Georgia Supreme Court says reprimand is insufficient when, inter alia, a lawyer uses confidential client information to rebut client’s negative reviews on the internet

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Supreme Court of Georgia disciplinary opinion rejecting a proposed reprimand for a lawyer who, inter alia, posted confidential client information on the internet in response to the client’s negative review on “consumer websites”.  The case is In the Matter of Margrett A. Skinner, Case No. S13Y0105 (March 18, 2013).  The opinion is at: http://www.gasupreme.us/sc-op/pdf/s13y0105.pdf

According to the opinion, a client fired the lawyer and posted negative reviews about her on “consumer websites”.  In response, “(the lawyer) posted on the internet personal and confidential information about the client that (the lawyer) had gained in her professional relationship with the client.”  When the former client complained to the Georgia Bar, the lawyer was charged with a number of alleged ethics violations. In addition to the Rule 1.6 confidentiality violation, the Bar complaint accused the lawyer of neglecting a legal matter, failing to keep the client reasonably informed of the status of her case, failing to provide an itemized statement, and initially refusing to refund unearned fees.

The lawyer responded to the Bar complaint by filing a petition in which she admitted violating Georgia Bar Rules related to revealing client confidential information and “sought imposition of a Review Panel Reprimand for her infraction.”   The Bar counsel and a special master appointed to review the disciplinary case believed that the sanction was appropriate and recommended that her petition be accepted; however, the opinion cited the lack of a factual record and the novelty of the disciplinary issue.  The opinion did recognize mitigating factors in the case, including the lawyer’s expression of remorse, the “emotional and physical effects of her own surgery and the deaths of both her parents,” and the fact that the lawyer ultimately refunded the client’s fee.

The opinion stated that “(a)mong other things, we note that the record does not reflect the nature of the disclosures (except that they concern personal and confidential information) or the actual or potential harm to the client as a result of the disclosures.”  The court also stated that it “has not been faced with a violation of Rule 1.6 by means of internet publication,” and that in analogous proceedings three other jurisdictions have handed out a harsher sanction than a reprimand.

The cases cited in the opinion included In re: Disciplinary Proceedings against Kristine Peshek, Case No. No. 2011AP909–D, 798 N.W.2d 879 (Wis. 2011), a reciprocal discipline case, wherein the Wisconsin Supreme Court followed the Illinois Supreme Court and imposed a 60-day suspension on a former public defender “who, among other things, had published in a blog related to her legal work confidential information about her clients and derogatory comments about judges, and had included information from which the identity of the clients and the judges could be discerned.”  According to the opinion, “(t)he Wisconsin Supreme Court noted that Peshek’s blogging was a mechanism to cope with the stress that followed a “traumatic event” in which a client punched her in the face in open court, resulting in “a concussion and other physical injuries.”  I discussed this case in my WordPress.com Ethics Alert blog which is at https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/illinois-lawyer-receives-60-day-suspension-for-disparaging-judges-violating-client-confidentiality-on-blog-and-failing-to-correct-clients-false-sworn statements/

The opinion also cited In re Quillinan, 20 DB Rptr. 288.  In that 2006 case, the Oregon Disciplinary Board suspended a lawyer for 90 days for, among other things, posting to a bar group’s listserv the “personal and medical information about a (workers’ compensation) client whom she named” and whom she described as “difficult” and unwilling to accept a “very fair” offer from an insurer.  The opinion rejected the lawyer’s petition for a reprimand which it called “the mildest form of public discipline authorized” by the Bar Rules, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Bottom line:  This is no April Fool’s joke but is another example of a growing list of cases where lawyers have gotten into disciplinary difficulty by making public comments on the internet, in this case by apparently posting confidential client information rebutting a client’s negative reviews on “consumer websites”.  Don’t go there…

…and be careful out there!

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 confidentiality, Attorney/client privilege and confidentiality, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer revealing client confidential information on internet, Lawyer sanctions

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