A law school star blocked from joining the profession is now appealing a Law Society of Upper Canada panel decision that found he wasn’t of good character.
The panel dismissed Ryan Manilla’s application for an L1 licence by a 2-1 majority last September following complaints from fellow members of his Thornhill, Ont., condominium board about his conduct towards them.
In late 2008, a dispute over a condo-fee increase on the five-person board, of which Manilla was president, escalated into a bitter feud that eventually left Manilla facing a number of criminal charges, including four counts of criminal harassment, intimidating a witness, and threatening death.
Authorities later withdrew the charges after Manilla completed the requirements for diversion. He apologized for his behaviour, took anger-management classes, and began seeing a therapist.
But panel members James Wardlaw and Sarah Walker found his motive for confessing to his misconduct was “equivocal” and that not enough time had passed since he began treatment to be confident his character had changed. Nicholas Pustina dissented, finding that Manilla was of good character as of the date of the hearing. He also noted his strong network of professionals and family members made a relapse unlikely.
In a notice of appeal, Manilla asks the law society to set aside the decision on the grounds that it was “unreasonable and contrary to the weight of evidence.” He also says the ruling “erred in failing to provide adequate reasons for its central determination that the appellant was not of good character.”
Manilla has retained Phil Downes to act for him in the appeal. He declined to speak about the matter last week. “Since the matter is currently before the panel to be argued, neither I nor Mr. Manilla will have any comments to make,” Downes said in an e-mailed statement.
Manilla had glided effortlessly through his academic and legal career up until the final hurdle of licensing. Described by the panel as a man of “above average intelligence,” he scored extremely good marks at high school and won a scholarship to York University. There, he spent every year on the honours list before finally graduating from the University of Western Ontario.
He told the panel at his original hearing that the law had fascinated him from an early age and that he attended the Paul Bernardo trial when he was in his teens. He still has a copy of a Toronto Sun article on the verdict that quoted him.
After graduating, he moved on to Osgoode Hall Law School, where he finished in the top 10 per cent of the class and won an international law prize.
In the meantime, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP snapped him up to work at its New York office as a summer student. Manilla returned there after graduation.
When he came back to Canada, his articles were abridged on the basis of his New York experience. He then completed them with criminal law firm Pinkofskys in April 2009.
But by that time, the condo dispute was at its height, and Manilla’s entire legal career was suddenly in jeopardy.
In September 2008, Manilla found himself fighting a losing battle against his fellow board members over a fee hike that he strongly opposed.
“A 12-per-cent raise will spark outrage. You will be painting a large target on your back and won’t be able to leave ur [sic] unit. I’m also worried about our cars,” Manilla wrote in an e-mail to the other four board members.
Two months later, Manilla was replaced as president but remained on the board while continuing to fight the proposed budget. According to the law society decision, he admitted during one board meeting that he enjoyed making his colleagues “squirm” over the fee hike.
In December 2008, Manilla stepped up his campaign against the board members by falsifying a letter, apparently from an off-site unit owner called Carinci Daria, who claimed to be a private investigator. In it, Manilla concocted allegations that two of the board members were taking kickbacks from the condo’s management company and developer. Another was falsely accused of domestic assault against his wife. In the letter, the purported private investigator found no wrongdoing against two of the board members, including Manilla, but did against the other three.
“This was clear character assassination,” the majority on the panel wrote. They were particularly troubled by Manilla’s late admission just five days before the hearing was scheduled to begin that he had authored the letter. Previously, he had denied doing so.
In January 2009, Manilla also sent a text message to a friend saying he intended to report three of the board members, who were snowbirds who spent the winter in Florida, as drug smugglers to U.S. authorities. Manilla told the panel he never meant the comments and claimed he made them out of frustration and stress. He said the board members had threatened to report him to the law society and felt his career was at risk.
In February of that year, the four complainants finally presented their budget to unit owners, but a month later a majority of them removed them from their posts and reappointed Manilla as president.
A short time later, York Regional Police charged Manilla with four counts of criminal harassment. He responded by levelling his own accusations of threatening death, defamation, and harassment against the four complainants. Police laid no charges against them.
In an effort to defend himself, Manilla then approached the condo’s property manager and security providers for character letters. He suggested their contracts would be in jeopardy if they didn’t agree to write one.
He also approached Warren Kleiner, counsel to the condo corporation, for advice about how to resist attempts by the board to remove him as president again. According to the panel decision, Kleiner rebuffed the approach, telling Manilla it was “improper for him to seek a legal opinion that was self-serving and not related to board business.”
Manilla was removed from the board in May 2009 and had his charges withdrawn in June of that year after he agreed to sell his condo and stay away from the complainants. He also wrote letters of apology to them and made $250 donations in their names to charity.
Manilla has since married and has a young child. He attended anger management and began seeing a psychotherapist last January. Several lawyers from the now former Pinkofskys law firm have said they would mentor him if and when he returns to practice.
But the majority on the panel suggested Manilla had, “to some extent, pulled the wool over the eyes” of his anger-management instructor due to his original failure to own up to writing the letter from the purported private investigator. “Why did he wait that long?” they ask.
But in a factum filed with the appeal, Downes says the panel’s decision fails to answer that crucial question. “It leaves ‘up in the air’ the question of whether the appellant’s admission was motivated by genuine rehabilitation or by a resignation to the inevitable,” he wrote.
According to the factum, the decision was inconsistent with the evidence it heard from Manilla’s psychotherapist, John Gotziaman, who described the admission as “really positive” when he appeared before the panel.
In the decision, the majority questioned whether enough time had passed for Manilla’s therapy to truly change his character. “As a witness, he appeared to be forthright and convincing,” they wrote. “But was he being merely manipulative?”
But in the appeal factum, Downes describes that statement as “bizarre.”
“The majority thus finds that his testimonial demeanour is favourable but then proceeds to simply pose a question that it leaves unanswered. There is no finding that he was manipulative. There is no reasonable basis for the majority’s implicit conclusion that the appellant’s evidence demonstrates that he is still of poor character.”