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Lawyer receives third suspension for disrespecting court staff, judge

A Minnesota lawyer who has already been suspended twice and admonished three times since being admitted to practice law in 1990 has been suspended again. Peter Nickitas, who once told his opposing counsel to sleep with the fishes, has been suspended once again.

In an order handed down on Jan. 11, the Minnesota Supreme Court imposed a suspension of at least 120 days for a number of reasons, including using profane, abusive, and obscene language while communicating with court staff, making false and disparaging comments about a judge, and attempting to exert improper influence on a judge.

The petition for discipline arose out of Nickitas’ representations of two parties, H.B. and L.A. H.B. filed a suit pro se with in forma pauperis (IFP) status. He was required to renew the status annually but missed the deadline, so Nickitas filed a notice of appearance as his counsel. Nickitas then became belligerent, using offensive and obscene language, when speaking with the court operations supervisor about the IFP application process.

Another client, L.A., also attempted to get IFP status. When inquiring about the IFP status of L.A., Nickitas inexplicably became incensed and, as the court characterized, “used the word ‘f—’ multiple times to express his discontent.” Nickitas went on to tell the civil division lead worker that “You people do not know what the f— you are doing.” The conversation was so loud that the employee’s supervisor was able to hear his voice through the phone.

The employee transferred the call to the supervisor, at which point Nickitas asked which judge was involved. After learning the judge’s identity, Nickitas exclaimed, “She doesn’t even know what the f— she’s doing” and “she probably barely passed the f—— bar.”

Unaware that the IFP petition was granted, Nickitas then drafted a letter to the judge, in which he accused her of discriminating against a disabled veteran who needs public assistance. The chief judge, who was copied on the letter, testified that the letter was the most inappropriate and disrespectful letter he had seen.

Nicole Frank, senior assistant director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, stated, “At its core, this case involves a profound lack of professional judgment and self-regulation.”

The court found that Nickitas’ conduct with court staff was abusive and serious. It also expressed disapproval of Nickitas’s false and derogatory statements about the judge. The court condemned his attempts to pressure the court into granting IFP, stating that he “undermines the judicial system’s commitment to the rule of law and fair process.”

Nickitas has been previously suspended by the Minnesota Supreme Court for what was characterized as “bullying behavior.” The petition included scenarios where Nickitas insulted opposing counsel during an arbitration, saying she could not read and needed glasses. At a different hearing, he screamed nose-to-nose with the attorney. After following opposing counsel out of the classroom, he remarked that he hoped that she “sleeps with the fishes.” Nickitas had to be separated by another attorney and court security staff. He was suspended in 2013 for 30 days for this behavior.

Previously, Nickitas was admonished for directing a sexist epithet to a self-represented opposing party. He was also suspended in 2005 for a consensual sexual relationship with a client.

Mitchell Hadler, who represented Nickitas, noted that Nickitas admits, he has an anger-management problem and is seeking counseling for it. “Three years have passed, and there have been no outbursts similar to that.” Hadler cited a change in type of legal work as one of the causes of Nickitas’ behavioral changes.

Nickitas’s alleged lack of remorse was an aggravating factor in the case. He denied the lack of remorse. However, the court maintained, “The referee did not err in finding that Nickitas’ testimony failed to reflect that he understood the wrongful nature of his misconduct in abusing staff, impermissibly questioning a judge’s integrity and qualifications, and attempting to improperly influence a judge.”

Nickitas also attempted to excuse his behavior by citing work stress. The court did not buy it. “Being a lawyer is a stressful job, but we expect professionalism from lawyers despite the reality of such pressures,” the court wrote.

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