How Biased Judge Margaret McGowan Retaliated Against A Doctor After She Reported Domestic Violence To Police

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Dr. Siranush Cholakian as shown in the original story. 

(This article was first published in 2020) 

Dr. Siranush Cholakian says the marriage had soured for sometime now but she was still shocked when her husband got up from his chair from about 15 feet away, rushed and pushed her with full force sending her crashing backward to the ground. She recalls using her right hand to cushion the fall. “I was lucky I only broke an arm. What if I had hit the back of my head? I could be dead or vegetative,” she recalls, in an interview.

Dr. Cholakian, who was 55 at the time, is 5’ and weighs about 125 pounds. Her husband, Frederic G. Leeds, who is a federal immigration judge, is 6’1” and weighs about 180 pounds, she says. 

She says she now regrets having not reported the assault immediately to police at the time, because she wanted to “try and save the marriage.” She said she also believed her husband would get help for the anger and other problems she claims he had from an early age.

In an affidavit filed June 11, 2018 in response to Dr. Cholakian’s court papers in divorce proceedings, Judge Leeds —who initiated the divorce— admitted to pushing his wife but claimed she provoked the incident. “In fact, after hours of the defendant following me from room to room while yelling and screaming at me and making horrible and degrading comments about me as a person, husband, and father, I was sitting in a chair in our bedroom where defendant followed me to and stood over me yelling and screaming,” Judge Leeds’s affidavit reads. “I did push defendant off of me, at which time she fell in a dramatic manner and injured her wrist.” 

“I was standing 15 feet away from him. He got upset about something in the conversation out of the blue,” Dr. Cholakian says. “He stood up and charged into me and knocked me down with two hands on my shoulders.” She says one of their five 1/2 year old twin daughters was standing right next to her at the time. 

Dr. Cholakian says when the case ended up in court for divorce proceedings, one of her lawyers told her the judge was unhappy she’d later reported the case to police and that the judge wanted her to withdraw the criminal complaint. Dr. Cholakian believes that the judge’s hostility led to a series of biased rulings against her, eventually depriving her of parental rights. “The judge was breaking the law by wanting me to obstruct justice,” she says. 

The same judge who is presiding over the divorce case, Margaret Parisi-McGowan of State Supreme Court in Queens County, was the subject of a recent article about another doctor, Robby Mahadeo, who filed a complaint against her with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Dr. Mahadeo also accused Judge McGowan of making several biased rulings against him, depriving him of parental rights. That case has been removed from McGowan’s jurisdiction to King’s County in Brooklyn. 

Dr. Cholakian says her husband apologized after the assault. The fractured forearm was reset at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. She wore a cast for six weeks.

Dr. Cholakian and Judge Leeds wed in 2008. When she met her future husband she told him they could only marry on condition that he addressed his anger issue, she says. She later diagnosed him with dyspraxia, a condition that was leading to his frustration and anger, she says. After they married they eventually moved into a two-family home she’d bought with her brother Dr. Garo Cholakian, in 1994. She and her brother had converted the basement into office space for her medical practice, and for his dental practice. Dr. Cholakian and Judge Leeds lived on the second floor; Garo was on the first floor, with their parents, who are now deceased.

Four years into the marriage, the couple decided to start a family. Dr. Cholakian is ethnic Armenian, and in 2012, they adopted twin baby girls from Armenia. She says they both loved the babies who were “adorable.” She says her husband’s behavior was much better when her mother was alive. A nursery was created on the first floor in Garo’s living room. Garo was also a doting uncle and he and Judge Leeds got along well in the beginning, she says. 

As the children grew older, Judge Leeds started constantly arguing with Dr. Cholakian about Garo, she says. He seemed jealous that the children loved their uncle too, she says. Dr. Cholakian and her brother worked from out of their home offices and together with the babysitter were raising the twins on a daily basis. 

After the assault, which was on June 18, 2017, the marriage limped along. Then on Christmas Day, in 2017, the couple had dinner with Garo, the twins, and a five-year-old playmate and his parents—neighbors from down the street. After dinner, the children started playing. They jumped from the sofa onto the thick carpet two-feet below; over and again. “They were all laughing and having fun,” Dr. Cholakian recalls. “Garo stood nearby to make sure all was well.”

After dinner, Judge Leeds started arguing with Dr. Cholakian, telling her that Garo was a bad influence on the children because he encouraged risky behavior, she says. “He said ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ And he left the house,” she says. Judge Leeds moved in with his father in his Manhattan apartment. On January 30, 2018, Judge Leeds, through his lawyer Neveene Nesheinat served divorce papers on Dr. Cholakian.

Dr. Cholakian’s lawyer Flora Rainer and Nesheiwat couldn’t work out a settlement. Rainer wasn’t able to represent Dr. Cholakian in court at the time due to other obligations and advised her to find another lawyer. 

On February 12, Dr. Cholakian hired an attorney named Jeffrey Lebowitz, a retired judge. She says the lawyer initially didn’t want her to mention the assault in any of the court papers, but that she insisted on doing so since it was critical in determining custodial rights, she says. “How can any mother trust her child alone with a father like that?” she says. 

During a court session, on June 28, Judge McGowan asked Dr. Cholakian’s lawyer, Lebowitz, why his client objected to Judge Leeds having the children for overnight visits. “When he hesitated in answering, I raised my hand and I stood up and said ‘Because he broke my arm,’” Dr. Cholakian recalls. Judge McGowan had her escorted out of the courtroom, she says. 

Dr. Cholakian says she didn’t mind her husband taking the children out to the park, to the zoo, or to restaurants; anywhere with many people. “I was, and I’m still concerned about their safety when he has the children alone overnight,” she says. 

Dr. Cholakian, through her attorney, asked Judge McGowan to order a neuropsychological evaluation of the couple; the judge agreed. Dr. Cholakian says she knew it would demonstrate that her concerns were legitimate. Court papers show that Dr. David Layman, the neuropsychologist, wrote that the tests were requested by Terrence Worms, the court-appointed attorney for the children “to clarify the examinee’s neurocognitive abilities to assist the court in the determination of his ability to provide overnight childcare…”

Yet, on the same day that she ordered the tests, Judge McGowan also granted Judge Leeds overnight visits; before the examination had even been conducted. “Defendant contends that the children should not have overnight visitation with the plaintiff because she alleges that he suffers from dyspraxia, a condition she herself diagnosed, that he has anger issues…..” 

Judge McGowan’s June 28, 2018, order reads, in part. “Based upon all of the statement of the parties in their affidavits and the lack of evidence that there have been any problems during the parental access currently in place, the court is granting the plaintiff’s motion.”

“This was the first of Judge McGowan’s many illegal orders,” Dr. Cholakian says. “She ignored the fact that my husband had attacked me in front of the children. She ordered for tests to determine fitness for overnight visits, yet granted the overnights before the tests. A judge acting with impunity.”

Dr. Cholakian’s attorney at the time, Lebowitz, also raised the question in an e-mail message to Judge McGowan, on June 29, 2018. “I was under the impression that the neuro/psych tests would be conducted before the Court issued its access ruling. Otherwise what would be the point of the tests?” Lebowitz wrote. 

When contacted by e-mail message to find out if Judge McGowan ever responded to his question, Lebowitz responded via e-mail message saying that since he no longer represents Dr. Cholakian he’s “under ethical constraints not to discuss this event.” He did note, however, “You are correct that the Court did not initially allow the neuro psych report to affect her ruling regarding the father’s access schedule with the children.”

When Judge Leeds showed up at the house the next day to start overnight visits immediately Dr. Cholakian objected, claiming Judge McGowan’s order didn’t specify when it should start. Judge Leeds called the police who filed a report but declined to take action saying the matter was in civil court. Judge Leeds’ attorney then filed an order to show cause asking Judge McGowan to hold Dr. Cholakian in contempt. “I was told by the judge on August 3, 2018 that overnight was to start immediately or I would be thrown in jail for six months,” she recalls. 

It was not until September 7, 2018, that Judge Leeds underwent the neuropsycholgical evaluation. “Throughout the interview and testing, he was generally cooperative and engaged in all tasks. However, on two tasks of executive function that requires abstraction, cognitive flexibility, and use of feedback, he became increasingly frustrated with his performance, and requested to discontinue before completing all items,” Dr. Layman’s September 7, 2018 report on Judge Leeds’ performance, reads in part. “The examinee will profit from cognitive-behavioral therapy that should help him increase his awareness and management of frustrations, anxieties, upsets, anger…”

On September 8, 2018, Judge Leeds sent Dr. Layman an e-mail message that reads in part, “The judge had agreed for me to start to have overnights on every other Saturday with a willingness to expand it to my request of every other Thursday through Sunday.” 

Dr. Cholakian says this e-mail message is very suspicious. It was meant to mislead Dr. Layman, by suggesting that his examination and report had been responsible for Judge McGowan’s decision, when in fact, she’d already granted Judge Leeds overnight visit privileges on June 28 way before the tests.

Before the next hearing, on December 10, Dr. Cholakian asked Lebowtiz to ask Judge McGowan for a postponement because she was traveling to Bulgaria for five days. The opposing side and Judge McGowan objected, so the hearing was held as scheduled. 

Dr. Cholakian had parted ways with Lebowitz by this time, so for the December 10 court date she was represented by Flora Rainer, the lawyer and friend who’d initially tried to work out a settlement between the two parties. Rainer and Judge McGowan had clashed before in previous cases unrelated to Dr. Cholakian’s. The Grievance Committee for the State of New York considered a complaint filed by the judge against Rainer, on November 13, 2018. The Chair of the Committee, Andrea E. Bonina, wrote a December 7, 2018 letter to Rainer stating, “After deliberations, the Committee determined that there was no breach of the Rules of Professional Conduct on your part and the complaint was dismissed.”  

Rainer asked McGowan to recuse herself based on their past interactions; Judge McGowan declined, saying that Rainer shouldn’t have agreed to represent Dr. Cholakian once she became aware the case was before McGowan. Judge Leeds and his lawyer then told Judge McGowan that Rainer had once written a letter on behalf of both Dr. Cholakian and Judge Leeds and that that represented a conflict of interest. Dr. Cholakian says the letter was to a client who was delinquent in rent on a marital real estate property. Although the alleged letter was never produced in court, Judge McGowan claimed it represented a conflict and Rainer was forced to withdraw from the case. “Another illegal order depriving me of an attorney of my choice,” Dr. Cholakian says. 

Dr. Cholakian was given one month to find a new lawyer. 

That evening, Dr. Cholakian traveled; and on the same evening, at around 6PM, Judge Leeds went to the house even though it was not his visitation day. Later, in an affidavit dated July 13, 2019 and addressed to Judge McGowan, the children’s piano teacher, Margarid Fermadjian, described what happened that evening of December 10, 2018: “…I witnessed the father yelling at the top of his lungs at the girl’s uncle (Garo), saying that he wanted to take the girls away with him regardless of the fact that they were having a music lessons (sic) and that it was not his assigned day to take them. I must say I was frightened by the man’s aggressive nature. I remember very clearly the expression on the faces of the girls while they heard their father yell uncontrollably.”

On Tuesday morning December 11, Judge Leeds’ lawyer, Nesheiwat, sent a letter to McGowan by e-mail message and fax complaining that Dr. Cholakian had traveled out of the country and left the children with Garo. Even though the case was stayed for 30 days to give Dr. Cholakian time to find a new lawyer, the new development warranted immediate action so that “…the children should not be put in jeopardy as a result of the defendant’s clearly underhanded machinations,” Nesheiwat wrote. 

Later that day, Judge Leeds went to the home and picked up the children from Garo for his regular visit. He had them for the rest of the day and, later, returned them to Garo, Dr. Cholakian said. “Does this make sense?” she says. “His lawyer is saying the children are in jeopardy and yet my husband took them willingly back to Garo. This proves the falsehood. There was no danger. Garo has taken care of the children since they were eight months old.”

On Wednesday morning, December 12, Judge McGowan signed an order granting Judge Leeds temporary custody of the twins, based on the claim that they were endangered by staying with their uncle. “There was no hearing, no procedure at all, just the letter from Judge Leeds’ lawyer via e-mail and fax, resulting in the change of custody arrangement,” Dr. Cholakian says. “What Judge McGowan should have done was ask my husband a simple question ‘Why did you return your children back to a place where they faced danger? Even the attorney for the children never came to the home to investigate because they knew the children were not in jeopardy.”

When contacted via e-mail message and asked whether he ever investigated to find out if the children had been in any form of jeopardy, the attorney for the children, Terrence Worms, in an e-mail message said, “Given the young age of my clients and the fact that there is a matter is still pending before the court, I am not at liberty to discuss the details of this case that you are seeking at this time.”

Dr. Cholakian complained about the change of custody arrangement in two e-mail messages—on December 13 and 14—to Judge McGowan. “You never addressed the fact of Frederic violently running into me and breaking my arm in front of the children,” Dr. Cholakian wrote in the December 14 e-mail message, adding that “…he could not be fully trusted with the children.” She also wrote to Judge McGowan that her husband had “serious issues that he refused to address. The neuropsychological tests revealed that. Please read it carefully.”

Judge McGowan, in her response on December 17, warned her not to litigate the case via e-mail messages. “Another biased and illegal order. It was okay for my husband to have the custody arrangement changed by his lawyer’s e-mail but I was not supposed to send the judge e-mails,” Dr. Cholakian says. “How else was I supposed to defend my interest without a lawyer?” 

Finally, on December 17, after she’d returned from Bulgaria, Dr. Cholakian reported the assault incident to the police. Her husband was arrested and released. He was suspended from his job pending the outcome of his criminal trial.

Dr. Cholakian did not have access to the children for one month between mid-December to mid-January. “My husband would not even let me see the children during their lunch break at school,” she recalls. “This was emotional and psychological torture for both the children and me.” 

On January 15, 2019, Dr. Cholakian appeared before Judge McGowan with a new attorney, Max Di Fabio, who came with an associate Stephanie Vitellio. Dr. Cholakian claims Di Fabio and his associate seemed shocked when they emerged after a conversation with Judge McGowan in her chambers. “He said ‘wow I’ve never seen a judge this upset against one of the parties in a case before, and so biased. He said ‘the judge is very upset that you reported your husband to the police,’” Dr. Cholakian says, referring to what her new lawyer said. “Di Fabio told me that the judge told him from the get go that she is a 50/50 judge. He said she gave him no opportunity for any discussions.” 

Judge McGowan on May 9, 2019 ordered forensic psychological evaluation for the entire family—including Garo, the twins’ nanny, and Judge Leeds. Dr. Cholakian says she looked at a list she had on her desk and indicated the psychologist whom she wanted them to see—Dr. Leonard Greis—and ordered Dr. Cholakian to pay for the entire cost, $18,000, up front; $3,000 was refundable if the psychologist didn’t come to court to testify. “Not only did we have no role in deciding on whom to see, the judge was punishing me by making me pay the entire costs when my husband makes more money than I do. Another illegal order.”

Di Fabio was apparently so concerned about the judge’s behavior that on July 13, 2019, he prepared a letter memorializing his experience before Judge McGowan, and both he and Dr. Cholakian signed it. Di Fabio, in the letter, recalled that on the first court date on January 15 “…Judge McGowan, in addition to informing me that she was a 50/50 judge, voiced her displeasure at you having filed the criminal complaint more than one year after the incident and immediately or attendant to the filing of your divorce action. She requested that I ask you to withdraw the complaint because, in her opinion, you only filed the complaint to destroy your husband’s career. I explained to the Judge that I would take no such action, and while I understood that the Court did not look favorably on your filing the complaint, nonetheless your claim that you are the victim of domestic violence had to be respected and the decision as to whether to withdraw the complaint is entirely yours and yours alone to make.” 

The Di Fabio letter continued, “Accordingly, I am advising you of the following as it relates to the criminal matter now pending against your husband: should you proceed in the criminal matter, you run the risk of his being acquitted at trial. In the event he is acquitted, his matrimonial attorney will use that finding to further convince Judge McGowan that the only reason you filed a criminal complaint in the first place was out of vindictiveness or to curry favor in contemplation of the divorce action and as such, you should not have custody of the children. In the event he is found guilty however, Judge McGowan, based on her previous statements to me both in conference and on the record, leads me to believe that she will not consider the finding of guilt in her ultimate decision as to his ability to parent your children. While I disagree with her position, I believe the Judge will take this attitude as she has made it clear to me on multiple occasions that she felt that you filed the criminal complaint out of malice.” 

Di Fabio did not respond to an e-mail message seeking an interview with him and asking for comment for the article. 

“Then the forensic evaluation from Dr. Greis, the psychologist picked by Judge McGowan, came back,” Dr. Cholakian says. “I was not surprised when he recommended full custody to the father.” 

Judge Leeds’ bench trial in Queens Criminal Court on the assault case was from September 17 to 18, 2019. The case was adjourned multiple times and the couple made appearances before three different judges before it was tried by the fourth one. Judge Leeds said he’d acted in self-defense. 

Dr. Cholakian says when she took the stand she felt like she was the defendant while being cross examined by Judge Leeds’ lawyer. “The questions were about the marriage and why I reported it so late, and why I reported it, and wasn’t I aware that if I reported it he’s gonna be taken off the bench because he’s a judge. I told the court I didn’t report it because I was trying to save the family. I was hoping my husband would go and get treatment,” she says. Judge Leeds was acquitted on September 18, by Justice Eugene M. Guarino. 

On November 1, 2019, Dr. Cholakian filed an order to show cause asking for sole legal custody, with final decision making authority for the children’s education and healthcare. It was marked to be heard on November 20,  2019. In her papers she wrote that her husband left home at 6.45 AM in order to get to work on time, and didn’t get back home until 7PM. “Since the children are being dropped off at school after plaintiff leaves for work and must be picked up from school hours before he returns home, the children have been left in the care of a babysitter,” her order to show cause states. On the other hand, she worked from her home office and had more time for the children, her filing read. 

On the November 20 court date, Dr. Cholakian was presented with a settlement agreement granting Judge Leeds sole legal custody and residential custody of the twins, with 50/50 visitation for her. Judge Leeds also was awarded the power to make all major decisions involving the twins including their medical and dental care, and education. The settlement specifically states that after the twins finish this academic year at the Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School in Oakland Gardens, New York, they will be transferred to a school of their father’s choice. “This broke my heart,” Dr. Cholakian says, breaking into tears, during the interview. “I want the children to maintain their Armenian culture and heritage as they grow up as Americans. It is their birth right to go to the Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School.” 

Judge Leeds was also granted an order of protection—full stay away—for five years, barring Dr. Cholakian from making any contact with him. “I was the one whose arm was broken and he’s the one who gets an order of protection. This was done without a trial or any proceeding,” Dr. Cholakian says. “Only in Judge McGowan’s court where everything is upside down.” 

Dr. Cholakian says Di Fabio advised her to sign the settlement in order to get out of Judge McGowan’s courtroom and “live to fight another day” in family court. After she signed the settlement, her lawyer withdrew her order to show cause.  

Dr. Cholakian was upset by the settlement and says she felt coerced by the judge. Di Fabio told her Judge McGowan could have made an even worse ruling if the case was tried. 

When she asked her lawyer what the justification for the order of protection for Judge Leeds was, in an e-mail message on January 14, 2020, Di Fabio wrote: “She ordered it. I objected. Her rational was to keep you away from him to prevent you from filing false police reports.” 

“We are now in January 2020, one year and five months after Dr. Layman’s recommendation that my husband get therapy and he has not done so. This does not even bother Judge McGowan,” she says.

Dr. Cholakian filed a complaint against Judge McGowan with the Queens Bar Association and says she is preparing one for the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct. She and Judge Leeds have a court date before Judge McGowan on February 7, on the financial settlement part of the divorce proceedings.

A spokesperson for the New York unified courts system whose jurisdiction includes Queens County, didn’t respond to an e-mail message seeking comment about the lawyer Di Fabio’s statement that Judge McGowan asked for Dr. Cholakian to drop the criminal allegations against Judge Leeds, and her alleged biased orders; Judge Leeds didn’t respond to an e-mail message seeking comment; and, Judge Leeds’ attorney, Neveene Nesheiwat, also didn’t respond to a separate e-mail message seeking comment.

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