Monthly Archives: August 2017

New York Bar opinion states that lawyers must take reasonable steps to protect confidential information in a border search

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New York City Bar Association ethics opinion which states that lawyers must take reasonable precautions to protect attorney/client confidential information if the lawyer is searched by U.S border/customs agents (and/or agents of other countries).  The ethics opinion is NYCBA Formal Opinion 2017-5:  An Attorney’s Ethical Duties Regarding U.S. Border Searches of Electronic Devices Containing Clients’ Confidential Information and it is here: NYCBA Opinion 2017-5.

The opinion states that the lawyer should take reasonable precautions, which will be dependent upon various factors, including the sensitivity of the information, the likelihood of disclosure, and the cost and difficulty caused by implementation of the precautions.  The opinion further states that the simplest way to avoid the issue is to not possess any client confidential information when crossing the border and options would include carrying a “burner” telephone, laptop computer, or other digital device, removing confidential information from digital devices, signing out of cloud-based services, uninstalling applications allowing remote access to confidential information, storing confidential information in secure online locations rather than locally on digital devices, and using encrypted software.

If a border agent asserts lawful authority to search an electronic device containing confidential data, the opinion states that the lawyer should try to prevent disclosure which would include advising the border agent that the device contains confidential information and files, requesting that the confidential information and/or files not be searched or copied and, if the agent is not deterred from conducting the search, asking to speak to the agent’s superior. The lawyer should also carry proof of his or her Bar membership to support the argument.

The opinion states that lawyers should also consider having printed copies of the border agency’s policies and/or guidelines on border searches available since, under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection guidelines, agents who are advised of a confidentiality claim state that an agent should seek further review to determine whether there is a “suspicion” that the asserted confidential material may constitute evidence of a crime or pertain to matters within the agencies’ jurisdiction.

“Although it is uncertain how border agents apply this ‘suspicion’ standard in actual searches, attorneys should take advantage of this possible avenue for preventing the disclosure of clients’ confidential information.”  Finally, if confidential information is seized or compromised during a search, the affected clients should be promptly notified.

Bottom line:  This ethics opinion appears to be the first to address the issues related to searches of a lawyer’s electronic devices during a border search.  According to the opinion, lawyers who travel outside of the United States should take reasonable measures to avoid disclosure of client information if U.S. border agents (or border agents of another country) search their electronic devices and, if confidential or privileged material is disclosed, lawyers must notify the affected clients.  My recommendation to lawyers is to avoid the issue by carrying “burner” devices and not having any client confidential information when crossing the border or, if that option is not feasible, storing confidential information in a secure online location and/or using encrypted software.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship 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.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Attorney/client confidentiality, Attorney/client privilege and confidentiality, Confidentiality, Confidentiality and privilege, Ethics opinion- lawyer protecting client confidential information in border search, Ethics opinion- protecting client confidential information on digital devices, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, lawyer confidentiality, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer ethics opinions

Florida Appeals Court finds that Miami-Dade Circuit Judge’s Facebook “friendship” with lawyer and former judge is not disqualifying

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent (August 23, 2017) Florida Third District Court of Appeal (DCA) opinion declining to disqualify a Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge who was “friends” with opposing counsel on Facebook.  The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. d/b/a Herssein Law Group and Reuven T. Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No.: 3D17-1421, Lower Tribunal No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Third District Court of Appeal) and the opinion is here: http://www.3dca.flcourts.org/Opinions/3D17-1421.pdf 

In a somewhat surprising decision, the Florida Third District Court of Appeal found that Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko is not required to recuse herself from a case in which she was a Facebook” friend” of the lawyer for one of the parties (Israel Reyes).  The lawyer was also a former judge with whom she worked before he stepped down as a judge.  This decision diverges from a Fourth District Court of Appeal opinion as well as a 2009 opinion of the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (JEAC)- JEAC Op. 2009-20 (Nov.17, 2009).  The Third DCA opinion states:

“A random name drawn from a list of Facebook ‘friends’ probably belongs to casual friend, an acquaintance, an old classmate, a person with whom the member shares a common hobby, a ‘friend of a friend’ or even a local celebrity like a coach.  An assumption that all Facebook ‘friends’ rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking.”

As I previously reported in my August 4, 2017 Ethics Alert, the Herssein Law Group moved to disqualify the judge from presiding over a contract dispute against their client, the United States Automobile Association (USAA) in which Reyes represents a non-party USAA employee in the matter, who was identified as a potential witness/party.

The law firm argued that the judge could not be impartial in the case and cited the 2009 JEAC opinion which states: “Listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as ‘friends’ on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge.”  In 2012, the Fourth District Court of Appeal relied on the JEAC opinion in disqualifying disqualified a judge from a case for being Facebook friends with the prosecutor. Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).

The Third DCA opinion further states that Facebook friendships could represent a close relationship that would require disqualification, however, many do not.  The opinion concluded:

“In fairness to the Fourth District’s decision in Domville and the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee’s 2009 opinion, electronic social media is evolving at an exponential rate. Acceptance as a Facebook “friend” may well once have given the impression of close friendship and affiliation. Currently, however, the degree of intimacy among Facebook “friends” varies greatly. The designation of a person as a “friend” on Facebook does not differentiate between a close friend and a distant acquaintance. Because a “friend” on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word, we hold that the mere fact that a judge is a Facebook “friend” with a lawyer for a potential party or witness, without more, does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook “friend.” On this point we respectfully acknowledge we are in conflict with the opinion of our sister court in Domville.”

Bottom line:  This DCA opinion is contrary to the 2009 JEAC opinion and the 2012 4th DCA opinion and acknowledges that it is in conflict with that DCA opinion; however, it does provide the rationale that each case should be decided  by examining the facts and the relationship.  This would seem to open up potential confusion and potential disqualification motions that would have to be decided on a case by case basis.    It is still recommended that judges (and lawyers who may appear before them) would be well advised not to be “friends” or otherwise connect on social media and professional networking sites or, if they are already connected and a case is assigned, to immediately remove the connection and disclose it to all parties and provide an option to recuse if the party believes that it would potentially be prejudiced.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship 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.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Attorney Ethics, Disqualification, Florida judge ethics, Florida Judicial Canons, Florida Judicial Ethics Opinions judges connecting on Facebook and LinkedIn, Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Judge disqualification- Facebook friends with lawyer, Judges and lawyer friends on Facebook, Judicial ethics, Lawyer and Judge Friends on Facebook Motion to Disqualify Judge

Potential Florida Bar ethics advisory opinion 17-2 will address lawyer referral fees and private client matching services

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss recent decision by the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors (BOG) to consider a potential ethics advisory opinion to address the ethics issues surrounding lawyer referral fees and private client matching services.  The advisory opinion has not been drafted; however, the draft opinion will be identified as Proposed Advisory Opinion 17-2.

The Bar review began after a lawyer sent an ethics inquiry to The Florida Bar asking whether lawyers could participate with a private lawyer referral service which planned to charge a different set fee depending upon the type of case referred.  The lawyer referred to the system “as a ‘pay-per-lead’ structure.”

The lawyer’s inquiry was referred to the BOG and, at its July 21, 2017 meeting in Miami, the BOG unanimously approved the recommendation of the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics (BRCPE) that it be directed to prepare an advisory opinion on the inquiry, specifically whether lawyer referral services can charge a fee per referral and impose different fees for different types of cases.  The BRCPE has authority to decline drafting an opinion and the BOG could also decide not to issue the opinion if it is drafted.

If an ethics advisory opinion is drafted, it will address the ethics issues created when online entities (such as AVVO) rolled out programs which attempt to match potential clients with lawyers and which make different payments depending on the type of case.  The opinion would also address the Bar rules related to advertising and referral services.  Lawyers and others will be able to comment on the issues before any opinion is drafted and/or approved.

The Florida Bar Rules have long prohibited lawyers from sharing fees with private referral services.  The Bar’s Standing Committee on Advertising (SCA) also rejected “pay-per-lead” plans on previous appeals and the BOG rejected an appeal from a referral service that proposed a payment of $300.00 to participating lawyers for each referred and accepted case in 2012.

Other jurisdictions have published ethics opinions addressing these issues or are in the process of reviewing them.  As I reported in a recent Ethics Alert blog, New York Ethics Opinion 1132 (published August 8, 2017) found that New York lawyers are prohibited from participating in AVVO’s client referral services.  The opinion found that lawyers who participate in AVVO’s client referral services (and any similar services) would violate the New York Bar rules since they involve AVVO’s improper “vouching” for (recommendation of) the lawyer, improper lawyer referral fees, and improper fee sharing with a non-lawyer.

As background, The Florida Bar filed a petition with proposed Bar rule amendments with the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 addressing, inter alia, referral services that offer both legal and medical or other non-legal services. Those proposed rules would have allowed lawyers to participate in those services, as long as clients were informed about potential conflicts, there was no quid pro quo requiring the lawyer to send a referred client for medical or other services offered by the referral agency, and the lawyer’s independent judgment was not affected.

The Florida Supreme Court published an opinion on September 24, 2015 which declined to implement the rule revisions and instructed the Bar to draft rules that “preclude Florida lawyers from accepting referrals from any lawyer referral service that is not owned or operated by a member of the Bar.”    That opinion is here: 9/24/15 SC Opinion

The Florida Bar then filed revised rule amendments designating private entities which match lawyers with potential clients as “qualified providers” and requiring those entities to comply with the Bar rules, including a required review of the advertisements. Participating lawyers would not have been required to carry malpractice insurance.

The Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument in April 2017 and then published an order dismissing the petition on May 3, 2017. That order is here: 5/3/17 SC Order.  The order stated: “In this case, the Bar proposes amendments to rule 4-7.22 that do not comply with the Court’s direction concerning lawyer referral services that are not owned or operated by a member of the Bar and that seek to expand the scope of the rule to include “matching services” and other similar services not currently regulated by the Bar.

The May 3, 2017 Order also stated that the dismissal was without prejudice “to allow the members of this Court to engage in informed discussions with the Bar and those who are in favor or against the proposed regulation of matching and other similar services. The Court lacks sufficient background information on such services and their regulation at this time.”  A meeting was held at the June 2017 Bar Annual Convention in Boca Raton to discuss the issues and was attended by Justices, Bar officials, and representatives of private referral services.

The Bar’s Notice of the proposed ethics advisory opinion was published in the August 15, 2017 issue of the Florida Bar News.  The Bar’s Notice is here: 8/15/17 Notice of Proposed advisory opinion 17-2.

According to the Notice:  “The Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics will consider adopting a proposed advisory opinion at the direction of The Florida Bar Board of Governors based on an inquiry by a member of The Florida Bar, at a meeting to be held on Thursday, December 7, 2017, from 1-3 p.m. at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island.” and “comments from Florida Bar members are solicited on the issues presented. Comments must contain Proposed Advisory Opinion number 17-2, must clearly state the issues for the committee to consider, may offer suggestions for additional fee arrangements to be addressed by the proposed advisory opinion, and may include a proposed conclusion. Comments should be submitted to Elizabeth Clark Tarbert, Ethics Counsel, The Florida Bar, 651 E. Jefferson Street, Tallahassee 32399-2300, and must be postmarked no later than 30 days from the date of this publication.”

Bottom line:  If the ethics opinion is drafted and approved, Florida will join the growing list of jurisdictions addressing “marketing fees” taken from fees paid by private online entities to lawyers participating in client generation services.  This ethics opinion (like all ethics opinions) would be advisory and for guidance only.

Stay tuned and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship 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.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

1 Comment

Filed under Attorney Ethics, er ethics opinion Avvo lawyer matching services improper fee splitting and referral fees, Florida Bar, Florida Bar 2016 Lawyer referral rule revisions, Florida Bar lawyer referral rule revisions, Florida Bar matching services, Florida ethics opinion 17-2- lawyer referrals by private referral matching services, Florida Lawyer Referral Services, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer ethics opinions, Lawyer improper fees, Lawyer improper referral fees and fee splitting, Lawyer referral fees, Lawyer responsibilities AVVO and Linkedin

New York ethics opinion finds that fees paid to Avvo for legal services violate referral, fee splitting, and advertising Bar Rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss recent (August 8, 2017) New York Ethics Opinion 1132 which found that lawyers in New York are prohibited from participating in AVVO’s client referral services.  This opinion found that the referral services violate the Bar rules since they involve improper “vouching for” (and recommendation of) the lawyer, improper lawyer referral fees, and fee sharing with a non-lawyer.

The companion New York Ethics Opinion 1131 (August 8, 2017) sets forth the structures of various web-based services and attempts to explain how those services could comply with the New York Bar Rules.  Both New York State Bar Ethics Opinions are here: http://www.nysba.org/EthicsOpinion1132/ and here: http://www.nysba.org/EthicsOpinion1131/ .

NYSBA Ethics Opinion 1132 states that, since Avvo Legal Services provides ratings of lawyers using the service based on various qualifiers such as years in practice, information provided by the lawyers, volunteer bar work and other publicly available information, and offers to find a client “the right” lawyer with a money-back guarantee, there is an implied recommendation as to the lawyer’s “credentials, abilities, competence, character, or other professional qualities”; therefore, the marketing fee is “an improper payment for a recommendation in violation the New York  Bar Rules.

The opinion also states that since “the Avvo website also extols the benefits of being able to work with highly rated lawyers,” it creates a reasonable impression that it is recommending its top-rated lawyers. and the satisfaction guarantee “also contributes to this impression.”

“Avvo is giving potential clients the impression that a lawyer with a rating of ‘10’ is ‘superb,’ and is thus a better lawyer for the client’s matter than a lawyer with a lower rating. Avvo is also giving potential clients the impression that Avvo’s eligibility requirements for lawyers who participate in Avvo Legal Services assure that participating lawyers are ‘highly qualified.’” The opinion states that Avvo Legal Services’ “satisfaction guarantee” also contributes to the impression that Avvo is recommending its lawyers’ services “because it stands behind them to the extent of refunding payment if the client is not satisfied.”

According to the opinion, Comment 1 of New York Rule 7.2 prohibits a lead generator not only from stating that it is recommending a lawyer, but also from implying or creating a reasonable impression that it is making such a recommendation.

NYSBA Ethics Opinion 1132 concludes:

“This opinion does not preclude a lawyer from advertising bona fide professional ratings generated by third parties in advertisements, and we recognize that a lawyer may pay another party (such as a magazine or website) to include those bona fide ratings in the lawyer’s advertisements. But Avvo Legal Services is different.  It is not a third party, but rather the very party that will benefit financially if potential clients hire the lawyers rated by Avvo.  Avvo markets the lawyers participating in the service offered under the Avvo brand, generates Avvo ratings that it uses in the advertising for the lawyers who participate in Avvo Legal Services, and effectively ‘vouches for’ each participating lawyer’s credentials, abilities, and competence by offering a full refund if the client is not satisfied. As noted earlier, Avvo says: ‘We stand behind our services and expect our clients to be 100% satisfied with their experience’” Accordingly, we conclude that lawyers who pay Avvo’s marketing fee are paying for a recommendation, and are thus violating Rule 7.2(a).”

NYSBA Ethics Opinion 1131 sets forth the structures of various web-based services and attempts to explain how those services could potentially comply with the New York Bar Rules.  That opinion concludes:

“A lawyer may pay a for-profit service for leads to potential clients obtained via a website on which potential clients provide contact information and agree to be contacted by a participating lawyer, as long as (i) the lawyer who contacts the potential client has been selected by transparent and mechanical methods that do not purport to be based on an analysis of the potential client’s legal problem or the qualifications of the selected lawyer to handle that problem; (ii) the service does not explicitly or implicitly recommend any lawyer, and (iii) the website of the service complies with the requirements of Rule 7.1.  A lawyer who purchases such a lead to a potential client may ethically telephone that potential client if the potential client has invited the lawyer selected by the service to make contact by telephone.”

The opinions also briefly discuss the potential confidentiality issues related to AVVO’s “money back guarantee”.

Bottom line:  New York has now joined the list of jurisdictions finding that Avvo’s “marketing fee” taken from fees paid to lawyers using its client generation services violate ethics rules and are impermissible referral fees.  This New York ethics opinion (like all ethics opinions) is advisory only; however, it is the most recent finding that the fee charges in AVVO’s plan constitute improper referral fees and fee sharing.  Other jurisdictions (such as a pending North Carolina opinion) may also publish ethics opinions in the future.  Stay tuned…

…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship 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.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

1 Comment

Filed under and recommendations, Attorney Ethics, AVVO fee sharing and referral fee plans, Avvo legal services, er ethics opinion Avvo lawyer matching services improper fee splitting and referral fees, Ethics and nonlawyer compensation, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer advertising, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer ethics opinions, Lawyer improper referral fees and fee splitting, Lawyer Referral Services, New Jersey joint ethics opinion improper referral fees and fee sharing and, Non lawyer compensation

Ohio lawyer receives 1 year stayed suspension for citing to, inter alia, the client’s “potentially illegal actions” in motion to withdraw

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Supreme Court of Ohio opinion imposing a one-year stayed suspension on a lawyer who filed a motion to withdraw which revealed attorney/client confidential information without the client’s permission or an exception authorizing the disclosure.  The case is Cleveland Metro. Bar Assn. v. Heben, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-6965 (July 27, 2017) and the opinion is here:  http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2017/2017-Ohio-6965.pdf

According to the opinion, the lawyer had briefly represented the client in 2008 during the initial stages of her divorce case.  The divorce proceedings were still pending in September 2013 and the client again retained the lawyer for legal assistance. The parties stipulated to the following facts in the Bar matter: (1) the client paid the lawyer a $3,000 retainer on or about September 15, 2013, (2) the lawyer filed a notice of appearance in the divorce case on September 16, 2013, and (3) less than two weeks later, the client terminated the lawyer’s legal services.

After the client terminated his services, the lawyer moved to withdraw as counsel and also submitted a supporting affidavit purporting to state his reasons for seeking withdrawal with the motion. According to the opinion, in the affidavit, the lawyer “recounted communications he had had with (the client) about the scope of his representation and his compensation, accused her of refusing to pay his agreed-upon fees ‘without cause,’ and disclosed legal advice that he had given her. He also described (the client’s) discharge of him as ‘retaliatory’ and alleged that it had ‘occurred because of [his] advice to her concerning her objectionable and potentially illegal actions’ relating to her exhusband, which he characterized as ‘a problem similar to the one [he] experienced in [his] previous representation of her.’”

The judge in the divorce case struck the lawyer’s affidavit from the record and, in his testimony at the disciplinary hearing, the judge stated that he believed that the contents of the affidavit, specifically the disclosure of attorney/client communications, were inappropriate and not necessary to seek withdrawal.

The opinion imposed a one-year suspension which was stayed on the condition that he “commit no further misconduct.”  Two justices dissented and “would suspend respondent for one year with six months stayed”, which was the recommendation of the Disciplinary Board.

Bottom line:  As this case again illustrates, lawyers must never reveal confidential attorney/client confidences in court documents, including a Motion to Withdraw, unless the client authorizes the disclosure or an exception applies which would permit or require the disclosure.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship 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.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney/client confidentiality, Attorney/client privilege and confidentiality, Confidentiality, Confidentiality and privilege, Ethics and lawyer withdrawal, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, lawyer confidentiality, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer revealing confidential information in motion to withdraw, Lawyer sanctions

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge’s Facebook “friendship” with Florida lawyer and former judge leads to motion to disqualify and appeal

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent denial of a Motion to Disqualify a Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge who was “friends” with opposing counsel on Facebook as well as the pending appeal.  The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. d/b/a Herssein Law Group and Reuven T. Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No.: _______________, Lower Tribunal No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Third District Court of Appeal) and the Motion for Writ of Prohibition is here:  http://www.almcms.com/contrib/content/uploads/sites/292/2017/07/FILED-HLG-Petition-for-Writ-of-Prohibition-3D17-1421-1.pdf 

According to the Petition, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko is a “friend” of attorney Israel Reyes on Facebook.  Reyes is also a former Miami-Dade judge who served with Judge Butchko and now has a private law firm in Coral Gables.  Reyes represents a USAA employee in the case who retained separate counsel after Herssein apparently accused the employee of witness tampering.  Herssein told the court that he planned to add the employee as a defendant and Reyes entered an appearance on behalf of the employee/non-party.

The Motion to Disqualify filed by the Herssein law firm on behalf of USAA alleged that the Facebook friendship between the judge and Reyes would cause Reyes to be able to influence the judge, and that she could not be impartial.  The judge denied the motion, stating that it was legally insufficient.  The law firm then filed the Petition for Writ of Prohibition with the Third District Court of Appeal.

The Florida Supreme Court’s Judicial Advisory Committee (JEAC) issued an opinion on this issue in 2009.  The JEAC opinion states that judges should not send or accept social media friend requests from lawyers who may appear before them.  The advisory opinion excludes campaign sites created by a committee.  The opinion is JEAC Op. No. 2009-20 (11/17/09) and is here:  http://www.jud6.org/legalcommunity/legalpractice/opinions/jeacopinions/2009/2009-20.htmlt  The opinion states:

“The Committee believes that listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as “friends” on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer “friends” are in a special position to influence the judge.  This is not to say, of course, that simply because a lawyer is listed as a “friend” on a social networking site or because a lawyer is a friend of the judge, as the term friend is used in its traditional sense, means that this lawyer is, in fact, in a special position to influence the judge.  The issue, however, is not whether the lawyer actually is in a position to influence the judge, but instead whether the proposed conduct, the identification of the lawyer as a “friend” on the social networking site, conveys the impression that the lawyer is in a position to influence the judge.  The Committee concludes that such identification in a public forum of a lawyer who may appear before the judge does convey this impression and therefore is not permitted.”

The JEAC applied the same analysis in a 2012 opinion related to professional networking websites, such as LinkedIn, and stated that there is no “meaningful distinction” between Facebook, and LinkedIn.  The opinion is JEAC Op. No. 2012-12 (5/9/12) and is here:  http://www.jud6.org/legalcommunity/legalpractice/opinions/jeacopinions/2012/2012-12.html.  The opinions states:

The Committee continues to believe that the process of selecting persons to be connections on LinkedIn, and the communication by the judge of the list of the judge’s connections to others who the judge has approved, violates Canon 2B.  The Committee does not believe that there is meaningful distinction in this regard between Facebook, and LinkedIn, a site used for professional networking, because the selection and communication process is the same on both sites.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal relied on the 2009 opinion in a 2012 decision disqualifying a judge in a criminal case for being Facebook friends with the prosecutor. The court found the social media connection could “create in a reasonably prudent person a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.”

USAA argued that the 2012 Fourth DCA decision should not apply since it involved a criminal defendant who might have a reasonable fear of prejudice; however, the law firm is more sophisticated and should not have such a fear only because two judges who both previously sat as judges in Miami-Dade County are “friends” on Facebook.

Other states have also provided guidance on judicial social media use and Florida’s opinion is one of the most restrictive.  California, Kentucky and New York have opined that judges may accept Facebook friend requests from lawyers who may appear before them under certain conditions.  California permits judges to be friends with lawyers on Facebook if those pages are used only for professional activities, such as communications with members of a law school alumni group and other factors include how many friends the judge has, whether he or she declines some attorneys’ friend requests but accepts others and how often the attorney appears before the judge.

Bottom line:  As this case illustrates, judges (and lawyers who may appear before them) would be well advised not to be “friends” or otherwise connect on social media and professional networking sites or, if they are already connected and a case is assigned, to immediately remove the connection and disclose it to all parties and provide an option to recuse if the party believes that it would potentially be prejudiced.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship 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.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Attorney Ethics, Florida Bar, Florida Judicial Canons, Florida Judicial Ethics Opinions judges connecting on Facebook and LinkedIn, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Judges and lawyer friends on Facebook, Judicial ethics, Judicial Ethics Facebook and LinkedIn, Lawyer and Judge Friends on Facebook Motion to Disqualify Judge, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyers and social media