Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Supreme Court of Florida disciplinary opinion which increased a referee’s recommended suspension from 90 days to 2 years for “appalling and unprofessional behavior” including, inter alia, “screaming at judges and opposing counsel, and personally attacking opposing counsel by disparaging him and attempting to humiliate him.” The disciplinary opinion is The Florida Bar v. Norkin, No. SC11-1356 (October 31, 2013). The opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2013/sc11-1356.pdf
According to the opinion, The Florida Bar filed a complaint against the lawyer, alleging that, on numerous occasions, he behaved “in an unprofessional and antagonistic manner during the course of litigating a civil case.” The lawyer was representing the defendants in a lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade County which arose from a dispute between business partners. The lawyer was “initially” cordial in his interactions with opposing counsel; “(h)owever, one month later, in August 2008, (the lawyer’s demeanor changed and he became combative. Based upon Respondent’s unprofessional behavior towards the presiding judges, a senior judge who was appointed to serve as a court appointed provisional director of the corporation, and opposing counsel…”
As one of multiple examples of the lawyer’s disruptive behavior, the opinion quoted an exchange between the lawyer and the (second) presiding judge: “During a hearing on April 17, 2009, Judge Dresnick commented, ‘I am finding these hearings with you extremely difficult. You talk very loud. I am telling you at every hearing. You are very angry, you make me angry. I don’t like angry lawyers. There is no point in it.’ Later in the same hearing, Judge Dresnick commented, ‘I have told you three times already. I’m telling you, I am different than the last judge and so you are going to modify your behavior when you come in here. I am a low volume, low key guy until I get pissed off. You know what pisses me off? People coming in here and raising their voices at me.”
In another example: “At a hearing on December 22, 2009, Judge Dresnick remarked, ‘You come in like a bull in a china shop. You do it every time. I don’t know if you are trying to piss me off or what but you do it.’ In the same hearing, Judge Dresnick commented, ‘I remember you coming in here and screaming the way you are doing consistently….You’re the one that raised your voice.’
The lawyer “argued (to the referee) that his voice is naturally loud, he speaks loudly when he feels he is not being heard, and he is working with a behavioral therapist to correct his behavior. The referee rejected the lawyer’s explanation about the volume of his voice as “patently unbelievable” and found that his behavior was “calculated” and that when the lawyer “felt he was not winning during a particular hearing, he would raise his voice and behave in an angry, disrespectful manner.” The referee recommended that the lawyer be suspended for 90 days.
The opinion affirmed the referee’s factual findings that the lawyer “engaged in numerous acts of misconduct by behaving in an unprofessional and antagonistic manner during the course of a civil case”; however, it rejected the referee’s recommended 90 day suspension, stating that “(t)here are proper types of behavior and methods to use when aggressively representing a client. Screaming at judges and opposing counsel, and personally attacking opposing counsel by disparaging him and attempting to humiliate him, are not among the types of acceptable conduct but are entirely unacceptable. One can be professional without being obnoxious.” The opinion imposed a 2 year suspension on the lawyer and also ordered him to personally appear before the Court for a public reprimand.
Bottom line: This disciplinary case is another example of the Florida Supreme Court not hesitating to increase the recommended discipline of a referee. In this case, the Court noted (and quoted) the extremely unprofessional/unethical conduct of the lawyer. A footnote to the opinion also states that: “Members of The Florida Bar, law professors, and law students should study the instant case as a glaring example of unprofessional behavior.”
Let’s be careful out there…and don’t do this (I’m sure you won’t)!
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.
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