HOUSTON — A former associate suing Berg & Androphy for back wages was warned Thursday by the judge in his trial that he was behaving like “a petulant child” on the stand and jeopardizing his case before a Harris County jury.
The unusual admonition from the bench came on the third and final day of testimony in Justin Pfeiffer’s breach-of-contract suit against Berg & Androphy, his former employer. The case is likely to go to the jury next Monday.
The firm’s partners demanded the resignation of Pfeiffer, a first-year associate, in September 2018 for what David Berg, the firm’s co-founder, testified was a series of lapses in judgment, culminating with Pfeiffer’s sending an email to opposing counsel in which he described Texas as “asinine.” Berg & Androphy was at the time representing renowned gymnastics coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi in litigation in Walker County, Texas, against the U.S. Olympic Committee; Pfeiffer’s email was sent to the USOC’s outside counsel.
Pfeiffer’s suit, before Harris County District Judge Cory Don Sepolio, contends that he is owed $32,000 for work he did in behalf of the Karolyis between Sept. 20, 2018, the day the firm told him to quit, and Nov. 27 of that year, when a federal judge in California granted a motion for his withdrawal as attorney of record for Berg & Androphy in a suit against the Karolyis brought by a victim of serial sexual predator Larry Nassar, a doctor for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team.
Berg & Androphy contends that it doesn’t owe Pfeiffer a dime and, moreover, that he is “unhinged” and a “vexatious litigant” who “harasses all whom he claims have wronged him.”
Pfeiffer testified that he sued Berg & Androphy only as a last resort to get unpaid wages he was owed.
“I was trying to do anything I could to avoid this,” he said. “But they have a might-is-right attitude.”
Pfeiffer is representing himself. His co-counsel is Louis Benowitz of West Hollywood, California.
Before filing suit against Berg & Androphy in Houston, Pfeiffer sued the firm in California state court, filed unsuccessful wage claims in California and Texas, and lodged unsuccessful complaints against David Berg with the California and Texas state bars. In the Texas bar complaint, Pfeiffer said Berg, now 81, was senile, has always believed the rules did not apply to him and was guilty of the unauthorized practice of law.
“Do you realize,” Zavitsanos asked Pfeiffer, “that in the 56 years Mr. Berg has been practicing law, he’s only had two … [bar complaints] filed against him, and they were both by you?”
Zavitsanos’s often caustic cross-examination of Pfeiffer lasted more than four hours over two days.
Judge Sepolio’s scolding of Pfeiffer about his acting like “a petulant child” occurred after Pfeiffer, on the witness stand, mimicked a gesture Zavitsanos had made and poked his index finger repeatedly at the defense attorney while answering a question.
The judge then sent the jury out of the courtroom and advised the witness he was playing into the defense’s hands with his conduct — and that the jury was taking note.
“This timeout is a favor to you,” Sepolio said.
This was the second time during Zavitsanos’ cross-examination that the judge took Pfeiffer to task outside the presence of the jury. The first was when Pfeiffer commented after Zavitsanos made an objection that Pfeiffer’s answer to a question had been unresponsive.
“No, I am responsive,” the witness said.
Judge Sepolio, visibly livid as he glared at Pfeiffer, threatened to find him in contempt of court if he spoke out of turn again.
“Wherever you think you are, you are in a court of law,” the judge said.
Zavitsanos, too, managed to irk the judge. After a series of questions about an email in which Pfeiffer mentioned that his boyfriend (now his husband) was a member of Spanish royalty, Zavitsanos made an offhanded comment about “the queen of Spain.”
Sepolio again ordered the jury out of the courtroom and admonished Zavitsanos that his reference to “the queen” could be interpreted as a homophobic slur.
“You owe this man an apology,” the judge said.
Zavantsanos apologized and said he never intended his words to be a commentary about Pfeiffer’s sexual orientation.