Monsters of Misery Court

Why are divorce lawyers so afraid of the Stafford brothers?

Joe and Vince Stafford
They're the subject of more whispered shit talk than any other divorce lawyers in town. Start asking questions about the Stafford brothers, and word whips around the courthouse, from lawyer to bailiff to judge to magistrate, all the way down to court reporters in the basement.

But ask lawyers to speak publicly about Joe and Vince Stafford, and things go strangely quiet. Suddenly, people who make hefty coin blistering divorcees have nothing at all to say.

Marshall Wolf is considered one of Cleveland's toughest divorce lawyers. When asked for his views about the Stafford brothers, he responds, "For attribution?" When the answer is yes, he briskly hangs up.

In fact, dozens of divorce lawyers refuse to talk about the Staffords. Of those who will, most won't do it on the record. They prefer to rattle off the names of colleagues they hope might have the gall. Few actually do.

The silence extends to court workers. When a reporter calls Judge James Celebrezze's chambers, aide Gerryl Wesley refuses to even say whether a scheduled hearing will take place. "I don't want to get involved in Mr. Stafford's stuff," she says, testily ignoring the fact that this is the taxpayers' "stuff," not Joe Stafford's. After that, she won't even pick up her phone.

Then comes the strange, shadowy assault from the brothers' enemies. Men call from pay phones and private numbers: I hear you're doing a story about the Staffords? They refuse to give their names, but they call again and again, eager to provide dirt.

Meet me at the Tower City fountain, one finally says, as if he's trading classified secrets. At the fountain, a pudgy, stone-faced young man comes barreling past. He hands over a thick envelope before disappearing into the crowd without a word.

The envelope, just like those that magically arrive in the mail, is packed with notes and court records detailing the brothers' physical and legal battles. The secret men want you to know about fistfights and intimidation. About the county bar association's unsuccessful attempts to charge them with dozens of rules violations.

They want you to know all this -- badly. They just don't want the Staffords finding out who told you.

"I don't want to be in a public fight with these guys," one lawyer finally explains. "It's bad enough being in a private fight with them."

The hallway is where the sad people sit, on benches a few seats down from former lovers. When they first arrived, months or years ago, things seemed official, professional, regal. There were carefully pressed suits and leather attachés and marble pillars and gold trim and . . . justice. It felt as if justice could come at any moment. But when you come here enough -- up the swirling staircase to the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court -- you begin to understand that there is no justice. At least not here. It's like the BMV on a gray Saturday morning -- a place where nothing good can come until everything is ruined.

In 1993, after four years as a divorce-court bailiff, Matt Zone knew this well. He had walked these gloomy halls hundreds of times, and he'd seen plenty of hearings devolve into $1,000 arguments over $100 TVs. But, he says, it had never come to this.

Zone, now a Cleveland city councilman, was lingering near the door of his office, where he worked for Judge Cheryl Karner. Two lawyers who had just finished a meeting walked into the hall to brief their clients. That, says Zone, is when he heard Joe Stafford's voice.

"He called my judge a fucking bitch," recalls Zone.

At five foot eight, Zone gives up at least six inches to the tall, lean lawyer. His boyish smile and prim suits don't suggest an inner brawler. But he'd heard enough from this "punk in an $800 suit," says Zone.

So he stepped into the hall.

"Pardon me?" he asked Stafford.

"You heard me," Stafford shot back, rising from his seat.

"You're a fucking asshole," Zone countered.

For the sad people, this was the $250-an-hour justice they had purchased: two men shouting at each other. But to Stafford, it was leverage. He vowed to use the incident to get Karner kicked off the case, says Zone.

"He could be one of the best lawyers in our county if he could just channel his abilities in a productive manner, as opposed to dealing in scare tactics to intimidate people," says Zone, whose toe-to-toe with Stafford ended without blows.

It's all part of the brothers' strategy, rival lawyers claim. They "bring gasoline to the fire," veteran lawyer Richard Koblentz says. They push every button, use every maneuver imaginable, until the other side either quits or decides to throw down.

"The business I'm in can be miserable enough anyway," Koblentz says. "But to them, it's like a joke."

Whatever the brothers do, they do it carefully. If Joe Stafford did call Karner a bitch, he did it where no court recorder or judge could hear him.

Loretta Coyne, a longtime divorce lawyer, once testified that for a while, Stafford routinely pulled her aside in the hall to threaten her, telling her, "You're going to be the sorriest person that ever walked the face of the earth."

Terry Grier says that Stafford, his wife's divorce attorney, taunted him in the courtroom when the judge wasn't around. He claims the lawyer once told him, "By the time I'm done with you, you're going to be a very poor man."

At 38 years of age, Vince Stafford seems to have earned fewer enemies than 45-year-old Joe. But he hasn't been without troubles.

Vince maintains a general practice to go with his divorce work -- he's even done work for some Browns players. In 2004, he was representing a doctor in a legal malpractice suit against lawyer Robert Housel.

When a rich lawyer helps a rich doctor sue a rich lawyer, there's little hope for a dignified outcome. During two depositions, Stafford and Housel abused each other so relentlessly that Judge Nancy McDonnell was forced to supervise the deposition to keep things under control. Though transcripts paint Housel as the attacker and Stafford as the collected professional, she shed light on what faceless transcripts can't.

"Every time I speak, you make audible noises that are derogatorily -- don't interrupt me or you will be in contempt," the judge told Stafford. "You have grunted at me, you have thrown your hands up repeatedly, and I don't know where you think that is a successful strategy, but it's not here, and I will not tolerate it. Do you understand that?"

Suddenly, Stafford recalled his manners. "Yes, your honor," he replied. "And if I did that --"

A nifty lawyer trick: apologize without admitting wrongdoing. But the judge wasn't new to nifty lawyer tricks.

"No, don't say 'if,'" she interrupted. "Because you did. Many, many times."

During a divorce hearing last month, Stafford told a magistrate that his opposing lawyer, Yvonne Harris, had claimed she would "get what she wants in your courtroom," a transcript shows.

Harris returned fire, saying Stafford was implying that the magistrate would fix the case because both Harris and the magistrate are black.

"You are a liar," Harris told Stafford. "I never said that . . . You're disgusting and I am going to write a grievance against you."

"This is ridiculous," Stafford shot back, trying to turn the tables. "This is ridiculous. This is ridiculous, Your Honor."

Once again, a couple waiting for their lives to be divided watched high-priced lawyers volley insults -- and watched their hearing fall apart so completely that the magistrate had to cut it short.

"Stop," the magistrate finally told the lawyers. "Now you're acting like complete fools in front of your clients. I wouldn't be surprised if they both just step out and [say], 'Let's just resolve this ourselves. Get rid of attorneys that act like this.'"

As battles between lawyers usually do, the confrontation ended with lots of huffing and no fisticuffs. But that's not always the case.

Another morning at the office. That's all it was for Pam Block. It was June 1991, and Block was just arriving at the Public Square office of her boss, Joe Stafford.

The legal secretary had been working for Stafford since the 1980s, when he started his divorce practice. Stafford moved from Dayton to Cleveland in 1982 and got his law degree from Cleveland State two years later. His little brother followed. By 1991, he was clerking for Joe while finishing law school.

In the early years, Joe Stafford was a charming, generous boss, Block recalls. But as his business grew, he developed a penchant for cussing her out, throwing office supplies, and breaking things, she claims.

At the time, Stafford was subleasing space from an older attorney named John Heutsche. When Block walked into the office, Heutsche and the Stafford brothers looked disheveled and battered, she says.

In a subsequent lawsuit, Heutsche claimed that Stafford owed him money and refused to pay, and that the brothers "without provocation . . . assaulted and attacked" him.

Court records offer few details of the incident, though Joe Stafford claimed Heutsche was the attacker. (Heutsche, like others who have had run-ins with the Staffords, did not return Scene's phone calls. The Staffords presumably have a different version of events, but the brothers did not respond to repeated interview requests.)

The case was eventually settled, but not before a judge issued a restraining order against the Staffords.

Over the next five years, the Staffords continued to amass a roster of clients -- and a catalog of enemies to go with it.

One was Loretta Coyne. She was 16 years older than Joe Stafford, but she'd built a friendly professional relationship with the rising lawyer. So friendly, Coyne would later say, that in early 1996, she found herself horsing around with him in the courthouse halls.

As they talked back and forth, just "screwing around," she would say, it somehow went too far. "He grabbed my throat and he choked me," Coyne later said, according to court records. His hands cut off her windpipe "long enough that I couldn't catch my breath."

Coyne told a magistrate about the incident, but never filed a complaint, and years later maintained they were joking around. (She refused Scene's interview requests.)

But two years after the incident, in February of 1998, Stafford had his hands on her again, Coyne would later allege. It was late afternoon, and Coyne and her client were waiting for a meeting at Stafford's law firm when Stafford emerged from his office.

"Coyne," he said, according to her later testimony. "Get in my office."

As she reached the door, Stafford shoved her from behind, hard enough that she nearly fell over, she said. He wasn't joking this time, she said. Stafford wanted to settle a case, but Coyne was resisting. "He was really very, very upset with me," she said.

Though she was disturbed by the episode, Coyne again let it go. But two years later, Howard Schulman, a lawyer for the county bar association tapped to investigate, called Coyne about the incident.

Though Coyne told him she "wanted no part of it," Stafford began pulling her aside in the courthouse halls and "threatening and threatening and threatening me," she later testified. "He told me I was going to be sorry. He told me he was going to get even with me."

The bar eventually filed a formal complaint with the Ohio Supreme Court. Stafford denied both incidents and didn't even acknowledge "screwing around" with Coyne in the hall, according to court transcripts. The day he allegedly pushed her, it was Coyne who was misbehaving, Stafford claimed.

He complained about her "outrageous conduct" and said that "she put her thumb to her nose and started waving her fingers." The court's disciplinary board dismissed the charges, ruling that Coyne wasn't injured and had never filed any complaints on her own.

Vince Stafford appears to have limited his physical battles to men. In 1998, he made headlines when he brawled with another attorney, Vincent Gonzalez. According to a bar association complaint, the two lawyers were screaming at each other in the office of Magistrate Barbara Porzio. After Gonzalez called Stafford a "piece of shit" and Stafford called Gonzalez a "total asshole," Gonzalez left Porzio's chambers and walked into the nearby courtroom. According to the complaint, Stafford followed him. Somebody threw a punch -- it's not clear who -- and a fight broke out.

The Supreme Court didn't single out an aggressor in the case. And brawling outside a courtroom is apparently no big deal: Neither lawyer got more than a simple chiding. But years later, the fisticuffs remain a major chapter in Stafford lore.

"If the Staffords are on a case," says lawyer Mike O'Shea, "you've got one big Jerry Springer Show."

It wasn't long after the Stafford-Heutsche brawl that Pam Block left the firm. Though Joe Stafford always claimed to have fired her, Block says it was a mutual parting.

But once she was gone, she began getting call after call from lawyers who wanted dirt on the Staffords.

One call came on behalf of Bob Kracht. In 1990, less than a year after he had finally settled a bitter divorce with his wife, Denise, she filed a motion to move the couple's children out of state. But the motion never reached Bob. Joe Stafford, Denise's lawyer, twice sent the paperwork to Kracht's former address instead of his home or business address, court records show. As a result, Kracht missed the hearing, and the court allowed his ex-wife to take the children to Michigan.

Kracht objected. He claimed Stafford "colluded and conspired" to send the paperwork to the wrong address. And while it sounds like a desperate plea from a father about to lose his kids, Kracht had some evidence.

He filed an affidavit from Block, who claimed that Stafford told her to send the paperwork to the wrong address, so "Denise Kracht could move to Michigan before Mr. Kracht could take any action."

Block said Stafford routinely directed her not to send paperwork to opposing lawyers. If questioned, she was told to produce backdated letters showing that the paperwork was sent, according to her affidavit.

In the same case, another former secretary, Cynthia Hetman, signed her own affidavit accusing Joe Stafford of not sending motions and backdating letters to cover himself.

Stafford denied their allegations and sued both former employees for libel. The women were the pawns of a few bitter lawyers trying to bring him down, he claimed. Because he'd fired them, they would now say anything to ruin his career.

Yet Block said she had no desire to tangle with a man she feared. "In the past," she said in a court filing, "when confronted by [Stafford], I have been subjected to threats of physical harm and I fear for my safety." Stafford denied threatening the secretary.

Kracht's dispute was resolved without the court ruling on the women's claims. Both lawsuits against the secretaries were dismissed. (Hetman declined Scene's interview requests.)

But the county bar association also worried that Joe Stafford was violating court rules.

In 1998, Stafford was representing Therese Martis in a custody fight with her husband, Samuel. A judge ruled that Samuel could take the couple's children for Christmas Eve. The husband showed up at his ex-wife's Lyndhurst home at the ordered time -- 9 p.m. on December 23 -- accompanied by two cops. But, according to another complaint filed by the bar association, Therese Martis resisted.

She called Stafford. He spoke by phone to one of the cops, who read the judge's order to Stafford. But after Mom finished talking with her lawyer, she decided the kids weren't going anywhere.

The bar association claimed that Stafford ordered Therese to ignore the judge's order. Yet the bar was unable to prove its charges. All told, it has accused Joe Stafford of 27 disciplinary rules violations. He's been acquitted on every one.

Many disciplinary charges can be repelled by simply arguing that the lawyer was zealously defending his client's interests. By all accounts, the Staffords represent their clients as zealously as anyone. But not every client walks away feeling good about it.

Sitting in his downtown office, Joel Sacco quickly makes it clear that he is one of those guys: a guy who believes that someone needs to take the fight out of divorce law, that lawyers and judges need to do more to strip the process of its ferocity. Rely more on mediators, less on the courts. Strive for speedy resolutions. That sort of thing.

Sacco is the personnel director for the Cuyahoga County Auditor's Office, but it's obvious that he left his heart in divorce court. He spent 20 years there, as a lawyer, bailiff, and magistrate. He also hosted a radio show devoted to family law.

As a magistrate, Sacco says, he oversaw at least 100 cases handled by the Stafford brothers; he even became friends with Joe. He came to this conclusion: "I wish that he could have more of a heart."

There's little doubt that the Staffords' strategy has made for lucrative business. The brothers have built one of the divorce bar's biggest roster of clients -- people willing to pay more than $300 an hour for their services. "They're bulldogs," says former client Bradley Baumann. "They're the best, if you have a tough case."

"They are aggressive," adds Joseph Cirigliano, a former visiting judge in the court. "They are absolutely well-prepared. They give no quarter and they seek no quarter. They do what they think is best for their client, and at times they may seem unreasonable. But I think that's their form of advocacy."

But even if the Staffords' strategy results in victory, Sacco and others question what they've achieved for their clients.

In testimony related to one of the disciplinary cases, Judge Christine McMonagle, who now sits on the 8th District Court of Appeals, sharply criticized Joe Stafford's approach. Though Stafford is a skilled litigator, she said, he costs couples unnecessary time and money, and pushes families further apart. "Is he aggressive? Yes," the judge said. "Does he fail to file motions that are appropriate to a case? Never. Does he fail to object? No."

But when it comes to managing conflict and moving families through the court swiftly and cost-efficiently -- attributes the judge considers the hallmarks of a good divorce attorney -- "he is not a good lawyer," she said.

Sacco often was charged with examining the brothers' bills to determine the payment of legal fees. He would sometimes walk away wondering: "Why did this case need $22,000 or $55,000 in attorney's fees? They only had $100,000 in assets."

The Staffords declined multiple interview requests and did not respond to written questions about their billing. But a former Stafford associate tells Scene that the firm's bills were accurate when he worked there. "We did everything super by-the-book," says former employee James Powell, who now teaches English in California. "If we didn't, Joe would flip."

Anyone who's spent time in divorce court knows the bill adds up fast. When everything is on the line -- your house, your kids, your life -- you'll scratch and claw over every last detail. But when the tab finally comes, buyer's remorse is common. "They go completely out of hand, because they're getting divorced," Powell says of the clients. "Their life is really turned upside down."

But Block, the former secretary, also raised questions about Stafford's billing. In 1993, client Karen Skinner questioned the firm's fees after she was sued for not paying her $44,000 bill. Skinner filed an affidavit from Block, in which the former secretary ripped Stafford's billing practices and client relations.

Block said she was "instructed not to call [the client] on many occasions." She said Stafford told her, "I don't want her bitching at me because I'm getting a continuance." When the client called, Block said Stafford would tell her: "I don't want to talk to that bitch," according to her affidavit.

Stafford also billed clients his hourly rate for work Block did herself, she said, and billed Skinner for several hours of work that took 15 minutes. "Mr. Stafford's attorney fee bill is not true," she swore in her affidavit. "It is fraudulent."

But the judge apparently wasn't buying. Stafford has denied Block's allegations, and a judge ordered Skinner to pay her bill.

Joe Bancsi doesn't get it. He is a bearded, jolly man, who proudly tells of dodging gunfire as a boy during a revolt in his native Hungary. In his 32 years as a Cleveland divorce lawyer, he's seen his share of nasty lawyers.

So when he hears criticism of the Staffords' tactics, Bancsi doesn't understand. "In the divorce arena, people want that," he says. "They don't want a wimp as a divorce lawyer. Divorces are so emotionally charged, and people have so much emotion invested, they don't want to sit down and settle. They want to fight."

Bancsi says other lawyers spend too much time fretting about the Staffords and not enough time standing up to them. "They're abrasive," he says. "Sometimes they get personal in their attacks. A lot of lawyers, they don't have the stomach for it. They can't handle it. If you can't deal with that, you shouldn't be doing that kind of work."

If the Staffords do get out of hand, Bancsi blames judges and magistrates for not controlling them. And he's not alone.

O'Shea says the brothers' antics "would never be tolerated for one moment" outside divorce court. "I don't see it in the probate court, I don't see it in juvenile court, I don't see it in the criminal court. It is just amazing to me. The judges over there just let stuff like that fly."

But Joe Stafford preys on a system stocked with people on the edge of undoing, O'Shea claims. "He's too much of a wimp to stick his head in a criminal courtroom and get his ass kicked three ways to Wednesday. Cross-examining housewives is the easiest thing in the world. How hard is it to make a housewife cry?"

It's a dark April day, late in the afternoon. Inside the courtroom of Judge June Rose Galvin, a trial in a three-year-old divorce case is about to begin. Out in the halls, Joe Stafford is hiding.

Stafford isn't interested in being the focus of this story. In the courthouse halls weeks earlier, he made himself clear, telling a reporter, "I'm not going to talk to you."

On this April day, Scene has asked Galvin for permission to photograph the upcoming trial. A photographer is standing in the hallway when Stafford comes walking around the corner.


Stafford scoots behind a small sign, hollering something indecipherable as he tries to escape the lens. Then he slips into the judge's chambers.

But after Stafford enters the courtroom through the judge's office, Galvin issues an order allowing the photographer to fire away.

Stafford objects. He doesn't want his picture taken, he says. He wants to take up the matter with the appeals court.

He made the same request in a different courtroom a day earlier, and it worked. But Galvin says no. She allows Stafford to take a 20-minute lunch, but after that, pictures are fair game.

Twenty-seven minutes later, the judge is back in the courtroom, wondering aloud where Stafford is. Suddenly, he pushes through the door and declares himself ready to go.

The trial will have to be postponed, the judge says; it's too late in the day to start now. But the parties will have to agree on the next date for a hearing, so the photographer walks to his assigned corner to begin shooting his pictures.

Stafford flies up from his chair and heads for the door. "I'm leaving," he declares. "I'm not going to stay in here and let him photograph . . ."

The judge watches him walk out without a word.

Back in the hall, he hides behind two of his employees, who escort him back into the judge's chambers, like bodyguards protecting a rock star from autograph hounds. The photographer waits and waits, but the door doesn't open. Stafford isn't coming out -- at least not until the photographer has given up and gone home.

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