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Lawyers’ immunity upheld in fraud suit by ex-NFL player

HARTFORD, Conn. — A Connecticut appeals court has ruled that ex-NFL player/investment firm founder Bob Simms can’t sue his former wife’s lawyers for fraud during a long-running divorce and alimony case, saying they’re protected by a centuries-old doctrine called absolute immunity.

Simms, a linebacker who played for the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1960s, claims his former wife, Donna Simms, and her lawyers failed to disclose a nearly $360,000 inheritance she received in 2006 and 2008 during a legal fight over the amount of alimony he pays. Her lawyers deny the allegations.

The state Appellate Court released a 2-1 ruled Monday that the lawyers have absolute immunity, which shields judges and lawyers across the country from civil lawsuits in connection with their actions in court. The doctrine’s purpose is to promote people speaking freely at judicial proceedings without fear of being sued and to avoid hindering an attorney’s advocacy for his or her client.

But in the dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Bishop wrote that lawyers need to be held accountable for fraudulent acts.

“Immunizing lawyers from claims based on fraudulent behavior serves no legitimate public policy,” Bishop wrote.

The issue of absolute immunity has gone before appellate courts nationwide. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a Georgia case and decide whether government officials who testify falsely while acting as complaining witnesses have absolute immunity from civil lawsuits.

Simms, 72, played in the NFL from 1960 through 1962. He founded Simms Capital Management Inc. in 1984 and now lives in Greenwich. He said he plans to appeal Monday’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“Fraud is a crime,” he told The Associated Press. “For these men and women to ignore that is not in the public interest. It’s only in the interest of their selfish commercial well-being. It’s the obscenity of all obscenities.”

Bob and Donna Simms got married in 1961 and divorced in 1979. The case has taken a number of twists and turns over the years, including two trips to the state Supreme Court.

Judge Stuart Bear wrote the Appellate Court’s majority opinion and was joined by Judge George Stoughton, who died on June 1. Bear noted that lawyers can face discipline for misconduct in other ways, including contempt of court rulings and complaints to the state panel that investigates attorney wrongdoing.

Bear wrote that allowing lawsuits like the one filed by Bob Simms “would have a chilling effect on the attorney-client relationship and on an attorney’s zealous representation of his or her client.”

No one answered a phone listing for Donna Simms on Tuesday.