Park Slope

Family of Brooklyn’s ‘Kung Fu Judge’ Phillips wins $750K wrongful death settlement

7 years to the day after his death of the Prospect Park Residence

February 19, 2015 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Attorney John O’Hara.  Photo courtesy of John O’Hara
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A troubled Park Slope assisted living facility has agreed to pay $750,000 to the family of a Brooklyn judge who died there seven years ago, isolated from friends and family.

Prospect Park Residence settled the wrongful death action with the family of retired Civil Court Judge John L. Phillips a week before the explosive case would have gone to trial.

Phillips died in 2008 at the age of 83. The judge’s nephew, Samuel Boykin, was seeking millions in damages.

“He died seven years ago today,” his attorney and friend of 30-plus years, John O’Hara, said on Monday. “They say you can’t put a price on a life – but yes, you can.”

Judge Phillips, who trained in kung fu and owned numerous properties in Brooklyn, including the historic Slave Theater in Bed-Stuy, died while being confined to the residence — as his vast estate, valued by the IRS at $10 million back in 2001, disappeared into the hands of court-appointed “guardians.”

O’Hara, representing Boykin and five other families suing the facility’s owner, Haysha Deitsch, says Phillips was not allowed visits from friends, and didn’t get the special meals and insulin he needed for his diabetes.

In the end, O’Hara said, Judge Phillips froze to death in his room at the home. “The heat had been shut off for two weeks,” O’Hara said.

Deitsch asserted in court papers that Philips was confined because of a court order, but he was never able to produce that legal document, O’Hara told the Brooklyn Eagle.

“For five years the nursing home lawyers claimed they were holding him pursuant to a court order. The trial was to start this Monday, and, in the end there was no court order.”

Deitsch’s attorney Brad Gallagher, of Landman Corsi Ballaine & Ford, did not return a request for comment by press time.

O’Hara said the settlement was a “Pyrrhic victory.”

While it’s a good thing for the estate, “the whole thing was very ugly,” he said.

Phillips was planning to run against District Attorney Charles Hynes 2001 – and that’s when his nightmare began, O’Hara said.

As was extensively reported in the Brooklyn Eagle in a series by Charles Sweeney, Hynes instituted court action to have Phillips declared incompetent and seized control of his finances. He was confined to East Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in the Bronx, prohibited from receiving visitors by court order and ordered to wear an electronic ankle bracelet.

After two years there, with his health failing, a group of friends worked to have him transferred to the Park Slope Residence, then operating as Castle on Prospect Park. He died eight months later.

A judge from Bed-Stuy, a boy from Bay Ridge

 The relationship between the Judge Phillips and O’Hara goes back 38 years.

“I met him in the summer of 1976 when he was first running for Civil Court Judge in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn. I was 15 years old,” O’Hara said.

“I used to peddle my bike from Bay Ridge to Bed-Stuy and even though these two neighborhoods were only five miles apart, it may as well have been two different continents. Bay Ridge was all Irish and Bed Stuy was all black. It’s different now.”

O’Hara’s quest to obtain justice for Judge Phillips led him to go the extra mile — such as the time he “snuck into the nursing home in the Bronx” wearing a wire planted on him by the New York Post.

Afterwards, he says, “I met [the Eagle’s] Sweeney in a bar on Atlantic Avenue. That tape led to a dozen articles. Wild stuff.”

O’Hara gave the eulogy at Phillips’ funeral, and wrote his remembrances of him for this paper. They read in part:

“His significant and diverse accomplishments include becoming the first African-American admitted to the Montana State Bar; he wrote a screenplay titled “Hands Across Two Continents,” a tragic story about interracial love which he produced, making the movie himself. When he couldn’t find a distributor, Phillips bought his own theatres and showed the film himself. Judge Phillips actions taught me about overcoming obstacles. It was an honor to be in his presence.”

O’Hara lost his law license after a controversial Hynes-initiated illegal voting conviction in 1999. The Phillips case “was the first case I took on after I was reinstated to practice law in 2009,” O’Hara said.

The Prospect Park Residence facility has recently been in the news for evicting more than a hundred elderly residents prior to a sale to developers.

O’Hara said the state Department of Health “raided” the home in 2009 and found that Deitsch was operating a nursing home without a license for years.

“He was told to remove 36 people immediately. He ignored it and they all died,” O’Hara alleged.


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