson failed to file any lawsuit on her behalf before the statute of limitations ran out.

Fired, but kept the fee

The Supreme Court censured Richardson in 2008 over his handling of a refund to a client who had more than $74,000 seized by Ohio state troopers when they stopped his van for speeding.

Richardson is currently sitting as a Cook County circuit judge by appointment, temporarily filling a vacancy, and is a candidate for a full term in the 2nd subcircuit.

Travis Richardson

2016 campaign website of Travis Richardson

Travis Richardson is running for a judicial subcircuit seat in south suburban Cook County.

His censure stemmed from representing the client in an effort to recover the money seized by the troopers. According to the disciplinary board record, Richardson told his client that it would cost $3,000 as a retainer, as well as a contingency fee if they were successful.

Two months after Richardson filed a petition to recover the assets, he received a call from the U.S. attorney’s office acknowledging that the government lacked a basis to seize money and would return it.

Richardson then sent his client a fee agreement, stating he was to receive 35 percent of the recovered funds. When the client received the agreement, he objected that that was not the agreement—he believed that the fee was more than they had discussed.

The client fired Richardson. Days later the check arrived, made payable to both Richardson and his client. Richardson sent the client a check for $51,542, and retained the rest.

After the client filed a complaint with the disciplinary board, Richardson apologized and returned $14,000 more to the client.

Richardson ran unsuccessfully for judge in 2016. At that time, the Chicago Bar Association noted his censure but still found him qualified, and the Chicago Council of Lawyers found him well qualified.

Richardson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year Thomas R. Molitor was censured by the Illinois Supreme Court. He was censured in 2001, not 2002.