Motion seeking to disqualify attorney representing police in sex assault case denied by judge

Jon Campisi Feb. 29, 2012, 6:39am

A federal judge has denied a motion by a plaintiff in a police sexual assault case seeking to disqualify the attorney representing the police personnel defendants.

Joanne Cipressi, who initiated a lawsuit against Bristol Borough, Pa. and a number of its police officials back on April 9, 2010, sought to have attorney Christopher P. Gerber disqualified from representing the defendants for his alleged actions relating to attempting to get a police officer to change his story with respect to a sex assault case against a fellow cop.

Cipressi claims that Bristol Borough Police Officer Samuel Anderson sexually assaulted her during an August 2008 encounter.

In her motion to disqualify Gerber from serving as the defendants’ attorney, Cipressi claimed that Gerber attempted to get police officer Ritchie Webb, who was the supervising officer in charge during the night of the alleged assault, to change his testimony regarding his recollection of the events involving Anderson and the plaintiff.

Cipressi asserted that the attempts were not productive, since Webb ultimately made it clear to Gerber that he was not going to “lie for anyone,” according to background information contained within the judicial ruling.

In April 2011, the court papers state, Gerber was notified that Cipressi was seeking Webb’s deposition, and that Gerber wrote to Webb advising the supervising officer of the deposition notice and stating that Gerber, nor anyone else from his office, would be representing the officer during the deposition.

Webb was troubled by the letter and stated his displeasure with Gerber to his sergeant.

He was later disciplined for conduct unbecoming of an officer after being accused of threatening to shoot someone, that someone believed to be Gerber, although Cipressi claims that Webb was retaliated against in an attempt to damage his reputation because Webb provided information to Gerber that was unhelpful to the defendants’ case.

“Plaintiff claims that Gerber and members of the Borough Police Department retaliated against Webb and that Gerber ‘personally and actively’ was involved in ‘subverting plaintiff’s Constitutional right to a jury trial by engaging in conduct equivalent to the spoliation of evidence by attempting to influence a key witness for plaintiff whose testimony fully supports Plaintiff’s … claim against Defendant Bristol,” the ruling states. “As Plaintiff sees it, Gerber’s attempted interference renders him ‘a substantial witness in plaintiff’s underlying case.’”

U.S. Magistrate Judge David R. Strawbridge, however, disagreed, writing in his memorandum opinion that “we are unable to agree that Gerber would in fact be a ‘key witness’ on the issues that are the subject matter of this litigation.”

Strawbridge wrote that Cipressi has in no way suggested that Gerber was involved in the hiring, training, supervision or discipline of police officers, nor had any connection with the subject matter of the underlying lawsuit until he was retained to represent the defendants “long after” the August 2008 incident actually occurred.

“Even if we were to accept that Gerber may have sought to influence Officer Webb, what matters would be the testimony of Webb, who has stated that he was not influenced by Gerber, and not the testimony of Gerber,” the ruling states. “The applicable standard requires more than the speculation offered by Cipressi that Gerber will, in fact, be a ‘necessary’ witness. Plaintiff has failed to meet her burden.”

Strawbridge said his ruling does not, however, foreclose Cipressi from renewing her disqualification motion if discovery warrants further consideration upon a more complete record.

Strawbridge further wrote that even assuming that Gerber is ultimately found to be disqualified from representing the defendants, Cipressi’s argument that Gerber’s law firm, Siana, Bellwoar & McAndrew, should also be disqualified “is without merit.”


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