Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent disciplinary complaint filed by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission against an Illinois lawyer who, inter alia, allegedly violated her client’s confidences when she posted a response to a client’s allegedly false AVVO post. The case is In the Matter of Betty Tsamis, No. 6288664, Commission No. 2013PR00095 (August 26, 2013). The disciplinary complaint is at http://www.iardc.org/13PR0095CM.html.
The disciplinary complaint has two counts. Count I alleges that the lawyer converted $2,057.54 from the settlement proceeds of a client named Kris Klimek and Count II alleges that the lawyer violated her duty of confidentiality to another client named Richard Rinehart by revealing confidential information in responding to a client’s unfavorable review on AVVO.
According to Count I of the complaint, “(o)n or about September 6, 2012, (the lawyer) agreed to represent Richard Rinehart (“Rinehart”) in matters related to Rinehart’s securing unemployment benefits from his former employer, American Airlines. Shortly before hiring (the lawyer), American Airlines had terminated Rinehart’s employment as a flight attendant because Rinehart allegedly assaulted a fellow flight attendant during a flight. At that time, Rinehart paid (the lawyer) $1,500 towards her fee.”
“Between September 6, 2012 and January 16, 2013, (the lawyer) met with Rinehart on at least two occasions and obtained information from Rinehart concerning his employment history at American Airlines and information concerning the alleged incident involving the other flight attendant. (The lawyer) also reviewed Rinehart’s personnel file, which she had obtained from American Airlines. On or about January 16, 2013, (the lawyer) represented Rinehart at a telephonic hearing before the Illinois Department of Employment Security (“IDES”), which resulted in the IDES denying Rinehart unemployment benefits. Shortly thereafter, Rinehart terminated (the lawyer’s) representation of him. “
“On or about February 5, 2013, Rinehart posted a client review of (the lawyer’s) services on the legal referral website AVVO, in which he discussed his dissatisfaction with (the lawyer’s) services. Rinehart stated in the posting that ‘She only wants your money, claims ‘always on your side’ is a huge lie. Paid her to help me secure unemployment, she took my money knowing full well a certain law in Illinois would not let me collect unemployment. [N]ow is billing me for an additional $1500 for her time.’ Between February 7, 2013 and February 8, 2013, (the lawyer) contacted Rinehart by email and requested that Rinehart remove the February 5, 2013 posting about her on AVVO. Rinehart responded that he refused to remove the posting unless he received a copy of his files and a full refund of the $1,500 he had paid.”
“Sometime between February 5, 2013 and April 10, 2013, AVVO removed Rinehart’s posting from its online client reviews of (the lawyer). On or about April 10, 2013, Rinehart posted a second client review of (the lawyer) on AVVO. In the April 10, 2013 posting, Rinehart stated that ‘I paid Ms. Tsamis $1500 to help me secure unemployment while she knew full well that a law in Illinois would prevent me from obtaining unemployment benefits.'”
“On or about April 11, 2013, (the lawyer) posted a reply to Rinehart’s April 10, 2013 client review. In that reply (the lawyer) stated that: ‘This is simply false. The person did not reveal all the facts of his situation up front in our first and second meeting. [sic] When I received his personnel file, I discussed the contents of it with him and informed him that he would likely lose unless the employer chose not to contest the unemployment (employers sometimes do is [sic]). Despite knowing that he would likely lose, he chose to go forward with a hearing to try to obtain benefits. I dislike it very much when my clients lose but I cannot invent positive facts for clients when they are not there. I feel badly for him but his own actions in beating up a female coworker are what caused the consequences he is now so upset about.'”
“By stating in her April 11, 2013 AVVO posting that Rinehart beat up a female coworker, (the lawyer) revealed information that she had obtained from Rinehart about the termination of his employment. (The lawyer’s) statements in the posting were designed to intimidate and embarrass Rinehart and to keep him from posting additional information about her on the AVVO website.”
Bottom line: As I previously stated, all communication via digital media is a potential minefield, which this case illustrates. Although lawyers are generally permitted to reveal confidences to defend allegations by clients against them, and it appears that the lawyer was justified in her frustration with the (former) client, she may have gone too far by revealing confidential information that went beyond the information necessary to defend herself against the allegedly false statements made by the client in the AVVO post. We will see…
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