A Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based lawyer says he was removed from his residence, wrongly arrested in connection to a civil case and escorted to a courtroom where his freedom was threatened by a judge. Now, he’s pursuing legal action.
The lawsuit filed last month alleges that Attorney Walter Bernard’s civil rights were violated by Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Philip Ignelzi, claiming that the official acted out of his jurisdiction.
On May 3, Bernard was getting ready for work when county deputies appeared at his home — which he shares with his brother Wynton Bernard — and arrested him in front of his neighbors, according to a legal complaint. Per the documents, the officers allegedly did not show a warrant, telling Bernard that “the judge wanted to see you.”
The suit accuses law enforcement of threatening Bernard before he opened his front door before being taken into custody.
Bernard’s filings claim that the retired NFL player was transported to jail and ultimately escorted to the courthouse and brought before Judge Ignelzi while in shackles. In the courtroom, the judge criticized Bernard for not opening his door fast enough for law enforcement and blamed him “for almost getting himself hurt.”
The judge, according to the suit, also gave Bernard an ultimatum in exchange for his freedom, giving him only 15 minutes to make a decision.
“Attorney Bernard needed to settle the case that was currently on appeal before the Appellate Court in an amount that the opposing counsel has pre-determined with no ability to negotiate without his client being present or [he] was required to disclose confidential information from both his and his client Wynton Bernard’s private information,” the lawsuit stated, referring to documents including tax returns, and bank account statements.
The judge’s alleged demands come from a separate pending civil lawsuit filed against Bernard and his brother, who own an escape room business. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the duo had to close their business and stopped paying their rent.
“There’s a clause in our lease that says if we are unable to operate for reasons that are not due to our negligence that we don’t have to pay rent. The rent is abated until we are able to operate again,” Bernard told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We tried to exercise that clause and the landlord wouldn’t agree to it. Prior to that, we had made all rental payments on time.”
The landlord wanted $100,882, but the brothers asked the judge to reduce the amount after another tenant took over the space, per the outlet. According to the report, citing court documents, the brothers also refused to hand over their personal financial records to the court.
In March, after they filed an appeal of the order to hand over the documents, Judge Ignelzi demanded that the brothers comply within 72 hours or they would be taken into custody, the complaint says.
“Judge Ignelzi is not the original judge,” Bernard said, per the Post-Gazette. “The original judge on the case [Judge Alan Hertzberg] said that he retained exclusive jurisdiction on the case over all matters. Not only that, the matter was on appeal. The appellate court has jurisdiction over the issue.”
He was ultimately arrested in May while his brother, who is a professional baseball player, was not present at their home. Per the outlet, Bernard caved and agreed to hand in the requested records, but when he failed to do so he was arrested again last month during a hearing regarding the final judgment of the civil lawsuit.
Bernard agreed to settle the case and wrote a $80,000 check while behind bars, he told the Post-Gazette.
“I felt it was going to keep getting worse,” he added, the publication reported. “My family has been living in fear since May, and my concern is safety.”