Category Archives: ABA Formal Opinion 479 former client confidentiality

New Jersey lawyer suspended for, inter alia, revealing confidential information in review of former client’s business

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss recent New Jersey Supreme Court opinion which imposed a one year suspension on a lawyer for, inter alia, providing a negative public review of a client’s business on Yelp and disclosing confidential information in the review.  The case is: In the Matter of Brian LeBon Calpin (New Jersey Supreme Court No. D-67 083821).  The May 7, 2020 opinion is here:  http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1129260

The NJ SC opinion essentially adopts the NJ Disciplinary Review Board Decision which found that the lawyer posted a negative public review of the client’s massage business on June 24, 2018 on the Yelp website after the client had posted public negative online reviews of his legal services.  The lawyer had ceased representing the client in “early summer 2017”.  The DRB Decision is here:  http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1124239

According to the Decision, the lawyer’s review of the former client’s massage business on Yelp stated:

“Well, Angee is a convicted felon for fleeing the state with children. A wonderful parent. Additionally, she has been convicted of shoplifting from a supermarket. Hide your wallets well during a massage. Oops, almost forgot about the DWI conviction. Well, maybe a couple of beers during the massage would be nice.”

The Decision further states that, in his response to the ethics complaint, lawyer stated:

“As to the Yelp rating about (the former client’s) massage therapy business, I admit to same. I was very upset by [her] Yelp rating of my practice. This rating was made more than a year and a half after the conclusion of my representation. My disclosures, i.e. her arrests, were public information and I did not violate attorney client privilege. My position was that what was good for the goose was good for the gander. I do concede that I do not believe that the rating was my finest moment. However, it was not unethical. That posting has subsequently been taken down.”

The Decision found that, although the information posted by the lawyer may have been publicly available, the information was not generally known; therefore, the “generally known” exception in the New Jersey Bar rules regarding client confidentiality did not apply.  The decision also quoted ABA Formal Opinion 479 (December 15, 2017):  “[T]he phrase ‘generally known’ means much more than publicly available or accessible. It means that the information has already received widespread publicity.”

The Decision also found that the lawyer’s conduct in three other client matters violated ethics rules related to neglect, diligence, failure to keep clients informed, failure to deliver client funds or property, and failure to return client property after representation. The lawyer also told to a Bar investigator that he had sent a refund check to a former client, which was a misrepresentation.

The lawyer had prior discipline for “similar ethics infractions, evidencing his failure to learn from past mistakes: a June 19, 2014 reprimand for gross neglect, lack of diligence, and failure to communicate with a client, and a January 24, 2017 admonition for lack of diligence in a client matter.”

Bottom line:  This is another unfortunate example of a lawyer reacting badly to a client’s negative online review and including confidential (and not generally known) information in responding to a negative client review.  As I have said and written many times, lawyers are not permitted to include client confidential information in responding to negative online reviews that are in the public domain.

Stay safe and healthy and 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.

2999 Alt. 19, Suite A

Palm Harbor, Florida

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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ABA Formal Opinion 479 addresses when lawyers may use “generally known” information related to a former client

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss ABA Formal Opinion 479, which was published on December 15, 2017 and addresses when a lawyer may use information related to the representation of a former client which is to the actual or potential disadvantage of the former client when the information has become “generally known”.  The ABA opinion is here: ABA Formal Opinion 479

ABA Model Rule 1.9(c)(1) provides that a lawyer “shall not use information relating to former client’s representation to the disadvantage of the former client except as (the Model) Rule would permit or require with respect to a [current] client, or when the information has become generally known.”

The opinion also states that the “generally-known” exception to Rule 1.9 was first included in the 1983 ABA Model Rules; however, there is no consensus regarding when information is “generally known.” New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois Bar opinions and ethics commentators agree that “generally known” means “more than publicly available or accessible. It means that the information has already received widespread publicity.”

According to the opinion, the “generally known” exception to the obligations related to former-client confidentiality is limited to the following:

(1) use of the former client information, not the disclosure or revelation of the information,

(2) use of the information only if the information has become widely recognized by the public in the relevant geographic area or widely recognized in the former client’s industry.

The opinion quotes an ethics commentator:

“[T]he phrase “generally known” means much more than publicly available or accessible. It means that the information has already received widespread publicity. For example, a lawyer working on a merger with a Fortune 500 company could not whisper a word about it during the pre-offer stages, but once the offer is made—for example, once AOL and Time Warner have announced their merger, and the Wall Street Journal has reported it on the front page, and the client has become a former client—then the lawyer may tell the world. After all, most of the world already knows. . ..[O]nly if an event gained considerable public notoriety should information about it ordinarily be considered “generally known.”

The fact that information has been discussed in court or may be accessible in public records does not necessarily make the information widely recognized (and “generally known”) under Model Rule 1.9(c) since information that is publicly available is not necessarily widely recognized and, if a search of court records or library shelves is required to find the information, it would not be  widely recognized.

Bottom line: This ABA opinion provides guidance on important ethics issues related to when a lawyer is permitted to use information that is detrimental to a former client when it has become “generally known” and provides guidance.  Although the opinion (and most state Bar rules) permit lawyers to use, but not disclose, “generally known” information even if it disadvantages a former client, lawyers should always carefully consider whether this would be prudent and, if the lawyer decides to do so, obtain the client’s consent in advance.

This ABA opinion is not binding and the analysis is applicable in most, if not all jurisdictions, including Florida; however, lawyers should consult the rules and ethics opinions of their jurisdiction for further guidance.

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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