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Law school star fights LSUC’s good character ruling

|Written By Michael McKiernan
Law school star fights LSUC’s good character ruling
Ryan Manilla is appealing an LSUC ruling that found he wasn''t of good character.

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.”

  • Chad
    I'm torn about this. Part of me doesn't want to practice with people like that in the profession. On the other hand, much of the behaviour seems like youthful lack of judgment, and in any event, whether his character—assuming for the moment that is a measurable thing—is truly reformed or not, I think it likely he has learned something from all this about what is acceptable behaviour. Which brings me to the other problem: the good character requirement is problematic in the first place. It's hard to measure character, and hard to predict behaviour from it. I think I'm in the camp of those who would give him a chance. If he's bad (by which I guess I mean if he does more bad stuff), the LSUC will find out about it again soon enough.
  • PC
    The issue is whether his true character is that of "the end always justifies the means", or that he simply did something foolish and regrettable, as we all have, when angry or emotionally charged. Since these are the unanswered questions, and therefore provide the essence of the appeal, can his license to practice law not be granted either provisionally, or on a probationary basis, in order to truly test the purported rehabilitated character? It really does see extreme to deny him the right to contribute and earn a living, based upon supposition. If in the end result, his true nature remains unchanged and manipulative etc., surely practicing law in the real world would quickly reveal that he remains lacking in the required good character category, with the threshold to terminate his license being lower than normal, due to the provisionary or probationary nature of his license from day one, and which limitations he would have to consent to, in order to be allowed to practice.
  • TorontoLawyer
    Wow! All I have to say is poor guy. He had a stupid immature fight with his condo board and everyone now wants to ruin his career and life? This decision seems really heavy handed to me. If this guy was banned from practice I don't even know how many of my peers at law school would not have been called to the bar if the panel found out about some law school stories.
  • Michael Fairney
    I'm torn between thinking that in a way this is just youthful folly, which will certainly be corrected now that he realizes how foolish his actions were, and on the other hand, thinking, boy this guy was really determined to undermine these board members. He continuously came up with creative and vile ways to manipulate the situation. This does tend to show a deeper underlying charactor problem which might not be fixed by a couple of anger management classes. Given his academic abilities, it's incredibly puzzling that he would let a stupid condo board fight get to him so much that he would go to these lengths. I mean, I have a condo myself, and the last thing I want to do is be on the board- It's just an invitation to major squabbling over very little anyway. But that's what makes me think that maybe this is just a case of serious immaturity.
  • Linda
    It should take more that a high IQ to qualify as a lawyer. Traits of good character (trustworthiness, respect for others, compassion, responsibility, fairness) should matter, surely.
  • SStrand
    People do have the ability to learn and rebuild their character, however, there is an underlining issue and to see the true change in ones character they must be placed in a similar situation that would cause the same "fear and stress as Mr. Manilla states he felt at the time. However, it in no way excuses his actions. I would not want a lawyer to who will falsify evidence to serve his only admit to it now does not prove that his true understands it was wrong.
  • SStrand
    The inability for the panel to truly know Mr. Manilla's motives is a fair and obvious concern. In consideration to the past actions, which caused his character to be in question to being with are at the root of the ability for Mr. Manilla to be manipulative and serve his own intentions and needs. Had Mr. Manilla spoken to his therapist prior to the hearing about wanting to "come clean" and tell the truth that he authored the letter? (If he had of made the admission 18 months ago the charges may not have been dropped)
  • RE: Law school star fights LSUC’s good character ruling

    Who will be mentoring him at what was formerly Pinkofskys? Surely not this lawyer: