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Courtroom casualties of Fort Lauderdale bankruptcy judge applaud his exit

headshots of judge john olson and steven fender
headshots of judge john olson and steven fender
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge John Olson, right, and his spouse, attorney Steven Fender

By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org

They call themselves “The Group.” They’re an informal band of lawyers, all survivors of what they deem unjust attacks by Fort Lauderdale U.S. Bankruptcy Judge John K. Olson.

Olson, 70, whose first 14-year term is ending, announced in October he’ll retire in February 2020.

His departure is involuntary. Olson applied to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta for reappointment and his application was denied, the court’s administrative office confirmed.

A member of The Group noted that two judges on the 11th Circuit’s governing Judicial Council had corrected Olson’s missteps in separate matters.

“When we saw who was on the Judicial Council, we knew Olson’s application was doomed,” The Group member said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal against a practicing attorney.

“We were relieved and confident that the system was going to work.” The Group has about a dozen members “and it keeps growing,” the lawyer said.

Critics in high places

In keeping with 11th Circuit rules, Miami-based U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, a Judicial Council member, vetted Olson’s application for the full council. After a vote by all active 11th Circuit judges, Olson was sent packing.

Federico Moreno

During the vetting period, on Sept. 9, Moreno wrote about “a long history of favoritism in the bankruptcy bar” as he tossed one of Olson’s judgments and ordered a new trial. Olson had resisted giving up the case on conflict-of-interest grounds, even after he ruled in favor of his then-fiancé’s law firm.

And 11th Circuit Chief Judge Ed Carnes, who also sits on the Judicial Council, handled a confidential complaint against Olson last year. The complaint came with evidence that showed Olson made “egregious and hostile” comments in court, such as calling an attorney an “a–hole.”

Carnes’ response, dated March 22, 2018 and obtained by Florida Bulldog, states that in a meeting with Carnes, Olson “expressed sincere remorse” and took “appropriate voluntary corrective action” by writing letters of apology. Carnes dismissed the complaint.

During Olson’s years of presiding in bankruptcy court, the Harvard College (magna cum laude) graduate was known as whip smart and learned, but volatile. That reputation reached a national audience of lawyers who read articles like this one published April 1 in the ABA Journal:

Olson “might be a brilliant jurist, but I think he’s power mad,” Lawrence Wrenn told the Daily Business Review. “That’s just my opinion,” Wrenn added.

A ‘bleak’ result

Olson had thrown Wrenn in jail, which likely colored his opinion. Later Wrenn failed to respond to a Florida Bar inquiry, was suspended, and finally agreed to give up his law license, the ABA Journal story said.

Still, Wrenn’s words ring true because he’s one of a reported 10 litigants and lawyers who have been arrested or jailed on orders from Olson. Some had questioned his impartiality in cases that raised conflict-of-interest alarms about Olson or his husband, bankruptcy lawyer George Steven Fender.

Judges are obliged to recuse themselves when any party makes a reasonable conflict claim. But Olson responded to calls for relinquishing conflict cases with outrage and, at times, contempt citations and demands for incarceration.

When displeased about anything, he imposed punishing fines, slowed the payment of attorney fees or recommended professional discipline.

One debtor in Bankruptcy Judge Olson’s court — a litigant he jailed — apparently committed suicide after filing a racketeering claim against the judge. Timothy Reardon had also lodged the complaint that Chief Judge Carnes resolved by letting Olson write apologetic letters.

A brief filed on behalf of another person Olson ordered arrested cites the “bleak” result for Reardon, a former health care administrator who died at age 50 in April 2018. That was about a month after Carnes dismissed his complaint.

“Timothy Reardon’s name and career were destroyed by HJKO [Honorable John K. Olson] and after years of not being able to clear his name he was found dead of an apparent suicide,” Douglas Broeker wrote in his Oct. 2, 2018 brief for attorney Tina Talarchyk. Broeker had also represented Reardon.

Olson ‘gets it right’

“This is a judge who has flouted the rule of law, and appears to know how to use his position to destroy people he perceives as an opponent of his former clients and/or his husband,” Broeker wrote in the Talarchyk brief. She challenged Bankruptcy Judge Olson’s order to arrest her in an appeal that’s still pending before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami.

Olson did not respond to messages left with his judicial assistant seeking comment. A detailed message sent to his email address on file with the Florida Bar was undeliverable.

When Bankruptcy Judge Olson ordered Reardon jailed, he blamed Reardon for threatening the main opponent in his case with physical harm.

That opponent, a former Olson client, was represented by Patricia Redmond. Redmond and Olson were partners at Stearns Weaver Miller before his ascendance to the bench.

Redmond praised her former partner in an interview with Florida Bulldog. “Judge Olson’s a great judge,” she said. “He gets it right, he’s smart, he helps lawyers facilitate results that are win-wins for everyone.”

Death of a ‘straight arrow’

But Redmond declined comment on The Group’s accusations against Bankruptcy Judge Olson, saying, “I don’t really know the details about who did what to whom.”

As for Reardon, “It’s very sad because he was really sick,” she said. “He threatened my client and my client’s son.”

Reardon had a psychiatric evaluation and agreed to treatment for substance abuse, Carnes noted in his response to Reardon’s complaint.

The lawyer from The Group knew Reardon and defended him.

“He was beaten and sexually assaulted in jail. He was incarcerated for no apparent reason and that incarceration destroyed his life,” the lawyer said,

“He was a substance abuser in college, but he had treatment for it and was fine. He was a straight arrow and a straight shooter.”

A deputy apologizes

Lawyer Tina Talarchyk, a former president of the Southern District Bankruptcy Bar Association,described the surreal scene of her attempted arrest. She wrote about how she was able to avoid being hauled off to jail in an affidavit she swore out later the same day, Jan. 26, 2016.

At 7:35 a.m. she was leaving her house to take her twin 12-year-old daughters to school when a van and a white Dodge Charger pulled up. The van driver identified himself as a deputy U.S. marshal and said, “I’m sorry, I have to take you in.” His partner in the Charger wore a camouflage uniform and a bullet-proof vest.

Talarchyk told the van driver that Judge Cooke had halted all proceedings in her case with Olson. But the deputy said he checked with Olson’s chambers and “we’re still supposed to bring you in.”

“This was traumatic for me, and my daughters were very emotional–they were shaking, crying and praying,” she wrote.

The affidavit quotes the deputy as saying, “Olson wanted you picked up last week but we didn’t want to see you spending the entire weekend in jail. I hope that you appreciate the efforts that we have made to make this less terrible than it is. Olson’s chambers has been calling and demanding that you are brought in.”

“He is not happy that we haven’t brought you in yet, so I hope that you really appreciate our kindness,” the deputy said.

Talarchyk responded, “Oh my gosh, I totally do!”

Demand for documents

Broeker, her lawyer, tried unsuccessfully to intervene by phone. After more phone calls, the chief U.S. Marshal said Cooke had asked for Olson’s chamber number so she could talk to him.

Then the marshal called the deputy back. He “gave me the thumbs up” and the deputies left, Talarchyk wrote.

“I ask the Court to take further action to prevent Judge Olson from continuing to attack and torture me in this litigation,” the affidavit says. The bankruptcy case ended without further incident.

What had Talarchyk done to rile Olson to the point where he was clamoring for her trip to jail?

Broeker and Talarchyk would not comment to Florida Bulldog. But court documents indicate Olson was enraged when she failed to turn over information he had demanded.

Broeker asserted that the judge was on a fishing expedition to find fault with her professionalism.

Talarchyk ended her affidavit by suggesting a different, or perhaps related, motive: Olson was delivering “payback” for her fight with his husband in a separate bankruptcy case.

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Latest comments

  • This has got to be one of the most bizarre and egregious examples of Judicial Misconduct…No…Wait! Let me rephrase that – Olson’s actions go far beyond mere “misconduct”, they are outright CRIMINAL! To order the Sheriff’s Dept. to go out and pick up a lawyer and take her to jail for (allegedly) failing to turn over information??? SERIOUSLY??? “Big Business” defense lawyers fail to “turn over information” to the opposing party, (AND the Courts), all the time – its called “Discovery Abuse” and NONE OF THEM ever go to jail for doing it! They don’t care about any ineffective monetary sanctions imposed by the Court. To them, it’s just part of “the cost of doing business.”
    Olson’s incarceration orders seem dangerously close to “false arrest and imprisonment.” But, of course, he doesn’t have to worry about any consequences – “Judicial Immunity” protects him!
    And here’s a message for all you anonymous “Group” lawyers…MAN UP and do the right thing! You all swore an oath when you were admitted to the Bar! You are all “Officers of the Court”! You know EXACTLY what’s been going on with Judge Olson. You KNOW he’s not fit to serve on the bench! Yet how many of you have ever filed a JQC Complaint against him? I’m guessing the answer is….NONE!
    I realize you’re all afraid of “retaliation” by other judges if they learned your identity and the fact that you took “one of their own” to task for violating the Canons of The Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, but consider this…When Judge Laura Marie Watson was “yanked off the bench” and disbarred, it was because several lawyers filed Complaints against her for the misconduct she engaged in while still a lawyer – YEARS before she became a judge, and EVERY ONE of her judicial colleagues RAN FOR COVER and (publicly) terminated their relationships with her once the scandal was made public! No judge is going to be stupid enough to engage in obvious “retaliation” against lawyer “whistle blowers” for doing the right thing – even if Broward County has a long and well documented history of NOT doing the right thing when it comes to prejudiced, self-serving judges! “For the times they are a-changin’!”

  • It doesn’t appear the complaint process works any better than the oversight of the justices who reviewed his biased rulings. I suspect one reason judges are selected to serve on the judicial council is that they are reliably lenient and will not act in the face of egregious judicial misconduct. They also make that known to the bar at large so the complaint process is a farce. That Olsen was able to complete his term is evidence that the system in place is seriously flawed.

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