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Conn. Court Upholds $28.6 Million Verdict Against Former White House Lawyer

December 22, 2015

CHRISTIAN NOLAN, The Connecticut Law Tribune.

The state Appellate Court has upheld a $28.6 million civil judgment against a former White House lawyer who has been accused — and criminally convicted — of nearly beating his ex-wife to death.

John Michael Farren, a White House lawyer for former President George W. Bush, had argued on appeal that he should get a new trial because he was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital during the civil case, which deprived his constitutional right to a fair trial.

The trial judge and the Appellate Court ruled that Farren, who lived in New Canaan, failed to provide proof of his involuntary commitment. Farren had provided a certificate saying he was involuntarily committed but did not provide any further documentation backing it up. Had his doctor testified as to the need for the commitment, the judge may have delayed the trial, the Appellate Court said.

Ernest Teitell, of Silver, Golub & Teitell in Stamford, represents Farren's former wife, Mary Margaret Farren. He said he suspected that John Michael Farren had been trying to manipulate the legal system with his alleged involuntary commitment and not providing any documentation to support it. "We thought he was playing games with the system," said Teitell. "He was trying to prevent us from getting at the truth of the matter."

Farren was self-represented at the civil trial. On appeal, he was represented by Ryan McKeen of the McKeen Law Firm in Glastonbury. McKeen declined to comment for this story.

But the Appellate Court laid out the events that led to the trial being held without Farren's presence. Proceedings were scheduled to begin on Jan.10, 2012. But there were "significant delays" when Farren, who attended pretial hearings, repeatedly moved for continuances, instructed his counsel to withdraw, and moved to transfer the case to another judicial district, the court stated. On Dec. 2, 2013, the day before jury voir dire was to begin, the trial court denied another of Farren's motions for a continuance.

According to the Appellate Court: "The defendant warned that, 'I am currently under psychiatric treatment, and I really need to get a session in this week.... I really need that time. . . I may not be able to be here ....' The court reassured the defendant that it would try to accommodate his 'interests.'"' Jury selection began Dec. 3 and concluded Dec. 5. Evidence presentation was to begin Dec. 9. Shortly after 4 p.m. on Dec. 8 — a Sunday — Farren sent an email to the court reading: ''I'm in Hartford Hospital for treatment. Under the circumstances, travel to Stamford is impossible. Mike Farren.''

On the morning of Dec. 9, a court officer replied to the email, advising Farren to send a letter from his treating physician that included the reason for the hospitalization and how long he expected it to last. Even after a court recess, Farren had not replied. Mary Farren's lawyers requested a default judgment. The judge considered the motion overnight, and the next day granted the motion, offering these reasons: the case had been continued multiple times over four years; the jury had been selected; and the trial court had given the defendant an opportunity to provide medical documentation to avoid the default ruling.

The case continued as a hearing on damages. On Dec. 11, the court received a letter on letterhead of the Institute of Living, a division of Hartford Hospital. According to the Appellate Court, the letter appeared to be signed by a clinician and read: ''Please be advised that John Farren . . . was admitted to the hospital on 12/08/2013. The discharge date has yet to be determined.''

With no more information offered, the Appellate Court said, the plaintiffs continued to present evidence. On Dec. 17, the jury awarded $28.6 million to Mary Farren.

Flashlight Beating

Farren allegedly beat his wife in 2010 two days after she had served him with divorce papers. She had told him they couldn't work out their marital problems because of his temper. Mary Farren told police her then husband hit her with a metal flashlight, pulled strands of hair out of her head and put his hands around her neck and strangled her until she passed out. She also suffered facial fractures including a broken nose and jaw.

She then drifted in and out of consciousness after the attack. She finally summoned enough strength to run to a neighbor's home for help with her two young daughters, who were then 7 years old and 4 months old, respectively. She was taken to Norwalk Hospital for her injuries.

Farren was charged with attempted murder, first degree assault and first degree strangulation. He is now serving a 15-year sentence. The criminal charges were still pending at the time of the civil case against him by his ex-wife in late 2013.

Mary Farren is a former associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Washington, D.C. A senior partner at the firm testified during the civil trial about what a good lawyer she was. Other experts testified that her brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder left her unable to continue working.

"We've represented, for a number of years now, a very courageous woman who has been a victim of the most horrific assault you can imagine from her then husband," said Teitell. "It's been a long road. It's nice for her to get a recognition from the Appellate Court that the person who did this to her is not going to be rewarded for his gamesmanship."

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