PITTSBURGH, Penn. –– The legal community is rallying behind former National Football League player, now attorney, Walter Bernard, Esq., due to his recent treatment by Judge Phillip A. Ignelzi of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania.
In a troubling incident, Bernard, who earned his J.D./MBA in 2011, was inconceivably detained in May of 2023 while in his home and jailed due to a simple discovery dispute in which Bernard respectfully attempted to inform the judicial officer that his courtroom lacked jurisdiction over the legal dispute. Instead of considering Attorney Bernard’s position in good faith, Judge Ignelzi ordered Bernard pay the opposing party to settle the case on behalf of himself and his client, professional baseball player Wynton Bernard, as Attorney Bernard remained in handcuffs.
Judge Philip A. Ignelzi mandated that Attorney Bernard, within 15 minutes and without his client’s consent, either 1) produce discovery materials, despite the fact that the matter was pending before the Appellate Court, or 2) agree to pay $91,618.73 without the ability to negotiate any settlement terms as a condition of being released from custody.
Attorney Bernard rejected the option to pay $91,618.73 because the amount was in dispute and he hadn’t had the chance to discuss the settlement term with his client. Subsequently, Judge Philip A. Ignelzi released Attorney Bernard from custody and required Attorney Bernard to produce confidential discovery documents within 10 days. Rather than allowing Attorney Bernard to have a subsequent hearing to challenge the 10-day requirement and raising the jurisdictional issue that Judge Philip Ignelzi did not have jurisdiction, Judge Ignelzi held Attorney Bernard in contempt and issued a bench warrant while Bernard opted to challenge the Court’s decision. Attorney Bernard was arrested in a separate judge’s courtroom and thrown in jail at the direction of Judge Ignelzi while Attorney Bernard was preparing to set up for a hearing.
In Pennsylvania, an individual in custody pursuant to a bench warrant which was the judicial tool used to seize Benard, must be afforded a hearing within 72 hours of arrest. See234 Pa. Code § 150. However, after being arrested at the courthouse, Bernard was held for twelve days prior to obtaining a hearing. At that hearing, Attorney Bernard, through counsel, requested that Judge Philip Ignelzi recuse himself of the matter. He denied the request and threatened to keep him in custody if he did not pay a full $80,000.00 settlement amount immediately. The settlement amount had been finalized while Attorney Bernard remained in handcuffs. Settlements are typically paid over the course of a period no less than thirty (30) days. Not only did Judge Ignelzi demand Bernard pay the full amount at once, Judge Ignelzi ordered Bernard to be kept in custody until the check cleared. Attorney Bernard’s check cleared 4 days later; Attorney Bernard was not released from jail until a week after writing the check when the underlying case had been settled.
Attorney Bernard and many in the legal community believe Judge Ignelzi’s bizarre and atypical conduct can only be the result of racial animus toward Bernard as an African-American, as such result is nearly unheard of as a judicial remedy under like circumstances.
Bernard intended to utilize the legal processes he had been taught in law school and navigated many times as an attorney barred in Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey, and New York state in order to challenge Judge Ignelzi’s mandate which Bernard felt deprived him and his clients of due process. Bernard was not given legal notice or an opportunity to defend himself. Once in custody, Bernard was forced to remain in a jail cell for 19 days with limited access to friends, family, and current clients that relied on him.
It goes without saying that ushering an attorney into court in handcuffs, besmirching his legal reputation, and violating his legal rights under the guise of a discovery dispute have ignited concerns about the impartiality and fairness of the legal system and how Judge Ignelzi may be abusing his power against Bernard and possibly other African-Americans subjected to his courtroom. A member of Bernard’s legal team, Yohana Manning, said that the detention was “appalling” and “raises significant questions about the adherence to due process and the fundamental principles of justice in Judge Ignelzi’s courtroom.”
Manning continued, stating that, “Our legal system’s credibility hinges on its ability to treat every individual with respect and fairness. Judge Ignelzi’s conduct, all recorded—like the body cameras that show the unjust treatment of African Americans in our society—underscores the need for swift justice.” Manning also said that Bernard’s arrest at his home was “shocking and unwarranted” and emphasized that Attorney Bernard has a long history of community service and is a model citizen with no prior incidents analogous to the present incident fueled by Judge Ignelzi.
Another member of Attorney Walter Bernard’s legal team, Attorney Rodney S. Diggs, who is based in California and serves as a Partner/Director of the Law Firm Ivie McNeill Wyatt Purcell and Diggs, characterizes the incident as, “the greatest miscarriage of justice against someone who dedicated his life to the advancement of justice.”
Judge Ignelzi’s current term ends January 7, 2030. However, the facts of this matter demand urgency in determining the fitness of Judge Ignelzi to render unbiased and impartial justice. Furthermore, this incident demonstrates the need for reforms in the judicial system that ensures all individuals are treated fairly, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
Attorneys Ben Crump of Ben Crump Law, PLLC; Rodney Diggs of Ivie McNeill Wyatt Purcell & Diggs; and Yohanna Manning of Manning Legal Services have joined in the action against Philip A. Ignelzi brought by Walter Bernard of the Law Offices of Walter A. Bernard, PLLC.
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Through his work, nationally renowned civil rights and personal injury attorney Ben Crump has spearheaded a legal movement to better protect the rights of marginalized citizens. He has led landscape-changing civil rights cases and represented clients in a wide range of areas including civil rights, personal injury, labor and employment, class actions, and more. Ben Crump Law is dedicated to holding the powerful accountable. For more information, visit bencrump.com.