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You can't count the number of crooks, shysters, or idiots among the city's 74,000 lawyers. But Kenny Heller was disbarred for simply being obnoxious. After 50 years of heaping abuse on everyone within earshot and hurling accusations of conspiracies, "favoritism," and "cronyism" at countless judges and lawyers, the 77-year-old Heller has earned this distinction: No other lawyer in the city but Heller, according to records of his disciplinary hearing, has been ousted for "obstructive and offensive behavior which did not involve fraud or deception."
Heller was disbarred for basically "being an asshole," as one adversary puts it. And in their profession, the rival adds, "that takes some doing."
But even though he lost his law license nearly three years ago, Heller continues to wreak havoc on the judiciary.
Just four weeks ago, for instance, he was tossed into the Baxter Street jail in Manhattan for a night for refusing to turn over his files from the negligent-death lawsuit of a Brooklyn Navy Yard worker. Heller had won a $25 million verdict for the worker's widow in 1999. It should have been his crowning achievement. Instead, the case was overturned on appeal, a new trial was ordered, and eventually the widow obtained new lawyers. But Heller won't give up the files to them.
Sitting in the back of the Bronx courtroom the next day, Heller looked like just another elderly trial buff, wearing high-waisted, suspendered khaki pants and sneakers with Velcro straps. He seemed to be only half-listening as his lawyer, Richard Reisch, advised him how to stay out of jail.
"Just be nice'Yes, your honor. Thank you, your honor. Thank you, your honor.' Let me do the talking," Reisch told him.
Then the judge, Howard Silver, walked by. "Kiss my tuchis!" Heller spat at him. A few minutes later, Jacoby & Meyers lawyer Michael Feldman, who took over the negligent-death lawsuit from Heller, entered the courtroom. Heller's angry greeting? "Schmuck!"
During the hearing, Heller blurted out at one point, "I have an absolute right to intervene," before his lawyer shushed him. By "intervene," Heller meant re-try the case, his case, the last big one of his life. The only problem is that he's disbarred and can't try any case.
The judge wound up fining Heller $10,000 and sentencing him to 30 days in jail. Heller's free for now while he's appealing; a decision on his fate could come later this month. At his advanced age and with only one kidney, a bum hip, and what he says is asbestosis, Heller says a month in jail "might kill me." And true to his conspiratorial view of the world, he adds, "That's what they're hoping. But I won't shut my mouth."
OK, so he curses at judges and lawyers, and they punish him. But Heller doesn't shut his mouth even with his own staff. During a recent visit to his office, he introduced one worker as "Dum-dum." And he barked at Susan Harmon, an attorney who has been with him 26 years, "Get your brain working! The minute you walk in the door, your brain goes out to lunch." Heller himself is no fool. One Bronx jurist has described him as a "pre-eminent maritime attorney," and Heller estimates that over his career he has obtained verdicts totaling more than $70 million.
Gruffly funny and capable of great charm, Heller has a game face when it comes to the law and his work.
"Personally, I find him abrasive, angry, tough, fierce, and frightening," says attorney Ron Kuby. "You know, the qualities you usually want in a lawyer."
Kuby should know. His mentor was the legendarily fierce William Kunstler. Doing a dead-on imitation of Heller's gravelly growl, Kuby says, "You know what we used to call him? We used to call him Kenny Yeller!"
Kuby knows Heller as a "friend of Bill," though Heller is the polar opposite politically of the late civil-liberties advocate.
"Kenny Heller is very much an old- old-school lawyer," Kuby says. "He doesn't follow the Marquis de Queensbury rules. In fact, he doesn't follow any rules.
Rick Kopstein/New York Law Journal
"All the things people cite as his faults are qualities that allowed him to be as successful as he was at a time when it was difficult for any plaintiffs' lawyer to win anything for their clients. Back then the system was totally corrupt. He grew up fighting a corrupt system and he was as tough and ferocious as he had to be to secure justice for his clients. Times have changed since then, but Kenny hasn't."
As the Departmental Disciplinary Committee decided his career fate, Heller remained defiant to the end, saying the judges, experts, and opposing counsels were the aggressors, not him.
"I agree I have a short fuse and I get aggravated," he told the committee. "We all do get aggravated at times. But I never stood for somebody threatening me with violence, I never stood. I mean somebody spat in my face, I knocked him cold. I think you'd do it too."