After repeatedly complaining about a workers’ compensation judge who ruled against them, lawyers at Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano tried a novel approach:
The politically connected firm passed a tip to a member of Gov. Tom Wolf’s cabinet last year that the judge, Andrea McCormick, was romantically involved with a local workers’ comp lawyer.
Three months later, Judge McCormick was out of a job.
State investigators say they responded to Pond Lehocky’s complaint by pulling eight years of McCormick emails and determined that she had violated multiple policies: using her work computer to make online purchases and exchange personal photos, and sharing court decisions before they were officially posted online, among other alleged offenses.
McCormick’s termination, a rare occurrence, has raised concerns within the legal community that law firms with political clout are able to exert undue influence over the court system where they practice, potentially causing a chilling effect among judges.
David Stern, a partner at the firm, said that lawyers there had forwarded complaints in the hopes that officials would look into McCormick’s conduct “as a whole.”
“We never asked for anyone to be terminated,” he said in an email this week.
McCormick has appealed her firing to the State Civil Service Commission. Hearing transcripts and exhibits reveal how the investigation unfolded, an account that otherwise likely would not have become public. McCormick and her attorney, Elliot Strokoff, declined to comment while the appeal is pending.
Emails reveal acrimony
An administrative law judge since 2006, McCormick worked out of offices on Eighth Street near Arch. She heard disputes between injured employees who incurred medical expenses and lost wages, and the employers and insurance firms contesting those claims.
McCormick had previously worked as an attorney representing both companies and injured workers, and was known as a skilled writer of briefs. As a judge, she exhibited a courtroom demeanor some call mercurial and occasionally made comments that appeared dismissive of workers’ claims.
Pond Lehocky, the largest workers’ comp firm in Pennsylvania, is known for its top-tier representation and aggressive legislative advocacy on behalf of injured workers, ever-present billboards and TV ads, and its considerable fund-raising prowess for Wolf and other Democrats in the state.
For years, Pond Lehocky had believed McCormick was biased against the firm. Behind the scenes, it began pulling the levers of power, according to emails and testimony.
“Mike, here is another loss in front of McCormick,” Sam Pond, the firm’s managing partner, wrote in June 2017 to Michael Vovakes, deputy secretary of Labor & Industry, in a dictated email sent by a secretary at the firm.
Pond speculated to Vovakes that McCormick was siding exclusively with employers and insurance carriers: “I’m assuming she is denying every finding against injured workers across the board 100 percent.”
State officials around that time pulled more than 100 Pond Lehocky cases that McCormick had ruled on, and analyzed them to try to determine if she was biased against the firm.
The state study did not find bias, according to Joseph Hagan, the former judge manager in McCormick’s district. “We found a division in favor of the claimant roughly equal to those in favor of the employer … about 50/50,” he would later testify.
Larry Pitt, a personal injury and workers’ comp lawyer whose law firm previously employed McCormick, said: “Her decisions were not predictable. Remember the saying ‘Call ‘em as you see ‘em'? That’s her.”
In 2017, McCormick sent an email to Pond Lehocky, commending a lawyer there on his “fantastic brief,” which she said was “extremely well-written, right on point and superior to most.” But Pond Lehocky was convinced that McCormick was not giving its clients a fair shake.
In February 2018, for example, McCormick’s denial of a Pond Lehocky request for a subpoena appeared to set the firm off. Jerry Lehocky, a partner at the firm, wrote an email to Pond that said: “The Secretary needs to know about this justice being denied.”
Eight minutes later, Pond forwarded the email thread to Vovakes, the deputy secretary, and wrote: “[L]et me know how we can prove our case." Referring apparently to McCormick, he asked Vovakes: “Can this finally be addressed[?].”
In June 2018, Pond Lehocky planned an event to honor Labor & Industry Secretary W. Gerard “Jerry” Oleksiak at a statewide workers’ compensation conference. Oleksiak was not aware of the reception before receiving the invitation and did not attend it, a spokesperson said.
Around that time, state officials say, the firm switched tactics. It went straight to Oleksiak, a member of Wolf’s cabinet, with a new line of attack:
McCormick was in a romantic relationship with a local workers’ comp defense lawyer who was a strong critic of Pond Lehocky.
Robert O’Brien, executive deputy secretary of Labor & Industry, said Pond Lehocky’s complaint to his boss sparked a renewed investigation into the judge.
"He said he got it from Pond Lehocky,” O’Brien would later testify.
The allegation was true. McCormick said she had dated Edward “Ted” Carpenter Jr., of the firm Carpenter, McCadden & Lane, based in Media. But starting in March 2015, she recused herself from any of his cases or those of his firm, she said.
State officials, however, cast their net back much farther: They began sifting through about 6,000 of the judge’s emails starting around 2010, looking for anything that “may not have been appropriate,” according to an analyst in the state Office of Administration, Rhonda Brown.
A couple of days later, Brown said, she was instructed by Matt Stine, a state human resources official, to search for emails involving law firms – including one in particular. “Pond Lehocky was the name that I was told to be looking for and what I searched for,” Brown would later testify.
Three months later, the investigation was over. State officials found the judge had emailed uncirculated case decisions and other nonpublic information — including some to Carpenter — and used her state-issued computer or email account to purchase items online and receive personal photos.
O’Brien, the executive deputy secretary of Labor & Industry, testified in February at McCormick’s appeal hearing that he made the final decision to terminate her. He then informed his boss of the results of the investigation, he testified.
“Secretary Oleksiak said, ‘Okay.’ Deputy Secretary Vovakes was very upset. He told me he wanted to put a suit on and drive to Philadelphia and immediately fire Judge McCormick,” O’Brien said. “And I said, ‘No Michael, that’s not what we’re going to do. The judge has civil service rights. We have an HR staff and labor relations staff. They’re going to handle this. We’re going to dot the I’s, cross the T’s, do this correctly.’”
Oleksiak declined to comment. A Labor & Industry spokesperson said the McCormick investigation was “based on a variety of complaints and concerns, not any sole one."
McCormick’s termination letter read, “Your complete disregard for the Codes and Commonwealth policies violates the trust bestowed upon you by your Employer."
Stern, the Pond Lehocky partner, said McCormick’s firing caught him off guard. “Honestly, I was floored when I found out she was terminated," he said. “I did not see it coming. … But knowing what I know now I’m not surprised.”
Carpenter, the lawyer who had dated McCormick, declined to comment.
‘Chilling effect’ on judges?
Regardless of whether McCormick’s termination was warranted, the way the state handled it has left some workers’ comp judges questioning whether the lines have been blurred between government officials and the lawyers who appear in their hearing rooms.
“There’s a feeling that law firms can get judges fired,” said a person close to workers’ comp judges in the area. “There’s definitely a feeling this has a chilling effect on other judges.”
W. Bourne Ruthrauff, cochair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s professional responsibility committee, said that if a law firm complained to senior government officials about a judge’s rulings without the knowledge of the other party’s attorney, that would be an “assault on the independence and impartiality of such judges.”
“Such contacts go well beyond the zealous and diligent advocacy to which all clients are entitled,” Ruthrauff said, adding they could potentially violate the rules of professional conduct that prohibit Pennsylvania attorneys from engaging in “conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”
Abraham Reich, a lawyer representing Pond Lehocky who teaches a course on legal ethics at the University of Pennsylvania law school, disagreed with that assessment. He said there was no violation of the rules of professional conduct.
“To fulfill its professional obligations, my client made a report to the appropriate authority,” Reich said. “It did so confidentially as would be done in any complaint about a judge so as to minimize harm to the judge should the complaint be dismissed or not pursued.”
Daniel Bricmont, a Pittsburgh-based attorney and former chair of the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s workers’ comp section, said he couldn’t comment on the actions of any particular law firm or judge. Speaking generally, though, Bricmont said he found the episode unusual. He said most lawyers who believe a judge is biased or has a conflict would first contact the judge’s supervisor or seek his or her recusal – not reach out to cabinet-level officials in Harrisburg.
“It wouldn’t dawn on me to do that,” Bricmont said. “I think it would be using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito."
McCormick testified that she had clashed with Pond Lehocky lawyers over courtroom procedural issues but that the firm had never filed a recusal motion asking her to step aside.
Complaint process needed
The Judicial Conduct Board, which investigates complaints against state judges in civil and criminal proceedings, doesn’t field complaints for administrative judges, such as those in workers’ comp.
Sam Marshall, president of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, said the McCormick case reveals the need for a uniform way to handle such complaints.
“It may be time to set up a formal process for filing and investigating complaints of workers’ comp judges, along the lines of what they have for complaints on judges generally,” said Marshall, who represents the insurance firms that typically cover costs associated with workers’ comp cases.
Stern agrees. “I can assure you that if there were laws or regulations on how to report a [workers’ comp judge], we would have followed them,” he said. “Since there is no such vehicle, we did the only thing we could think of: Go to McCormick’s superiors.”
Pond Lehocky, while respected for its legal representation, has also drawn unwanted attention in recent years, for pushing ethical boundaries.
In September 2017, an Inquirer investigation found that Sam Pond and other partners at the firm were majority owners of a mail-order pharmacy that was prescribing unproven pain creams – sometimes costing more than $4,000 a tube. The firm would send clients to doctors and ask the doctors to send those new patients to the law firm’s pharmacy. Some of the doctors also owned a piece of the pharmacy.
After the Inquirer story ran, the Pond partners sold their interest in the pharmacy.
In December 2018, the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission fined the firm’s lobbying wings for failing to register their activities with the Pennsylvania Department of State while seeking to influence workers’ compensation legislation in Harrisburg.
Pond Lehocky’s influence now also reaches into the state’s disciplinary apparatus for attorneys.
Last year, Jerry Lehocky, a partner there, was appointed to a three-year term on the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Three of the firm’s associates were also named as committee members of the board.
The board handles reports of attorney misconduct.