Monthly Archives: March 2016

Pennsylvania woman who posed as a lawyer for 10 years is convicted of UPL, forgery, and records tampering

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss recent conviction of a Pennsylvania woman who posed as a lawyer for 10 years using fictitious documents and another lawyer’s license number.  The case is Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Kimberly M. Kitchen, case number CP-31-CR-0000274-2015 (Court of Common Pleas of Huntingdon County).  The court docket is here:  https://ujsportal.pacourts.us/DocketSheets/CPReport.ashx?docketNumber=CP-31-CR-0000274-2015

According to media reports, the woman had been named a partner at a Pennsylvania law firm in April 2014 when her actions were discovered later that year.  She had spent the previous decade working as a lawyer by the time the state attorney general’s office brought charges against her in 2015.  She had also served as served as president of the local county bar association.

According to the criminal charges and media reports, the woman created fictitious bar examination results and a law license and a false check for the state attorney registration fee, and she also created a false e-mail purportedly showing that she attended Duquesne University law school.

The woman handled estate planning for more than 30 clients and even served as president of the county bar association for a time. She made partner at her firm before the fraud was discovered.  Her biography page (which has been deleted) said that she spent a decade as a paralegal at another firm in Pittsburgh and that she graduated summa cum laude from Duquesne law school in Pittsburgh.

A former county bar association president told the Huntingdon Daily News, which first reported on the matter, that by specializing in estate planning on inheritance court documents, the woman was able to stay out of the courtroom.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, the woman’s attorney said she would be considering an appeal since, in order to prove the most serious charge of records tampering, prosecutors had to show that someone “relied on the deceit to their detriment.”  The lawyer contends that nobody was harmed by the deception since “apparently everyone was satisfied with (her services) for at least a decade.”  The lawyer also stated that  “(n)obody ever challenged her credentials.”

The judge found the lawyer guilty of misdemeanor UPL, misdemeanor forgery, and felony tampering with a public record/information on March 24, 2016 and did not immediately schedule sentencing.

Bottom line:  This individual appears to have been successful in posing as an attorney for over ten years in Pennsylvania and was made a partner in a law firm and served as a local Bar president using false credentials and a false law license.  Lawyer be wary and be sure to fully investigate any lawyer that you hire.

…and be careful out there.

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 Ethics Alert  is not an advertisement and 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 deceit, dishonesty, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer unlicensed practice of law, Non-lawyer practicing law, Unauthorized practice of law, Unlicensed practice of law

Florida Bar Board of Governors considers advertising rule amendments on use of “expert” and “specialist” and approves rule regarding faxes, telegrams and online chatrooms

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Florida Bar Board of Governors meeting wherein the BOG discussed rule changes to comply with a Florida federal district court judge’s Order finding that Bar rule which prevented non-certified lawyers from stating they have expertise or specialize in an area of law were unconstitutional and enjoining their enforcement.  The injunction order was not appealed by The Florida Bar and there is currently a Bar moratorium on enforcing the rule.  The case is Searcy et al. v. The Florida Bar et al., case number 4:13-cv-00664 (U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida).  The injunction order is attached and is in the federal court’s Pacer system here:  https://ecf.flnd.uscourts.gov/doc1/04914695967

According to a March 1, 2016 Florida Bar News article, the chair of the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics told the BOG at the meeting that the committee is considering several potential amendments; however, it has not agreed on a single version of the amendment. The committee chair said that the committee expected to make a recommendation at the board’s March 10, 2016 meeting; however, it is not clear whether the topic was discussed at that meeting.  The Florida Bar News article is here:  http://www.floridabar.org/DIVCOM/JN/jnnews01.nsf/Articles/A1C3E4D1089C7B3785257F61004E782D

The BOG review was started after a September 30, 2015 Order by U.S. Northern District of Florida Judge Robert L. Hinkle in a lawsuit filed against The Florida Bar by the Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley, P.A. law firm.  The lawsuit challenged Bar rules which permit only Florida Bar (or the equivalent) certified lawyers to hold themselves out as “experts” or “specialists” in their advertisements.  The Order stated non-certified lawyers and law firms could have expertise in an area even if they were not certified and that the regulation prevented lawyers from claiming expertise in areas for which there is no available Bar certification and enjoined the Bar from enforcing the rule as applied.

According to an article in the October 15, 2015, Florida Bar News, “As a result of Hinkle’s ruling, the Bar’s Ethics and Advertising Department, which reviews lawyer ads, has announced it will no longer find noncompliance for claims of specialization or expertise from non-certified lawyers.  ‘Instead, the Bar will point out to the filer that the advertisement makes claims of specialization or expertise, and the filer may use them only if the filer can objectively verify those claims’, Bar Ethics Counsel Elizabeth Tarbert said in a letter to Bar officials.”

The BOG also approved the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics’ recommendation to allow lawyers to communicate directly with potential clients using facsimiles, telegrams, and in online chatrooms as long as the lawyers follow the Florida Bar rules related to direct mail communications/solicitations.  According to Bar Ethics and Advertising Counsel Elizabeth Tarbert, any solicitation made by the lawyer, including  within a chatroom, must be preapproved by the Bar and must also comply with any applicable state and federal laws on solicitations using those methods of transmission.

The direct communications must be characterized as “advertisements” and tell the recipient to disregard them if they already have an attorney in the matter. The amendments were revised for uniformity after the BOG recently decided that direct text communications were permissible under Bar rules.  The rule amendments will now be sent to the Florida Supreme Court for review and potential approval.

Bottom line:  The BOG will hopefully approve a Bar Rule amendment which will provide constitutionally compliant guidance to lawyers regarding when they can state that they are “experts” or “specialists”, even if they are not certified by The Florida Bar (or the equivalent).  It is most likely that the rule will have minimum requirements such as the number of years of practice and experience, among other potential criteria.  Stay tuned……and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert  is not an advertisement and 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 2013 Florida comprehensive advertising rule revisions, Advertising and solicitation with text messages, Attorney Ethics, Florida 2013 advertising rules federal lawsuit, Florida 2013 comprehensive lawyer advertising rules, Florida Bar, Florida Lawyer advertising rules, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer advertising, Lawyer advertising rules, Lawyer advertising specialties and certification, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism

Ohio Supreme Court permanently disbars lawyer who was videotaped in court practicing law while indefinitely suspended

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss another recent Ohio Supreme Court opinion disbarring a lawyer who was caught on video representing a client in court 3 times, beginning less than three months after his license was indefinitely suspended.  The case is Cleveland Metro. Bar Assn. v. Pryatel, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-865. (March 9, 2016).  The disciplinary opinion is here: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2016/2016-Ohio-865.pdf and the link to the oral argument in the case is here: http://www.ohiochannel.org/video/case-no-2015-1005-cleveland-metropolitan-bar-association-v-mark-r-pryatel.

According to the opinion, the lawyer was indefinitely suspended in April 2013 for multiple violations of lawyer disciplinary rules, including misappropriating a client’s settlement funds, making false statements to a court, charging an illegal or clearly excessive fee, and neglecting a client matter.  The lawyer was subsequently recorded on video and audio tapes representing a client (Richard Brazell) in court on three separate occasions in June and July 2013.

The lawyer first attended a probation violation hearing and stood with the client, admitting the probation violation on the client’s behalf, and speaking for the client.  The client’s girlfriend and stepfather testified before the professional conduct board that they paid the lawyer $450.00 for the representation (for both the lawyer’s previous representation and for future representation) and that the lawyer did not inform them that his license was suspended.

Two days after the probation hearing, the lawyer appeared with the client a second time on unrelated charges in another court.  An audio recording of the client’s arraignment indicated the lawyer spoke on the client’s behalf.  He told the magistrate that he was not the client’s attorney and the client was representing himself as the two worked out their business relationship. The magistrate told the board that the lawyer did not indicate that his license was suspended.

About a month later, the lawyer attended a hearing with the client a third time, answered questions on his behalf, and entered a plea to a violation of probation for the client before the judge.  The prosecutor and judge in that case both told the board that they believed that the lawyer was representing the client.  The judge became suspicious and asked his assistant to research the lawyer and found out that he was suspended.

When confronted with the allegations that he had represented the client in a deposition in the Bar matter, the lawyer denied under oath that he appeared with the client at the probation violation hearing or municipal court proceedings, and claimed that he told the client’s family that his license was suspended and that he was not paid for his legal work.  The opinion stated:  “All of these statements (by the lawyer) were later contradicted by testimonial, video, audio, and documentary evidence presented at the disciplinary hearing.”

The board found the following aggravating circumstances: prior disciplinary offenses, a dishonest or selfish motive, a pattern of misconduct, multiple offenses, a lack of cooperation in the disciplinary process, the submission of false statements during the disciplinary process, and a refusal to acknowledge the wrongful nature of the conduct.  Although the board acknowledged that the lawyer had been involved with the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program, it found no mitigating factors.

The lawyer objected to the board’s finding that he practiced law while suspended and argued that his actions in the second appearance did not constitute the “practice of law” since he did not advocate for the client, cross-examine any witnesses, cite legal authority, or handle any legal documents.  The opinion rejected that argument and cited Cleveland Bar Assn. v. Comp Management, Inc., a 2006 case stating that the practice of law is not limited to advocacy or filing of legal documents, but also includes representation before a court, preparation of legal documents, management of client actions, all advice related to law, and all actions connected with the law taken on a client’s behalf.  “Here, the evidence demonstrated that the lawyer accompanied the client to the court, stood with him before the bench, spoke on his behalf, waived his legal rights as a criminal defendant, and entered a plea for him.  Under any definition, the lawyer’s appearance on behalf of the client constituted the practice of law.”

The lawyer claimed that he had been “sandbagged” by the bar association which investigated the Bar matter because the case against him did not originally contain the video of his appearance at the probation hearing. The bar association later supplemented its case with the video, and the lawyer had more than two weeks to review it before his disciplinary hearing. The opinion found that the lawyer did not provide any explanation to support the allegation that the introduction of the video prevented him from adequately defending himself against the charges.

The lawyer argued that he should not be disbarred because his actions involved a single client who benefited from his assistance and that he helped the client for “sympathetic and altruistic reasons.”  He also argued that he cooperated during the disciplinary process and had a history of providing quality legal services to indigent clients, and other lawyers charged with the same misconduct were not disbarred.  His lawyer argued at the oral argument that he had psychological and/or other issues and was participating in Ohio’s lawyer assistance program, and that the indefinite suspension should be again imposed.

The majority of the justices disagreed and permanently disbarred the lawyer stating:  “Less than three months after our order forbidding Pryatel to appear on behalf of another before any court, he represented a client in three court proceedings. As the board found, his actions defy logic and reason, especially his insistence that his conduct at those hearings did not constitute the practice of law.”  Three justices dissented, stating that the indefinite suspension should be continued.

Bottom line: This lawyer had the apparent audacity to represent a client on 3 different occasions and in 2 separate cases beginning less than 3 months after he was indefinitely suspended from the practice of law for, among other things, misappropriating a client’s settlement funds, making false statements to a court, charging an illegal or clearly excessive fee, and neglecting a client matter.  As the opinion states: “(the lawyer’s) actions defy logic and reason, especially his insistence that his conduct at those hearings did not constitute the practice of law.”

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert  is not an advertisement and 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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Ohio Supreme Court imposes stayed suspension on former criminal prosecutor who used fictitious Facebook account to contact alibi witnesses

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Ohio Supreme Court opinion imposing a stayed suspension on an ex-prosecutor who created a fictitious Facebook account to contact alibi witnesses in a criminal case that he was prosecuting.  The case is Disciplinary Counsel v. Brockler, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-657 (February 26, 2016.  The opinion is here: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2016/2016-Ohio-657.pdf.

According to the opinion, the lawyer doubted the alibi witnesses’ stories and:

“Recalling a Facebook ruse he had used in a prior case, Brockler planned to create a fictitious Facebook identity to contact Mossor. He attempted to obtain assistance from several Cleveland police detectives and the chief investigator in the prosecutor’s office, but they were not available. Believing that time was of the essence, Brockler decided to proceed with the Facebook ruse on his own approximately one hour after he heard the recording of Mossor and Dunn’s conversation. He created a Facebook account using the pseudonym “Taisha Little, a photograph of an African-American female that he downloaded from the Internet, and information that he gleaned from Dunn’s jailhouse telephone calls. He also added pictures, group affiliations, and ‘friends’ he selected based on Dunn’s telephone calls and Facebook page. After creating the Facebook alias, he contacted the alibi witnesses, told them he was romantically involved with the defendant, and discussed the alibi as if it were false.”

The lawyer testified that he made copies of the communications and placed them in a file before deleting the Facebook account. He stated that he intended to give copies to the defense; however, he did not provide them and copies were never found in the prosecutor’s file.  The lawyer told the prosecutor who was taking over the case while he was on a medical leave that he might become a witness since the alibi witnesses said they would not support the defendant’s alibi.  He did not tell the new prosecutor how he obtained that information.

A police detective later discovered the Facebook communications and provided them to the new prosecutor, who provided them to the defense. The case was transferred to the Ohio Attorney General’s office for prosecution and the lawyer was terminated.  Although the lawyer admitted that his actions violated the Bar rules prohibiting conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation, he argued that an exception should be made for “prosecutorial investigation deception.”  The Ohio Board of Professional Conduct rejected that argument, and the Ohio Supreme Court agreed with the Board’s conclusion.

The opinion said the lawyer’s conduct was “an isolated incident in an otherwise notable legal career” and imposed a one year stayed suspension which will remain stayed unless the lawyer engages in further misconduct.  A dissenting justice stated: “I cannot implicitly condone the imposition of a negligible sanctions for his egregious misconduct”, the lawyer had shown a “glaring disdain” for his ethical responsibilities, and he should receive an indefinite suspension.

Bottom line: This is an example of a prosecutor who went too far in zealously prosecuting a criminal defendant and was disciplined as a result, even though it appears that he believed that he was engaging in the deception to achieve the right result.  With regard to compliance with the Bar rules, the end will never justify the means, and all lawyers need to be wary of going too far and falling down a slippery slope in their representation, whether it is on behalf of the government or individual clients.

Be careful out there.

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 Ethics Alert  is not an advertisement and 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 misrepresentation, deceit, dishonesty, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer conduct adversely affecting fitness to practice, Lawyer conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Prosecutorial misconduct ethics

ABA issues formal ethics opinion addressing lawyer’s duties upon receipt of subpoena or other process for client confidential documents

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent American Bar Association Formal Opinion 473, which provides guidance to lawyers regarding ethical duties and obligations under the Model Rules upon receipt of a subpoena or other compulsory process for client documents and information.  ABA Formal Opinion 473 (February 17, 2016) is here: http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/FormalOpinion_473.pdf.

According to the opinion, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility was asked to review ABA Formal Opinion 94-385 (July 5, 1994) regarding a subpoena for a lawyer’s client files since ABA Model Rule 1.6(b)(6) was adopted in 2002 and which states that: “A lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation of a client to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to comply with other law or court order.”

When Formal Opinion 94-385 was issued, Model Rule 1.6(b) specifically required a lawyer to disclose confidential information in only two situations: (i) to prevent certain crimes, and (ii) to establish certain claims or defenses on behalf of the lawyer.  Formal Opinion 94-385 advised that the lawyer “must comply with the final orders of a court or other tribunal of competent jurisdiction requiring the lawyer to give information about a client.”

The opinion states that the model rule and Formal Opinion 94-385 do not address “complex, critical, and fact-intensive questions on how to respond” when the lawyer receives a subpoena or other process which is not a “final order of a court or other tribunal”.  The opinion addresses these issues and provides guidance to lawyers regarding their duties and obligations.  The opinion states that a lawyer who receives a subpoena or other compulsory process (but not a court order) for documents or information relating to the representation of a client (which is, of course, confidential) has multiple ethical duties and obligations, including:

  1. The lawyer “must notify—or attempt to notify—the client.  For former clients, the lawyer must make reasonable efforts to reach the client by, for example, internet search, phone call, fax, email or other electronic communications, and letter to the client’s last known address.”
  1. If the client is available, the lawyer must consult with the client about how to respond. If instructed by the client (or if the client is unavailable), the lawyer must assert all reasonable claims against disclosure and seek to limit the subpoena or other initial demand on any reasonable ground.  Such a consultation should include a discussion regarding the applicability of the attorney-client privilege, the work-product doctrine, and the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
  1. If the client wants to challenge the subpoena or process, the lawyer should challenge “on any reasonable ground.”  If that challenge fails, the lawyer should consult with the client about appeal options.
  1. If there is an order to disclose confidential or privileged information and the client is available, a lawyer must consult with the client about whether to produce the information or appeal the order.
  1. The lawyer should seek appropriate protective orders or other protective arrangements so that access to the information is limited to the court or other tribunal ordering its disclosure and to persons having a need to know.
  1. If the lawyer discloses documents and information, whether it is in response to a demand or an order, and regardless of whether client is available, the lawyer may reveal information only to the extent reasonably necessary.
  1. If the client and the lawyer disagree about how to respond to the initial demand or to an order requiring disclosure, the lawyer should consider withdrawing from the representation pursuant to Model Rule 1.16.
  1. If the lawyer is unable to find the client, the lawyer must “assert all reasonable objections and claims when the lawyer receives the initial demand.” If those “objections and claims” are rejected by the tribunal, the lawyer must produce the information to the extent reasonably necessary to comply with the order; however, the lawyer “is not ethically required to take an appeal on behalf of a client whom the lawyer cannot locate after due diligence.
  1. If there is an order to disclose and the client is unavailable, the lawyer is not ethically required to appeal.

With regard to fees for the consultation and services regarding the response to the subpoena/process, the lawyer should consult with the client regarding whether responding to the demand was included in the scope of work under the fee agreement.  If not, the lawyer should discuss the fee for doing so.  Regardless, the lawyer may still “be required to challenge the initial demand” under the ethics rules even if the services were not included in the initial fee agreement.  The opinion states that a lawyer “should consider” providing for this circumstance in the lawyer’s retainer agreements.

Bottom line: This ABA Formal Opinion provides guidance regarding issues involving client confidentiality which lawyers confront fairly frequently and that I frequently address in my ethics presentations.  The opinion’s guidance is important and should be considered by lawyers who receive a subpoena or process demanding client confidential information, regardless of whether the lawyer’s jurisdiction’s ethics rules include the specific language in Model Rule 1.6(b)(6).

Note to Florida lawyers:  Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6 does not include the specific language in ABA Model Rule 1.6(b)(6) that: “A lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation of a client to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to comply with other law or court order”; however, Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6(d) states that: “When required by a tribunal to reveal confidential information, a lawyer may first exhaust all appellate remedies.”  In addition, Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6(f) states that: “When disclosure is mandated or permitted, the lawyer must disclose no more information than is required to meet the requirements or accomplish the purposes of this rule.”

The ethical duties and obligations regarding subpoenas and other process addressed in the opinion should apply to Florida lawyers upon receipt of a subpoena or other process to provide confidential documents/information.

Be careful out there!

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 Ethics Alert  is not an advertisement and 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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