A judge released disbarred divorce lawyer Nickola Cunha Monday from prison, where she had spent the weekend for defying court orders, and gave her lawyers 15 days to devise a plan for a competency evaluation to determine whether she can assist in resolving her legal predicament and help find new representation for former clients.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher disbarred Cunha in January while she was representing a party in an exceptionally bitter divorce. After a series of rulings adverse to her client, Cunha accused the presiding judge of protecting criminals, discriminating against the disabled and profiting from a corrupt judicial conspiracy that steered lucrative appointments to Jewish lawyers.
Moukawsher, assigned to resolve the dispute, took the unusual step of disbarment, accusing Cunha of “empty and malicious” claims of abuse and antisemitic declarations to win an advantage for her client by “snarling the case into an un-triable mess.”
In the hearings that followed, Cunha had been combative and defiant. She was silent Monday after being transported from the state women’s prison in Niantic and led into the courtroom in shackles.
Her lawyer, Norm Pattis, said in court Monday that Cunha’s friends and family have noticed a change in her personality in recent months and Moukawsher, wrestling with the legal implications of ordering a competency evaluation in a civil proceeding, agreed.
Moukawsher said Cunha’s relatively recent behavior “raises substantial questions about her rationality” and those questions “have found her in court, in chains.”
Pattis argued that Cunha “is not willfully disobeying the law but disobeying because she is not capable of obeying.”
Pattis said he and his associate, Cameron Atkins, engaged in “a lot of soul searching” before raising the competency issue with Cunha and her family over the weekend and in the courthouse holding cells Monday.
The lawyers urged Moukawsher to order Cunha to submit to a competency exam at state expense. But Ryan Staines, of the state judicial branch office responsible for disciplining lawyers and protecting client interests, resisted and argued that courts have authority to order competency hearings only in criminal cases.
Cunha’s case is a civil matter. She was arrested and jailed on a civil order called a capias for repeatedly refusing Moukawsher’s orders requiring her to cooperate with a trustee appointed to close her law practice and prohibiting her from withdrawing money from a client account.
As much as $70,000 may have been withdrawn from a client account in spite of the order, according to information presented in court Monday.
Staines pressed Moukawsher to craft an order that would require Cunha to produce client records so his office can ensure the interests of former clients are protected and complete an audit of her handling of client funds.
Last week, Cunha told the Courant that she has provided the disciplinary counsel with all appropriate client files and she denied misusing client funds.
Moukawsher’s order Monday was a compromise. He allowed Cunha to return home with her family and gave Pattis 15 days to report back to the court with a plan for a competency review. If Pattis were unable to devise a plan, Cunha would have to appear in court, in person, in 15 days. If she were to fail to do so, Moukawsher said he would issue another civil arrest order.