Florida Supreme Court imposes one year suspension on lawyer for disparaging client and revealing client’s confidences in court documents

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent disciplinary opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida which imposed a one (1) year suspension on a Florida lawyer who made disparaging comments about a client and revealed confidences in court pleadings.  The opinion increased the discipline from the 90 day suspension recommended by the referee and rejected the 91 day suspension requested by the Bar on review.  The case is The Florida Bar v. Petia Dimitrova Knowles, SC10-1019.  The opinion is here: TFB v. Knowles 7-12-12 one year suspension for disparaging client in court documents.

According to the Court’s opinion, the lawyer represented a client in an extensive immigration matter.  A few days before a 2009 hearing, the lawyer filed a motion to withdraw, stating that the client had given her a check for $1,000.00 that had been returned for insufficient funds.  The motion also implied the check was payment related to the immigration case; however, the check was actually related to an automobile accident matter in which the lawyer also represented the client.  The opinion states that “(the lawyer) also stated in the motion that she regretted helping her client, who had been rightly convicted of grand theft, and that (the lawyer’s) office had received reports from the Romanian community that her client had robbed them….(the lawyer) asserted in the motion that her client would not be prejudiced by her withdrawal as attorney.”

The client later agreed to pay the additional fees and the lawyer withdrew the motion.  The client then retained new counsel and the lawyer again filed a motion to withdraw and “asserted in her motion that she had received more reports that her client had intentionally failed to honor her contractual promises and had refused to pay for fulfilled work assignments.”  The lawyer also told a criminal prosecutor assigned to her client’s criminal case that “she had reason to believe her client would lie to the immigration court at an upcoming hearing.”  The prosecutor also anonymously received confidential paperwork from that immigration case, which the lawyer was the only person known to possess.

The referee recommended that the lawyer be found guilty of violating Bar Rule 4-8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice) but recommended that the lawyer be found not guilty of any other rule violations, including Rule 4-1.6 (confidentiality of information).  The referee also recommended that the lawyer receive a 90 day suspension.  The Bar petitioned for review of the referee’s findings and recommendation that the lawyer be found not guilty of violating Bar Rule 4-1.6 and requested that the Court impose a ninety-one (91) day rehabilitative suspension.

The opinion rejected the lawyer’s assertion that the disclosures were permitted under Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6(b)(1) to prevent the client from committing a crime and stated that it was not clear a crime was going to be committed and, even if it was clear,  the proper entity for disclosure was the immigration court, not the criminal prosecutor.  The opinion also noted the lawyer did not contest the finding of a violation of Rule 4-8.4(d), which, inter alia, prohibits disparaging or humiliating litigants.  The opinion also stated that “we write to emphasize the inappropriateness of (the lawyer’s) actions in violating her client’s sacred trust” and noted that the lawyer claimed the client did not honor checks of contracts, had robbed members of the Romanian community, and “most egregiously . . . brazenly asserted” the client had rightfully been convicted of grand theft and that the lawyer regretted helping the client.

The lawyer was found guilty of violating Florida Bar Rules 4-1.6 and 4-8.4(d) and the opinion imposed a one (1) year suspension stating that the suspension was appropriate since the lawyer had received a public reprimand for similar conduct in a prior disciplinary matter and because of the nature of the lawyer’s actions and the “apparent escalating pattern of misbehavior”.  “Such disparaging language is needless and has no place in a public court pleading, especially when the statements are made by an attorney and are directed at the attorney’s own client.  Unbridled language of this sort harms the client and causes the public to lose faith in the legal profession.  (The lawyer’s) conduct was highly prejudicial to the administration of justice and cannot be tolerated.”

Bottom line:  The lesson here appears to be that lawyers must be very careful in considering what language to include in court pleadings and documents…and the Florida Supreme Court will not hesitate to dramatically increase the discipline recommended by the referee (and to increase the discipline recommended by the Bar).

…and 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 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

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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney/client privilege and confidentiality, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Lawyer conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer sanctions

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