Back in March of 2018, we wrote a blog about corruption in the New York courts regarding a case titled Knopf v. Esposito. Earlier this month, on June 17, 2021, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced the indictment of Melissa Ringel, a former director at the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, First Department, and her husband, Frank Esposito, a private attorney, for their roles in multimillion-dollar real estate transaction, in which Ringel used her position, without authorization, to advise Esposito’s client’s attorneys on an escrow order unrelated to her official responsibilities. Their conduct allowed the client to sell the property and pay the $50,000 balance to Esposito’s law firm from the proceeds. The defendants are charged in a New York State Supreme Court indictment each with one count of Official Misconduct.
“As alleged, Melissa Ringel violated her oath as an official of the court when she brazenly circumvented the rules to assist her husband, Frank Esposito, and his client, during the sale of a multimillion-dollar penthouse near Central Park.” said District Attorney Vance. “This conduct erodes the credibility of the profession and undermines principles of fairness and impartiality in our courts.”
According to court documents and statements made on the record in court in January 2016, Ringel served as director of the Pre-Argument Conference Program at the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, First Department (“First Department”). On January 11, 2016, her husband, Esposito, was retained by a client with a pending civil matter involving the sale of a multimillion-dollar Lenox Hill penthouse before the First Department. In October 2015, the First Department ordered that if sold, the proceeds of the 67th Street property must be placed in escrow, pending further decision by the court. Subsequently, in November and December, the court issued additional orders related to the property without specifically addressing whether the proceeds still needed to be placed in escrow if sold.
Aware that the pending buyer, a property developer, was unwilling to complete the purchase of the penthouse without specific court approval, Esposito discussed the court orders with Ringel and arranged for his client’s attorneys to speak to her at the First Department. On January 12, 2016, at the client’s direction, the client’s attorneys called Ringel at work to ask her whether the escrow order was still in effect.
Ringel, who was aware that the case was not in her program’s purview and was entirely unrelated to her authorized responsibilities, engaged in a conversation with the client’s real estate attorney and purported to be acting within the scope of her authority. Despite knowing she was in direct violation of multiple court rules, Ringel gave the client’s attorneys her opinion that the escrow order was no longer in effect. As a result, the client was able to sell the property and, under the agreement, paid $50,000 of the proceeds to Esposito’s law firm, which was the balance owed for retaining Esposito’s services.
In 2017, the Office of Court Administration Inspector General’s Office launched an investigation into the incident and issued a report with its finding which was shared with the district attorney’s office. Ringel was forced to resign from the First Department in April 2018. The charges contained in the indictment are merely allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. All factual recitations are derived from documents filed in court and statements made on the record in court.
This case has certainly taken an interesting turn of events since our blog about it in March of 2018. It seems the legal system has gotten it right in this case with regard to bringing charges against Ringel and her husband, Esposito, to expose the corruption that can and does happen in our legal system. It will be interesting to see what becomes of these charges, and we will be sure to keep you informed in our next installment of this series on corruption in the New York courts.