The Functioning of Juryless Family Court
Allan Kassenoff v. Catherine Kassenoff was a contentious divorce case in the New York State Supreme Court of Westchester County.
The case is a superb example of how the juryless family court operates in Westchester County and the nation.
It is superb, because the unusual degree of litigation illustrates uniquely how the process works, or doesn’t work. Both Allan and Catherine were lawyers.
Multiple Judges and Court-Appointed Actors
The case went through at least four judges, plus provided gainful employment for a raft of court-appointed actors, such as custody evaluators, therapists, and attorneys for the children.
The result was Catherine Kassenoff lost custody of her children. Then took her life.
It began on May 24, 2019, when Allan filed for divorce in the New York State Supreme Court of Westchester County.
Ten months later, on March 27, 2020, following a forensic custody evaluation by “neutral custody evaluator” Dr. Marc Abrams, Judge David Everett awarded the father “temporary” sole legal custody and primary physical custody of the children. He ordered Catherine out of her house, where she and Allan raised the children for ten years.
Abrams said Catherine had an “unspecified personality disorder,” a term used to indicate that he knew she had some mental disorder but did not know which one.
The DSM-5 lists many personality disorders:
But Dr. Abrams’ opinion was not an official diagnosis. In New York State, a psychologist cannot diagnose someone who is not their patient. According to standards of practice published online, a mental health diagnosis requires a comprehensive evaluation by a clinician who is an ongoing therapeutic relationship with a patient who is seeking a diagnosis and provides informed consent.
None of these were present with Catherine and Dr. Abrams, who was a forensic custody evaluator.
But based on the single report of one custody evaluator, who was not competent to diagnose, the court gave it the force of law, and the mother lost her children and her home overnight.
Judge Everett allowed the mother to visit the children she previously raised, according to Catherine, in “the humiliating circumstances of being watched” by a court-approved therapeutic supervisor.
She had to pay thousands to see her children a few times a month.
Interim Custody Trial and Testimonies
In July 2020, Judge Nancy Quinn Koba presided over a 2-week juryless interim custody trial.
Catherine testified she did not believe she alienated the children from their father during the four supervised hours she had with them per week, but that Allan alienated them from her during the remaining 164 hours he had with them alone.
The children did not testify.
In August 2020, Judge Koba issued a Decision and Order, continuing Allan’s “temporary” sole legal and physical custody over their children, exclusive occupancy of the marital residence, and Catherine’s visits be supervised by a therapeutic supervisor “who can intervene if the mother begins to engage in harmful behavior and who can assist her in developing the skills to be with her children without damaging their emotional health” during “in-person visits with her children for two hours twice per week, and 15 minutes of supervised Zoom calls on the days that she did not have in-person visitation.”
Judge Koba, who never met the children, relied on the Court-appointed “neutral” forensic therapist, Dr. Abrams, who testified for Allan at $400 per hour at Allan’s expense.
Continuation of Temporary Custody
Judge Koba ruled Catherine failed “to recognize and understand that… the father’s ability to provide for the children’s emotional well-being and development is superior” to hers, just as Dr. Abrams testified.
Judge Koba agreed with Dr. Abrams that Catherine was “manipulative” and put “her self-interest above the interests of others,” made “false allegations of abuse against the father,” and made “purposeful actions to alienate the children from him,” which made her “unfit to act as a custodial parent.”‘
And as Dr. Abrams testified, Judge Koba echoed, “there was no evidence presented that the father manipulated the children into making any false claims against the mother.”
Despite losing her children, Catherine endured and fought for three more years.
Following Judge Koba’s August 2020 decision, Allan’s attorney wrote in another matter that “Mr. Kassenoff sincerely hoped that Ms. Kassenoff would get the help that she needed so that she could one day have a meaningful and healthy relationship with the children. But she has steadfastly refused. Instead, Ms. Kassenoff has opted to make it her life’s mission to exact revenge upon each and every person involved in the Matrimonial Action that led to the loss of her children.”
After she lost her children, largely due to the decision of Dr. Abrams, Catherine filed a complaint against him with the Office of Attorneys for Children and the Mental Health Professionals Certification Committee, alleging gross misconduct, including a false diagnosis of her mental health, minimizing Allan’s domestic abuse based on his financial alignment with Allan, bias, and sexually harassing her and other women.
Complaint and Removal of Dr. Abrams
On August 24, 2021, the Panel of Forensic Custody Evaluators in the First and Second Judicial Departments removed Dr. Abrams. He could no longer do court-ordered custody evaluations.
Later, a new judge, Lewis Lubell, signed an order of protection requiring Catherine to stay at least a mile away from her children, preventing her from stepping foot in the one-mile village of Larchmont, where the children live.
Grievance Against Judge
After posting photographs of Judge Lubell presiding over Dr. Abrams’ wedding on social media, Catherine filed a grievance with the Commission on Judicial Conduct against Judge Lubell, in which she detailed his inappropriate relationship with Dr. Abrams, his threats to incarcerate and arrest her, and refer her to the grievance committee, hold her in contempt, and his intemperate demeanor, which he displayed by screaming in the courtroom at her.
On November 29, 2021, Judge Lubell, announcing “strong support for recusal in this matter,” removed himself from the case.
False Arrest and Dismissal of Charges
In January 2022, Allan filed a complaint with Larchmont police that Catherine came near one of her children at her school.
Four armed police officers came, pinned her behind her car door, and she was paraded in front of her daughter’s school in handcuffs, frisked, put in a cell, and arraigned on charges of violating the order of protection requiring her to keep one mile distant from her children.
Police took Allan’s word that the order was in effect despite it having expired and no longer in force.
The attorney for the children, Carol Most, worked with the assistant district attorney, Christine Paska, to ensure Catherine was convicted.
But Catherine showed the district attorney’s office that there was no legal protective order – the one-mile stay away order had expired and while a judge approved a new protection order, Allan had yet to serve it on Catherine, making it also legally unenforceable.
The DA dismissed the case.
Governor Kathy Hochul fired Catherine from her $170,000 per year job because of the arrest – Catherine claimed.
Misconduct by the Attorney for the Children
Catherine later alleged the prosecutor, ADA Paska, discussed with the children’s attorney Carol Most joining her law firm, which Most did not disclose to the Court. Later Paska joined Most’s law firm.
In the fall of 2022, Catherine alleged the court-appointed attorney for the children, Most, had engaged in unethical conduct.
The new family court judge, Susan Capeci, removed Most from the case for misconduct, including Most altering emails between her and Allan, and denied $113,000 of Most’s $270,000 invoice for “services” on behalf of the children.
Catherine also filed a complaint against Most with the Second Department’s Office of Attorneys for Children. The results of this complaint are unknown and may be pending.
Second Custody Evaluation Ordered
With Abrams removed, the Court ordered a second custody evaluation, which took over a year to complete.
During that time, Catherine was making progress in a rapprochement with the children, according to the court-approved therapeutic visitation supervisor, Jennifer Culley, whom Catherine paid.
Culley told the Court of her progress despite setbacks caused by Allan alienating the children from her.
In March 2023, Allan wrote an eerily prophetic email where he reiterated court-ordered settlements he paid Catherine over three years – $885,000 – and vowed to fight to the death, whatever the cost.
Allan wrote, “You must really be proud of yourself for financially decimating me and the children. …everyone knows that your goal is to destroy me and you don’t care what that means to the children….
“Even if this Court awards you my last dollar, I will never stop protecting [the children]. Until the day I die. If I lose my house, so be it. If I go bankrupt, so be it. I will do everything and anything to take care of the kids and protect them…. Instead of focusing on getting help, you have focused your rage on destroying me…. Even if you succeed and take every last dollar I have, I will still have my children’s love and I will move forward in life knowing that I gave everything I had to protect them.”
In April 2023, Catherine bought a house for $900,000 cash for the children and herself near the $2 million home she owned with Allan, where he and the children lived – but which the Court barred her from visiting.
Based on the supervised visit reports to the Court from Culley, Catherine expected she would see her children unsupervised.
In May 2023, the second custody evaluator, Kathleen McKay, filed her report with Judge Susan Capeci.
McKay determined Allan should have sole custody, and Catherine should never see her children – not even with a supervisor present.
In response, Judge Capeci ordered all visits between the mother and daughters stopped, showing the inordinate sway custody evaluators have on family court even in the teeth of contradictory evidence by other mental health professionals.
Tragic Outcome: Catherine’s Suicide
Three weeks later, Catherine committed assisted suicide in Switzerland – on May 27, 2023 – four years and three days after Allan began the divorce proceedings.
On May 27, Catherine posted on Facebook:
“…Today, I will be ending my own life. I will be doing so in a dignified and idyllic setting in Europe. There are simply no other options left.
“In the last four years of my life, I have woken up every day to a nightmare like no other. I can no longer endure the abuse and terror of Allan Kassenoff… I have also endured the emotional devastation of being without my children for so long…”
Catherine’s death and the consequent publicity resulted in the law firm of Greenberg Traurig making a public announcements that Allan resigned from his partnership.
According to court filings, Allan earned $800,000 to $1 million per year and was noted in various law periodicals as being one of the firm’s leading patent attorneys in the USA.
Claims of Mental Illness
The argument Allan always made was that Catherine was mentally ill. His friends say her suicide proves it.
During the pendency of the case, Catherine presented to the Court reports from two treating psychiatrists and one psychologist who were competent to diagnose her and stated she was not mentally ill.
The sole proof of Catherine being mentally ill was, in the end, Dr. Abrams, and Dr. MacKay, neither of whom were qualified to make a diagnosis based on a comprehensive evaluation of Catherine’s symptoms, history, and functioning.
Catherine was not their patient.
One of the arguments Dr. McKay seemed to have used to establish Catherine was mentally ill was that she was highly litigious.
In addition to removing Judge Lubell, Dr. Abrams, and Carol Most, and making many motions in the matrimonial case, Catherine sued one of the children’s court-appointed therapists, Dr. Susan Adler, in State Supreme Court in Westchester County on grounds of fraudulent inducement; the case was pending at the time of her death.
Catherine sued Allan and Allan’s attorney Constantine G. Dimopoulos in the US District Court for Allan allegedly illegally obtaining her electronic communications by intercepting them or downloading them from her iCloud account – and Dimopoulus for publishing some of them in court filings – a case pending at the time of her death.
She filed a grievance against Allan with the Attorney Grievance Committee of the First Judicial Department, which reportedly was dismissed.
Grievance Against Catherine by Court Referee
A court referee, who Frank Report has identified as Irene Ratner, who worked on the Kassenoff matter during the time when Judge Koba presided, filed a grievance against Catherine with the Grievance Committee for the Ninth Judicial District on March 23, 2023, two and a half years after Koba left the case.
“Prior to my involvement in this divorce proceeding, Ms. Kassenoff was granted supervised access with her three minor daughters by Judge Everett.
“This access was continued by Judge Koba after an interim custody hearing in which Catherine Kassenoff was diagnosed [sic] as having a personality disorder with narcissistic traits….
“During the two-year period during which I was assigned to the Kassenoff divorce to assist Judge Koba, I received several emails from Ms. Kassenoff which I considered threatening.
“I became very frightened at the threat and content contained in Ms. Kassenoff’s email and became very concerned for my safety. I was so concerned for my safety that I felt compelled to file a police report.
“As Ms. Kassenoff has been seen in the Courthouse, I am now afraid to be in any unsecured part of the Courthouse where I work, or to be outside alone. I notified the Captain of the Court Officers at the courthouse, and also the District Attorney’s office, of the email threat.
“During my 44 years in the NYS Court System, I have been a Court Attorney Referee, County Court Judge and Family Court Judge. I have never before experienced the kind of conduct exhibited by Catherine Kassenoff nor the threats she has directed at me. In my opinion, this conduct by Ms. Kassenoff is sanctionable.
“I hesitated before filing this complaint as I am quite aware that as a result of this complaint to the Attorney Grievance Committee, Ms. Kassenoff, in all likelihood will file not only a Complaint against me with the Grievance Committee, but will also concoct a frivolous lawsuit to file against me. That has been her pattern throughout this entire matter. However, I refuse to remain silent and permit her to continue her campaign of intimidation and ‘terror’.
“Notwithstanding the likelihood of her retaliation against me for filing this complaint, I cannot remain silent. For the first time in 44 years, she has caused me to fear for my safety from an attorney or litigant. Her conduct as an attorney in this matter, in which she has represented herself at various times during the long and tortuous divorce proceeding, and her attacks on every professional who has ever been involved in this matter who has not agreed with her nor done what she wants, have been relentless. Her campaign to harm anyone she perceives as not being “on her side’ must be stopped. She gives all attorneys a bad name.”
Letter from Treating Psychiatrist
After Judge Capeci accepted Dr. McKay’s report, which recommended Catherine should not see her children, and before Catherine killed herself, psychiatrist Stephanie Brandt MD, who was Catherine’s treating psychiatrist, wrote a letter to the Court stating that Catherine was not mentally ill.
Dr, Brandt added that she spoke only once to Dr. McKay in connection to the custody evaluation report and that Dr. McKay made:
“the unexpected statement that she had never seen anyone file so many motions [as Catherine]. I was again rather shocked at the over expression of her very negative take on my patient, despite her role as a ‘neutral’.
“It is a familiar trope about women especially those in family court custody battles, regarding supposed ‘mental illness’ i.e. the lady with the bags of papers who shows up in the ER or [doctor’s] office to prosecute her case.
“It is an expression between professionals that one believes that the woman is crazy and paranoid.
“In response [to Dr. McKay], I said that I disagreed that her motions were an expression of psychopathology. In fact – she had won most of these motions. I asked [Dr. McKay] why that was an indication of anything but resilience persistence, in the face of what was for her a disaster,” i.e., the loss of her children.
Arguments in the Federal Case
In a filing in the federal case where Catherine alleged he had illegally intercepted her text messages, Allan Kassenoff’s attorney summed up what they wanted the judge to understand about her:
“This case is nothing more than the sad result of a mentally ill litigant who lost custody of her children and rather than getting the help that she needs, she has decided to use the judicial system to exact revenge upon everyone she blames for the loss of her children.”