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For bare-knuckled collector, some harsh judicial reviews

Ronald G. Azzu is a lawyer and former employee of Daniel W. Goldstone, head of Norfolk Financial Corp. He thinks he's got a good handle on his old boss.

''A bulldog,'' Azzu called the debt buyer and collector. ''There were times when I thought, 'Wow, he's a pushy SOB.' ''

Goldstone's tactics have led to a costly legal judgment against his firm, and rebukes from two federal judges.

This year, Goldstone's tactics finally caught up with him: After a unanimous recommendation by the Board of Bar Overseers, the Supreme Judicial Court ordered Goldstone to be disbarred, banning him from practicing law for at least the next eight years. The disbarment culminated a legal battle between Goldstone's law firm, Goldstone & Sudalter, and Sears, Roebuck & Co., a major client for whom Goldstone once collected debts.

In that case, US District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns found, in 1996, that Goldstone's law firm, Goldstone & Sudalter, had bilked Sears out of more than $800,000 in fees over three years. Goldstone had billed Sears for thousands of closed cases on which he did no work, and secretly skimmed money off the top of other active cases, Stearns found.

''Goldstone's conduct throughout is of the kind that would confirm the public's worst suspicion of lawyerly greed,'' the judge wrote. As for Goldstone's defense - that Sears all but approved his billing practices by continuing to pay him for two years - Stearns said, ''The argument is, to say the least, breathtaking in its brazenness.''

Stearns ordered Goldstone & Sudalter to pay Sears the full amount, plus costs - a total of $945,409. And while Goldstone, in his own collection work, has aggressively chased consumers who don't make good on their debts, his law firm, of which he is sole owner, failed to pay Sears any of the money for five years. In 2002, after disciplinary proceedings began against him, his firm paid back just a fraction, about $89,000. According to the SJC's disbarment ruling, it is the only payment the firm ever made.

In 1998, a lawsuit Goldstone filed against a landscaping company earned him not only a rebuke from another federal judge, but a monetary sanction as well.

In the legal world, it is known simply as Rule 11: It gives judges the power to punish lawyers and others who file frivolous lawsuits. In Massachusetts, judges rarely invoke the sanction, believing lawyers should have wide latitude to represent clients. In fact, US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner said in an interview that she couldn't recall a case, in her 12 years on the bench, in which she felt compelled to invoke Rule 11 - until Goldstone came along.

In this case, Goldstone was not collecting from a debtor. Instead, he was filing a countersuit on behalf of a client who had been sued for not paying a bill. Goldstone's arguments were so groundless, Gertner found, that she fined him $2,000, calling the case ''zealous advocacy run amok.'' Describing Rule 11 as a ''drastic remedy'' she was reluctant to use, Gertner concluded: ''Even under the most generous standards, attorney Goldstone crossed the line.''

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