Wyoming lawyer receives public reprimand for using client to finalize a divorce settlement agreement with represented spouse

Hello and Happy Groundhog Day!  Welcome to this edition of the JACPA Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Wyoming Supreme Court disciplinary opinion which approved the Wyoming Board of Professional Responsibility’s Report and Recommendation that a lawyer receive a public censure (reprimand) for using his client to finalize a divorce settlement agreement with the represented spouse and without advising the spouse’s lawyer.  The case is Bd. of Professional Responsibility v. Melchior, Wyo., Case No. WY 4, No. D-11-0005 (January 6, 2012).

The opinion approved the Board’s finding that the lawyer’s conduct violated Rule 4.2, Wyoming Rules of Professional Conduct, which generally prohibits a lawyer from directly contacting anyone who is represented by counsel in the matter.  (Florida Bar Rule 4-4.2 is substantially similar).

According to the Report, when Melchior filed the wife’s divorce petition, the husband hired another lawyer (Mincer) to represent him.  While the case was pending, the wife had contact with the husband and signed a settlement agreement that Melchior had edited.  Although Melchior apparently was aware of the contact, he never informed the Mincer that the husband and wife were meeting without the lawyers to talk about settlement.

The husband subsequently told Mincer that he had signed the documents.  Mincer contacted Melchior and requested a copy of the agreement and asked him not to file it.  Although Melchior initially told Mincer that he would not file the agreement with the court, he later filed it after deciding that the settlement agreement was valid and enforceable because it was negotiated directly between the divorcing spouses without his involvement.  Mincer subsequently filed the Bar complaint against Melchior.

As part of the settlement of the disciplinary case, Melchior admitted that he violated Rule 4.2, “when he created and gave to his client a divorce settlement agreement and a confidential financial statement at a time when (the lawyer) knew or reasonably should have known that there was a substantial risk that she would deliver them to the husband, whom (the lawyer) knew was being represented by counsel.”  Melchior agreed that his conduct also violated Rule 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice) and the Report stated that this violation occurred when he presented the settlement agreement to the court for enforcement after assuring Mincer that he would not file it without her approval.  Melchior expressed remorse for the poor judgment committing the violations and agreed to the censure (reprimand) and costs.

Importantly, the conclusions and Bar rule violations in the report and opinion are contrary to a recent ABA Formal Opinion 11-461 (August 4, 2011) which concluded that such conduct would be permissible under the ABA Model Rules.  The relevant language from that ABA opinion is below.

“The client may ask her lawyer if she may communicate directly with her husband to see if an agreement can be reached on some contested issues. Alternatively, the lawyer might independently suggest that the possibility of resolving outstanding issues would be enhanced if the client communicates directly with her husband. The client also might benefit from the lawyer’s advice on how she should conduct such settlement negotiations, the topics or issues to be covered, and the goals or objectives to be reached.  The client also could ask the lawyer to prepare a marital settlement agreement with the goal of having her husband execute the agreement during her meeting with him.”

The ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has scheduled a meeting this month to discuss whether to modify this opinion’s interpretation of Model Rule 4.2.

Bottom line:  As I have said before, ABA, Florida Bar, and other state ethics opinions are not binding; however, they can be used for argument if issues related to conduct in which the lawyer relied upon the opinions or cases arise.  The same analysis applies to court opinions interpreting other state Bar rules and imposing discipline on a lawyer.  This opinion illustrates that lawyers must always be very aware of potential issues with regard to direct client contact, particularly if the lawyer has prepared an agreement without advising the lawyer for the opposing party and either encourages or has knowledge of direct contact between the parties about the agreement.

…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.

THE LAW OFFICE OF JOSEPH A. CORSMEIER, P.A.

PROVIDES ETHICS ADVICE AND EXPERT OPINIONS TO LAWYERS AND LAW FIRMS

DEFENDS LAWYERS IN BAR MISSION AND DISCIPLINE CASES

(AND MUCH MORE!)

My law firm focuses on review, analysis, and interpretation of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, advice and representation of lawyers in Bar disciplinary matters, defense of applicants for admission to The Florida Bar before the Board of Bar Examiners, defense of all Florida licensed professionals in discipline and admission matters before all state agencies and boards, expert ethics opinions, and practice management for lawyers and law firms.  If there is a lawyer or other Florida professional license involved, I can defend the complaint or help you get your license.

If you have any questions or comments, please call me at (727) 799-1688 or e-mail me at jcorsmeier@jac-law.com.  You can find my law firm on the web at www.jac-law.com. In addition to handling individual cases, matters, problems and issues for my clients, I also am on retainer to provide ethics advice to numerous lawyers and law firms throughout the state of Florida.  I also provide legal assistance and advice to numerous individuals and non-legal entities to help insure compliance with the law and rules related to UPL and other issues.

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

www.jac-law.com

 

NOTICE OF CONFIDENTIALITY:  This electronic communication and the information contained herein is legally privileged and confidential proprietary information intended only for the individual and/or entity to whom it is addressed pursuant to the American Bar Association Formal Opinion No. 99-413, dated March 10, 1999 and all other applicable laws and rules.  If you receive this transmission in error, you are advised that any disclosure, copying, distribution, or the taking of any action in reliance upon the communication is strictly prohibited.  Any unauthorized use, distribution, or disclosure of this communication is strictly prohibited.  If you have received this in error, please notify us immediately by return e-mail at the above telephone number and then delete message entirely from your system.  Thank you for your cooperation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s