U.S. Third Circuit appeals court rejects New Jersey’s prohibition of lawyer’s website posts of excerpts of judicial opinions praising his legal work

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion which reversed a federal district court opinion upholding a New Jersey guideline prohibiting a lawyer from posting judicial opinion excerpts praising his legal work. The opinion is Andrew Dwyer et al v. Cynthia A. Cappell et al, No. 13-3235 (U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeal August 11, 2014) and the opinion is here: http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/133235p.pdf
According to the opinion, the lawyer had posted multiple excerpts of unpublished and public judicial opinions related to fee applications in employment discrimination cases brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination on his law firm website. One quote stated: ““The inescapable conclusion is . . . that plaintiffs achieved a spectacular result when the file was in the hands of Mr. Dwyer. . . . Mr. Dwyer was a fierce, if sometimes not disinterested advocate for his clients, and through an offensive and defensive motion practice and through other discovery methods molded the case to the point where it could be successfully resolved.”

A judge whose opinion quotes were posted on the lawyer’s website wrote to the lawyer in April 2008 and asked that the quotes be removed because he did not want his comments to be misconstrued as a blanket endorsement of the lawyer. The lawyer refused to remove any quotes and the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Committee on Attorney Advertising began examining the issue. The Committee and the New Jersey Bar Association ultimately produced Guideline 3, which was approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2012. Guideline 3 stated that an attorney “may not include, on a website or other advertisement, a quotation or excerpt from a court decision (oral or written) about the attorney’s abilities or legal services.” The guideline did permit a lawyer to post the entire text of a judicial opinion on the website or in an advertisement.

The U.S. District Court upheld Guideline 3 in June 2013; however, before the Guideline was to become effective, the lawyer filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that Guideline 3 violated his First Amendment rights to engage in truthful commercial speech. The district court found against the lawyer and found that the Guideline was a mere disclosure requirement and not a direct restriction on the lawyer’s speech. In making its ruling, the district court relied on the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel (1985), which stated that “an advertiser’s rights are adequately protected as long as disclosure requirements are reasonably related to the state’s interest in preventing deception of consumers.”

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the district court’s opinion. The opinion confirmed that disclosure requirements receive less scrutiny than actual restrictions on speech and that the New Jersey Guideline had characteristics of both a disclosure requirement and a restriction on speech. The opinion did not address whether the Guideline was a restriction or a prohibition; however, it stated that even under the less restrictive standard of review for disclosure requirements, the Guideline was constitutionally flawed.

The appellate opinion stated that “Guideline 3 does not require disclosing anything that could reasonably remedy conceivable consumer deception stemming from (the lawyer’s) advertisement.” The opinion also listed an example of a disclosure that would be sufficient: “This is an excerpt of a judicial opinion from a specific legal dispute. It is not an endorsement of my abilities.” Since Guideline 3 required a lawyer to post entire judicial opinions, it “effectively precludes advertising with accurate excerpts from judicial opinions on (the lawyer’s) website, it is unduly burdensome.”

“Guideline 3 as applied to (the lawyer’s) accurate quotes from judicial opinions thus violates his First Amendment right to advertise his commercial services. Requiring (the lawyer) to reprint in full on his firm’s website the opinions noted above is not reasonably related to preventing consumer deception. To the extent the excerpts of these opinions could possibly mislead the public, that potential deception is not clarified by Guideline 3. In any event, what is required by the Guideline overly burdens (the lawyer’s) right to advertise. We thus reverse the order of the District Court and remand the case.

Bottom line: This is a significant First Amendment decision related to lawyer advertising which found that New Jersey Guideline 3, which prohibited a lawyer from publishing excerpts of judicial opinions on his website, was an unconstitutional restriction on the lawyer’s commercial speech. The opinion did approve of the use of a disclosure/disclaimer to prevent any consumer confusion related to the opinion excerpts.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer: this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship 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 Bar will file petition with Florida Supreme Court with revisions to Rule 4-5.8 to clarify which clients must be notified of lawyer’s departure

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the proposed additions to the Comment to Florida Bar Rule 4-5.8, which addresses the issue of what firm clients must be notified of a lawyer’s departure from the law firm.  The BOG approved the rule amendments and the Bar will file an Omnibus Rules Petition with the proposed rule amendment with the Florida Supreme Court on October 15, 2016 (along with other proposed rule amendments).  The new Rule 4-5.8 language and Comment is below with new language underlined and proposed rule revisions are here:  2016 Annual Florida Bar Rules Proposals.

RULE 4-5.8 PROCEDURES FOR LAWYERS LEAVING LAW FIRMS AND DISSOLUTION OF LAW FIRMS

(a) Contractual Relationship Between Law Firm and Clients. [no change]

(b) Client’s Right to Counsel of Choice. Clients have the right to expect that they may choose counsel when legal services are required and, with few exceptions, nothing that lawyers and law firms do affects the exercise of that right.

(c) Contact With Clients.

(1) Lawyers Leaving Law Firms. Absent a specific agreement otherwise, a lawyer who is leaving a law firm may not unilaterally contact those clients of the law firm for purposes of notifying them about the anticipated departure or to solicit representation of the clients unless the lawyer has approached an authorized representative of the law firm and attempted to negotiate a joint communication to the clients concerning the lawyer leaving the law firm and bona fide negotiations have been unsuccessful.

(2) Dissolution of Law Firm. Absent a specific agreement otherwise, a lawyer involved in the dissolution of a law firm may not unilaterally contact clients of the law firm unless, after bona fide negotiations, authorized members of the law firm have been unable to agree on a method to provide notice to clients.

***

Comment

***

Lawyers and firms should engage in bona fide, good faith negotiations within a reasonable period of time following their knowledge of either the anticipated change in firm composition or, if the anticipated change is unknown, within a reasonable period of time after the change in firm composition. The actual notification to clients should also occur within a reasonable period of time. What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances, including the nature of the matters in which the lawyer represented the clients and whether the affected clients have deadlines that need to be met within a short period of time.

For purposes of this rule, clients who should be notified of the change in firm composition include current clients for whom the departing lawyer has provided significant legal services with direct client contact. Clients need not be notified of the departure of a lawyer with whom the client has had no direct contact. Clients whose files are closed need not be notified unless the former client contacts the firm, at which point the firm should notify the former client of the departure of any lawyer who performed significant legal services for that former client and had direct contact with that former client.

Although contact by telephone is not prohibited under this rule, proof of compliance with the requirements of this rule may be difficult unless the notification is in writing.

In order to comply with the requirements of this rule, both departing lawyers and the law firm should be given access to the names and contact information of all clients for whom the departing lawyer has provided significant legal services and with whom the lawyer has had direct contact.

If neither the departing lawyer nor the law firm intends to continue representation of the affected clients, they may either agree on a joint letter providing that information to those clients, or may separately notify the affected clients after bona fide, good faith negotiations have failed. Any obligation to give the client reasonable notice, protect the client’s interests on withdrawal, and seek permission of a court to withdraw may apply to both the departing lawyer and lawyers remaining in the firm. 

***

One of the issues which frequently comes up when a lawyer leaves a law firm is which clients must be notified of the lawyer’s departure under this rule.  The new Comment language addresses this issue and states that the “clients who should be notified of the change in firm composition include current clients for whom the departing lawyer has provided significant legal services with direct client contact.”  Of course, the language in the proposed rule is subject to interpretation; however, it should provide more guidance to lawyers and law firms regarding client notification when a lawyer leaves the firm.  The Comment also states that the “obligation to give the client reasonable notice, protect the client’s interests on withdrawal, and seek permission of a court to withdraw may apply to both the departing lawyer and lawyers remaining in the firm.”

According to the Bar’s notice of the proposed rule changes: “Members who desire to comment on these proposed amendments may do so within 30 days of the filing of the Bar’s petition(s). Comments must be filed directly with the clerk of the Supreme Court of Florida, and a copy must be served on the executive director of The Florida Bar. Rule 1-12.1, Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, governs these proceedings.”

Bottom line:  If approved by the Florida Supreme Court, this revision should provide more guidance to lawyers and law firms in providing notice to clients; however, it will also require analysis and interpretation of the term “significant legal services with direct client contact”.

Stay tuned…and 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

www.jac-law.com

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The Florida Bar will file petition with advertising rule amendment regarding lawyer’s use of “expert” and “specialist” on October 15, 2016

Hello and welcome to this update of the May 25, 2016 Ethics Alert regarding the proposed amendment to Florida Bar Rule 4-7.14 with new subsection 4-1.14(a)(5) related to claims of “specialization” and “expertise” in advertisements.  The BOG approved the rule amendment and the Bar will file an Omnibus Rules Petition with the proposed rule amendment with the Florida Supreme Court on October 15, 2016 (along with other proposed rule amendments).  The proposed rule revisions are here:  2016 Annual Florida Bar Rules Proposals and the new Rule 4-7.14(a)(5) language is below:

RULE 4-7.14 POTENTIALLY MISLEADING ADVERTISEMENTS

A lawyer may not engage in potentially misleading advertising.

(a) Potentially Misleading Advertisements. Potentially misleading advertisements include, but are not limited to:

(5) a statement that a lawyer is a specialist, an expert, or other variations of those terms unless:

(A) the lawyer has been certified under the Florida Certification Plan as set forth in chapter 6, Rules Regulating the Florida Bar and the advertisement includes the area of certification and that The Florida Bar is the certifying organization;

(B) the lawyer has been certified by an organization whose specialty certification program has been accredited by the American Bar Association or The Florida Bar as provided elsewhere in these rules. A lawyer certified by a specialty certification program accredited by the American Bar Association but not The Florida Bar must include the statement “Not Certified as a Specialist by The Florida Bar” in reference to the specialization or certification. All such advertisements must include the area of certification and the name of the certifying organization;

(C) the lawyer has been certified by another state bar if the state bar program grants certification on the basis of standards reasonably comparable to the standards of the Florida Certification Plan set forth in chapter 6 of these rules and the advertisement includes the area of certification and the name of the certifying organization; or

(D) the lawyer’s experience and training demonstrate specialized competence in the advertised area of practice that is reasonably comparable to that demonstrated by the standards of the Florida Certification Plan set forth in chapter 6 of these rules and, if the area of claimed specialization or expertise is or falls within an area of practice under the Florida Certification Plan, the advertisement includes a reasonably prominent disclaimer that the lawyer is not board certified in that area of practice by The Florida Bar or another certification program if the lawyer is not board certified in that area of practice.

The new subsection in Rule 4-7.14(5)(a)(D) states that a lawyer is prohibited from stating that he or she is  “a specialist, an expert, or other variations of those terms” unless “the lawyer’s experience and training demonstrate specialized competence in the advertised area of practice that is reasonably comparable to that demonstrated by the standards of the Florida Certification Plan.”  In addition, if the lawyer’s area of expertise is an area in which the Bar approves certifications, the lawyer would be required to include “a reasonably prominent disclaimer that the lawyer is not board certified in that area of practice by The Florida Bar or another certification program.”

According to the Bar’s filing notice: “Members who desire to comment on these proposed amendments may do so within 30 days of the filing of the Bar’s petition(s). Comments must be filed directly with the clerk of the Supreme Court of Florida, and a copy must be served on the executive director of The Florida Bar. Rule 1-12.1, Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, governs these proceedings.”

Bottom line:  As I previously said, it remains to be seen whether the Florida Supreme Court will approve the amendment as drafted and, if it does, whether the restrictions in the amended Bar rule on their face and as applied are in compliance with the federal district judge’s 9/30/15 order finding that the previous rule violated the United States Constitution.  The Order here: 9/30/15 J. Hinkle Order and Injunction.

Stay tuned…and 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.

29605 U.S. Highway N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Zealous representation or lawyer misconduct? Where does the Florida Supreme Court draw the line?

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert will discuss the lawyer’s duty to competently and zealously represent a client and the Florida Supreme Court decisions addressing when a lawyer’s conduct may cross the line and constitute misconduct and violate the Florida Bar Rules.  Lawyers understand that they should zealously represent clients and, while that understanding is correct, the Supreme Court of Florida has repeatedly stated that lawyers must act professionally and ethically during the course of the representation, both in and out of the courtroom.

The Florida Bar Rules do not use the word “zealous”; however, the Preamble to Chapter 4 of the Bar Rules states, in part, as follows:

As a representative of clients, a lawyer performs various functions.  As an adviser, a lawyer provides a client with an informed understanding of the client’s legal rights and obligations and explains their practical implications.  As an advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client’s position under the rules of the adversary system.  As a negotiator, a lawyer seeks a result advantageous to the client but consistent with requirements of honest dealing with others.  As an evaluator, a lawyer acts by examining a client’s legal affairs and reporting about them to the client or to others… A lawyer’s responsibilities as a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system, and a public citizen are usually harmonious.  Zealous advocacy is not inconsistent with justice (emphasis supplied).

The Supreme Court of Florida has addressed zealous advocacy/ethical misconduct in multiple opinions through the years and has addressed when zealous conduct is a violation the Florida Bar Rules.  The following cases are a sample of those opinions and the evolution of the Court’s position on the issue.

In The Florida Bar v. Martocci, 791 So.2d 1074 (Fla. 2001), the Court reprimanded and imposed a two year probation on a lawyer who engaged in unprofessional and abusive conduct and for unethical comments and behavior toward opposing counsel, the opposing party, and the opposing party’s family during depositions, in court, and outside the courtroom during breaks in the proceedings.  The attorney was representing the husband in a bitter divorce, child custody, and child dependency matter.  As a condition of the probation, the attorney was required to be evaluated by Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc. for possible anger management skills training or mental health assistance or both.

In The Florida Bar v. Morgan, 938 So.2d 496 (Fla.2006), the Court suspended an attorney for ninety-one days for courtroom misconduct. The attorney had been publicly reprimanded and suspended for ten days on two prior occasions. The attorney refused to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct but the referee found (and the Supreme Court adopted) the mitigating factor of good character and reputation, including the provision of pro bono legal services, serving as a role model for an assistant state attorney, and being held in high esteem as an excellent and passionate advocate by two judges and an attorney.

In The Florida Bar v. Abramson, 3 So.3d 964 (Fla. 2009), the attorney was found to have been repeatedly disrespectful and rude to the trial judge at a hearing and was suspended for ninety-one days.  The Supreme Court opinion stated that:

“Abramson’s misconduct was egregious. He was disrespectful and confrontational with the presiding judge in an ongoing courtroom proceeding in the presence of the pool of prospective jurors in a criminal case. Regardless of any perceived provocation by the judge, Abramson responded inappropriately by engaging in a protracted challenge to the court’s authority. His ethical alternative, if he believed the trial court had erred, was by writ or appeal. He has also been publicly reprimanded twice before for serious misconduct.  See also The Florida Bar v. Wasserman, 675 So.2d 103 (Fla. 1996) (two six-month consecutive suspensions on an attorney in his fifth discipline case before the Court where the attorney had an angry outburst in court after an unfavorable ruling and expressed contempt for the court, stated in the hallway outside the courtroom that he would counsel his client to disobey the court’s ruling, and used profane language over the telephone to a judge’s judicial assistant);  The Florida Bar v. Price, 632 So.2d 69 (Fla.1994) (ninety-one day suspension for appearing in court under the influence of alcohol and behaving in a hostile, abrasive, and belligerent; reinstatement conditioned on ability to show that satisfactorily completion of an evaluation and course of treatment for substance abuse approved by the Bar.”

In The Florida Bar v. Norkin, 132 So.3d 77 (Fla. 2013), the lawyer was suspended for two (2) years and required to appear before the Florida Supreme Court for a public reprimand.  The Court’s opinion detailed numerous instances of misconduct by the lawyer, including engaging in “tirades and antagonistic behavior” in exchanges with judges and other attorneys.  The opinion noted that it is “profoundly concerned with the lack of civility and professionalism demonstrated by some Bar members. The Court has repeatedly ruled that unprofessional behavior is unacceptable.  (citations omitted).”  The lawyer appeared before the Court for the reprimand in February 2014, which was read by then Chief Justice Ricky Polston, and smirked during the proceeding.  The opinion is here:  Florida SC Norkin 2013

In The Florida Bar v. Norkin, 183 So. 3d 1018 (Fla. 2015), The Florida Bar filed a petition for contempt and a complaint alleging that Norkin had failed to comply with the Court’s (and Bar Rule’s) requirement that he notify clients of his suspension and provide an affidavit confirming same and that the lawyer “had engaged in the practice of law after the effective date of the suspension by sending an e-mail to opposing counsel in a case pending in the circuit court questioning a hearing date and discussing the results of the hearing and the legal sufficiency of the motion addressed, and by preparing a pleading for his former client, which the client filed in the circuit court case.”  He also sent disparaging e-mails to Bar Counsel and admitted during the underlying Bar proceedings that he had smirked during the public reprimand before the Court.

The referee granted summary judgment in favor of the Bar and recommended disbarment.  In an unanimous opinion dated October 8, 2015 (which is here Florida SC Norkin 10/8/15, the Court permanently disbarred the lawyer and stated:

“As found by the referee in his report, Norkin’s e-mails to bar counsel referred to bar counsel as “evil” and “despicable”; called the proceedings against him “the most unjust act in judicial history”; stated that bar counsel had no conscience; and stated, “I’m preparing the lawsuit against you. Keep an eye out.”  At the hearing on the motion for sanctions, the referee questioned Norkin about the e-mails and his behavior during the public reprimand administered by this Court. In response, Norkin asserted his “right to speak freely and to express his beliefs in the manner of his choosing,” and freely admitted that during the public reprimand, he intentionally smirked and stared down each Justice one by one. We have disciplined attorneys for similar conduct as a violation of rule 4-8.4(d), including Norkin himself. See Norkin, 132 So. 3d at 86; Fla. Bar v. Martocci, 791 So. 2d 1074, 1075, 1078 (Fla. 2001) (finding that making insulting facial gestures at opposing counsel, making sexist comments, and disparaging opposing counsel violated rule 4-8.4(d)); Fla. Bar v. Buckle, 771 So. 2d 1131, 1132 (Fla. 2000) (finding that humiliating and intimidating letter, sent by attorney to alleged victim of his client, violated rule 4-8.4(d)). Accordingly, we approve the referee’s recommendation.

Here, disbarment is amply supported. As noted by the Bar, the Court has not hesitated to disbar attorneys who continue to practice law after being suspended. See Fla. Bar v. Lobasz, 64 So. 3d 1167, 1173 (Fla. 2011) (disbarring attorney for practicing law while suspended, even where attorney suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression); Fla. Bar v. D’Ambrosio, 25 So. 3d 1209, 1220 (Fla. 2009) (disbarring suspended attorney who held himself out as eligible to practice law by sending letters on firm letterhead subsequent to suspension); Fla. Bar v. Forrester, 916 So. 2d 647, 654-55 (Fla. 2005) (disbarring attorney for practicing law while suspended); Fla. Bar v. Heptner, 887 So. 2d 1036, 1045 (Fla. 2004) (disbarring attorney for multitude of violations, but noting that disbarment would be appropriate solely on basis of continuing to practice law after being suspended); Fla. Bar v. Rood, 678 So. 2d 1277, 1278 (Fla. 1996) (disbarring attorney for practicing while suspended); Fla. Bar v. Greene, 589 So. 2d 281 (Fla. 1991). Moreover, given Norkin’s continuation of his egregious behavior following his suspension and during the administration of the public reprimand, we conclude that he will not change his pattern of misconduct. Indeed, his filings in the instant case continue to demonstrate his disregard for this Court, his unrepentant attitude, and his intent to continue his defiant and contemptuous conduct that is demeaning to this Court, the Court’s processes, and the profession of attorneys as a whole. Such misconduct cannot and will not be tolerated as it sullies the dignity of judicial proceedings and debases the constitutional republic we serve. We conclude that Norkin is not amenable to rehabilitation, and as argued by the Bar, is deserving of permanent disbarment. See Fla. Bar v. Behm, 41 So. 3d 136, 139-40 (Fla. 2010) (stating that persistent course of unrepentant misconduct warrants permanent disbarment); Fla. Bar v. Carlson, 183 So. 2d 541 (Fla. 1966) (stating that permanent disbarment is warranted where conduct of respondent indicates he is beyond redemption).”

Bottom line:  While Norkin may be an extreme case, lawyers must be on notice that the Supreme Court of Florida has become far less tolerant of rude, belligerent, and disrespectful behavior, regardless of whether it is couched in terms of “zealous advocacy” on behalf of a client.

Be careful out there!

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding these or any other ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150,

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

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Lawyer-Client Confidentiality and Privilege: What is the Difference?

This Ethics Alert blog will discuss the terms lawyer-client confidentiality and lawyer-client privilege are often used interchangeably and the differences between them may become somewhat blurred.  Although both terms address information related to the client that a lawyer cannot reveal and both are used primarily to protect the client’s ability to confide freely with the lawyer, they are not synonymous.  There are several significant differences with regard to their scope, exceptions, and application.

The primary ethics rule addressing lawyer-client confidentiality in Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6, which is substantially similar to ABA Model Rule 1.6.  The Comment states that “(a) fundamental principle in the client-lawyer relationship is that, in the absence of the client’s informed consent, the lawyer must not reveal information relating to the representation…” A violation of the Bar rule may result in disciplinary sanctions.

Absent an exception, confidential information remains confidential during the representation and after the client dies.  The lawyer should not reveal confidential information if it will injure the client’s interests (absent an exception or legal compulsion), and it should only be disclosed to advance those interests.

A client may give informed consent for the lawyer to reveal confidential information or information that is protected by the privilege and consent may be implied under certain circumstances.  The client must give consent to the waiver of confidentiality; however, the privilege may be inadvertently and impliedly waived by the failure to object to testimony about the privileged communications.

In contrast to privilege, the lawyer’s ethical duties regarding confidentiality are much more extensive in scope and application, particularly as to what information is protected.  Confidentiality applies not only to information received from the client but all information related to the representation, regardless of whether the information came from the client or another source.  In addition, confidentiality applies in all situations, not just in litigation.

The lawyer-client privilege is a litigation concept that arose from the principles of evidence. In Florida, the privilege is set forth in F.S. 90.502.  The client, or someone acting legally for the client, may claim the privilege, typically through the lawyer.  F.S. 90.502(e) states that a lawyer is presumed to have the authority to assert the privilege on behalf of the client.  The privilege only protects communications between the client and lawyer in a litigation context, the communications are not protected if available from another source, and the communications are not necessarily protected simply because of the communication to the lawyer.  The Comment to Bar Rule 4-1.6 states “(t)he attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine apply in judicial and other proceedings…”

The “crime-fraud” exception to the privilege in F.S. 90.502(4)(a) permits the disclosure of information communicated to the lawyer if the client attempts to use the lawyer’s services to commit or cover up a crime or fraud.

Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6(b) requires disclosure of confidential information to prevent a client from committing a crime or to prevent a death or substantial bodily harm to another.  This mandatory exception is different from the crime-fraud exception to privilege in that it requires the threat of substantial injury or death to require that the information be revealed.  There are other exceptions under Bar Rule 4-1.6(c) which permit (but do not require) disclosure by the lawyer.

Even if information is not covered by privilege, it may still be confidential.  Depending on the circumstances, a lawyer may also be compelled to reveal the information regardless of whether it is privileged or confidential.

Bottom line:  Although the use of the terms “lawyer-client confidentiality” and “lawyer-client privilege may often be used interchangeably, they are very different in concept, scope, and application.

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.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150,

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

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Lawyer’s ethical obligations in surrendering client papers and property after termination of representation and asserting retaining liens

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert will discuss the lawyer’s ethical obligations to surrender papers and property to which the former client is entitled after termination of the representation and asserting retaining liens.  American Bar Association Formal Ethics Opinion 471 provides a good overview of these ethical obligations.  The July 1, 2015 ABA formal ethics opinion is here: ABA Ethics Opinion 471.

ABA Model Rule 1.16, Declining or Terminating Representation is substantially similar to Florida Bar Rule 4-1.16 and requires lawyers to surrender “papers and property to which the client is entitled.”  Neither the Model Rule of the Florida Bar Rules provide a definition of these terms.

The ABA opinion discusses the approaches taken in various jurisdictions and notes that the majority (including Florida) use the “entire file” analysis, wherein clients are entitled to receive all items in the file unless the lawyer can show that the item would fall under one of the generally accepted exceptions, which include the following:

“ materials that would violate a duty of nondisclosure to another person; materials containing a lawyer’s assessment of the client; materials containing information which, if released, could endanger the health, safety or welfare of the client or others; and documents reflecting only internal firm communications and assignments.”

In Florida, the client file is the property of the lawyer and the lawyer may assert a retaining lien on the client file after the representation is terminated; however, Florida Bar Rule 4-1.16(d) states that, upon termination, the lawyer must surrender papers and property to which the client is entitled, take all steps to mitigate the consequences of the termination to the client, and “may retain papers and other property as security only to the extent permitted by law.”

Florida Ethics Opinion 88-11 (Reconsideration) states:

“Many attorneys are unaware that in Florida a case file is considered to be the property of the attorney rather than the client. Dowda and Fields, P.A. v. Cobb , 452 So.2d 1140, 1142 (Fla. 5th DCA 1984); Florida Ethics Opinion 71-37 [since withdrawn]. Under normal circumstances, an attorney should make available to the client, at the client’s expense, copies of information in the file where such information would serve a useful purpose to the client. Opinion 71-37 [since withdrawn].

In appropriate situations, however, an attorney is entitled to refuse to provide copies of material in the file and instead may assert an attorney’s lien. Such situations include a client’s refusal to reimburse a discharged attorney for the attorney’s incurred costs or to provide a reasonable guarantee to the attorney that the costs will be repaid at the conclusion of the case. See Florida Ethics Opinion 71-57. While in such a situation it may be ethically permissible for an attorney to assert a lien with respect to materials in a case file, the validity and extent of the lien is a question of law to be decided by the courts.

Florida common law recognizes two types of attorney’s liens: the charging lien and the retaining lien. The charging lien may be asserted when a client owes the attorney for fees or costs in connection with a specific matter in which a suit has been filed. To impose a charging lien, the attorney must show: (1) a contract between attorney and client; (2) an understanding for payment of attorney’s fees out of the recovery; (3) either an avoidance of payment or a dispute regarding the amount of fees; and (4) timely notice. Daniel Mones, P.A. v. Smith , 486 So.2d 559, 561 (Fla. 1986). The attorney should give timely notice of the asserted charging lien by either filing a notice of lien or otherwise pursuing the lien in the underlying suit. The latter approach is preferred.

Unlike a charging lien, a retaining lien may be asserted with respect to amounts owed by a client for all legal work done on the client’s behalf regardless of whether the materials upon which the retaining lien is asserted are related to the matter in which the outstanding charges were incurred. A retaining lien may be asserted on file materials as well as client funds or property in the attorney’s possession, and may be asserted whether or not a suit has been filed. Mones , 486 So.2d at 561.  Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 88-11 (Reconsideration is here: http://www.floridabar.org/TFB/TFBETOpin.nsf/SMTGT/ETHICS,%20OPINION%2088-11%20(Reconsideration).

An attorney’s right to assert a lien may be limited, however, by the ethical obligation to avoid foreseeable prejudice to the client’s interests. What papers or documents must be furnished to a client in a particular case in order to avoid prejudicing the client’s interest therein will necessarily depend on the specific facts and circumstances involved.

Some  jurisdictions follow the “end product” analysis. Under this analysis, clients are entitled only to those items that are the end product of the representation, and may not be entitled to receive the documents or other materials that led up to the end product.

“…Under these variations of the end product approach, the lawyer must surrender: correspondence by the lawyer for the benefit of the client; investigative reports and other discovery for which the client has paid; and pleadings and other papers filed with a tribunal. The client is also entitled to copies of contracts, wills, corporate records and other similar documents prepared by the lawyer for the client. These items are generally considered the lawyer’s “end product.”

Under this alternative analysis, administrative documents, internal memoranda and preliminary drafts of documents do not have to be returned; however, internal notes and memos may need to be turned over if the final product of the representation has not yet emerged and nondisclosure could harm the client.

Bottom line:  Lawyers must be aware of the requirements of their jurisdictions regarding the return of a client’s file after termination of the representation and before contemplating the assertion of a retaining lien on the client’s file.

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.

Please note:  Effective June 27, 2016, my new office address is:

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150, Clearwater, Florida 33761

E-mail addresses and telephone numbers below will remain the same. 

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150,

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

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