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According to the opinion, the lawyer had posted multiple excerpts of unpublished and public judicial opinions related to fee applications in employment discrimination cases brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination on his law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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Arizona lawyer disbarred upon consent for disparaging book about his client Jodi Arias which violated client confidentiality

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent disbarment of an Arizona lawyer who represented notorious murder defendant Jodi Arias and published a book with disparaging details about the representation and revealing attorney/client confidential information without the consent of the client.  The case is In the Matter of Laurence K. Nurmi, Case No. PDJ-2016-9115.

The lawyer began representing Jodi Arias as an assistant public defender.  She was charged in the lurid and violent murder of her boyfriend in Arizona in 2008 and was found guilty of first degree murder in May 2013; however, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence her to death.

Another sentencing hearing was held in the fall of 2014 and that jury voted 11-1 to sentence Arias to death.  The death penalty vote must be unanimous in Arizona and Arias was subsequently sentenced to life in prison in April 2015.  She has appealed the verdict and sentence.

Sometime in 2015, the lawyer began writing a book detailing his representation of Arias without written/oral permission or authority from Arias to publish or disseminate any information related to the representation.  According to the allegations, the book presents a negative view of Arias and the case.  The lawyer’s self-published book, Trapped with Ms. Arias: Part 1 of 3 From Getting the File to Being Ready for Trial (Volume 1), was released in 2015.

The book includes multiple confidential discussions between the lawyer, Arias, and her family. The book also provides details of the case, makes disparaging remarks, and makes several statements regarding the substance of witness interviews and inadmissible exhibits.  The lawyer also continued to disclose and explain certain facts and circumstances in the book related to his representation of Arias in promotional radio interviews.

In October 2016, the State Bar of Arizona filed a formal complaint against the lawyer for revealing attorney-client confidential information about Arias and her case in the book.  The lawyer attempted to settle the case with a 4 year suspension; however, Jodi Arias objected to that sanction.

Immediately after the announcement of the consent agreement, the Maricopa County public defender, James Haas, objected to the Arizona Bar because the agreement did not specifically order the lawyer to stop violating ethical rules with regard to the Arias case, including revealing confidential information, since the book was listed as one of 3 volumes.

The lawyer filed a request for disbarment on November 14, 2016.  The presiding disciplinary judge accepted the lawyer’s request on November 21, 2016 and issued an order making the disbarment effective the same day.

Bottom line:  This lawyer chose to write a book in a highly publicized and lurid case which disparaged his client and revealed attorney/client confidential information, including conversations with her and her family and disparaging comments.  Aria’s conviction is currently on appeal and it has been alleged that information in the book may jeopardize that appeal.

All lawyers should be aware that, unless the client provides informed consent, a lawyer is strictly prohibited from revealing attorney/client confidential information, even after the representation has been concluded.

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.

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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Florida mandatory technology lawyer CLE requirements and 33 hour requirement will begin with lawyer’s first reporting cycle after 1/1/17

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert Update which will clarify compliance with the Supreme Court of Florida’s opinion which approved increased total CLE from 30 to 33 and required three hours of continuing legal education in technology related areas/courses.

I have had questions regarding when compliance will begin and, according to the Bar’s website, compliance with the new CLE requirements will begin in the member’s next reporting cycle following the January 1, 2017, effective date.

As I said previously, Florida will become the first state to require technology CLE.  The Court’s opinion is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2016/sc16-574.pdf.  Five of the 33 credit hours must be in approved legal ethics, professionalism, bias elimination, substance abuse, or mental illness awareness programs, and three of the 33 credit hours must be in approved technology programs, which are included in, and are not in addition to, the 33 hour CLE requirement.  The 33-hour requirement does not apply to Florida Registered Paralegals.

Bottom line: Beginning January 1, 2017, lawyers will be required to obtain 33 hours of CLE every 3 years with a minimum of three hours in technology related areas/courses beginning with their next full CLE cycle.

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.

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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Former Ohio lawyer sentenced to 12 years in prison for hypnotizing and sexually abusing multiple female clients

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent sentencing of a former Ohio lawyer to 12 years in prison for hypnotizing and sexually abusing female clients.

According to media reports, the lawyer, Michael Fine, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on November 14, 2016 and he was also ordered to register as a sex offender for 25 years.  The lawyer was scheduled for trial on Sept. 19, 2016; however, he pled guilty to five counts of kidnapping with sexual motivation and one count of attempted kidnapping about a week before the trial was scheduled to open.

A criminal investigation into the lawyer began in 2014 after a female client discovered that her underwear was disheveled and she also could not recall what had occurred following meetings with the lawyer.  The investigation continued after over 20 women come forward with similar complaints and a former client also began tape recording her conversations with the lawyer.  The recordings showed that the lawyer “began to use ‘code’ words that induced (her) to enter a trance-like stage”.

The lawyer is 59 years old and had practiced law since 1981.  His license was temporarily suspended in November 2014 after a local  Ohio bar association filed a motion with the Ohio Supreme Court stating that the lawyer had “utilized hypnotic therapy to facilitate the impairment of and sexual exploitation of his clients” and requesting that the lawyer be suspended.  The lawyer later submitted an application for resignation, which was granted on August 17, 2015.  That order is here: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2015/2015-Ohio-3265.pdf

Bottom line:  This lawyer engaged in despicable acts which resulted in his removal from the roll of lawyers in Ohio and 12 years in state prison.  This type of predatory criminal conduct is inexcusable and diminishes the reputation of the entire legal profession and also the respect of the public.

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 e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, ad 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.

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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New Jersey lawyer reprimanded for falsifying letter and submitting it to disciplinary committee investigating his conduct

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court Order approving a stipulation and reprimanding a lawyer for falsifying a letter and submitting it to a disciplinary committee during its investigation of his conduct.  The opinion is In the Matter of Nirav Kurt Mehta, Docket No. DRB 16-276, District Docket No. IIIB-2015-0033E (November 4, 2016).  The October 25, 2016 New Jersey Disciplinary Review Board letter setting forth the stipulation is here: http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1077214 and the 11/4/16 NJ Supreme Court order approving the stipulation is here: http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1077588 

According to the Disciplinary Review Board letter, “on May 25, 2015, respondent’s former client, Shanti Sarup, filed a grievance against him, alleging that, more than ten years prior, respondent had given him poor legal advice in an immigration matter and, thus, exposed him to deportation from the United States.”

“In response to the DEC’s investigation of the grievance, respondent fabricated a document and submitted it to disciplinary authorities. The fabricated document purported to be a May 7, 2003 letter from respondent to the grievant, providing sound legal advice on the underlying immigration matter. Respondent’s motivation for submitting the fabricated document was to neutralize the grievant’s claim that respondent had provided him incorrect legal advice in 2003.”

In mitigation, the stipulation recited respondent’s lack of prior discipline, the more than ten-year passage of time since his representation of the grievant, and the fact that the fabricated letter was submitted only to the DEC. The stipulation described respondent’s deception as “an unfortunate reflexive response to the filed Grievance” and an “effort…to mitigate what [respondent] may have perceived as a professional negligence issue.”  The November 4, 2016 Supreme Court Order approved the recommendation and reprimanded the lawyer.

Bottom line:  This lawyer not only fabricated a letter which was intended to “neutralize” his former client’s claim that he had provided incorrect legal advice during the representation, but he submitted the false letter in a pending disciplinary matter against him.  It is very surprising that the lawyer was able to negotiate a simple reprimand for the misconduct.

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.

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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Kansas lawyer suspended indefinitely for, inter alia, engaging in a sexual relationship with the president of a corporation she represented

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Kansas Supreme Court opinion suspending a lawyer for engaging in a sexual relationship with the president of a corporation that she represented as general counsel, drafting an employment contract for the person, and failing to report the person’s misconduct.  The opinion is In re Allison L. Bergman, No. 115,448 (Oct. 28, 2016) and the Kansas Supreme Court opinion is here: http://www.kscourts.org/Cases-and-Opinions/Opinions/SupCt/2016/20161028/115448.pdf.

According to the opinion, the lawyer served as outside general counsel for the Kansas City Terminal Railway Company.  During her representation of the company, she began a sexual relationship with the company’s president and board chair (Mader). “From 2002 until January 2012, Respondent and Mader were in a personal, close relationship.  At times the relationship was romantic and sexual. At all times from 2002 to January 2012, the relationship between Mader and Respondent was a very close, deep, meaningful, sustained, loving, caring, intimate and special friendship with frequent social and personal interactions with each other.”

The lawyer failed to disclose the relationship to the corporation’s board.  She later drafted the president’s employment contract and, in addition, the lawyer failed to report to the board the president’s breach of various fiduciary duties that he owed to the corporation.

The opinion states that the Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct, like the ABA Model Rules (and most state Bar Rules), prohibit a lawyer from having “sexual relations with a client unless a consensual sexual relationship existed between them when the client-lawyer relationship commenced.”

“We agree with the hearing panel that probation is not an appropriate disposition.  As the panel concluded, the respondent’s misconduct is serious, involving significant conflicts of interest as well as dishonest behavior. Further, the panel found respondent failed to take full responsibility for her actions, and the record supports that finding. We, therefore, conclude it would not be in the best interests of the citizens of the state of Kansas for the respondent to be placed on probation. We agree with the panel’s recommendation that the respondent’s license to practice law in the state of Kansas be suspended for an indefinite period of time.”

Bottom line:  This case raises interesting questions regarding the scope and application of Bar Rules which prohibit a lawyer from engaging in a sexual relationship with a client under unless the relationship commenced before the representation began.  The Bar Rules in most (if not all) jurisdictions state that when a lawyer is hired by a corporation, the “client” is the corporation, not the president or other board members and directors.  This raises the question of whether the lawyer can be found guilty of violating the Bar Rule prohibiting sex with a client if he or she did not actually have sex with the “client” corporation but admitted to having sex with the president?  I would think not…and I would urge lawyers not to test the application of the rule!

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.

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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California interim ethics opinion addresses when lawyer blogging is subject to regulation under Bar Rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss lawyer blogging and the interim opinion of the State Bar of California which addresses the topic of lawyer blogging and when lawyer blogs may be subject to regulation under the California Bar Rules and advertising statute.  The interim ethics opinion is The State Bar of California Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct Formal Opinion Interim No. 12-0006 and the opinion is here:  Cal Bar Opinion Interim No. 12-006- lawyer blogging.  The comment period on the interim opinion has expired; however, the opinion has not been finalized.

The interim opinion frames the issue: “Under what circumstances is ‘blogging’ by an attorney a ‘communication’ subject to the requirements and restrictions of the Rules of Professional Conduct and related provisions of the State Bar Act regulating attorney advertising?”

The interim opinion’s digest section states:

  1. Blogging by an attorney may be a communication subject to the requirements and restrictions of the Rules of Professional Conduct and the State Bar Act relating to lawyer advertising if the blog expresses the attorney’s availability for professional employment directly through words of invitation or offer to provide legal services, or implicitly through its description of the type and character of legal services offered by the attorney, detailed descriptions of case results, or both. (emphasis supplied)
  1. A blog that is an integrated part of an attorney’s or law firm’s professional website will be a communication subject to the rules and statutes regulating attorney advertising to the same extent as the website of which it is a part.
  1. A stand-alone blog by an attorney, even if discussing legal topics within or outside the authoring attorney’s area of practice, is not a communication subject to the requirements and restrictions of the Rules of Professional Conduct and the State Bar Act relating to lawyer advertising unless the blog directly or implicitly expresses the attorney’s availability for professional employment.
  1. A stand-alone blog by an attorney on a non-legal topic is not a communication subject to the rules and statutes regulating attorney advertising, and will not become subject thereto simply because the blog contains a link to the attorney or law firm’s professional website. However, extensive and/or detailed professional identification information announcing the attorney’s availability for professional employment will itself be a communication subject to the rules and statutes.

In the discussion section, the opinion recognizes that “(b)y its nature, blogging raises First Amendment free speech issues. Prohibited for most of the 20th Century, advertising by attorneys was found to be protected commercial speech by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona (1977) 433 U.S. 350 [97 S.Ct. 2691].  Bates provides that truthful attorney advertising cannot be absolutely prohibited, but may be subject to reasonable restrictions.”

The opinion then provides four examples of attorney blogs and analyzes each of the hypothetical blogs regarding the application of the California Bar Rules and the California advertising statute and concludes that:

“A blog by an attorney will not be considered a ‘communication’ subject to rule 1-400 or an “advertisement” subject to Business and Professions Code sections 6157, et seq., unless the blog expresses the attorney’s availability for professional employment directly through words of invitation or offer to provide legal services, or implicitly, for example, through a detailed description of the attorney’s legal practice and successes in such a manner that the attorney’s availability for professional employment is evident.

A blog included on an attorney’s or law firm’s professional website is part of a ‘communication’ subject to the rules regulating attorney advertising to the same extent as the website of which it is a part.

A stand‐alone blog by an attorney on law‐related issues or developments within his or her practice area is not a ‘communication’ subject to the rules regulating attorney advertising unless it invites the reader to contact the attorney regarding the reader’s personal legal case, or otherwise expresses the attorney’s availability for professional employment.

A stand-alone blog on law-related issues maintained by an attorney that is not part of the attorney’s professional website is not ‘communication’ subject to attorney advertising regulations unless the blog indicates the attorney’s availability for professional employment.

A non-legal blog by an attorney is not a ‘communication’ subject to the rules or statutes regulating attorney advertising, even if it includes a hyperlink to the attorney’s professional web page or contains biographical or contact information. However, the biographical or contact information itself may be subject to the rules and statutes.”

The general consensus among the jurisdictions (including Florida) would appear to be that, if the lawyer’s blog is primarily educational and/or informational in nature and not primarily for obtaining employment, it is not subject to advertising regulation (see NYSBA Ethics Op. 967 (6/5/13) here: NYSBA Ethics Op. 967).

This California interim opinion states that: “”(b)logging by an attorney may be a communication subject to the requirements and restrictions of the Rules of Professional Conduct and the State Bar Act relating to lawyer advertising if the blog expresses the attorney’s availability for professional employment directly through words of invitation or offer to provide legal services, or implicitly through a description of the attorney’s legal practices and successes in such a manner that the attorney’s availability for professional employment is evident.” (emphasis supplied).  The opinion does not address whether blogs which are primarily for educational and informational purposes are subject to regulation even if it also expresses the attorney’s availability for professional employment.

Bottom line:  Lawyer blogs are subject to state Bar regulations only to the extent that the regulations do not violate the lawyer’s federal constitutional First Amendment free (commercial) speech rights; however, lawyers who blog must research the requirements of their state advertising rules, ethics opinions, and other sources to insure compliance with those state regulations.  To the extent that those rules may violate the lawyer’s First Amendment free (commercial) speech rights, the lawyer could consider a constitutional challenge.

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.

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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Florida Supreme Court disbars 3 lawyers for misconduct in the settlement of multiple PIP and bad faith claims

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida which disbarred 3 Florida lawyers for misconduct in settling multiple PIP and bad faith claims.  The opinion is The Florida Bar v. Charles Jay Kane, The Florida Bar v. Harley Nathan Kane, The Florida Bar v. Darin James Lentner, No. SC13-388 (October 6, 2016) and the opinion is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2016/sc13-388.pdf.

The lengthy opinion outlines and discusses the complicated underlying facts, including the involvement of the lawyers in settling the PIP claims and failing to inform and misleading both the clients and the lawyers who were handling separate bad faith claims against Progressive Insurance.   Although this is a fairly lengthy Ethics Alert, the relatively short format of my Ethics Alerts do not permit a full discussion of the case, and readers are urged to read the case for more information and clarification.

According to the opinion, the lawyers took on the representation of 441 PIP claims on behalf of various medical providers.  Two other lawyers were retained to file bad faith claims.  The claims were filed in a matter called the “Goldcoast” litigation, in which only 37 of the PIP clients were involved.  Each of the PIP law firms (Kane & Kane, Watson & Lentner, and Marks & Fleischer) and each of the bad faith attorneys executed a contract agreeing to jointly represent all thirty-seven plaintiffs.

During the bad faith litigation, the bad faith lawyers were able to compel disclosure of documents which strengthened the bad faith claims.  At mediation on the bad faith claims, Progressive offered only $3.5 million, which offer was rejected.

The disclosure of the documents apparently caused Progressive to consider settlement.  Progressive’s counsel later initiated settlement negotiations with the PIP lawyers only and the bad faith lawyers were not part of those negotiations.  Progressive  offered an aggregate amount of $14.5 million, to settle all of the claims, including both the PIP and bad faith claims, and attorney fees.  On May 16, 2004, all six of the PIP lawyers (including the disbarred lawyers) met with lawyers from Progressive to put the agreement in writing.  The bad faith lawyers were not told of Progressive’s offers, and they were not asked to attend the meeting.

“As a result of the meeting, the PIP lawyers signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MOU) settling all cases and claims, subject to client agreement.  Pursuant to the MOU, the clients were required to release all claims against Progressive, including both PIP claims and bad faith claims. The MOU did not specify how the settlement funds would be allocated and it was left to the PIP lawyers to divide the funds between the claims and the costs and fees.”

“The only requirement to trigger the $14.5 million payment was a certain number of signed client releases: 100 percent of the named Goldcoast case plaintiffs and 80 percent of the remaining PIP clients of all three PIP firms. Also as a part of the MOU, the PIP lawyers agreed to defend, indemnify, and hold the Progressive entities harmless from any claims of their clients.  Several days later, the PIP lawyers, including the disbarred lawyers, met with one of the bad faith lawyers, Larry Stewart, and offered him $300,000 to compensate all three bad faith attorneys for their work on the bad faith case. The PIP lawyers did not disclose the terms of the settlement with Progressive, stating only that the cases and claims had been settled.”

According to the opinion, “the bad faith attorneys then wrote a letter to each of the named plaintiffs in the Goldcoast case, explaining their efforts to compel production of Progressive’s internal documents and the April 2004 mediation. The letter asserted that as a result of the PIP lawyers’ secret settlement with Progressive, the clients’ bad faith claims may have been ‘compromised or even sacrificed.’”

“The bad faith attorneys sent a copy of their letter to each of the PIP law firms and asked the PIP lawyers to forward the letter to their clients who were not named in the Goldcoast case; however, the lawyers did not forward the letter as requested. Instead, Respondent Charles Kane drafted a letter, titled ‘Notice of Disagreement Between Counsel’ (disagreement letter), for the PIP law firms to send to clients who were named as plaintiffs in the Goldcoast case.  The letter contained misleading statements regarding the bad faith attorneys and their efforts to pursue the bad faith claims on behalf of the clients.”

An Amended Memorandum of Understanding (AMOU) was later drafted and, after the law firm contacted the clients and obtained the releases, the settlement funds were paid by Progressive.  Kane & Kane received $5.25 million. The firm paid $672,742 to its PIP clients, $433,202 in costs, and took $4,144,055 in attorney fees. Watson & Lentner received $3,075,000, and the firm paid $361,470 to its PIP clients, $190,736 in costs, and took $2,522,792 in attorney fees. Once the firms received the settlement money, the bad faith attorneys were discharged, and a notice of voluntary dismissal with prejudice was filed, ending the Goldcoast case.

The bad faith lawyers then sued the PIP lawyers and, in April 2008, Judge David F. Crow entered a final judgment in favor of the bad faith attorneys on their quantum meruit and/or unjust enrichment claims. The final judgment included extensive findings as to the PIP lawyers’ actions, noting that the matter “could be a case study for a course on professional conduct involving multi-party joint representation agreements and the ethical pitfalls surrounding such agreements.”

The Supreme Court opinion upheld the finding of guilt and rule violations made by the referee and disbarred all three lawyers.  “We agree with the referee that the PIP lawyers’ most egregious violation occurred when they abandoned their clients’ bad faith claims in favor of a greater fee for themselves.”  The opinion states that the “considerable violation of (the lawyers’) ethical responsibilities to their clients and the legal system, entirely for their own financial interests and at the expense of their clients, warrants disbarment.

Bottom line:  The 3 lawyers were disbarred for the misconduct which is briefly described above and is further detailed in the opinion.

The opinion also addressed a very important practice point for lawyers who handle PIP claims on behalf of medical providers since it upheld the referee’s findings that all three lawyers failed to provide their clients with closing statements in the PIP cases in violation of Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(f).  “Although there was testimony presented to the referee that a closing statement is not typically provided in a PIP case because the attorney fee is not taken as a portion of the client’s overall recovery, the referee found, and we agree, that there is no specific exception in the Bar Rules authorizing this practice.”  The Court found that lawyers must provide closing statements to clients in PIP first party claims, even though the fees and costs are typically paid by the insurance company and not taken out of the client’s settlement funds.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert 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.

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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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney misrepresentation, deceit, dishonesty, Florida Bar, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer conduct adversely affecting fitness to practice, Lawyer conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, Lawyer conflict of interest, Lawyer disbarment, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer improper fees, Lawyer misrepresentation, Lawyer sanctions, Lawyer violation of Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(f) failure to provide closing statement