Grievance Against Timothy Shortt

Who: A group of law professors filed an ethics complaint in May 2021 against attorney Timothy Shortt, alleging Shortt engaged in misconduct while prosecuting John Cunningham and Malakyle Hightower in two separate cases on behalf of the Queens District Attorney’s Office (QDAO). The complaint was filed with the Grievance Committee for the Second, Eleventh & Thirteenth Judicial Districts, the body that handles ethics complaints against attorneys in the Queens. The following summary is based on the complaint.

What: The ethics complaint, also known as a grievance, is based on two New York Appellate Division cases, People v. Cunningham and People v. Hightower

According to the complaint, in Cunningham, Shortt made improper comments during both the opening statement and summation. During the Cunningham oral argument, Justice Sylvia Hinds-Radix described the comments as “outrageous” and “indefensible.” The subsequent appellate decision quoted extensively from cases describing proper prosecutorial conduct in summation—contrasting them with Shortt’s improper behavior. The court affirmed the conviction, designating the misconduct as harmless error.

The complaint alleges that Shortt repeated this misconduct years later in Hightower. The Appellate Division again took the “opportunity to remind the [prosecution]” of the boundaries of proper summation conduct. Though the Court was already vacating Hightower’s conviction on other grounds, it decided to make a point to remind the prosecution of the boundaries of closing argument.

What rules are involved: The complaint notes that prosecutors wield immense power, the power to seek punishment on behalf of the state, and should be held to the highest ethical standards. The grievance alleges that Shortt’s conduct violated the following ethical rules:

  • Rules 8.4(d) and 8.4(h) of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct require that a lawyer shall not engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice or that adversely reflects on the lawyer’s fitness as a lawyer.

What can be done about it: The law professors’ complaint calls for the Grievance Committee to investigate and issue public discipline, including suspension. It also calls for a broader investigation into other cases prosecuted by the same prosecutor, and to determine whether QDAO’s supervising and managing attorneys complied with their duties under Rule 5.1 of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct.

Update: As of January 1, 2024, the Grievance Committee has not informed the complainants whether there was (or will be) an investigation, what any investigation revealed, and whether discipline was (or will be) imposed as a result of this alleged misconduct. Deprived of such information, the public has no way to evaluate whether this government body is doing its job. We call on the Grievance Committee to make its proceedings and findings in this matter transparent to the public.

Any member of the public is able to see an attorney’s record of public discipline on the Attorney Detail Report.

Note: This is a summary based on the grievance, click on the grievance below for more detail. The grievance authors do not have personal knowledge of any of the facts or circumstances of the attorney or case(s) mentioned; the grievance is based on court opinions, briefs and/or other documents cited therein.