Monthly Archives: November 2017

Wisconsin lawyer suspended for, inter alia, smuggling heavy toothbrushes and red pepper into prison for client

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court opinion which suspended a Wisconsin lawyer for four months for, inter alia, bringing heavy toothbrushes to client in prison and failing to adequately communicate with a drunken driving client.  The case is In the Matter of Steven Cohen, Case No.: 2015AP1350-D and the opinion is here: https://www.wicourts.gov/sc/opinion/DisplayDocument.pdf?content=pdf&seqNo=202686

According to the opinion, the lawyer was admitted to practice law in Wisconsin in 1996. He received a private reprimand in 2007 after his conviction for one count of misdemeanor disorderly conduct which resulted from an dispute involving the lawyer and his wife.

One count of the disciplinary complaint alleged that, in 2013, the lawyer smuggled two heavy toothbrushes and red pepper to a client who was in prison after being convicted on homicide charges.  Prison authorities found the items in a search of the client after discovering a discarded white pastry bag containing a doughnut and an empty toothbrush package.  The authorities also said that the toothbrushes were heavier than the toothbrushes given to inmates and could be made into shanks (sharpened weapons), and that the crushed red pepper could be made into pepper spray.

The opinion states that: “(w)hen correctional officers interviewed Attorney Cohen about the items, he denied knowing anything about them.  Following additional investigation, Attorney Cohen was arrested for delivering contraband into the Columbia Correctional Institution. In February of 2014, the Columbia County district attorney filed a complaint charging Attorney Cohen with one felony count of delivering illegal articles to an inmate and one misdemeanor count of resisting or obstructing an officer.”

In November 2014, the lawyer pled no contest and was found guilty of a felony count of delivering illegal articles to an inmate, along with two misdemeanors.  Judgment on the felony charge was deferred.  The lawyer said that he brought the items to the prison after his client requested a toothbrush and some food and that his only motive was “from concern for the care of the inmate, and desire to serve.”

The second, third, and forth counts of the complaint alleged that the lawyer accepted a $2,500.00 fee from a DUI client without a written fee agreement and then failed to adequately communicate with the client.  When the client demanded a refund, the lawyer returned half of the fee. He denied that he failed to communicate with the client, but did not provide any documentation to support the denial.  The lawyer also claimed that he had e-mailed the client; however, the client said he did not have an e-mail address.

According to the opinion, the lawyer testified that he did not respond to the client’s telephone calls because he was not ready to speak with the client, which was “a normal trial tactic.”  He also said he did not respond since he tells his clients to call him on his cell telephone rather than his land line, and the client called on his land line. He also claimed his secretary does not take messages on the land line.

The lawyer was suspended for 4 months effective December 29, 2017 and required to pay $8,608.20 in disciplinary costs.

Bottom line:  This lawyer appears to have been attempting to provide an imprisoned client with the tools to injure other inmates, whether in self defense or otherwise.  Obviously, this was improper and the lawyer was suspended for 4 months for those actions, as well as his failure to communicate with another client and charging an improper fee.

Be careful out there.     

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert 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

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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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 criminal conduct, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer discipline for criminalconviction, Lawyer discipline- criminal misconduct smuggling contraband to client in prison, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer false statements

California law requires California Bar to split into mandatory regulatory and voluntary trade association entities

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent California law that requires the California Bar to split into separate regulatory and trade association entities, which appears to be in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s North Carolina dental antitrust case in 2015.  The State Bar of California’s press release announcing the “historic” law is here: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/About-Us/News-Events/News-Releases/ArtMID/10234/ArticleID/525/State-Bar-prepares-to-implement-historic-reforms-followingGov-Brown-signature-on-the-agency%E2%80%99s-annual-fee-bill

According to the State Bar press release: “Today (October 2, 2017) Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 36 into law, the fee bill for the State Bar of California. In addition to setting the annual licensing fee for lawyers, SB 36 includes historic reforms for the public protection agency.”

Under the law, effective in 2019, the California Bar will act only as the disciplinary and regulatory agency and membership will be mandatory for all of the state’s lawyers.  The current 19-member Bar board will transition into a group of 13 individuals serving four-year terms.  Six of the 13 members must be members of the public.  All board members will be appointed by the California Supreme Court, the state legislature, and the governor and will no longer be elected.

A separate nonprofit entity will be created for trade association activities and will include all Bar sections.  Membership in that entity will be voluntary and will include an annual membership fee.

The California Bar must also comply with a California Supreme Court policy to identify and address any proposed decision of the board of trustees which raises antitrust concerns.  This requirement is clearly an attempt to avoid allegations of antitrust violations which were found by the U.S. Supreme Court in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission, No. 13–534. (USSC February 25, 2015).

In that 2015 case, the USSC found that the North Carolina dental regulatory board, which was made up of primarily dentists, did not have state-action antitrust immunity in its attempts to prohibit non-dentists from providing teeth-whitening services to the public.

The regulation of lawyers (and other licensed professionals) in Florida and other states is implemented through boards, commissions, committees, or other similar entities which investigate and make findings.  In Florida, there is no separate trade association; however, findings by Bar Counsel, grievance committees, and the Bar Board of Governors are subject to review by the Florida Supreme Court.

I previously blogged about North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission and its aftermath in my Ethics Alerts here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/u-s-supreme-court-opinion-finds-that-there-is-no-automatic-antitrust-immunity-for-state-professional-licensing-boards/, here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2015/06/24/legalzoom-files-federal-antitrust-lawsuit-against-the-north-carolina-state-bar-citing-2015-ussc-dental-board-case/, and here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2015/10/28/legalzoom-settles-multi-million-dollar-antitrust-suit-against-the-north-carolina-state-bar-with-agreement-to-continue-operating/

In some states, these antitrust issues are most likely not in play.   For example, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission oversees the registration and discipline of attorneys and all Illinois lawyers are required to pay dues to that entity.  All final disciplinary orders are also issued by the Illinois Supreme Court.  The Illinois State Bar Association is a separate voluntary association which engages in trade association activities.

Bottom line: This California law is clearly in response to (and an attempt to overcome) the antitrust issues identified by the U.S. Supreme Court in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission.  Will other states follow?  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

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Filed under Attorney discipline, Bar regulation and antitrust, California law requiring split of Bar regulation and trade association activities, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, LegalZoom, LegalZoom antitrust, North Carolina Dental Board, North Carolina dental whitening case and UPL

Indiana criminal prosecutor suspended for 4 years for twice eavesdropping on confidential attorney/client conversations

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Indiana Supreme Court opinion suspending a lawyer for 4 years for eavesdropping on confidential attorney/client conversations with no automatic reinstatement.  The case is In the Matter of Robert Neary, No. 46S00-1512-DI-705 (Ind. SC), and the November 6, 2017 disciplinary opinion is here: http://www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/11061701per.pdf

The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission filed a two-count disciplinary complaint against the lawyer on December 17, 2015, and later amended the complaint.  The amended complaint charged the lawyer with “professional misconduct in connection with his actions in two criminal cases while serving as the chief deputy prosecutor in LaPorte County (Michigan).”

The first count of the complaint alleged that the prosecutor had surreptitiously watched video feeds of an attorney/client confidential conversation in March 2014 at the Michigan City Police Department.  A defense lawyer had flipped a switch that was supposed to prevent the conversation from being recorded; however, the police controlled the live video and audio.

The lawyer and police detectives watched the conversation from the police station’s “war room.”  During the conversation, the defendant (Taylor) told his lawyer where a gun could be found.  The lawyer advised the police detectives not to recover the weapon; however, they ignored his advice and recovered the weapon.

The chief of police later learned of the recording and told the lawyer that he should provide the information the defendant’s counsel.  The lawyer subsequently provided the information to the defendant’s lawyer and also reported his misconduct to the Indiana Bar authorities.

The second count alleged that the lawyer listened to an attorney/client confidential conversation that was recorded in December 2012 at the Long Beach (Michigan) Police Department.  The defendant (Larkin) had agreed to speak with police with his lawyer present, in exchange for being charged with voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.

During an 11-minute break in the questioning, the defendant discussed defense strategy and other confidential matters with his lawyer; however, the recording system was not turned off.  The lawyer viewed the recorded interview that included the attorney/client confidential discussion during the break about a month later.

According to the opinion, “Respondent first viewed the DVD of the interview, including the break discussion, about one month later. Respondent watched the entire break discussion even though the privileged status of that discussion either was, or should have been, immediately apparent to Respondent.  Respondent provided a copy of the DVD, including the break discussion, to Larkin’s counsel but did not mention to counsel that the break discussion had been recorded.”

The Larkin’s lawyer later filed a motion to dismiss the voluntary manslaughter charge alleging prosecutorial misconduct because of the recording of the discussion.  The lawyer’s response, which was sealed, provided the contents of the break discussion and included the written transcript and a DVD.  A judge later unsealed sealed the information.

The opinion noted that both of the cases had led to appeals and stated that the lawyer’s conduct had “fundamentally infringed on privileged attorney-client communications and, at an absolute minimum, has caused significant delays and evidentiary hurdles in the prosecutions of Taylor and Larkin, even assuming they still can be prosecuted at all.”  The court had reviewed the Taylor matter on appeal and described the eavesdropping as “egregious,” “flagrant,” “unconscionable,” “shameful,” “abhorrent” and “reprehensible.”

After a hearing, the hearing officer found that the lawyer had committed the Bar rule violations charged in the amended complaint and recommended a sanction ranging from a four-year suspension to disbarment.  The Indiana Bar Commission recommended disbarment.

According to the opinion: “(i)n many respects, these proceedings have painted an even more alarming picture of Respondent, in that they show Respondent gradually has retreated from his initial self-report to the Commission and has given evasive and inconsistent explanations and statements regarding the war room eavesdropping.  As aptly found by the hearing officer, ‘Respondent’s ever evolving narrative points to a lack of honesty.’”

The opinion further states: “(t)he severity of the misconduct and Respondent’s repeated transgressions certainly lend support to the notion that he should be disbarred. On the other hand, Respondent has no prior discipline, he self-reported his conduct to the Commission, and several persons testified to his good reputation in the community (although, as noted by the hearing officer, these persons did not appear to have been particularly well informed of the circumstances giving rise to these disciplinary proceedings). At the end of the day, these considerations persuade us that the door should not permanently be closed on Respondent’s legal career and that he should be afforded an opportunity at an appropriate juncture to prove by clear and convincing evidence his professional rehabilitation and fitness to resume practicing law.”

Bottom line: This prosecutor was involved in two separate serious violations of attorney/client confidentiality by viewing and listening to surreptitious recordings and clearly should have known better.  In my opinion, the lawyer was extremely fortunate that he avoided disbarment for his misconduct.

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

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

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Louisiana lawyer suspended for submitting false billable hours because he believed his partnership status required them

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Louisiana Supreme Court Opinion suspending a lawyer for 30 months with all but one (1) year deferred for false billable hours that he believed were necessary to maintain his partnership position and “in an effort to make himself look better on paper each month.”   The disciplinary case is:  In re: Kenneth Todd Wallace, Case No. 2017-B-0525.  The disciplinary opinion is dated September 22, 2017 and is here:  http://www.lasc.org/opinions/2017/17B0525.OPN.pdf

According to the opinion, the lawyer “joined the law firm of Liskow & Lewis as an associate attorney in 1998. After his promotion to shareholder in 2005, he served as the firm’s hiring partner and head of recruiting. He also chaired the firm’s diversity committee as the firm’s first minority recruiting and retention partner. In 2012, respondent was elected to the firm’s board of directors and served as the board’s junior director through April 2015.”

The lawyer stated that he made the false billing entries because he was concerned that his correct billable hours (along with an insufficient number of clients) were not adequate for a partner with his status.  “When his practice began to decline, (the lawyer) gave in to his own internal pressures and began to submit false time on a dismissed contingency fee matter, and eventually other matters, in an effort to make himself look better on paper each month.”

After the law firm became aware of his false billing in some client matters, the lawyer assisted the firm in conducting a full investigation.  The firm’s investigation showed that, between 2012 through 2015, the lawyer submitted 428 billing entries that the firm believed were “certainly false” and another 220 entries that the firm believed could be false or inflated; however, the law firm concluded that none of the false billing entries adversely affected any of the firm’s clients.

The lawyer had received $85,000.00 in merit bonuses between 2012 through 2015 and the firm concluded he would have received some or all of the bonuses even if he had not inflated his billable hours. The lawyer had also spent significant time with his firm management and committee responsibilities and had also met or exceeded billable targets during the years in question.  The lawyer resigned from the firm in 2015 and gave up his available bonus.

The disciplinary opinion imposed a 30 month suspension with all but one-year deferred.  The suspension was also made retroactive to January 2016, when the lawyer had been suspended on an interim basis pending the outcome of the matter.

Bottom line:  This is a very clear and unfortunate example of a lawyer who most likely destroyed his legal career after succumbing to the stress and pressure of a law partner’s need for large billable hours and a large number of clients (book of business).  I would imagine that, if asked, this lawyer would tell you that it was not worth it.

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

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Proposed Virginia Bar ethics opinion finds that AVVO and similar lawyer matching services are unethical

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent approval of a Virginia ethics opinion which finds that AVVO and similar matching services unethical.  Proposed Legal Ethics Opinion 1885 is here: http://www.vsb.org/site/regulation/leo_1885

On October 27, 2017, the Virginia State Bar voted to approve a draft ethics opinion regarding online attorney-client “matching services”, such as AVVO, which are called “attorney-client matching services” (ACMS),. The opinion finds that a lawyer’s participation in the matching services would violate the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct.

The opinion does not name any specific services; however, the description of the is similar to the business model of Avvo Legal Services, which allows consumers to purchase legal services for a flat fee.  The opinion describes a business model that it calls an “attorney-client matching service” (ACMS), which it describes as a for-profit entity that provides an online platform for matching attorneys and clients.  An ACMS gives a client a limited scope fee agreement, and the client pays the full fee to the ACMS.

The lawyer does not negotiate the scope of services or the fee or receive any of the client’s money until the services have been performed. Under ACMS’s terms, the lawyer agrees to provide flat fee legal services.  When the matter is completed, the attorney receives the full amount of the legal fee paid by the client.  ACMS then debits the attorney’s account for a “marketing fee” which varies depending upon the amount of the legal fee received.

The opinion identifies five problems with the ACMS business model:

  1. The lawyer is not properly handling the client’s advanced fee because it is allowing a third party to hold the funds. Thus, the funds are not being held in an IOLTA account as required.
  2. Since the lawyer has no access to the client’s money until he is paid in full by the platform, he is unable to fulfill his obligation to refund any unearned fees at the conclusion of the matter.
  3. Without being in control of the definition of the scope of legal services or negotiation of the fee, the lawyer may well be undertaking representation which violates any number of ethics rules. The services may not be appropriate to the client. The fee may not be commensurate with the value of the services provided. The services may be inadequate for the client’s needs. And so on.
  4. The payment of the marketing fee to ACMS constitutes the sharing of legal fees with a non-lawyer.
  5. The payment of the marketing fee constitutes payment for recommending the lawyer’s services.

The opinion criticizes the fact that Avvo holds the fee between the time that the prospective client pays for the services until the lawyer completes the services and states that “the ACMS collects advanced legal fees from a prospective client before the prospective client has had any contact with the lawyer whom she might engage” and that this is a violation of the Bar rules which require that advance fees be held in an the lawyer’s trust account until services are completed.

Under lawyer trust account rules, unearned fees are to remain in trust. As an ACMS is not a law firm, it cannot have an IOTA trust account or hold client fees in trust. Since the fees are not paid to the lawyer, the lawyer is unable hold the funds in trust if same is required under the Bar rules. In addition, under the Bar rules, a lawyer has an to refund any unearned fees at the end of the representation.

The opinion also discusses some potential solutions to the problems with the current model.  Regarding the issue of the lawyer not having control over the fee and the scope of the representation, the opinion did not flatly state that lawyers are prohibited from participating in the ACMS model. It concluded that a lawyer could participate if the lawyer consults with the client and is satisfied that the services can be performed competently and in compliance with the ethical rules before accepting a matter.  The lawyer would also have to exercise independent professional judgment to insure that the fee is not unreasonable or excessive.

The opinion held that the arrangement results in unethical fee sharing with the matching service and “(t)he fact that the ACMS executes a separate electronic debit from the lawyer’s bank account for its ‘marketing fee’ following the firm’s electronic deposit of the full legal fee to the lawyer’s bank account does not change the ethically impermissible fee-sharing character of the transaction.”  The opinion left the possibility that fee splitting might be avoided if the lawyer’s fee was based upon the number of clients received through the platform or the number of inquiries or clicks on their profile.

Bottom line: If this opinion is approved by the Virginia Supreme Court, Virginia will join five other states, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, in disapproving or criticizing the AVVO business model. The New York and New Jersey opinions, which were issued this year, determined that the “marketing fee” taken from the lawyer’s account involves improper fee splitting.

Be careful out there…and stay tuned.

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

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