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In re Sondel

Supreme Court of New York, First Department

October 1, 2013

In the Matter of Jeffrey M. Sondel, an attorney and counselor-at-law: Departmental Disciplinary Committee for the First Judicial Department, Petitioner, Jeffrey M. Sondel, Respondent.

Disciplinary proceedings instituted by the Departmental Disciplinary Committee for the First Judicial Department. Respondent, Jeffrey M. Sondel, was admitted to the Bar of the State of New York at a Term of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court for the First Judicial Department on June 16, 1980.

Jorge Dopico, Chief Counsel, Departmental Disciplinary Committee, New York (Kevin E.F. O'Sullivan, of counsel), for petitioner.

Respondent pro se.

Angela M. Mazzarelli, Justice Presiding, Dianne T. Renwick, Rosalyn H. Richter, Judith J. Gische, Darcel D. Clark, Justices.


Respondent Jeffrey M. Sondel was admitted to the practice of law in the State of New York by the First Judicial Department on June 16, 1980. At all times relevant to this proceeding, respondent has maintained an office for the practice of law within the First Judicial Department.

By petition, dated October 22, 2012, the Departmental Disciplinary Committee seeks an order, pursuant to the Rules of the Appellate Division, First Department (22 NYCRR § 603.3), suspending respondent from the practice of law for seven months predicated upon similar discipline imposed by the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) dated March 10, 2011, which was affirmed on November 3, 2011 by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) (In re Sondel, File D2007-276 [BIA 2011]), or in the alternative, sanctioning respondent as this Court deems appropriate. The EOIR suspended respondent for his contumelious or obnoxious conduct at an immigration hearing.

On January 17, 2007, respondent appeared before an Immigration Judge (IJ) Jack Weil, at the El Centro Immigration Court, located inside a California Detention Center, for a conference in the Matter of M.H., in connection with three Burmese nationals seeking asylum, M.H., T.W., and T.Z. This was respondent's first appearance before IJ Weil. After IJ Weil informed respondent that he had never had a Burmese asylum case, respondent agreed to submit to the court background materials about the political situation in Burma. Respondent submitted the materials to the court days before the next scheduled hearing.

On April 3, 2007, respondent returned to the El Centro Court for M.H.'s and T.W.'s individual hearing. At the hearing, IJ Weil admitted that he had not yet read the background materials, but would do so after the hearing. Respondent refused IJ Weil's suggestion to put over the matter, stating that: "I will not come back... to sit here and do nothing but listen to you make a decision when I can be called on the telephone... [F]or me to fly out here [] just to hear a decision." IJ Weil then informed respondent that he might require further testimony at the next date and reminded respondent that he had known that the case was located in El Centro when he accepted it. Respondent later stated that were IJ Weil to require him to return to the El Centro Court, respondent would advise the BIA and "[t]he higher officials in Washington of what is happening." IJ Weil took this to be a threat.

During the asylum hearing, respondent stated to IJ Weil: "I don't know how you do things here but it's not satisfactory to me...And it's not permissible...It's not acceptable." Later, after informing IJ Weil that he would need 10 minutes for closing argument, respondent rejected the court's suggestion that he "start wrapping it up, " stating that "I will only do a brief argument, Judge, if I believe it's appropriate" and then continued to argue.

The next day, April 4, 2007, T.W.'s individual hearing was held at which time IJ Weil and respondent discussed the court's lack of familiarity with the situation in Burma and respondent's lack of familiarity with the way the immigration court was run in El Centro. Respondent then reiterated that it was difficult for him to travel back and forth between El Centro and New York and asked IJ Weil to take over two cases he has pending with IJ Staton. He had previously encountered some difficulty in the course of those cases, resulting in the Office of General Counsel's (OGC) June 12, 2007, issuance of an Informal Admonition against respondent for violating 8 CFR 1003.102(1). [1]

IJ Weil acknowledged respondent's unfamiliarity with how to practice in El Centro and informed respondent that there were no local rules because everyone treated each other with trust and respect. IJ Weil also acknowledged that "it's difficult when you're out of town because you're not accustomed to that." IJ Weil then stated that "once you get here and you see the environment, you'll learn it's a great environment to work. And I look forward to seeing you within the next couple of court dates."

Respondent next appeared before IJ Weil on September 10 and 11, 2007, in connection with the asylum cases of T.W. and T.Z. Both clients were granted asylum and the appearances were uneventful from a disciplinary standpoint.

On September 20, 2007, IJ Weil referred the matter of respondent's conduct for disciplinary purposes to the Disciplinary Counsel for EOIR, stating that he "[did] not believe that any person deserves to be treated the way Mr. Sondel treated [him]." On July 28, 2008, the EOIR counsel filed a notice of intent to discipline against respondent for having engaged in contumelious or otherwise obnoxious conduct at the April 3 and 4, 2007 hearings, in violation of 8 CFR 1003.102, and seeking to impose a one-year suspension. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) moved for reciprocal discipline. Respondent's answer denied certain allegations and raised defenses and he submitted supporting documentation.

On December 29, 2008, the disciplinary matter was assigned to IJ Mimi Tsankov. On October 19, 2009, she recused herself explaining that IJ Weil had recently been assigned to the position of Assistant Chief Immigration Judge (Acting) for Training and Education, making him her superior which created an appearance of a conflict.

By letter dated June 29, 2010, respondent apologized to IJ Weil, stating that he "regret[ted] that [he] made ill-advised and inappropriate remarks during [M.H.'s] hearing and [] realize[d] that...[he] should have been more temperate and respectful." Respondent explained that it was his first individual hearing before IJ Weil and in the El Centro Court, he had previously represented other members of M.H.'s family, who had expressed concern over ...

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