Category Archives: Attorney misrepresentation

Illinois Disciplinary Review Board recommends 5 month suspension for lawyer who failed to correct false client affidavit and made false statements to court

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Illinois disciplinary Review Board report which recommended a 5 month suspension for a lawyer who was found to have failed to correct his client’s false affidavit claiming sole heirship in an estate matter and made false statements to the court. The opinion is In re: John F. Argoudelis, No. 6200842, Commission No. 2012PR00160 (October 2, 2014) and is online here: http://www.iardc.org/HB_RB_Disp_Html.asp?id=11497

According to the opinion, the lawyer agreed to represent a client regarding the administration of the client’s brother’s estate after the brother died in 2008. The client was angry that a great-niece who had cared for the brother during his lifetime was named as a joint tenant on one of the brother’s bank accounts and received about $400,000.00. The client told the lawyer that he was his brother’s only heir and, based on the information he received from the client, the lawyer drafted and filed an “affidavit of heirship” and letters of administration stating that the client was the only surviving heir. The probate court then appointed the client as administrator of the estate. In early 2009, the lawyer learned that the client had lied to him and that the brother had additional heirs; however, he took no steps over the next seventeen months to correct the false affidavit or file an amended affidavit.

At a hearing before the Illinois Hearing Board, the lawyer stated he failed to amend the affidavit because he forgot about it and he said that he also forgot about the existence of other heirs. He further testified that he was more focused on the issue as to whether the client could obtain the money received by the great-niece.

The Hearing Board found that the lawyer’s testimony was not credible since the lawyer had discussed the existence of additional heirs with various individuals; had conducted research regarding distribution law; and had formulated a potential argument to limit the share of the other heirs. The Hearing Board found that the lawyer knowingly failed to correct the false statement in the affidavit and the lawyer did not challenge that finding.

After the client’s appointment as administrator of the estate, the lawyer also used the false information regarding the heirship to obtain information from financial institutions in an attempt to support the client’s claims against the great-niece. The lawyer also sold the brother’s home in 2009 without notifying the other heirs. The lawyer’s mother-in-law was the listing real estate agent and the lawyer was the title agent in that sale. The lawyer received over $9,000.00 in attorney’s fees from the sale, most of which was for fees that the client owed him to pursue the claim against the great-niece.

In aggravation, the Hearing Board found that the lawyer’s conduct caused harm and “jeopardized the interests of the other heirs. His actions prevented the heirs from taking any action with respect to the sale of (the brother’s) house. He took $9,000 in fees from the sales proceeds that arguably should not have been an expense borne by the other heirs. His conduct also harmed his own client who was sanctioned for engaging in deceit.”

“As noted by the Hearing Board, it is unlikely that (the client) would have been sanctioned and ordered to pay $9,000 had (the lawyer) acted appropriately and amended the affidavit of heirship as soon as he learned it was false. Finally, we agree with the Hearing Board that the judicial system was harmed due to (the lawyer’s) conduct. (The lawyer’s) conduct forced the other heirs to take action in court, at additional expense to the heirs and inconvenience to the court, in order to correct (the lawyer’s) wrongdoings.”

“(The lawyer’s) misconduct was serious. When he learned his client had lied to him and that he had included those lies in material statements he made to the court, (the lawyer) had an obligation to stand up to his client and to persuade his client to remedy the false statements. (The lawyer) did not do so, and his repeated failure to do so over such an extended period of time warrants a sanction greater then a censure or a very brief suspension.”

“While no two disciplinary cases are exactly alike, we view this case as more comparable to In re Vitell, 00 CH 95 (Review Bd., Dec. 31, 2003), petition for leave to file exceptions denied, No. M.R. 19303 (May 17, 2004), where the Court imposed a five month suspension upon an attorney who negotiated approximately eighty-eight disability checks after the death of a client so the client’s widow could continue to receive the disability payments. It is a case where a lawyer aids a client without taking into account his professional obligations to act with integrity. Accordingly, we conclude that a five month suspension adequately addresses the seriousness of (the lawyer’s) misconduct, complies with the purposes of discipline, and is consistent with other sanctions.” The Disciplinary Review Board’s findings will now be reviewed by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Bottom line: In addition to failing to correct the materially false affidavit that had been filed with the court, this lawyer was found to have made materially false statements to the court, which harmed the client and were prejudicial to the administration of justice. These allegations would appear to be serious enough to warrant more than a 5 month suspension; however, regardless of the outcome, this case clearly illustrate a lawyer’s serious responsibility to correct false statements and documents which have been submitted to the court as soon as practicable after learning of their falsity.

Let’s be careful out there.

Disclaimer: this e-mail does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
jcorsmeier@jac-law.com
http://www.jac-law.com

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New Jersey lawyer receives three month suspension for “sarcastic and sophomoric” e-mails and statements to opposing counsel and false statements to judge

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court opinion which suspended a lawyer for 3 months for making outrageous sarcastic and sophomoric statements and e-mails to opposing counsel and making false statements to a judge. The disciplinary opinion is: In the Matter of Jared E. Stolz, Docket No. DRB 13-331 (September 4, 2014) and the opinion is here: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/drb/decisions/Stolz_13_331.pdf

According to the opinion, the lawyer admitted making the inappropriate comments in e-mails and a fax, but claimed that his misstatements to the judge were due to his busy schedule which included vacations to the Dominican Republic and Ireland, where he played golf with his father. The Bar Complaint referred to and quoted e-mails and a facsimile that the lawyer sent to opposing counsel in 2009 and 2010 as follows:

“Don’t feel you have to email me daily and let me know just how smart you are.”

“Did you get beat up in school a lot? Because you whine like a little girl.”

“Why don’t you grow a pair?”

“This will acknowledge receipt of your numerous Emails, faxes and letters…. In response thereto, Bla Bla Bla Bla Bla Bla.”

The Bar Complaint also alleged that, after a motion hearing December 2010, the lawyer and opposing counsel had physical contact. Opposing counsel told the lawyer not to touch him and the lawyer replied: “Why would I want to touch a fag like you?”

At a hearing on the disciplinary matter, the lawyer apologized for the statements and e-mails to opposing counsel. “It was not considerate…I have no explanation. I should be disciplined for it.” He called the statements “inexcusable, undignified and “venomous”; however, he denied that he lied to a judge when he said he never received certifications supporting a requested court order. He acknowledged at the hearing that he had received the certifications but said he had not seen them at the time that he made the misstatement because he was frequently out of the office during the period in question and he had to respond to 10 to 15 motions in one day.

According to the lawyer’s testimony:

“I neglected my files, I played too much golf, I went to Punta Cana with my family all within two months. Was it wrong? I don’t know. This is the lifestyle that I’ve chosen, the practice I’ve chosen because I worked at Methfessel & Werbel for 15 years in a cubical [sic] rising to managing director. I didn’t want that anymore. I want to play golf. I do insurance work. I missed it. I screwed up. I had no motivation to lie to the judge about this particular thing.”

“Should I have done things differently? Absolutely. Did I learn a lesson about this? Absolutely. After this, and I got that I now have hired two other attorneys, they review things, I review everything that comes in. Am I going to get lazy again and play more golf? I hope so. But I certainly did not intentionally lie.”

The NJ District Ethics Committee reviewed the matter and found that the lawyer did not make any intentional misrepresentations but that he may have been sloppy and recommended an admonition. The Review Board recommended a three-month suspension. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the Review Board and suspended the lawyer for three months.

According to the opinion: “The sarcastic and sophomoric comments made in the emails and fax set forth in count one demonstrated a failure to treat (opposing counsel) with ‘courtesy and consideration.’” “The wildly inappropriate – indeed, discriminatory – comments (calling opposing counsel a ‘fag’) … also demonstrated a lack of courtesy and consideration.” “Although it may be true, as the DEC observed, that respondent had no reason to lie about the non-receipt of the certifications, his actions were so contrary to what a reasonable attorney would have done, if confronted with the same situation, that his story cannot be believed.”

Bottom line: Lawyers beware: If you are going to “get lazy and play golf”, try to avoid being negligent, making “misstatements” to a judge, making excuses, and making “sophomoric and sarcastic” statements to opposing counsel, especially if you have been practicing for almost 24 years.

Let’s be careful out there.

Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
jcorsmeier@jac-law.com
http://www.jac-law.com

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South Carolina Supreme Court prohibits another Florida lawyer from practicing law who solicited over the internet, made misrepresentations, and represented clients

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent opinion of the South Carolina Supreme Court which prohibited another Florida lawyer who was not admitted in that state from admission to practice for soliciting over the internet and representing clients, making false statements, and failing to respond to the allegations, this time permanently. The opinion is: In the Matter of Alma C. Defillo, SC Case No. 27431 (August 13, 2014) and is at: http://www.judicial.state.sc.us/opinions/HTMLFiles/SC/27431.pdf.

According to the opinion, formal disciplinary charges were filed against the lawyer, who was licensed to practice in Florida but not in South Carolina. The first count alleged that the lawyer opened an office in Greenville, South Carolina in 2012, “ostensibly to handle federal immigration matters. Respondent had no law partners or associates who were licensed in South Carolina except for a period of approximately fourteen days in August 2012. Respondent offered to provide legal services in South Carolina using methods specifically targeted at potential clients in South Carolina, including a law firm website, business cards, print advertisements, and radio commercials…”

“In connection with her representation of two clients in federal immigration matters, respondent sent letters to judges for the state circuit court in Greenville, requesting certification that the clients were crime victims. The letterhead contained the phrase “Attorneys and Counselors at Law” when, in fact, respondent had no partners or associates at the times the letters were written. Respondent’s letterhead included her Greenville office address without indicating the jurisdictional limitations on her ability to practice law.”

“Respondent advertised her law firm through the use of a website available to residents of South Carolina. Included on the website are references to respondent’s Greenville office. Respondent’s website contains material misrepresentations and omits facts necessary to make the contents considered as a whole not materially misleading. On her website, respondent advertises her office in Greenville but fails to state that she is not licensed to practice law in South Carolina or to otherwise set forth the jurisdictional limitations on her practice in this state. Further, respondent’s website is not limited to the promotion of her federal immigration practice as she advertises her experience in both criminal and family law and offers to ‘analyze the facts of [her prospective client's] case by applying current…State Laws.’ In addition to false and misleading statements regarding offers to practice in this jurisdiction, respondent repeatedly refers to the firm’s “lawyers” and “attorneys” when, in fact, respondent is a sole practitioner with no partners, only sporadically employing associates in her law firm.

“Respondent’s website compares her services with other lawyers’ services in a way that cannot be factually substantiated by stating her law firm is ‘unique’ because she and her staff are fluent in Spanish and English. Additionally, respondent includes forms of the words ‘specialist’ and ‘expert’ on her website even though she is not a specialist certified by this Court. Respondent promotes her law firm by distributing printed business cards. The business cards advertise her office in Greenville without disclosing the fact that respondent is not licensed to practice law in South Carolina or disclosing the geographical limitation of her law practice in this state.

“Respondent promotes her law firm by publication of print advertisements in Spanish-language magazines and other periodicals distributed in South Carolina. Respondent’s print media advertisements lists her office in Greenville without disclosing the fact that she is not licensed to practice law in South Carolina or disclosing the jurisdictional limitations on her practice in this state. Respondent promotes her law firm by broadcasting commercials on Spanish-language radio stations in South Carolina. Respondent’s radio commercials include reference to her office in Greenville without disclosing the fact that she is not licensed in South Carolina or disclosing the geographical limitations of her practice.”

The second count stated: “Respondent initially cooperated with the disciplinary investigation by timely submitting her responses to the notice of investigation and ODC’s subpoena for her client files and record of advertising dissemination. However, respondent failed to submit a response to the supplemental notice of investigation served on her on April 5, 2013. As a result of her failure to submit a response to the supplemental notice of investigation, ODC issued a notice for respondent to appear for an interview on May 23, 2013. Respondent contacted ODC and requested the interview be postponed.

“Pursuant to that request, ODC issued an amended notice to appear, setting the interview for May 31, 2013. Respondent failed to appear, although her husband called ODC thirty-two minutes before the scheduled interview time to state respondent would not be attending the interview due to a court appearance in Georgia. Respondent’s husband was asked to instruct respondent to contact ODC after her court appearance in Georgia to reschedule the interview. As a result of respondent’s failure to contact ODC pursuant to this instruction, ODC issued a third notice to appear, setting the interview for July 2, 2013. Respondent did not appear on July 2, 2013, and has not contacted ODC with regard to this disciplinary matter since that time.

“Respondent made the following false or misleading statements in her response to the initial notice of investigation that she submitted to ODC: My practice is limited to Immigration Law. I have [not] portrayed myself to practice any other law but federal immigration law. At no time I have portrayed myself to represent residence [sic] of South Carolina with any legal services other than those that are exclusively related to immigration law. I solely practice federal immigration law.”

The SC disciplinary hearing panel found that the lawyer was subject to discipline pursuant to SC Bar Rule 7(a)(1) (it shall be ground for discipline for lawyer to violate Rules of Professional Conduct or other rules of this jurisdiction regarding professional conduct of lawyers) and Rule 7(a)(3) (it shall be ground for discipline for lawyer to willfully violate valid order of Commission or hearing panel, willfully fail to appear personally as directed, or knowingly fail to respond to lawful demand from disciplinary authority to include request for response or appearance) and that she violated SC disciplinary rules related to advertising, false statements and other rules.

The opinion stated that South Carolina has jurisdiction over all allegations that a “lawyer” has committed misconduct and that the term “lawyer” includes “a lawyer not admitted in this jurisdiction if the lawyer …offers to provide any legal services in this jurisdiction [and] anyone whose advertisement or solicitations are subject to Rule 418, SCACR Rule 2(q).” The opinion also states that the “authority to discipline lawyers and the manner in which the discipline is imposed is a matter within the Court’s discretion. In the Matter of Berger, 2014 WL 1386688 (2014); In the Matter of Van Son, 403 S.C. 170, 742 S.E.2d 660 (2013). The misconduct in this matter is similar to that in In the Matter of Van Son, id., where a lawyer who was not admitted in this state sent solicitation letters to at least two South Carolina residents and, thereafter, failed to cooperate with ODC’s investigation. In addition to other sanctions, the Court barred the lawyer from admission in this state and from advertising or soliciting clients in South Carolina for a period of five years.”

“In the current matter, not only did respondent target residents of South Carolina through various forms of advertising including radio communications and print media, but she also held herself out as licensed to practice law in this state, welcomed clients with criminal and family law concerns, and sent letters on behalf of clients addressed to state court judges. Further, when she did participate in the disciplinary investigation, respondent made false statements of material fact concerning the extent of her practice and the extent of her advertising in South Carolina to ODC. Since then, respondent has failed to cooperate in the disciplinary investigation and to appear for the hearing. (citation omitted.

“We find it appropriate to permanently debar respondent from seeking any form of admission to practice law in this state (including pro hac vice admission) without first obtaining an order from this Court allowing her to seek admission. Further, we prohibit respondent from advertising or soliciting business in South Carolina without first obtaining an order from this Court allowing her to advertise or solicit business in this state. Before seeking an order from this Court to either allow her to seek admission or to advertise or solicit, respondent shall complete the South Carolina Bar’s Legal Ethics and Practice Program Ethics School and Advertising School. Respondent shall pay the costs of the investigation and prosecution of this matter by ODC and the Commission within thirty (30) days of the date of this order.”

Bottom line: For the second time this year (the first was Berger in April, which I blogged about here: http://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/south-carolina-supreme-court-bans-florida-lawyer-from-practicing-law-who-solicited-over-the-internet-and-represented-clients-in-that-state/, the South Carolina Supreme Court has “debarred” a Florida lawyer from practicing law in that state for targeting SC residents on the internet and other forms of advertising, false advertising, and false statements in the disciplinary investigation and violating SC Bar rules, this time permanently.

Let’s be careful out there!

Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
jcorsmeier@jac-law.com
http://www.jac-law.com

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Florida Supreme Court disbars former judge for extensive texting with prosecutor while presiding in murder trial and for “dishonest conduct”

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court opinion disbarring a lawyer and former judge for extensive texting with a prosecutor at the same time that she was the presiding judge in the prosecutor’s first degree murder trial. The opinion is The Florida Bar v. Ana I. Gardiner, No. SC11-2311 (June 5, 2014) and the Supreme Court’s opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2014/sc11-2311.pdf#search=gardiner

According to the opinion, the former judge/lawyer was the presiding judge in State v. Loureiro, No. 04-15633CF10A (Fla. 17th Cir. Ct.), a capital first-degree murder case and former prosecutor Howard Scheinberg was the lead prosecutor in the case.

On March 27, 2007, the jury returned a verdict finding Loureiro guilty of first-degree murder and the former judge/lawyer presided over the penalty phase on April 30 and May 1, 2007, which resulted in a jury recommendation of the death penalty. On August 24, 2007, the former judge/lawyer entered an order sentencing Loureiro to death.

The referee’s report found that on March 23, 2007, several days before the jury returned its guilty verdict, the former judge/lawyer was having dinner at a restaurant when she accidentally encountered the prosecutor. After dinner, the former judge/lawyer, the prosecutor and some others decided to go to a bar and the prosecutor drove to the bar with a law student.

During the drive, the law student raised the appearance of impropriety that might exist if the presiding judge and the lead prosecutor in a pending murder trial socialized while the case was ongoing. The prosecutor was upset by this and left the bar shortly after arriving. The referee found that the former judge/lawyer tried to find out what had upset the prosecutor and spoke with him on the telephone several times during the following weekend.

The trial continued on Monday, March 26, 2007 and the former judge/lawyer did not disclose her interaction with the prosecutor on the record. On March 27, 2007, after the jury returned a guilty verdict, the former judge/lawyer and the prosecutor had a lengthy telephone conversation, wherein the prosecutor told the former judge/lawyer about his discussion with the law student on the way to the bar; however, according to the referee’s report, the former judge/lawyer assured the prosecutor that there was nothing to worry about and that she made a “conscious decision” not to disclose her social interaction and telephone calls.

The referee that the former judge/lawyer and the prosecutor began a “significant personal and emotional relationship” and, between March 23 and August 24, 2007, the day that the former judge/lawyer imposed a sentence of death, she and the prosecutor exchanged 949 cell phone calls and 471 text messages. On the day before, the day of, and the day following the imposition of the death sentence, the former judge/lawyer and the prosecutor communicated by telephone and text 44 times and the former judge/lawyer “deliberately and knowingly chose not to disclose this emotional relationship to the defense, despite her clear duty to do so.”

Loureiro’s attorneys filed a direct appeal to the Florida Supreme Court and soon after, media began reporting allegations that the former judge/lawyer and the prosecutor had met socially at a restaurant and a bar during the murder trial. The Court sent the matter back to the circuit court to consider the communications between the former judge/lawyer and the prosecutor, and determine whether a new trial should be ordered. The Broward County State Attorney’s office hired a special prosecutor to conduct the investigation and, on April 30, 2009, the former judge/lawyer appeared for a deposition. During her deposition testimony, she acknowledged for the first time her ongoing emotional relationship with the prosecutor. The State Attorney’s office eventually agreed to a new trial in the case. At the second trial, Loureiro was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

In November 2008, the Judicial Qualifications Commission appointed a panel to investigate and determine whether the former judge/lawyer engaged in misconduct. The former judge/lawyer appeared before the panel in late November 2008 and, according to the referee, she “failed to disclose the honest and true nature of her relationship with the prosecutor.” In April 2010, the former judge/lawyer resigned as a circuit judge.

The referee found that the former judge/lawyer’s testimony would “leave any reasonable person with the misimpression that her relationship with (the prosecutor) was merely professional. She did not disclose their emotional relationship or the significant number of personal phone and text communications they exchanged during the penalty phase of the Loureiro trial. She also did not disclose that her relationship with (the prosecutor) continued after the trial and intensified. During the period from March 2008 through August 2008, former judge/lawyer and the prosecutor exchanged more than 3000 phone and text communications. The referee further found that former judge/lawyer’s testimony during the JQC proceedings was a ‘deliberate act of dishonesty and deceitfulness.’”

The referee recommended that former judge/lawyer be found guilty of violating three Florida Bar Rules, 3-4.3 (the commission by a lawyer of any act that is unlawful or contrary to honesty and justice may constitute a cause for discipline) and 4-8.4(c) (a lawyer shall not engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation) and 4-8.4(d) (a lawyer shall not engage in conduct in connection with the practice of law that is prejudicial to the administration of justice).

After considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances, the referee recommended that the former judge/lawyer be suspended from the practice of law for one (1) year and pay the Bar’s costs. The Bar filed a Petition for Review and requested that the former judge/lawyer be disbarred. The Supreme Court opinion discussed the former judge/lawyer’s “dishonest conduct” and the harm it caused at length and “(c)onsidering (the former judge/lawyer’s) dishonest conduct and the harm that her actions have caused to the administration of justice in a capital first-degree murder case, we conclude that disbarment is the appropriate sanction.”

Bottom line: As many of you may already know, this was an extremely high profile, media intensive case involving allegations of very serious (and somewhat inexplicable) conduct/misconduct by the presiding judge and prosecutor in a first degree murder trial in south Florida. It is also another disciplinary case wherein the Florida Supreme Court significantly increased a referee’s recommendation discipline, this time from a one (1) year suspension to disbarment.

Let’s be careful out there.

Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert blog is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
jcorsmeier@jac-law.com
http://www.jac-law.com

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Florida Supreme Court increases referee’s recommended sanction of lawyer from 6 month suspension to 3 year suspension

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court opinion suspending a lawyer for 3 years after the referee recommended a 6 month suspension. The opinion is: The Florida Bar v. David Leonard Ross, No. SC11-1106 (May 29, 2014) and the opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2014/sc11-1106.pdf

According to the Court’s opinion, The Florida Bar filed a 2 count complaint against the lawyer. The first Count stated that the lawyer was retained in 2006 to represent a client in an administrative disciplinary proceeding who was subject to a potential suspension from her employment due to a reprimand she had received at work. She signed a retainer agreement with the lawyer and paid a $10,000 retainer from which the lawyer would bill at an hourly rate.

The lawyer filed a response in the administrative proceeding on May 1, 2006, and requested a hearing; however, the client resigned from her position in June 2006 (before any hearings were scheduled) and she immediately informed the lawyer’s office that his services were no longer needed since she was now pursuing an EEOC claim. The client then requested an accounting and a final bill from the lawyer’s office but received no response. On at least four occasions between February 2007 and May 2007, she requested an accounting, a final billing, and she also requested that the lawyer close her account. The lawyer sent a brief e-mail response but did not respond to her request for a final billing.

In January 2008, the client’s new lawyer sent a certified letter to the lawyer, which again requested a final accounting and demanded the return of the remaining retainer. The lawyer signed the return receipt form but did not respond to the request. In April 2008, the client sent the lawyer an e-mail stating that it had been over twenty months since she first requested the final billing statement and the closing of her account. The lawyer replied in an e-mail that he thought his paralegal had resolved the problem and that he would “speak with (the paralegal) on Wednesday.”

After receiving no response after a week, the client told the lawyer that she had not heard from anyone in his office and requested that he call her the next day. Neither the client nor her new lawyer received any response until the lawyer sent the new lawyer an e-mail in September 2008 stating that his previous firm had dissolved and he had moved his office, and claiming that “although not technically obligated”, he would send a check for $5,000.00 at the end of the following week. The client and the new lawyer received nothing from the lawyer and, in November 2009, the client filed a complaint with The Florida Bar. In December 2009, the lawyer sent the client a cashier’s check for $5,000.00, but he never provided a final billing or an accounting.

The second Count stated that the lawyer was involved in an acrimonious family matter in California regarding his elderly aunt, who was a recent widow, and numerous relatives, including his aunt’s great-nephew named Rubin, who was serving as a co-trustee of the aunt’s trust. The lawyer apparently believed that Rubin was abusing his aunt both physically and financially.

In September 2009, the lawyer filed a proceeding in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against the conservator and trustees of his aunt’s trust, which included Rubin on behalf of himself and four other relatives. The lawyer listed himself as “per pro” and listed a lawyer named Waddington as the lawyer for the other four relatives with Waddington’s purported signature; however, the lawyer had actually forged Waddington’s signature. Waddington later stated that he would have been willing to represent the relatives after meeting with them and obtaining a retainer agreement; however, he never given the lawyer permission to represent that he was attorney of record to sign his name.

The District Court judge issued an Order to Show Cause and scheduled a hearing for October 2009. At that hearing, the judge entered an order dismissing the action for being improperly filed with the unauthorized and forged signature of Waddington. At a subsequent hearing in December 2009, the judge found the lawyer in contempt for filing the complaint with a forged signature and ordered him to pay sanctions of $5,000.00 and attorneys’ fees to both Waddington and the defense counsel. The lawyer filed an appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which was dismissed for failure to file an opening brief.

After the Bar Complaint was filed, a referee was assigned. After proceedings were held, the referee recommended that the lawyer be found guilty of violating multiple Bar Rules and found, in aggravation, that the lawyer had a prior disciplinary offense (thirty-day suspension in 2001), and substantial experience in the practice of law (since the lawyer was admitted to practice in 1982). The referee also found, in mitigation, absence of a dishonest or selfish motive; imposition of other penalties or sanctions; and remorse, and recommended that the lawyer be suspended for six (6) months.

The lawyer filed a petition for review and argued that the referee should have given more weight to the three mitigating factors and that the recommended sanction of a six-month suspension was too severe and was not supported by case law. The lawyer also argued that his due process rights were violated since the referee adopted the draft report provided by the Bar.

The opinion reviewed the Bar rules violated, the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and the Standards for Lawyer Sanctions, and reversed the referee’s recommended six (6) month suspension and imposed a three (3) year suspension. Justice Labarga issued a dissenting opinion (with which Justice Canady concurred) stating that the lawyer should have been disbarred:

“Although a sanction that provides an opportunity for rehabilitation is often an appropriate way to address attorney misconduct, the circumstances of this case militate against such consideration. First, Mr. Ross has been an attorney for more than three decades. Rather than operate as a factor in favor of leniency, his length of experience actually aggravates the nature of his conduct because he cannot rely on inexperience or lack of knowledge as to the high standards held for attorneys. Second, Mr. Ross’s disciplinary history reflects a prior thirty-day suspension. See Florida Bar v. Ross, 797 So. 2d 589 (Fla. 2001) (table). Therefore, the conduct for which Mr. Ross is now held to account leaves significant doubt as to any prospect of rehabilitation. Combined with his prior history of disciplinary action, Mr. Ross’s unacceptable acts of misconduct lead me to the inescapable conclusion that disbarment is the appropriate remedy. Therefore, I dissent.”

Bottom line: The referee recommended that this lawyer receive a 6 month suspension based upon the above facts. The lawyer appealed (filed a petition for review) and the Court increased the suspension to 3 years. Two Justices would have disbarred the lawyer.

Let’s be careful out there.

Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert blog is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
jcorsmeier@jac-law.com
http://www.jac-law.com

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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney misrepresentation, deceit, dishonesty, Florida Bar, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, fraud, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer false statements, Lawyer misrepresentation, Lawyer sanctions