EXCLUSIVE: Local Lawyer suing former paralegal after she poisoned him and stole $800,000 from law practice
Sierra Martin | Managing Editor
San Marcos Family Law Attorney Art Guzman has sued his former paralegal Ashley Szymonek and her husband for assault and battery, invasion of privacy, libel and slander, common law fraud conversion and breach of contract.
Guzman pressed criminal charges against Szymonek after being in a coma for several days due to poisoning from antifreeze and discovering her complex plan to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from him, get him disbarred and make it appear that he committed suicide.
Szymonek was Guzman’s paralegal and sole employee for about ten years, and committed “multiple deceptive, fraudulent, and illegal acts,” including stealing from his law practice and failing to respond to a client complaint which led to his disbarment. According to court documents, she also told people that Guzman was depressed and not taking care of his law practice when she attempted to poison him in April 2020.
In May 2019, court documents show that Guzman learned a former client had filed a lawsuit against him for improperly withholding his funds. In October 2019, he realized that the client had also filed a grievance against him with the State Bar of Texas. Guzman had obtained $197,000 in real estate funds for the client, who asked that the funds be paid through “multiple smaller checks.”
In September 2018, Szymonek had issued the checks from his account. The client said that there were insufficient funds to cover two of them when he attempted to cash the checks. But, she gave Guzman copies of eight cleared checks, saying she had gotten them directly from his bank.
Court documents reveal that Szymonek had repeatedly told Guzman that she was in contact with his malpractice carrier and his attorney would be filing a motion for summary judgment on his behalf. However, when Guzman checked the Hays County website in April, he saw a default summary judgment had been taken against him in March. Guzman did not understand how this could have occurred because he believed he had counsel representing him.
Guzman was disbarred but did not know of it until several weeks later when a tenant from his law office informed him. Szymonek told Guzman that he had an appeal hearing set with the State Bar, which was rescheduled four separate times. The last date she told him the appeal was scheduled was April 29, 2020.
It later came to light that Szymonek had emailed his answer to the State Bar proceeding to a misspelled email address, sending it to Marie “Hapsil” at the State Bar instead of Marie Haspil. She had never filed his motion for a new trial, and no appeal hearing was ever scheduled.
The family learned that Guzman did not have a malpractice carrier or attorney and that Szymonek had allowed it to expire. Instead, she had an “auto-login” on her computer for the attorney’s email account Guzman thought had been assigned to his malpractice case.
Additionally, Guzman’s wife, Shelly, received an inquiry from the IRS about their tax returns, and Guzman tried unsuccessfully to contact his accountant, Dax Verleye. Szymonek said she had set up a phone call with Verleye on April 28 to “get it all taken care of,” according to court documents.
Guzman later learned that Verleye hadn’t been doing his taxes in over a decade, and Szyomek had been showing him fake documents saying they were completed.
According to Guzman, on the morning of April 28, 2020, he doesn’t remember very much past the first half-hour of the workday. While on a walk with Szymonek, the last thing Guzman remembers before waking up in the hospital several days later was losing his balance and beginning to fall.
Court documents reveal what Guzman cannot remember from the next several days. No one could speak to him on the phone that day, and his text message responses to his wife were short and dry, which Shelly said didn’t sound like him. He also never returned home that night, which was very concerning to his family.
Shelly spoke to Szymonek, who said they talked “about him closing the office down and they were very emotional, lots of tears, and he went for a walk.” And said that he was “ok but probably just tired.” Shelly asked her to check on Guzman, but Szymonek “was very unconcerned and said that her family was going to bed and not to worry. She convinced Shelly that he was fine and he just needed to rest,” according to court documents.
The following day, Shelly and other family members tried to contact him and ask about the State Bar appeal hearing that they believed was scheduled for that morning, but they never heard back from him. According to court documents, his daughter Madison called Szymonek, who told her that Guzman said he was closing the office the day before. Szymonek claimed that she “was completely blindsided” when Guzman told her and she had spent most of April 28 “crying and having an emotional goodbye” with Guzman. She told Madison that Guzman “seemed perfectly healthy” but was “adamant about shutting down the office and making that day their ‘final goodbye.'”
Guzman later learned that Szymonek had already started working for James Evans as a paralegal, but had requested April 28 and 29 off.
Court documents also say that Szymonek told other family and colleagues that Guzman had “been depressed a long time” and was “just so checked out.”
Concerned that her father was missing such a vital appeal hearing, Madison went to her father’s office but found that all of the locks “had broken keys in them,” and despite her knocking loudly on windows and doors, her father did not answer. She then texted Szymonek to ask for a key code to enter the office.
When she entered, Guzman said his daughter found him unconscious and in a state of distress. After trying unsuccessfully to wake him up, she called 911.
When Guzman arrived at the hospital, his body temperature was dangerously low, his organs were shutting down, and the doctors suspected he had been poisoned. While his family members waited at the hospital, they were informed by the police that there were two warrants out for Guzman’s arrest for theft from a client, but Szymonek claimed to know anything about it. Doctors determined that Guzman had most likely been poisoned by “antifreeze that was ingested in a large amount,” court documents reveal. He remained in a coma for several days.
Guzman said he first realized his paralegal was responsible for everything that had happened to him when he was in the hospital.
“I knew something was up then because she was at the center of everything that had gone wrong. But again, it was like a family member you never would suspect when you think of everything else,” said Guzman. “And then when we found emails, and you know she left a paper trail when I saw that it was confirmed. But the first time [I realized] was in the hospital when I got out of the ICU. I was like… oh my god.”
Looking back, Guzman recalls that some of the coffee or other drinks his paralegal gave him “tasted like metal,” to the extent that he would sometimes spit it out.
Following the incident, Guzman was in the hospital for nearly two weeks and on dialysis due to extensive kidney damage. During the difficult recovery process, he had to regain strength and use of his body. After two years, Guzman said he is just now starting to feel like himself again.
While he was recovering, Guzman’s daughter and his former spouse, Valarie Guzman (who had years previously managed the office), went to his law office and found many important documents missing, as well as about eighty filters and blocks in his office email system. The filters and blocks would prevent his banks, accountants, clients, judges, and the State Bar from reaching his inbox.
Guzman and his family also learned that his office had been posted for foreclosure. When Guzman’s situation was explained, the bank allowed them to refinance. Additionally, on May 29, 2020, someone opened a checking account under Guzman’s son’s name and social security number and attempted to deposit nearly $20,000 in fraudulent payroll checks. The bank flagged the checks, and they were not deposited. The bank sent the family copies of the deposit slips, and one of the first things that was noticed was “the handwriting on the deposit slip looks remarkably like Ashley’s handwriting,” according to court documents.
Guzman said that although he is practicing law again, and has regained his board-certification in family law, he will be very careful as to whom he trusts again. Toung-in-cheek, he says that he will be getting his own coffee in the future. “It changes you. It really does,” said Guzman.
“Imagine losing your career, losing your house, losing your reputation, all that just like in a snap of the finger. I mean, it was shameful,” said Guzman.
Szymonek and her husband, Paul Szymonek, attempted to dismiss the lawsuit’s privacy, libel, and slander claims this month under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, but a Texas trial court rejected the motion.
Ashley Szymonek was booked into the Hays County Jail on February 11, 2022, on First Degree Theft charges. She was released the following day on a $20,000 surety bond.
Civil Attorney Mark Cusack, who is currently a candidate for the 207th District Judge position in the 2022 Primary Election, is representing Guzman in his case.
“I have known Art for over 30 years, and the trial lawyers in a small town like San Marcos know each other very well. I can say that Art has always been a zealous advocate for his client and, from what I saw, always treated his staff well. There is simply no excuse or justification to have committed such heinous actions against him that are alleged in this case. I look forward to our day in court,” said Cusack.
Guzman said the experience has given him a new perspective on life, his friends and his family. He also feels like he fights harder than ever for his clients and has a greater appreciation for being a lawyer.
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The fiduciary duties held by attorney, under law, cannot be
delegated to another, nor raised as a defense, i.e.: reliance.
For if so, the facts material to question of whose responsibility was
involved would, as here, devolve into an endless series of recriminations.
Attorneys hold tremendous powers of discretion while underway, nor does
the court really care about the amount of storms the attorney encounters
so long as the ship gets back into port. Here, it doesn’t appear that it will,
I feel for Mr. Guzman, yet for the above reasons withhold belief that a
jury can buy into this theory when confronted with instructions which
prohibit the acceptance of such a defense. In short, the duty at hand,
whether for a child, an estate, or the sworn statements made as licensee
reponsible for exercising personal knowledge and control of those
facts, cannot be evaded under any defense other than physical restraint.
Taken as true, antifreeze doesn’t rise to that level unless at gun point.
Ten years? to be fair, Ms. Jewett, maybe the paralegal should be allowed to respond,
Janna- let’s not be so judgmental in a public forum.
Bad things can happen to anyone- I personally look at Ashley as a pariah now- regardless of her statement or response.
It is too dangerous to do otherwise. There is always the possibility that she is capable.
Jimmy is brave to employ her.
An extremely judgmental story that accuses a person of attempted murder, for
which you label my response “judgmental” ?
The person subject of that story was handled by the Hays Sheriff’f Office.
She is charged with THEFT PROP-F1 (SMPD 20-0022772).
My poor judgment, as well as that of the magistrate must be the problem.
A prosecution has commenced against this woman based on sworn evidence supporting facts material to probable cause for theft. However you, in addition to this story, at this time in a complete absence of immunity publish additional claims, and next accuse me of being “so judgmental in a public forum” ?
Blackening reputations as a sideline is a costly occupation.
Paralegals, legal assistants, legal secretaries and interns perform fiduciary duties every single day. They do so at the behest of the lawyer(s) who employ them and the first instruction they receive is that everything they do is to remain confidential. The lawyer is entitled to rely on those employees performing their duties in a noncriminal manner.
The law disagrees with your position. The persons you describe merely work for a fiduciary. They do not act on behalf of the client, nor do they make decisions for the client, nor do they control the outcome. The lawyer is the person charged under law with reviewing the outcome of that work and making sure it upholds the ethics and duties of a law licence.
You say, “The lawyer is entitled to rely on those employees performing their duties in a noncriminal manner.” You should cite your authority for this new and peachy theory. Bare allegations of “entitlement” don’t muster a defense when the court finds you negligent for the outcome of a matter which by law was under your control at all times. Refer to your own words here: “They do so at the behest of the lawyer(s) who employ them.”
Trust your employees all you want, but you are not entitled to trust them on behalf of your employer, the client. Your duty and job lies in strict legal oversight and accountabilty to your client. The humor here, Lynne, lies in the chance that you’re probably a lawyer.