- Donald Trump will be fined $10K a day until he signs a ‘Jackson affidavit—’ named for a 1987 personal injury case from the Bronx.
- NJ lawyer Eugene M. Banta is shocked his old case, Jackson vs. NYC, is the precedent for Trump’s fine.
- ‘It’s just amazing to me,’ he told Insider of the 35-year-old case he’d won just out of law school.
It was 3o years ago, and the ink was barely dry on his law degree, when Eugene M. Barta argued his first-ever appellate case under the coffered wood ceilings of a Manhattan courtroom.
“I was happier than a pig in mud,” he remembers of winning.
But Barta could never have imagined that his win in a minor personal injury case would set an important precedent — and today ensnare a former president.
Donald Trump is being fined $10,000 a day for failing to comply with New York Attorney General Letitia James’ demand that he turn over business documents. The fine reached $110,000 on Friday, and will keep accruing until Trump signs what’s called a “Jackson affidavit,” a sworn, detailed description of his failed search for the documents James wants.
That’s Jackson, as in Barta’s old personal injury case, Jackson vs. the City of New York.
“All I could think of was the butterfly effect — something completely random,” he told Insider Friday, after learning of his inadvertent role in Trump’s spiraling fine.
“Having an impact 30-something years later is just amazing to me,” added Barta, 66, now a commercial collections attorney with Heitner & Breitstein in Marlboro, NJ.
“Jackson vs. NYC” was named for Christophena Jackson, who was badly hurt at age 64 when a stairway collapsed in her city-owned South Bronx apartment building in 1984.
First as a change-of-career law student and then as a new lawyer, Barta helped his attorney father, also named Eugene M. Barta, go to bat for the woman. They fought the city’s stonewalling for nearly a decade.
“It was just one stall after another,” Barta remembers. “It was like pulling teeth to get documents.”
The city failed to turn over a single maintenance or inspection record for Jackson’s building at 970 Prospect Avenue.
Instead, in 1990, it had a city employee sign a sworn statement — an “affidavit” — stating in three brief paragraphs that she had looked in the “Central Files,” and in the “Archive Files,” and found nothing.
Barta argued that the city shouldn’t just be allowed to say “we looked; there’s nothing there.” They should face some sanction for failing to produce a single record.
The appellate court agreed.
“Here, after years of delay, the affidavit presented by the City made no showing as to where the subject records were likely to be kept, what efforts, if any, were made to preserve them, whether such records were routinely destroyed, or whether a search had been conducted in every location where the records were likely to be found,” the appellate court said in its ruling.
“In short, the affidavit provided the court with no basis to find that the search had been a thorough one or that it had been conducted in a good faith effort to provide these necessary records to plaintiff.”
The court ruled that any potential jury in the case would be told to assume that the city did indeed have advance notice of the dilapidated stairwell, and had failed to fix it.
And the 1992 decision became state case law that’s now costing Trump $10,000 a day.
In scores of New York cases since Barta’s win, whenever people or businesses or governments fail to turn over court-ordered documents, judges have demanded “Jackson affidavits—” sworn statements specifying where the records should have been, what was done to preserve them, and “whether a search had been conducted in every location where the records were likely to be found.”
The very kind of sworn statement that is now demanded of Trump, who is appealing the fine and the contempt-of-courrt finding.
“I thought I had a pretty good case,” Barta remembered Friday. “But I had no idea that the Jackson affidavit was named after my Mrs. Jackson from 35 years ago,” he said. “Almost 40 years now, that’s been the standard, which is kind of funny.”
Barta declined to talk about Trump, or Trump’s fine. But he was very happy to talk about Christophena Jackson, who he still remembers fondly.
“She came into the office once or twice,” he said. “A very nice, older woman. She was legitimately injured. She just wanted to be compensated for falling down the stairs.”
He doesn’t remember the settlement the city finally agreed to for Jackson in 1994, who was by then around 75 years old. “We haggled a little bit,” he said, with a laugh, of his negotiations with the city.
“She reminded me of my grandmother,” he added. “And I just thought she was a sweet old lady.””