LANSING — The Michigan Court of Appeals has fined a lawyer $3,000 and referred him for possible further discipline after determining he raised his middle finger to an opposing lawyer during recent oral arguments.
But James Heos, the veteran East Lansing attorney who made the gesture, said Friday he thought he was giving the finger to his blank computer screen — which was not working — and he had no idea the three judges on the panel or anyone else could see him.
“It’s a very embarrassing situation,” said Heos, 74, who said he has already mailed his check to the clerk of the court.
“I’ve been a lawyer 46 years,” and “I’ve never been accused of inappropriate, unruly, or rude conduct in the courtroom.”
When questioned during the hearing, Heos claimed he was only “pointing” at his computer screen during the May 11 hearing, which was conducted using the video platform Zoom, due to coronavirus precautions.
But the three-judge panel was not buying his explanation.
“Mr. Heos exhibited shameful disrespect to the court and to opposing counsel in his offensive gesture and his dishonest replies to the court’s inquiries,” Judge Thomas Cameron, who presided over the hearing, said in a May 20 order.
Heos, who works for the Nichols Law Firm, said Friday he was caught off guard and should have been more forthright in saying he was not just pointing at his screen, he was giving it the middle finger. He said he is technologically challenged — “the only thing I can really do is generate my emails” — and was frustrated because his computer had been malfunctioning for days and he had been assured it would be working for this important hearing in a medical malpractice case.
“I had a pitching wedge in the corner,” he said. “I wanted to pick up that pitching wedge and just break that computer.” As it turned out, “I would imagine it appeared to them that I was flipping off the court and my opponent, which I would never do.”
Lawyers in the malpractice case were arguing over whether the claims were barred by the statute of limitations.
Heos, who represented the plaintiff during the earlier, trial court stage of the case, was not one of the lawyers participating in the oral argument. But his image appeared on the screen midway through the hearing.
Judge Stephen Borrello interrupted oral arguments to ask who the man was.
“I thought I saw him raise his middle finger while counsel was making his argument … acting like a 5-year-old,” Borrello said.
Heos denied it. “I was pointing at the computer that does not work.”
He denied making the offensive gesture a second time when questioned by Cameron.
“That’s not what I saw,” Borello said. “But, whatever — I will take him at his word.”
But the court apparently later reviewed the video and decided to sanction Heos. They also blurred his screen image at time he made the gesture, so members of the public who review the recording of the oral arguments cannot see it.
In addition to fining Heos, the court referred the matter to the Attorney Grievance Commission for an investigation and possible discipline.
Bloomfield Hills attorney Robert Kamenec was the opposing counsel who was the perceived target of the Heos gesture.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Kamenec said Friday.
He declined to see whether he had seen the gesture at the time, or was offended by it.
“The reputation of the court, not me, is the most important matter,” he said.