The Suing Machine

Lawyer Hal Pollock filed more than 20 lawsuits, terrorizing an Old Brooklyn neighborhood. The courts finally told him to go to hell.

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Anne Master was an uncommon woman. In 1938, while most ladies of the day had their arms full of babies, she was learning obstetrics and gynecology at Women's General Hospital in Cleveland. After completing her residency and postgraduate work, she opened a practice and married an ear, nose, and throat man named John Master.

The Masters, who had no children, were a private couple -- some might say eccentric. Dr. Anne was especially peculiar about her money. She wore scrubs in leisure time and was reluctant to let anyone but family work on her house for fear of being taken by cheats. Sue Sazima, her grandniece, says Dr. Anne once asked her mother to buy several pairs of shoes that were on sale, then leave them on the porch. The next day, Dr. Anne decided she didn't want them, and Sazima's mother was called back to the stoop.

Sazima once asked her mother why she put up with Anne's dictating. "Your great-aunt delivered me three beautiful babies," she answered.

Cancer took Dr. Anne in 1991. Her death left Dr. John to fend for himself. "He had no one to tell him what to do," says Paul Chalko, the couple's tax attorney.

Neighbors on Brookside Drive in Old Brooklyn helped out here and there: shoveling the driveway, dragging the trash to the curb, picking up prescriptions. Joanne Kalynchuk, who lived next door with her husband Richard, brought Dr. John dinner most nights after Anne died. "What's three pork chops when you're making two?" she says.

Since 1989, the Masters had employed a part-time housekeeper, Rebekah Brunswick, to assist with the cleaning and shopping. Two years after Anne's death, Brunswick met John Nix, a self-employed securities broker who was in the midst of a divorce. They started dating.

Brunswick and Nix are no longer together, but it is not the relationship that matters. The trouble on Brookside Drive drew its essential character from the friendship that developed between Nix and Dr. John. Not yet a year after he met the doctor, Nix was named the sole beneficiary of his estate.

Neighbors were suspicious of Nix, as strangers who take a sudden interest in lonely old men are likely to arouse suspicion. When residents and relatives began to question his intentions, Nix hired a lawyer known for his relentlessness. Harold Pollock lived up to his reputation.

He ultimately filed more than 20 lawsuits, naming a range of supposed tormentors: neighbors, cops, politicians, opposing lawyers. One suit named a defendant, the defendant's attorneys, the defendant's insurance company, and the defendant's insurance company's attorneys. Even a judge used words like "Rambo" and "blitzkrieg" to describe Pollock's tactics.

"He is a legal terrorist," opines Michael Dobronos, who lived on the street that went up in a blaze of suspicion and accusation.

Brunswick first brought Nix to the Master home in March 1993. As Nix would relate the story, Brunswick asked him to help out around the house, which was a mess. Nix found 5800 Brookside Drive to be "thoroughly disgusting." Mice and rats scurried. The family Pomeranian relieved itself where it pleased. Even in health, the Masters had not been known for tidy housekeeping. The hallways were a tunnel of newspapers and magazines. "They just had some odd ways about them," Sue Sazima says.

Nix went to work. He held garage sales, painted the exterior, cut into the mountain of mail that Dr. John failed to open. Dr. John's papers were in such disorder, Nix said, that the IRS was moving to seize his assets. Nix later testified that if he hadn't taken the 80-year-old Dr. John to a kidney specialist (Master suffered from an enlarged prostate), his organs would have shut down.

Nix helped out the doctor because "I'm a nice guy," according to his testimony. His new friendship also held reciprocal value: Nix needed a home after separating from his wife.

On July 1, a few weeks after he turned 40, Nix moved in. He also formed a partnership with Dr. John to develop land next to the house.

The Master home, a two-story brick colonial, sits at the end of the street. The couple bought the home in 1947 and an adjoining four acres sometime in the 1950s. Though zoned for single-family housing, the wooded acres were never developed. The Masters apparently did not want anything but trees and squirrels between their home and Brookside Park, which lay to the north and the east. The arrangement served the neighbors well, too. The undeveloped land brought the park that much closer to everyone.

Nix, however, saw opportunity wasting. His idea was to build eight homes on the land.

At least one Brookside Drive neighbor frowned on the plan. Jack Sword lives with his wife, Carole, across the street. Sword always wanted to buy a piece of the land. Master, Sword says, never said yes and never said no. After Nix moved in, Sword called the doctor to inquire about the property. Sword was told to back off, in a letter signed by the doctor a few days later.

Residents reported their concerns -- about Dr. John as well as the future of the land -- to County Recorder Pat O'Malley, then a city councilman. O'Malley was already familiar with the situation. He says Nix had approached him about a tax abatement, which the councilman didn't support.

But O'Malley did ask the Cleveland police's fraud unit to investigate the doctor and his new friend. When detectives visited the home on December 7, they found Dr. Master to be competent and took no action. The same day, Dr. John named Nix his beneficiary.

On December 12, several Brookside Drive residents and O'Malley met at the Sword home. Three days after the meeting, a probate court investigator arrived at the Master house. He also found Dr. John to be lucid.

Eighteen days later, a slander and invasion-of-privacy suit was filed against the Swords on behalf of the doctor. The suit was but a prelude.

Hal Pollock came up through the rough-and-tumble precinct of collections work, helping lenders corner deadbeats. Over time, he came to specialize in real-estate law, where he showed a talent for smoking out shady deal-makers and making them pay. He was good in the library, good in the courtroom. He could deliver flawless opening statements without glancing at notes.

Pollock played an aggressive game. Cleveland attorney Joe Jerome, who has known Pollock for two decades, says he walks over coals for his clients: "When you engage Hal Pollock, he's going to turn over every stone and every piece of dirt under that stone."

Pollock sees himself as more than a lawyer. Ten years ago, a boat explosion in the Flats left an 11-month-old boy an orphan. Chuckie Hoffman's parents left no will, and four parties sought custody of the boy. Pollock represented the business partner of Chuckie's father. Custody was ultimately granted to Chuckie's father's cousin.

Still, Pollock saw the dramatic potential of the story. He appeared with his clients on a taping of the Donahue show and told The Plain Dealer that there was interest in a television movie. A fellow attorney says that Pollock even wrote a script, Baby in a Storm.

Pollock also fancies himself a first-rate songwriter. He's attempted to peddle his would-be hits to Barbra Streisand and Ricky Martin, and thought a song trilogy he wrote in the aftermath of September 11 should ring from every corner. "It's time we had a new national anthem, because as great as 'The Star Spangled Banner' is, it's outdated," he told Scene in 2001. "This is an anthem for the millennium."

But in late 1993, Pollock was focused on John Nix and his meddling neighbors.

Nix was not alone in his interest in Dr. John. Sue Sazima, Dr. Anne's grandniece and a Cleveland police sergeant, applied in January 1994 to become his guardian. She asked Paul Chalko, the Masters' former tax lawyer, to file the application.

Sazima, like the neighbors, distrusted Nix. According to a deposition Dr. John gave, Sazima once came to the house and told him that Nix was a con man out to rob him. After discussing the matter with Nix, the doctor reached a different conclusion: Sazima had the devious intentions. "She's a slime toad," the doctor later testified.

On March 29, 1994, Dr. John appointed Nix his conservator, effectively shutting out Sazima. She was instructed not to call or visit.

The same day Nix was appointed conservator, an envelope containing four audiotapes materialized on the desk of Chalko's secretary. Chalko played the tapes and heard phone conversations originating from the Master home -- mainly Nix talking to his attorneys and business associates. Chalko says Nix was heard asking questions such as how to avoid taxes on a house sale. In Chalko's opinion, "There was nothing on those tapes that was significant, from the standpoint of injuring Nix or injuring the doctor. The stuff on the tape was not disastrous in any way."

Chalko gave the tapes to Nix's real-estate attorney, Richard Klein, whose voice Chalko recognized. It is a decision Chalko regrets. "What I should have done is thrown them in the wastebasket and pissed on them," he says.

The tapes wound up in Pollock's hands, where they were cradled like gold.

A few weeks after the tapes surfaced, Pollock filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Nix, Dr. John, Brunswick, and Klein. The suit alleged that the Swords, O'Malley, Sazima, and Brunswick's ex-husband had engaged in illegal wiretapping, conspiracy to conceal wiretapping, and intentional infliction of distress. The complaint, built on circumstantial evidence, asked for damages of $15 million.

Two months after filing the wiretapping suit, Pollock sued Chalko. He claimed the lawyer was negligent in not recovering bearer bonds that belonged to the Masters. According to court records, before her death Dr. Anne had asked her sister, Lillian Autouri, to retrieve the bonds from a safe-deposit box in Florida. Anne died, and Autouri apparently kept them. (The FBI investigated a few years later, and Autouri returned $110,000 to Dr. John.) Chalko had been the go-between. Pollock added Sazima to the complaint, alleging that she and Chalko plotted to raid Dr. John's assets.

In 1995, Pollock filed another wiretapping suit on behalf of an accountant whose conversations with Nix were recorded. The next year, 13 Brookside residents, Chalko, the City of Cleveland, and others were added as defendants in the original wiretapping suit. The "conspirators" nearly filled a school bus.

The suits kept coming, like bursts of a stubborn storm. O'Malley had retained the law firm of Weston, Hurd to defend him. So Pollock soon filed racketeering charges against O'Malley and Weston, Hurd, claiming they violated wiretapping statutes when they used information from the tapes in court papers. The suit also alleged that Weston, Hurd had committed "legal malpractice." It was an odd claim, considering that Weston, Hurd never represented Nix. But Pollock argued that Weston, Hurd breached common-law duty by assisting O'Malley in committing unspecified crimes. Pollock hit Sazima's attorney, Nancy Schuster, with a similar complaint.

In Pollock's mind, it seems, to merely oppose his client was an actionable offense, and no relationship or conversation was innocent. Evil lurked outside every window, sometimes literally. Pollock tacked Jack Sword's brother-in-law onto the defendant rolls on the theory that, because he sometimes kept his van outside the Swords' house, the brother-in-law was a bugger.

Weston, Hurd attorney Hilary Taylor was amazed by not only the audacity of Pollock's claims, but their intensity. "For days on end, you would get six-inch stacks of pleadings," Taylor says. "The energy he expended just seemed incredible."

"This guy had to be working 22, 23 hours a day," O'Malley says. "He was a motion factory. Every day there'd be new documents, like he had been up all night."

Even a congressman was alleged to be in cahoots. Pollock took the tapes to the FBI soon after he received them. The feds told him that intercepting cordless telephone calls was not, at the time, a federal crime. But the investigating agent was named Richard Hoke. And it just so happened that then-Congressman Martin Hoke was a friend of O'Malley's. Sure enough, after getting hit with a racketeering suit, the congressman was forced to deny that he had a cousin named Richard or a relative who worked at the FBI.

"This thing has many tentacles," Pollock told The Plain Dealer in 1995. "Like Watergate, the cover-up has become greater than the actual crimes."

The Watergate comparison is instructive. Pollock may have seen Brookside Drive as his All the President's Men. "I always felt that Hal was trying to live out a screenplay," says Tim Brick, Chalko's attorney. "I think he envisioned this as a Sunday-evening miniseries."

But unlike Watergate, no one in this case was ever charged with a crime. It wasn't for Pollock's lack of trying. His complaints prompted two police investigations of Sazima: one for using department equipment to dig dirt on Nix, another for wiretapping. Sazima was never charged. Convinced the investigations had been a sham, Pollock sued the city and even petitioned the Ohio Supreme Court to compel prosecutors to bring charges. Never mind that Pollock, according to the police investigator, refused cops access to his clients and the tapes. "Mr. Pollock insists on an investigation, yet uses excuses not to cooperate," Cleveland Police Lieutenant Henry Tekancic wrote in his report. The high court told Pollock no.

Pollock never cracked the conspiracy in civil court, either. In 2000, an appeals court called his claims "meritless."

"It was very nerve-wracking, when an attorney tells you he's going to own all the houses on the street," says Jack Sword, the original defendant.

Brookside Drive residents like to note that in the 40 years before John Nix arrived, neighbors managed to coexist without suing each other. "To have such a frivolous lawsuit remain in the court as long as it did is very disappointing," Joanne Kalynchuk says.

Kalynchuk and Sword don't seem angry as much as awed by the ordeal. They choose their words carefully, as if not wanting to rouse old ghosts.

Michael Dobronos, a lawyer who lived on Brookside before moving to Brecksville, says the litigation stung elderly residents most. "They were afraid to walk in front of my house for fear of being seen with another quote-unquote conspirator," he says.

Homeowners' insurance covered most residents' legal bills, though it would not have paid if they were found guilty. "It's a little unsettling, knowing you maybe have a bill coming," Dobronos says.

Pollock knew only one speed: full. For the Sword slander suit, he sought to depose the parents of Brookside resident (and eventual "conspirator") Marlette Heryak. At the time, Heryak's mother was 98 years old. Her father had been dead since 1971. Heryak wrote a letter to Pollock, explaining that her father would not be available "unless you have some way of resurrecting him."

Pollock withdrew the notice to depose Heryak's father. He still wanted to interview her 98-year-old mother. Residents, though, had it easy compared to Sergeant Sazima.

A conspiracy claim that named Sazima and Chalko was the only one to go to trial. Judge Thomas Patrick Curran thought the evidence against Sazima so weak, he ruled in her favor before the case went to the jury. (The jury found Chalko guilty of malpractice, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.) In an opinion Judge Curran would later file, he recounted how Pollock approached Sazima's table after the verdict. "I will sue you again and again and again," he said.

As Curran wrote, "This was no idle threat." In all, Pollock named Sazima in five suits.

It wasn't crazy to consider Sazima as a principal figure in the wiretapping. She had motive and, as a policewoman, presumably the means. And although she denied making the tapes or knowing who did, she'd had them in her possession.

Sazima received the tapes from neighbor Bernice Ferencz, who told police she received a phone call from an anonymous man who asked if she was the neighborhood "activist." The caller said he had information about Dr. John's property, tapes he wanted her to hear. Ferencz told the man to leave them in her milk chute. She told police she then left them for Sazima, whom she had met at Dr. Anne's funeral and knew to be doubtful of Nix. (The elderly Ferencz was later named as another conspirator in Pollock's proliferating lawsuit.)

During the internal affairs investigation, Sazima admitted to receiving the tapes and sharing them with a superior. She also admitted giving them to Chalko. But it was never established that she made them. (Sazima did not escape an unrelated investigation, however. In 1995, she was one of six police supervisors found guilty of voiding tickets on their personal cars.)

Yet Pollock refused to let Sazima go. He attacked from multiple angles. According to court records, he contacted insurance companies in an attempt to dissuade them from extending Sazima defense or indemnity protection. He made several attempts to torpedo her attorney's malpractice coverage. And in letters to various city officials, Pollock called Sazima a "disgrace" and a "thoroughly dishonest cop." It was as if her sheer existence offended him.

After the Chalko verdict, Sazima's attorney asked the judge to sanction Nix and Pollock. Curran seemed pleased to grant the request. The judge said Pollock's conduct had been marked by "malice, hatred, and a spirit of ill will." He ordered Pollock and Nix to pay Sazima $78,000 to cover her legal bills.

"When a litigant's conduct is so patently self-destructive as to trump the essential objective of civil litigation," Curran wrote, "it is then that the hidden motive behind the suit becomes unmasked."

Chalko is less subtle: "He's a mean son of a bitch."

Pollock appealed Curran's ruling and lost. "It is high time that the appellants are called to task for their abuse of the legal process and their indifference to the havoc they have wreaked in the lives of any number of individuals through their vindictive, scorched-earth litigation strategy," the appeals court said.

Pollock, of course, appealed again. The Ohio Supreme Court declined to take his case.

Reluctant to talk about Pollock and Nix directly, Sazima speaks mainly about her family. She maintains that her concern for Dr. John was genuine. The doctor had stitched her tomboy wounds as a child. "I never asked my uncle for anything," she says. "I didn't do anything, and I don't know anybody who did anything."

The identity of the bugger (or buggers) has never been established in court.

In 1995, the Master house was sold for $145,000. Nix, Brunswick, and the doctor left Old Brooklyn for Bainbridge.

The partnership kept title to the undeveloped four acres, however. Finally, in 1997, a sign on the property went up: "Future Home of the Sadiki Mawiyah Islamic Center."

Nix's real-estate attorney, Daniel Lindner, insists that a group of Sunni Muslims came forward to buy the land. To others it looked as though the Muslims had been recruited. The notion of a mosque on a residential street in Old Brooklyn seemed too preposterous to believe.

"I think it was more of a harassment tool than anything else," Sword says.

So did NAACP President George Forbes. Lindner had approached Forbes about representing the Muslims. Forbes refused. He told The Plain Dealer that under the plan Lindner proposed, residents would shriek at the sight of Forbes and Muslims turning earth. "There's enough actual racism going on, without having to manufacture this phony stuff."

Stanley Tolliver, another prominent black attorney, also begged off the case. Tolliver says that it appeared to him to be "sort of a tactical thing by the person who owned this property." Lindner says Forbes and Tolliver are wrong.

Ultimately, the city moved to acquire the land by eminent domain. Nix sold for $170,000. Metroparks split the cost with the city and built a footpath to Brookside Park.

It's unknown what Dr. John thought of the deal. He died in the fall of 1995. The coroner's report lists pneumonia and kidney failure.

Dr. John gave a deposition two months before he died. The doctor was grouchy and weak on details, but he appeared in control of his faculties. He said he was happy living with John and Becky.

It seems fair to say that Dr. John traded his assets for caretaking. He was desperate, but not out of his mind. "He wanted to make sure he was taken care of," Joanne Kalynchuk says. "I think he was looking for the opportunity to guarantee his long-term care."

It doesn't appear that Nix did anything criminal. Indeed, the broker seemed to be gathering evidence from the moment he laid eyes on Dr. John. For instance, Nix took pictures of the house before and after the cleanup. He explained that he thought the photos would be fun. (Scene requested an interview with Nix through Lindner. "He doesn't want to talk to you," Lindner said.)

Nix was also wary of outsiders. A nun who checked on Dr. John after his wife's death told police that Nix and Brunswick made visitors sign in. Dr. John's urologist told police that Pollock asked him to sign a document "which appeared to imply that Mr. Master's family members were attempting to swindle him out of his financial worth." The urologist declined.

Nix's concern for Dr. John also seemed elastic. In deposition, Nix refused to divulge Dr. John's net worth -- which he said he knew to the penny -- on the grounds that "Dr. Master has had enough of his privacy invaded." But earlier in the deposition, Nix didn't think it bad form to volunteer that Dr. John wore adult diapers.

The business partnership, incidentally, was named "RBJN," for Rebekah Brunswick and John Nix. Dr. John's initials were left off.

Between Master's investments and property, Nix grossed at least $400,000 from his relationship with Dr. John. Nix had to spend some of it on court costs. The Master estate essentially bankrolled the litigation.

Nix, Lindner says, has left the state and wishes to forget the matter. "He really doesn't need his name dragged through all this again, especially with any implications he did anything wrong, because, quite honestly, from beginning to end, he never did." Nix is struggling to get by today, Lindner adds; publicity from the case killed his brokerage business. "Something wrong was done to this guy. He's the victim, and you're victimizing the victim. It's like saying the girl who got raped asked for it."

The "wrong," of course, is the wiretapping, which Nix wore like a crown of thorns. Shortly after the tapes' discovery, he was admitted to the hospital for an ailment "apparently brought on by stress," according to court papers Pollock filed. Throughout the proceedings, Nix whined about the intrusion on his and the doctor's privacy.

It is worth remembering, though, that the first lawsuit -- the Sword slander suit, which was eventually dismissed -- was filed three months before the tapes surfaced.

Two legal aces finally brought the caseload in for a landing. Terry Gilbert, the defense attorney who represented Sam Reese Sheppard in his suit against the county, relieved Pollock. "Nix was getting frustrated, and Hal was losing it over this case," Gilbert says. Patrick McLaughlin, who represented Weston, Hurd, spoke for the defendant coalition. A former U.S. attorney who was awarded the Silver Star for his service in Vietnam, McLaughlin commands respect as do few attorneys in Cleveland.

A final settlement was reached in 2000 under U.S. District Judge Donald C. Nugent's supervision. The settlement called for Nix and Pollock to drop all complaints; in return, the defendants would not sue Nix to recapture their legal fees. Several of the insurance companies involved agreed to pay Sazima's legal fees. Only O'Malley refused to sign off. He says he didn't want to be part of an agreement that didn't pay for Ferencz's legal fees. (She is suing her insurance company for failing to pay for her defense in one of the suits.)

The courts weren't done with Pollock, however. He had crossed the wrong tax lawyer. Chalko lodged a complaint against Pollock with the Supreme Court's Disciplinary Counsel. "He's an arrogant prick, is what he is," the crusty Chalko says.

In December, Pollock admitted to three violations of the Code of Professional Responsibility: engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, taking action that would serve merely to harass or maliciously injure another, and asking an irrelevant question intended to degrade a witness. (Examples of the violations were not specified.) Seven other violations were dropped.

The Disciplinary Counsel, Pollock, and his attorneys agreed to a six-month suspension of his license, which is stayed, provided that Pollock stays out of trouble. A panel will accept or change the agreement and take it to the full Board of Commissioners and Grievances.

A light sentence could be expected; lawyers are famous for taking care of their own. Yet Chalko is furious, as is O'Malley, who thinks Pollock should never be allowed to practice law. "Everywhere he's gone, there's been bodies left behind," O'Malley says.

Pollock, who would not speak to Scene for this story, does not appear to feel much remorse. After conceding the violations, Pollock testified before the Disciplinary Counsel. A panelist asked Pollock about one of the violations. According to staff attorney Lori Brown, "Mr. Pollock said, 'I didn't do anything. I didn't violate the rule.'"

Pollock's attorney, Larry Zuckerman, delivered a similar message to Scene. He sent a letter that discredited Judge Curran's sanctions ("the motivations for the opinion are questionable") and referred to the Disciplinary Counsel matter as a "claim," when in fact Pollock has admitted guilt.

And it seems Pollock is still seeing conspiracies, even in the motives for this story. In his letter, Zuckerman said readers should be advised that an online magazine Pollock founded last year, Citi-Music Cleveland, is "openly competing" for advertisers with Scene. "In light of the information provided to us, we must caution you against an unfair and malicious attack on a business competitor under the insidious guise of editorial content."

In a second letter, which arrived just before press time, Zuckerman claimed this story "is a violation of federal anti-trust laws, and constitutes a federal RICO conspiracy." Zuckerman also alleged that this article is in response to Pollock's refusal to buy advertising.

But for an enterprise that supposedly strikes fear in the hearts of other media owners, Citi-Music Magazine has not been terribly aggressive. The January issue wasn't posted until February.

At present, the magazine and a record label Pollock has founded appear to command his attention. The phone at his law office is disconnected.

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