Chuck Douglas

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Article from The Washington Post (Style section)
March 15, 1999

A Splitting Headache

Am I the only one who hears the screams/ And the strangled cries of lawyers in love

- Jackson Browne

Three years ago Charles Gwynne "Chuck" Douglas III, now 56, was a player in Republican circles: a bright and energetic former congressman and state Supreme Court judge once mentioned as a possible candidate for governor.

His wife and law partner, Caroline, now 50, was one of the state's more prominent women: co-host with him of a conservative cable television show called "Right for New Hampshire," co-author with him of a two-volume textbook on divorce and other aspects of family law; elected in her own right that fall to the Concord Town Council.

Today, the Douglases are best known as adversaries in what New Hampsherites call "the divorce from Hell" - a very public, increasingly bitter blizzard of litigation that has spawned nearly 400 legal filings in more than 20 separate lawsuits covering everything from the dissolution of their law firm to ownership of a low-number auto tag.

One aspect or another of the divorce has been to the state Supreme Court three times and to the U.S. Supreme Court once. Legal shrapnel from the conflict has ignited professional misconduct charges against each of them as well as lawsuits against them by former clients. They charge each other with instigating the lawsuits and misconduct complaints; they both deny the charges.

"Obviously this thing got way out of control long ago," says Richard A. Hesse, who teaches professional responsibility at Franklin Pierce Law Center here, New Hampshire's only law school. "But these are both very volatile personalities. They've got egos the size of Mount Washington….

"When two lawyers marry, and practice together as well, the emotional aspects of any divorce get compounded … This is not a unique situation these days."

Indeed, what lifts the Douglas divorce case beyond the realm of local interest is the uneasy sense that it might portend some sort of future in the United States of Attorneydom.

Douglas v. Douglas has been the subject of front-page stories and editorial cartoons in the state as well as national stories from the Associated Press. Caroline Douglas has gone on CNN to air her charges that the legal "old-boy network" in this small state is so tight and self-protective that she can't get a fair trial. Even with a woman judge.

Her husband has sued her for invasion of privacy for hiring a handyman to "harvest" trash from his law office. In it she found - and cited in her pleadings - love notes and condom sales receipts she alleges document an adulterous relationship between him and a staff receptionist. Plus what she charges is evidence of financial fraud. There have been allegations of potential violence - since dismissed. Court orders now bar them from each other's premises.

"Mrs. Charles Douglas won't go quietly," said the Nashua Telegraph in an editorial about the escalating conflict. "But then, what would you expect from a lawyer?"

The emotional aspect of family law … affects both the litigants and the lawyers who serve them…. At times the client's emotional and psychological concerns may override both reason and the underlying legal issues.

 - Douglas & Douglas, "Family Law"

The undisputed facts of Douglas v. Douglas are relatively few. Chuck Douglas, a graduate of the University of New Hampshire and Boston University Law School, was named to the state Supreme Court at the age of 33 after two years as legislative counsel to Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr. and two years as a lower court judge. He resigned to run for one of New Hampshire's two House seats and won. But he was defeated in 1990 after one term when his multiple divorces appeared to undermine his family values platform.

The Douglases married in 1991 - his fourth marriage, her second. "Part of my role was to redeem him after he lost his seat in Congress," she said in an interview. It was the first time a Republican had lost that district since the Civil War.

She had moved to New Hampshire, her parents' home state, after 13 years of marriage in Hawaii and a divorce that subsequently involved both a bankruptcy judgment and loss of custody of her two children. She met Chuck Douglas at a neighbor's birthday party. On their first date, prophetically enough, they went to see "The War of the Roses," the Michael Douglas - Kathleen Turner film about a divorce from Hell.

The Douglases set up a joint law practice here, with Chuck the chief moneymaker and Caroline the administrative partner. She was only a few years out of law school, she says, and "Chuck taught me almost everything I really know about law … We were both workaholics. We thought it could work."

Their marriage began to unravel in 1996 when, according to court records, Caroline Douglas was relieved of her management responsibilities by a vote of the other lawyers in the firm. She moved to a new branch office 20 miles away in Manchester.

Two months later Chuck Douglas filed for a no-fault divorce on the basis of "irreconcilable differences." His wife countersued, charging him with committing adultery with a secretary in the firm whom he was also representing in a sexual harassment suit. After that, things exploded.

He charged her in court documents with such "hostile, unpredictable and irrational" behavior as locking him out of the office and changing the keys, screaming at employees, calling one a "bitch" and throwing the woman's family pictures in the trash.

She charged him with fraudulently underreporting his taxable income by more than $400,000 over the past five years, and of sneaking off to Florida with his mistress as well as plotting to give the woman Caroline's coveted low-number auto tag.

He demanded that she turn over such personal property as his tanning bed and treadmill, a family duck decoy, and the frequent-flier mileage credits from her Sprint phone card. She accused him of defrauding her of a half-million-dollar share in their law firm as well as attempting to discredit her as mentally unstable.

Caroline, complaining that most New Hampshire judges are cronies of her husband, got the first judge to step down and tried unsuccessfully to remove the second. She tried to have the trial moved to Vermont or some other neutral state, but both the state and U.S. supreme courts turned her down. Even on federal turf she couldn't escape the connections. Her U.S. Supreme Court petition originally landed on the desk of Justice David Souter, a former colleague of her husband on the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

When her husband filed suit to halt her use of the Douglas name, she countersued, suggesting the court instead order him to take the name of "Dick M. Douglas" in light of his "tawdry" reputation and activities.

By the time the divorce case itself went to trial Sept. 15, 1997, both Douglases had given up their respective counsel and were representing themselves. But the morning the trial began, Caroline Douglas assigned her brother, a paralegal from Arizona, to cross-examine her husband's case. She stayed away. Judge Patricia C. Coffey disqualified the brother for not having his sister's written power of attorney. Citing a lack of explanation for Caroline's absence, Coffey then declared her in default and approved her husband's petition in toto.

Chuck Douglas was awarded almost everything: their house and all real estate, virtually all of their joint financial holdings, their time-share condominiums in Aruba and Lake Tahoe, and a fascinating 25-item list of personal property that includes a canoe, a stainless steel trailer, a hand-held leaf blower and "the Newt Gingrich signed cartoon."

Coffey ruled that Caroline Douglas was entitled to $3,007.66 in deferred compensation for her work at the law firm. But the judge awarded Chuck Douglas all rights to their jointly authored book on family law. And Coffey said Caroline Douglas was entitled to neither alimony nor money from the dissolution of the firm itself, which the court determined had "no independent fair market value."

That finding was strongly challenged by Caroline, whose retained CPA appraised the firm at nearly $1 million. Caroline promptly produced from her husband's trash a letter from his own attorney stating that any zero evaluation "pushes our credibility" by ignoring both unbilled hourly work and pending contingency cases.

If the practice is worth nothing, wrote attorney Eaton W. Tarbell Jr. to Chuck Douglas, "then why did your new partners each pay $25,000 for their 20 per cent share?"

"This has been divorce by legal ambush," says Caroline Douglas. She claims her husband and the courts have left her destitute, even as she appeals. "Impoverishment by litigation is a technique going back to the Bible."

When the state Supreme Court ruled last week that she was entitled to a new hearing on the couple's financial settlement, she promised to petition for a rehearing on her claim of corruption in the state's whole judicial system.

Her husband declined to be interviewed for this story and was last reported on vacation in Aruba. His office, however, issued a terse statement: "The New Hampshire Supreme Court currently has a number of issues in the case on appeal so that it would be inappropriate for me to comment in detail. However the fact is that Caroline Douglas has voluntarily chosen to quit practicing law and failed to show up at her own trial. Any consequences are her responsibility as an adult and an attorney …"

It has been a humbling experience rewriting this book - realizing that our own lives, loves, children, step-children, spouses, and ex-spouses have been reflections of the changes that have happened to the American family … over the last 20 years.

 - Douglas & Douglas, "Family Law"

Though her husband pays the mortgage, Caroline Douglas remains holed up in their 20-room ski-lodge-like house in the woods east of Concord overlooking the White Mountains and the Merrimack River - at least she does until the state Supreme Court finishes ruling on her appeals.

She failed to return phone calls requesting an interview for this story, and when a reporter showed up unannounced, she initially unleashed an imposing Rottweiler named Jake. But after some negotiation, she warily agreed to talk.

Seated in the cathedral-ceilinged living room, dressed in a long black skirt, black boots, long cardigan sweater and silver earrings, she appeared poised, with little trace of the disordered, "malignant" personality on which her husband's court papers blame much of the divorce.

Nor did she describe her husband much differently than both his admirers and detractors in the Concord legal community, few of whom want to speak for the record.

Chuck Douglas, she says, is "very intelligent … very ambitious" and can be "very charismatic and charming when he wants to be." She blames the divorce not on the failure of their professional life together, but on a midlife crisis experienced since losing his seat in Congress.

"He thought he was slated to be governor" before his defeat, she says. "He never really recovered from that." Even as they sought to build a law practice, "he would tell me, 'I hate my life.' He talked of moving to New Mexico and living on an Indian reservation."

One night in April 1996, she says, he put a gun to his head and tried to kill himself: "I saved his life."

Such stories, said Chuck Douglas in his brief statement for this story, are "old news from a woman with no credibility whatsoever."

Despite the turmoil in her husband's inner life and in their law firm, Caroline insists, she never thought her marriage was in serious trouble.

"My first clue was the night before Thanksgiving (1996), when I came home with 23 bags of groceries - we were having 12 people the next day for Thanksgiving dinner - and discovered that he'd cleaned out the house."

In the space of about three hours that afternoon, she says, her husband had brought in several moving trucks and removed "everything of any value" in the house, including paintings and other art. "He even took snow shovels and pool equipment."

Chuck Douglas moved to a condo just down the road, "but even after moving out he would come over here. We would go out on dates. And he would spend the night here. Crying. Miserable. Telling me he had screwed things up so much we could never fix them. And I would say, 'No, it's not too late.'"

When he filed for divorce, she says, "I learned about it from the newspaper."

If her tolerance for his behavior seems at odds with her barrage of litigation, Caroline Douglas insists her court suits have been aimed only at her financial survival.

"I was committed to our marriage," she says; certainly to no suggestion of "uppity feminism … I believe every family needs one leader and think the husband should be the dominant partner. I used to even teach classes in the concept of 'The Total Woman.' But Chuck manipulated me on the basis of that belief. Particularly financially. … And now I can't really even practice law. The judges, who are all Chuck's friends, rule against my clients just because I represent them."

Other lawyers in Concord say Caroline Douglas's argument is not without merit. But they say the situation is nowhere near as simple as she implies. There has been widespread dissatisfaction for some time in New Hampshire, they say, with the state's clubby, closed-door method of handling complaints against judges and other lawyers. Her scattershot charges of a self-protective old-boy network, they say, have clearly touched a nerve and accelerated moves toward reform.

But so noisy and confrontational have been her tactics that most critics of the system have found it politic to distance themselves from her and what several described as her reputation for "erratic behavior" both personally and professionally.

Most troubling, according to law professor Hesse, have been the official complaints filed with the state Supreme Court's Professional Conduct Committee charging both her and her husband with mishandling funds of a client they represented jointly.

"People will tolerate almost anything in a lawyer but mishandling money," Hesse says. The committee upheld one such complaint against Caroline Douglas. A similar one against her husband was "dismissed on technical grounds … never pursued with comparable vigor. The whole thing was handled behind a kind of black curtain, making Chuck Douglas a kind of poster boy for everything the system does wrong."

Mitchell M. Simon, another law professor at Franklin Pierce, says the divorce controversy has made Chuck Douglas "the butt of a lot of jokes around town … sort of like Monica Lewinsky." But he says Chuck appears to be prospering anyway as a plaintiffs' attorney focusing on employment litigation.

He and others say Chuck Douglas, who drives a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and once traveled far to meet the Dalai Lama, is not exactly typical of New Hampshire Republicans. "He has far more interesting twists to him," Simon says, "some admirable, some less so."

But several attorneys said both Douglases have literally proved with a vengeance in their divorce the hoary adage that the lawyer who represents himself always has a fool for a client.

"They began by using all their knowledge and skills," says Hesse. "But their judgment … becomes clouded … and they end up fighting very personal, emotional battles armed with all the weapons of the legal system. Then the tendency to legal gamesmanship and winning-at-all-cost takes over, with an utter disregard for the ultimate cost to each other, to the legal system, or to society. By now we should have a way to prevent such abuse of the legal system by lawyers. But so far we don't."

We believe that our successful practice of family law comes not only from legal research and legal skills, but from our life experience as well …

- Douglas & Douglas, "Family Law"