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Blogging Lawyer Gets 3-Year Suspension: Did Lawsuit Play a Role?

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

Earlier this fall, we brought you the tale of a lawyer filing a copyright lawsuit to prevent a disciplinary board from including text from her blog in a disciplinary complaint. Needless to say, the lawsuit failed.

Joanne Denison is back, and this time, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (IARDC) is recommending a three-year suspension ("and until further order of the court") because of the allegedly false statements she published on her blog about the Probate Court of Cook County, as well as local judges and lawyers.

Did her copyright lawsuit play any part in the lengthy sentence?

How It All Started

This entire affair stems from a dispute over what many would see as an ordinary probate case: A nonagenarian woman named Mary Sykes whose competency was questioned had two guardians ad litem appointed. There were disputes over which family members had Sykes' best interests at heart, and whether any of them owned Sykes any money.

Denison tried to represent one of the daughters but her request was denied, as, according to the IARDC, she may have also been a witness to some of the alleged improprieties.

References to 'Operation Greylord'

Frustrated with what she saw as a series of corrupt rulings, Denison turned to the Internet and started a blog. The blog contains a number of allegations about local judges, attorneys, and the probate court generally. Denison also apparently made numerous references to "Operation Greylord," a 1980s corruption probe into Cook County courts that led to nearly 100 indictments, most of which led to convictions.

Interestingly, there is a disclaimer on Denison's blog that asserts that the "blog is primarily for entertainment purposes only," but it is sandwiched between rants containing the word "truth" more times than we can count. The IARDC held that the disclaimer was ineffective:

The blog's disclaimer does not shield Respondent from discipline. Despite the disclaimer, which itself asserts some statements on the blog are true, other portions of the blog suggest statements on the blog are true. The statements with which Respondent was charged clearly accused the judges and GALs of corruption, accusations which were false and lacking in any reasonable basis. The fact that elsewhere on the blog Respondent suggests that readers do further investigation does not alter this reality.

Did Denison's copyright lawsuit against the IARDC play any part in her lengthy suspension? Yep. In discussing aggravating factors, the IARDC noted:

Among other things, Respondent repeatedly failed to follow the Chair's orders, failed to comply with the rules of the tribunal, and sought to have the Chair and opposing counsel communicate with her in the manner in which she wished, rather than in a manner consistent with the rules of the tribunal. Respondent raised various issues which have nothing to do with these proceedings, such as asserting that copyright protections precluded use of statements from the blog in connection with these proceedings. The manner in which an attorney conducts herself during disciplinary proceedings is legitimately considered in determining the sanction. In re Cook, 2010PR00106, M.R. 26581 (May 16, 2014). Respondent's conduct in these proceedings represented a significant aggravating factor.

Respondent has displayed a tendency to inappropriately personalize matters. This tendency was apparent in conduct by Respondent which included filing multiple lawsuits, which had been dismissed, against the attorneys in the Sykes matter. The presence of such a tendency reinforces our concern over Respondent's ability to conform her future conduct to professional standards. See Amu, 2011PR00106 (Hearing Bd. at 31-32).

To us, the copyright claim seemed like a frivolous waste of paper and time. And perhaps a frivolous lawsuit meant to impede disciplinary proceedings should lead to a more severe penalty. But does it matter at all that the court exhaustively went through her claims (i.e. they were legitimate enough to warrant such treatment)?

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