Louisiana Supreme Court refuses to sanction a lawyer who claimed a non-existent specialization on a law firm website because of a lack of a “culpable state of mind”

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Louisiana Supreme Court disciplinary case wherein the court refused to sanction a lawyer who claimed a non-existent specialization on his former law firm website because he did not have a “culpable state of mind” and the public was not harmed. The opinion is In re: Kearney Soniat Du Fossat Loughlin, Supreme Court of Louisiana Case No. 14-B-0923 (September 26, 2014) and is online here: http://www.lasc.org/opinions/2014/14B0923.pc.pdf.

According to the opinion, the lawyer created a website in 2007 to promote his law firm. The home page and the firm profile page had the following statement: “Loughlin & Loughlin is a plaintiff-oriented pure litigation firm specializing in maritime personal injury and death cases.” In 2009, the lawyer requested that the website be taken down for revisions because his wife, with whom he had been practicing, left the private practice of law.

In October 2011, during an investigation of an unrelated matter, the Louisiana Office of Disciplinary Counsel (“ODC”) accessed the firm profile page of the lawyer’s former website through a web search. After an investigation, a one count formal charge was filed against the lawyer, alleging violations of the Louisiana advertising rules by claiming that he “specialized” in maritime personal injury and death cases, even though that specialization was not recognized and/or approved by the Louisiana Board of Legal Specialization.

The lawyer denied the allegations and, after a hearing, the disciplinary hearing committee determined that the language on respondent’s website stated or implied that his firm was a “specialist” in maritime personal injury and death cases and recommended a reprimand and that the lawyer attend an advertising continuing education course, notwithstanding the fact that such specialization did not exist in Louisiana. The Louisiana disciplinary board approved the findings and recommendation of the committee.

The Court’s opinion reversed the recommended reprimand and imposed no sanction: “The record establishes respondent’s actions were not taken with a culpable mental state. It is also undisputed his actions caused no harm to the public. Considering these factors, we do not find respondent’s actions rise to the level of sanctionable misconduct. Therefore, we will dismiss the formal charges against respondent.”

Bottom line: This opinion clearly seems to indicate that, at least in Louisiana, the Bar must show that a lawyer had a “culpable state of mind” (not mere negligence) to prove a violation of the Bar Rule prohibiting a lawyer’s claim of specialization on a website; however, the fact that Louisiana has no specialization in “maritime personal injury and death cases “ could very well have been an important factor in this decision.

Let’s 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
http://www.jac-law.com

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