New York's Most Obnoxious Lawyer

Do we have to pick just one? Kenny Heller won't admit it, but he could make a case for the title if he hadn't been disbarred—for obnoxious behavior.

Told last week that people have described him as an "asshole," Heller says, "Who said that? He may be queer. Tell that person, 'Heller says you may be queer.' "

When Heller is asked to assess his combative style, he zooms in on another part of the anatomy. "Everyone wants to walk around without testicles," he says. "If you're going to give that up, what the hell are you worth? Should you go through life cowering and cringing and keeping your mouth shut? Then what are you?"

Go too far in the other direction, though, and you wind up as someone who won't let go of anything. And Heller has paid for that. After 50 years of unleashing his wrath verbally or by filing misconduct complaints or lawsuits against anyone who got in his way—judges, attorneys, expert witnesses, district attorneys, and even the governor—Heller was left pleading for mercy from those to whom he had never shown any. After claiming that people were out to get him, they finally did.

Serving a suspendered sentence: Heller raises hell as deputies try to corral him last month outside a Bronx courtroom.
photo: Kenneth Heller
Serving a suspendered sentence: Heller raises hell as deputies try to corral him last month outside a Bronx courtroom.

Don't think that Kenny Heller's disbarment has kept him out of court. Even though his law license was taken nearly three years ago, four full-time employees and attorney Harmon still work for Heller in his cluttered office on the second floor of 299 Broadway. Is he mean to his workers, mean enough that an opposing attorney once begged a judge to order Heller to stop screaming at his own associate during a court hearing? Heller brings up Harmon's name when asked about that and says, "She's working here 27 years. She retired once and she came back. I hate to say what I gave her when she retired, I gave her $250,000 for her retirement—cash. What do you call that? Am I a nice guy or what?"

Harmon, in turn, sticks up for her tough-talking boss: "He's disbarred because he stands up against these big corporations that stand to lose a lot of money if Mr. Heller wins these cases."

Never having had kids, not close to his sisters, and with his Brazilian wife spending much of the time in her home country, Heller has made his work his life. He boasts that he works seven days a week, 12 hours a day, though he hasn't taken on a new client in 10 years.

Now that he can't practice, he's—what else?—frustrated. "I didn't steal, I didn't desert any clients, I didn't do anything wrong," he says. "I got disbarred because I keep talking about how crooked they [the judges] are."

But the time he spends in court these days isn't just tilting at corporate windmills. It's all aftermath stuff: He's mostly trying to procure unpaid fees and judgments, and that consumes all his time, he claims. It's possible. Aside from the cases in which he represented others, Heller is listed as a plaintiff on more than 100 Supreme Court lawsuits just in Manhattan.

He's apparently been working hard his entire life. A balding, stocky man with a workingman's thick forearms and hands, Heller was born in Sheepshead Bay three days before the "Black Tuesday" stock market crash and grew up working on fishing trawlers.

His father, an immigrant from Austria-Hungary, owned bars and diners, including the now famous Empire Diner. His mother, an immigrant from Poland, lost 300 friends and relatives in the Holocaust, he says.

Heller paints a colorful picture of his life, very little of which is verifiable at this point. When the family moved to Chelsea, Heller helped out in his father's rough-and-tumble saloons. As he tells it, he used a fake identity at age 14 to join the Merchant Marines during World War II. Then he went to Palestine and worked for the militant Jewish group Irgun. "I collected explosives to blow up the British," he says. Heller was "chased out" of Palestine in 1947, he says, and came home and attended Brooklyn College and the University of Miami. In 1950, he says, he entered New York Law School.

After graduating from law school, Heller joined the Army. His first assignment, he says, was running a boat that retrieved shells test-fired into Chesapeake Bay from a short-lived weapon called the Atomic Cannon. Eventually, Heller served overseas during the Korean War but was discharged after shattering his left hip when he fell off a tanker.

On October 19, 1955, at the age of 25, he was admitted to the bar. He spent the following decades stalking New York's courtrooms. While working cases in South America, he says, he helped track down Nazis—Heller proudly shows off a letter from another attorney that says a general in the Israeli army called him "a bit of a folk hero in the state of Israel."

Here in the city, he has no such reputation in some quarters.

The written decision in his disbarment case is famous among the city's lawyers for its harshness. The disciplinary committee that investigated his behavior recommended a two-year suspension, but the Appellate Division went far beyond that, saying:

"In light of the cumulative evidence of respondent's 24-year history of sanctions, his perverse and persistent refusal to accept adverse rulings, reflective of an utter contempt for the judicial system, and his consistent, reprehensible, unprofessional behavior, which has included screaming at, threatening and disparaging judges, adversaries and experts, intentionally defying court rulings, and disrupting and thwarting proper legal process through both physical and verbal aggression, we are of the opinion that the appropriate sanction here is disbarment."

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