Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Georgia Supreme Court disciplinary opinion which imposed a reprimand on a lawyer who violated attorney/client confidentiality in response to negative reviews that a client had made on internet “consumer Internet pages”. The opinion is In the Matter of Margrett A. Skinner, Case No. S14Y0661 (Ga. Supreme Court 5/19/14) and the disciplinary opinion is here: http://www.gasupreme.us/sc-op/pdf/s14y0661.pdf
According to the opinion, the lawyer submitted a petition for voluntary discipline for a review panel reprimand, which was rejected and a special master was assigned to conduct proceedings and hold proceedings and an evidentiary hearing. In his report, the special master found that a client retained the lawyer in July 2009 to represent her in an uncontested divorce, and paid $900.00, including $150.00 for the filing fee.
The client had no contact from the lawyer for six weeks and, after multiple attempts to contact the lawyer, the client was able to reach her in October 2009. The lawyer said that she had lost the documents that the client had given to her in July 2009. The lawyer and the client then met again and the lawyer then began to draft pleadings for the divorce. The initial drafts of the pleadings had multiple errors, and the lawyer and the client exchanged several drafts and communicated by e-mail about the status of the case in October and early November 2009. These communications ended by mid-November 2009 and there were no more communications until March 18, 2010, when the client told the lawyer that her husband would not sign the divorce papers without revisions.
There was a dispute over fees and expenses and the lawyer asked the client for an additional $185.00 for travel expenses and the filing fee. In April and early May 2010, the lawyer and the client exchanged e-mails about the request for additional fees and expenses. On May 18, 2010, the client told the lawyer that she had hired another lawyer and asked the lawyer to deliver her file to her new lawyer and refund $750.00. The lawyer said that she would not release the file unless she was paid. The lawyer eventually refunded $650.00 to the client; however, she never provided the file to the new lawyer, stating that it had only her “work product.” The new lawyer completed the divorce within three months of being retained.
The client then posted negative reviews of the lawyer on three “consumer Internet pages”. When the lawyer learned of the negative internet reviews, she posted an online response which contained personal and confidential information about the client which the lawyer had obtained in the course of the representation. The lawyer identified the client by name, identified the employer of the client, stated how much the client had paid, identified the county where the divorce had been filed, and stated that the client had a boyfriend.
The client subsequently filed a Bar complaint against. In her response in August 2011, the lawyer said that she would remove her posting from the internet; however, it was not removed until February 2012.
The special master held a hearing and found that the lawyer violated Georgia Bar Rule 1.4 (communication with client) when she failed to keep her client reasonably informed of the status of the divorce between July and October 2010, and Georgia Bar Rule 1.6 (confidentiality) when she disclosed confidential information about the client on the Internet. After discussing the underlying circumstances and mitigation, the special master recommended a public reprimand.
The disciplinary opinion stated “(i)n this case, the improper disclosure of confidential information was isolated and limited to a single client, it does not appear that the information worked or threatened substantial harm to the interests of the client, and there are significant mitigating circumstances.” The opinion imposed a public reprimand and required the lawyer to consult with the Georgia Bar’s Law Practice Management Program and implement any suggestions in her law practice.
Bottom line: As it is with personal digital/internet communication (including e-mail, texting, and facebook etc.), this is a clear example of how the internet can make it much too easy to react quickly and badly to a perceived slight, such as a bad client internet review. Before responding to any internet postings, a lawyer must seriously consider the ethical implications and not act impulsively, which this lawyer apparently did.
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