State grievance committee rejects ‘sweetheart deal’ in D’Attilo case

After a "hotly contested, three-hour public hearing" at Hartford Superior Court on Feb. 4, the Connecticut Statewide Grievance Committee decided to reject a plea bargain for Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder attorney Kathleen Nastri that would have allowed her to walk away from a grievance filed by the D'Attilo family, of Wilton, with limited reprimand.

In May 2011, a jury awarded $58.6 million — the largest medical malpractice award in Connecticut history — to DannyD’Attilo and his parents, Cathy and Domenic D’Attilo, as a result of a doctor’s negligence, which left Danny "severely disabled at birth and cut his life expectancy more than half."

After the medical malpractice parties settled in January 2012 for $25 million in order to avoid an appeal, attorney Howard Altschuler said he was approached by Danny’s parents in May 2014 because "they were afraid their prior attorneys had not protected Danny’s future" and "wanted to make sure Danny was never institutionalized and would always live at home."

"The trust set up by [law firm] Day Pitney did not address this critical issue. Instead, the trust envisioned that the remaining assets after all the D’Attilos passed away would go into a foundation overseen by Brad Gallant of Day Pitney for an unspecified amount of trustee fees," Altschuler said.

"It was likely, based upon actuarial tables and projected costs, that the foundation would have millions of dollars in it."

The D’Attilos were also concerned about the huge fees charged by the court-appointed trustees, according to Altschuler, who said the attorneys "failed to document or obtain proof of more than $600,000 in purported litigation expenses charged to the D'Attilos."

Altschuler said Gallant had charged about $160,000 and "Danny’s initial trust was funded with almost $13 million, although the Koskoff firm had presented expert testimony at the medical malpractice trial in May 2011 that Danny would need approximately $8 million to take care of his needs for his entire lifetime."

Day Pitney’s trust fees were determined as a percentage of the funds held in trust, said Altschuler.

In a civil complaint filed in New Haven Superior Court and in grievances filed with the Connecticut Statewide Grievance Committee, the D’Attilos allege their attorneys from Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder and Day Pitney conspired to misappropriate $4.34 million in illegal legal fees from the $25-million settlement and then failed to provide proof of more than $600,000 in purported legal expenses.

Settlement rejection

During the February hearing, Altschuler said, he spent about an hour detailing why the proposed settlement should be rejected and expressing his clients’ opposition to the plea bargain offered by attorney Karyl Carrasquilla, Connecticut's top disciplinary officer, to two of the attorneys.

"The settlement proposal was an unfortunate and unjustified sweetheart deal that was made by the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel (OCDC). The OCDC refused to get all the evidence that was available, and then failed to present other evidence that the OCDC had in its possession," said Altschuler.

"The OCDC even objected when I tried to present that evidence to the Committee. Fortunately, and despite that, the Statewide Grievance Committee rejected the OCDC’s proposed settlement. While that is a first step, there are still very significant concerns regarding the grievance process."

If accepted, Altschuler said, this "sweetheart deal" would have had "a major negative impact on all consumers of legal services in Connecticut."

"The grievance complaint against Attorney Nastri alleges significant professional misconduct. The Statewide Grievance Committee’s order means that Attorney Nastri now has to face a public hearing on the record," according to Altschuler.

"This includes the presentation of evidence, witnesses and cross examination. Because there is no settlement, this also means that all potential sanctions are back on the table, including suspension or even disbarment."

Altschuler said another potential sanction is restitution, which, given the allegations in the grievance complaint, is also "a major development in this case."

These concerns, he said, have been detailed in the D'Attilos' pending litigation against the OCDC, the Statewide Grievance Committee and other grievance officials.

"What is at stake is the public's confidence in the integrity of the attorney discipline system in Connecticut," said Altschuler.

Other happenings

Following a three-month investigation, Carrasquilla formally filed three additional allegations of professional misconduct against Michael Koskoff and Kathleen Nastri, of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, alleging the two attorneys "failed to honor a March 21, 2003 retainer agreement with the D’Attilos," according to a Feb. 25 press release from Altschuler.

As a result, the attorneys took $7 million in legal fees from a $25-million medical malpractice settlement when they were only entitled to $2.66 million. Evidence will be presented during a to-be-scheduled public hearing.

The D'Attilos also filed an amended complaint in the pending legal action against the grievance system on Feb. 11. The second count, according to Altschuler, "seeks what may be the first-of-its-kind request to have the Superior Court take over the grievance process and out of the hands of the grievance officials."

The D'Attilos also met with state legislators with a request to have the judiciary committee hold hearings and investigate the grievance process against attorneys in Connecticut, Altschuler added.