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December 28, 2015
CHRISTIAN NOLAN, The Connecticut Law Tribune. The Connecticut Appellate Court has upheld a $28.6 million civil verdict against a former White House lawyer who was accused—and criminally convicted—of nearly beating his ex-wife to death. The case presented the unique issue of whether a trial judge should have waited for an alleged suicidal defendant to be released from an involuntary hospital commitment before allowing the civil trial to take place.
John Michael Farren, a White House lawyer for former President George W. Bush, had argued on appeal that he should get a new civil trial because he was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility during the first trial, and that his absence from the courtroom deprived him of his constitutional right to a fair trial.
The trial judge and now the Appellate Court have 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 at the time of the trial but did not provide any further documentation. Had his doctor testified as to the need for the commitment, the Appellate Court opined, the judge may have delayed the trial.
Ernest Teitell, of Silver Golub & Teitell in Stamford, a lawyer for Farren's ex-wife, Mary Margaret Farren, said Farren was trying to manipulate the legal system and delay proceedings by claiming he was involuntary committed and then 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 represented himself during the course of the civil litigation. On appeal, he was represented by Ryan and Allison McKeen of the McKeen Law Firm in Glastonbury. Ryan McKeen declined to comment for this article. In court documents, however, Farren's lawyers provide his version of events. During pretrial hearings, Farren was regularly in the courtroom. But on Dec. 8, 2013, the day before the actual trial was to begin, Farren was suicidal, his attorneys stated.
"Since the night of the alleged assault, the defendant had lost everything he had loved and valued in his life: his marriage, his children, his earnings, and his freedom," Allison McKeen wrote in Farren's brief to the appellate judges. "He was facing trial in all three matters alone because his assets were frozen and he had no ability to hire counsel. His sister brought him to the Hartford Hospital/Institute of Living and after hours of observation, he was involuntarily committed."
Before he was admitted and cut off from communication, McKeen said Farren sent an email to the court stating that he was receiving treatment at Hartford Hospital and that travel to Stamford for trial the next morning would be impossible.
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. Farren, in court documents, claimed he did not receive communications while at the Institute of Living.
Mary Farren's lawyers requested a default judgment. Superior Court Judge Robert Genuario considered the motion overnight and the next day granted it, 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 from the institute signed by a clinician stating: "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 judge allowed the plaintiffs to continue to present evidence. On Dec. 17, the jury awarded $28.6 million. Of that amount, $20 million was for noneconomic damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault and battery.
Farren appealed the verdict and the trial judge's decision to proceed without him.
"The plaintiff and her counsel certainly benefitted from being unopposed at the proceedings. Conversely, the defendant lost nearly four times his life earnings without having the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses or present a defense," wrote Allison McKeen. "The plaintiff may attempt to justify the trial court's decision to proceed while the defendant was being held at the [Institute of Living] and physically restrained from attending trial, but this is not a circumstance in which the trial court was entitled to exercise judgment. A trial court has a great deal of discretion when conducting trial, but it never has the discretion to deprive a party of property without due process of law."
On appeal, Farren asked the judges to adopt a rule stating that involuntary commitment is reasonable grounds to not be present for trial. Teitell said to his knowledge, no other jurisdiction has adopted such a rule, nor is there any case law in Connecticut pertaining to the legal rights of civil defendants who are involuntarily committed. But, said Teitell, there have been cases where defendants couldn't attend trial for other health reasons.
In its decision, the Appellate Court cited a case in which a woman missed a hearing because she had out-of-state medical appointments but provided no further documentation or explanation as to why they could not have been rescheduled for another time.
"The burden imposed upon the defendant in the present case is not dissimilar to or at odds with previous burdens imposed by trial courts when parties have been unable to attend trial due to medical emergencies, and thus the defendant's claim that the trial court's decision was biased and rooted in stigma against mental illness is plainly without merit," wrote Judge Robert Beach Jr. "If we were to adopt the defendant's reasoning, we would compel trial courts to relinquish their discretion and find that commitment or any paperwork pertaining to a psychiatric disability constitutes per se reasonable cause. … [W]e conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendant's motion to open the default judgment."
Farren beat his wife in 2010, two days after she had served him with divorce papers. Mary Farren told police he hit her with a metal flashlight, pulled hair out of her head and strangled her until she passed out. She suffered brain injuries and facial fractures, including a broken jaw.
Eventually, she summoned the strength to gather up her 7-year-old and 4-month-old daughters and run to a neighbor's home for help. She was taken to Norwich Hospital and treated for her injuries.
Farren was charged with attempted murder, first-degree assault and first-degree strangulation. He is serving a 15-year sentence handed down in 2014. The criminal charges were still pending at the time of the civil trial in late 2013.
At one time, Farren was considered a hot commodity in the Republican Party. He had started his political career in the mid-1970s as a campaign director for U.S. Rep. Ronald Sarasin of Connecticut. After graduating from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 1982, his political connections landed him prominent governmental positions, first with the U.S. Commerce Department under former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and later as deputy White House counsel under George W. Bush.
Between those posts, Farren spent 15 years at Connecticut-based Xerox, starting as a government affairs specialist in Washington in 1992 and becoming general counsel in 2003.
Mary Farren is a former associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. 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. Of the $28.6 million jury award, $8.6 million was for economic damages, including lost earnings and future lost wages.
"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."