Attorney Avoids Sanctions Over Client’s ‘Staged Photos’

An attorney won’t be sanctioned for failing to discover that his client had lied about when digital photos were taken in order to support her case against New York City police officers.

Jason Leventhal was able to escape a sanction related to his having provided the city with 67 “staged photos” he got from his client, even though he could have uncovered his client’s fraud by checking the images’ metadata.

This decision “showcases the importance of verifying a client’s representation,” Judge William H. Pauley III, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, said.

Leventhal represented Angela Lawrence in a civil rights action alleging that New York City police officers entered her home in 2014 without a warrant, damaged her property, and stole $1,000 in cash.

Lawrence in 2016 gave Leventhal photos that allegedly depicted the condition of her apartment several days after the incident. The attorney saved the photos to a PDF, then handed them over to the city.

After Lawrence gave conflicting deposition testimony about who took the photos, Leventhal produced the photos to the city in native format. Metadata from the photos revealed that 67 out of the 70 photos had been taken two years after the alleged incident, and shortly before Lawrence gave them to Leventhal.

Leventhal then successfully moved to withdraw as Lawrence’s attorney.

It’s clear that Lawrence or someone on her behalf staged scenes of her apartment, Pauley said. The photos showed “ripped furniture, a couch turned over, a broken air-conditioner, and disassembled stereos,” the court said.

However, the court decided that Leventhal shouldn’t be sanctioned for handing over the fraudulent photographs.

Attorneys are required to certify that after a reasonable inquiry a production is complete and accurate, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(g).

“Leventhal’s production of the photos may have been careless, but was not objectively unreasonable,” Pauley said.

The photographs appeared to show damages consistent with Lawrence’s earlier testimony. A reasonable attorney wouldn’t have doubted their accuracy, he said.

Additionally, the attorney explained that, at the time of the production, he was unfamiliar with how to check to a digital photo’s metadata.

But the court declined to excuse Lawrence’s actions.

“Lawrence’s deceptive conduct and shifting excuses have completely undermined her credibility. This Court has no way of knowing what story Lawrence would offer if this case went to trial,” Pauley said.

Accordingly, the court dismissed Lawrence’s case as a sanction.

The city was represented by the New York City Law Department, Office of the Corporation Counsel.

Lawrence represented herself.

Leventhal was represented by the Law Offices of Michael S. Ross.

The case is Lawrence v. City of New York, 2018 BL 267050, S.D.N.Y., No. 15cv8947, 7/27/18.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Greene in Washington at mgreene@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: S. Ethan Bowers at sbowers@bloomberglaw.com