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Sexist Lawyer Sanctioned for Sexist Comment to Opposing Counsel

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 15, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A California lawyer was sanctioned, and bench slapped, by the Northern District of California on Tuesday, for disrupting depositions, failing to comply with discovery orders, and, well, being a bit of a sleaze ball.

Peter George Bertling, a partner at Bertling and Clausen in Santa Barbara, California, earned a special rebuke for telling opposing counsel that "it's not becoming of a woman" to "raise your voice."

Not Your Average Violation

In his brief order granting sanctions against Bertling, Judge Paul Grewal, begins by noting that N.D. Cal's conduct guidelines are simply guidelines, not rules. "A one-off lapse, then, may not be a big deal." But Bertling's lapses weren't one-offs and they weren't excusable. "Where, as here, an attorney repeatedly and unapologetically flouts guideline after guideline, Grewal writes, "it is a big deal -- and the court has little choice but to do something about it."

Bertling is called out for several reasons, including making discovery as difficult as humanly possible. (Bertling, for one, responded to a complaint that he hadn't turned over all documents relied upon in an expert report by arguing that "you already have many" of them, then ignoring further requests for production.)

The court also took issue with Bertling's behavior at depositions, sanctioning him for "making extremely long speaking objections, coaching witnesses, cutting off witnesses and even answering for them."

But it's his comments to Oakland solo practitioner Lori Rifkin that really stand out. When Rifkin took issue with Bertling's behavior, he told her: "Don't raise your voice at me. It's not becoming of a woman or an attorney who is acting professionally under the rules of professional responsibility."

"An Indefensible Attack"

The court described Bertling's comment as "an indefensible attack," of the kind that "reflect and reinforce the male-dominated attitude of our profession." Bertling's comments "endorsed the stereotype that women are subject to a different standard of behavior than their fellow attorneys" and reflected not only on his lack of professionalism, but tarnished the entire profession.

(It's worth noting that Bertling attended Bob Jones University for his undergraduate degree, where there is indeed a very literal different standard of behavior for women.)

For his part, Bertling offered a mild apology, saying he should have called Rifkin an attorney, rather than a woman, when telling her to pipe down. He was sorry, he said, if she was offended, but the court didn't take kindly to this "halfhearted politician's apology."

The court ordered Bertling to pay plaintiff's costs and attorney's fees related to the sanction motion and offending deposition, plus donate $250 to the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles Foundation.

Will the sanction be enough to reform a profession where women still face considerable barriers and inequality? No. But it is a good sign that courts, and lawyers, are growing increasingly intolerant of such casual sexism.

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