Lawyer’s custody case role criticized

Jeanne Winkler was suspended from the practice of law in March 2008 amid allegations that she had misappropriated more than $200,000 from her attorney-client trust account.

But that didn’t stop a newly elected Family Court judge from delegating authority to her in a bitter custody battle.

In December 2009, Judge Kenneth Pollock appointed Winkler as a parenting coordinator and "special master" in the dispute between Carline "Lina" Von Gardner and her ex-husband, Daniel Gardner.

Several legal experts said Winkler’s involvement in the case raises legitimate concerns.

"It would give me great pause that somebody under disciplinary action would be in that position," said Reno attorney Raymond Oster, chairman of the State Bar of Nevada’s family law section.

Pollock removed Winkler from the custody case in March, shortly before a disciplinary panel recommended that she be disbarred for life. That recommendation is pending before the Nevada Supreme Court.

During the two months Winkler worked on the custody case, she ended the children’s sessions with their therapist and determined that the mother’s visitation with her three sons should be supervised. She also charged the parents thousands of dollars for her services and admitted that she had screamed at the mother during a telephone conference.

Pollock discharged Winkler after concluding that her services no longer were needed, but the suspended lawyer’s rulings remain in effect pending the outcome of a trial, which began in April and is scheduled to conclude Thursday.

Neither Pollock nor Winkler, a law clerk in Bret Whipple’s office, returned calls from a Review-Journal reporter seeking comment for this story.

Chief District Judge Art Ritchie, who sits in Family Court, described Winkler’s involvement in the custody case as "curious."

"I mean, I’d definitely want to know more," he said.

The court maintains a list of 18 people who have gone through training to serve as parenting coordinators. Winkler’s name does not appear on the list. In fact, the list does not include any lawyers.

Instead, the list contains the names of licensed clinical social workers, licensed marriage and family therapists, and psychologists.

Attorney Randall Roske, who represents Lina Von Gardner, said Winkler "isn’t by training or demeanor somebody who’s suitable to do this job."

Roske joined the custody case after Winkler’s appointment. His client’s previous lawyer, Stephanie Keels, and the father’s lawyer, Mary Perry, had agreed on Winkler’s involvement in the case.

Lina Von Gardner insists she knew nothing about Winkler’s background.

Keels could not be reached for comment, but Perry said everybody — including the judge — knew about Winkler’s status as a suspended attorney.

Winkler made the same assertion during a March 10 hearing in Pollock’s courtroom.

"I am absolutely 100 percent very careful in every one of my dealings to disclose that I am suspended, I am not presently a licensed attorney," she told the judge. "In fact, when I wanted to stay on the mediation list for this court, I sought the opinion of the State Bar, and they said, ‘No, you can continue doing that, because that is not practicing law.’ It’s the same thing being a parenting coordinator."

Perry said she thinks she was the one who came up with Winkler’s name for the role of parenting coordinator because Winkler "was the only person with a strong enough personality" and an adequate knowledge of family law to handle the contentious case.

Perry said she knows about the court’s list of parenting coordinators, but "it was determined that everyone on that list did not have the knowledge of family law."

Perry said she never had used Winkler as a parenting coordinator before and knows of no other cases in which Winkler has served in that role. The lawyer said she had no complaints about Winkler’s involvement in the case.

But Lina Von Gardner and her new lawyer did.

The mother filed a grievance with the State Bar of Nevada, accusing Winkler of threatening to physically assault her and of padding the bill for her services as parenting coordinator.

According to an e-mail from Assistant Bar Counsel Phil Pattee, the grievance arrived about a week before Winkler’s formal bar hearing. "Therefore, it is essentially being held in abeyance pending the Supreme Court’s decision in the action where disbarment was recommended," Pattee wrote.

After entering the custody case, Roske asked Pollock to end Winkler’s involvement in the matter. During a March 9 hearing, the lawyer accused Winkler of limiting the mother to supervised visits with her sons because of an "ego contest" between the two women.

"My client clashed with Ms. Winkler, and we now know who holds all the power and control cards there," Roske told the judge. "But this isn’t necessary for the kids. It may be necessary for Ms. Winkler to show that she’s got the muscle here, but we’re not thinking about the bond between mom and the children and the circumstances that these kids are living under."

Perry countered that Winkler wasn’t the only court-appointed professional who had suggested supervised visitation for the mother. The lawyer also said she listened during the January telephone conference as Lina Von Gardner made "snide" comments that "would have pushed anybody’s buttons."

"Did Ms. Winkler yell at her? Yes, and I’m glad she did because I was about to, because I can’t stand the disrespect," Perry told the judge.

Winkler gave a similar description of the conversation.

"Did I scream at her? Absolutely I did, and I’d do it again standing right here if I was presented with the same situation most likely," Winkler told Pollock.

Pollock ended the March 9 hearing by agreeing that Lina Von Gardner should see her sons at Donna’s House, a facility that provides supervised visits when ordered by a court. The judge ruled that Lina Von Gardner could see the boys three days a week, for two hours at a time.

"If there’s a danger to these children, it hasn’t been demonstrated," Roske had argued earlier in the hearing. "Nothing except punishing Mom is what you get out of Donna’s House, and that really isn’t its function."

The hearing continued the following day. Again, Roske accused Winkler of being confrontational in her dealings with Lina Von Gardner.

"One thing I would think the court looks for in any parenting coordinator is someone who will try to put salve or balm on the waters and try to de-escalate whatever the conflict is," Roske said.

He also touched on the bar hearing that had begun a few days earlier, putting Winkler back in the news.

"We don’t need to have somebody acting in the court process where we’re going to have to involve the credibility of the coordinator coming into court here," Roske argued.

The lawyer also said his client was not "comfortable" with the information she had learned about Winkler’s alleged misconduct.

"This was not known to her at the time this individual was selected," Roske said. "There was no candor to her about it."

Lina Von Gardner also addressed the judge, tearfully telling him she would prove that she had suffered physical abuse while married to Daniel Gardner.

"I have a recorded conversation of Ms. Winkler threatening to physically knock my head off. … I cannot work with somebody who physically threatens me and then comes to court and says she would do it again. She has compromised her professionalism, your honor."

Perry later told the judge, "If she’s going to act like a child, she needs to be treated like a child. And I have to agree with Ms. Winkler. I wanted to rip her head off, too because of her actions."

Winkler denied that she had been confrontational but said she had told Lina Von Gardner that she did not find her credible.

"My credibility, even though they would like to attack my personal character, is not at issue here," Winkler told the judge.

Pollock told Roske he might have misunderstood Winkler’s role in the case "because she was actually appointed as a special master, not just a parenting coordinator."

"Well, even worse," Roske said with a chuckle. "Even worse."

The lawyer suggested that Winkler’s "intemperate judicial demeanor" had eroded his client’s confidence in her ability to make fair decisions.

"What I have here is basically then her acting as some kind of ‘superjudge’ or some kind of master in lieu of the District Court," Roske said.

Yet the distinction between a parenting coordinator and special master seems unclear, even to those who work in the legal system.

Oster said parenting coordinators are typically used in Washoe County to help resolve minor visitation issues without the need to return to court.

"We don’t really use special masters too much, so I’m not really familiar with that term," he said.

Ritchie said a parenting coordinator is simply a type of special master and need not have a law license. He said special masters differ from hearing masters, who fill in when judicial officers are sick or on vacation and must be lawyers in good standing.

During the March 10 hearing, Pollock went on to say that he understood the frustrations Winkler had experienced in the custody case, "having experienced similar frustrations."

"I don’t think Ms. Winkler acted inappropriately," the judge said. "It may have been injudicious in her choice of language, but I don’t believe her behavior was inappropriate."

Pollock discharged Winkler and declined to appoint a replacement.

"Quite frankly, I have concerns about the fitness of both parents in this case, and there may be an adjustment to the custodial arrangement that’s not foreseen as we sit here today," the judge said.

The discussion then turned to Winkler’s bill. Winkler said Daniel Gardner owed her $1,050, and Lina Von Gardner had a balance of $2,250 after paying $300.

Nearly three weeks later, a disciplinary panel made its unanimous recommendation of disbarment for Winkler. During the bar hearing, Winkler’s lawyer said a psychologist had diagnosed her with major depression and a personality disorder.

Winkler alleges Thomas Cecrle, the former brother-in-law of Family Court Judge Steven Jones, conned her into dumping roughly $500,000 into an investment scheme. Winkler has vowed to pay back her 56 victims.

The State Bar filed a new complaint against Winkler in May 2009 that accused her of engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.

According to the complaint, Winkler appeared at two Department of Motor Vehicles administrative hearings in February 2009, while she was suspended, to represent individuals with cases before the agency.

Winkler, 42, received her license to practice law in Nevada in 1999. She primarily handled cases in Family Court.

Lina Von Gardner and Daniel Gardner, both 36, were divorced in 2006 in Pennsylvania after five years of marriage. Lina Von Gardner was granted full custody of all three of the couple’s children at the time of their divorce.

The two parents later were involved in a court case in Massachusetts that resulted in an order of joint custody.

Lina Von Gardner said her ex-husband moved to Southern Nevada in 2007, and she moved here the next year. Again, they ended up in court.

Pollock, who was elected in November 2008, ruled in September 2009 that Daniel Gardner would have temporary custody of the boys pending trial. The judge, who is running for a newly created seat in District Court this year, has heard four days of testimony since the trial began in April.

Lina Von Gardner said Pollock initially gave her three hours of visitation, four days a week, in a public place of her choosing.

That changed when Winkler entered the case.

Lina Von Gardner said she now meets with her sons — ages 5, 8 and 14 — alongside other families at Donna’s House, where she can read the boys books or play board games with them.

"It looks like a detention center," she said during a recent interview. "The children hate coming there."

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.

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