Category Archives: Attorney Ethics

U.S. Supreme Court holds that bad faith fee sanction under court’s inherent authority is limited to fees incurred solely from the misconduct

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the important and very recent United States Supreme Court opinion which held that a bad faith fee sanction based upon a court’s inherent authority is limited to fees incurred solely as a result of the misconduct.  The case is Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., v. Haeger, 813 F. 3d 1233, No. 15–1406 (Argued January 10, 2017—Decided April 18, 2017).  The United  States Supreme Court opinion is here:  https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-1406_db8e.pdf

According to the opinion, which was delivered by Justice Kagan, the Haegers sued Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, alleging that the failure of a Goodyear G159 tire caused the family’s motorhome to swerve off the road and flip over.  “After several years of contentious discovery, marked by Goodyear’s slow response to repeated requests for internal G159 test results, the parties settled the case. Some months later, the Haegers’ lawyer learned that, in another lawsuit involving the G159, Goodyear had disclosed test results indicating that the tire got unusually hot at highway speeds. In subsequent correspondence, Goodyear conceded withholding the information from the Haegers, even though they had requested all testing data. The Haegers then sought sanctions for discovery fraud, urging that Goodyear’s misconduct entitled them to attorney’s fees and costs expended in the litigation.

“The District Court found that Goodyear had engaged in an extended course of misconduct. Exercising its inherent power to sanction bad-faith behavior, the court awarded the Haegers $2.7 million—the entire sum they had spent in legal fees and costs since the moment, early in the litigation, when Goodyear made its first dishonest discovery response. The court said that in the usual case, sanctions ordered pursuant to a court’s inherent power to sanction litigation misconduct must be limited to the amount of legal fees caused by that misconduct. But it determined that in cases of particularly egregious behavior, a court can award a party all of the attorney’s fees incurred in a case, without any need to find a “causal link between [the expenses and] the sanctionable conduct.” (citation omitted)

“As further support for its award, the District Court concluded that full and timely disclosure of the test results would likely have led Goodyear to settle the case much earlier. Acknowledging that the Ninth Circuit might require a link between the misconduct and the harm caused, however, the court also made a contingent award of $2 million. That smaller amount, designed to take effect if the Ninth Circuit reversed the larger award, deducted $700,000 in fees the Haegers incurred in developing claims against other defendants and proving their own medical damages. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the full $2.7 million award, concluding that the District Court had properly awarded the Haegers all the fees they incurred during the time when Goodyear was acting in bad faith.

Goodyear argued that, due to the failure of the court to link the fee with the misconduct, the fee award should be reversed and an instruction to the trial court to reconsider the matter. The Haegers argued that the award should be upheld because the lower courts articulated and applied the appropriate but-for causation standard, or, even if they did not, the fee award in fact passes the but-for test.

“The Haegers’ defense of the lower courts’ reasoning is a non-starter: Neither court used the correct legal standard. The District Court specifically disclaimed the need for a causal link on the ground that this was a “truly egregious” case. 906 F. Supp. 2d, at 975. And the Ninth Circuit found that the trial court could grant all attorney’s fees incurred “during the time when [Goodyear was] acting in bad faith,” 813 F. 3d 1233, 1249—a temporal, not causal, limitation. A sanctioning court must determine which fees were incurred because of, and solely because of, the misconduct at issue, and no such finding lies behind the $2.7 million award made and affirmed below. Nor is this Court inclined to fill in the gap, as the Haegers urge. As an initial matter, the Haegers have not shown that this litigation would have settled as soon as Goodyear divulged the heat-test results (a showing that would justify an all-fees award from the moment Goodyear was supposed to disclose). Further, they cannot demonstrate that Goodyear’s non-disclosure so permeated the suit as to make that misconduct a but-for cause of every subsequent legal expense, totaling the full $2.7 million.”

“Although the District Court considered causation in arriving at its back-up award of $2 million, it is unclear whether its understanding of that requirement corresponds to the appropriate standard—an uncertainty pointing toward throwing out the fee award and instructing the trial court to consider the matter anew. However, the Haegers contend that Goodyear has waived any ability to challenge the contingent award since the $2 million sum reflects Goodyear’s own submission that only about $700,000 of the fees sought would have been incurred regardless of the company’s behavior. The Court of Appeals did not address that issue, and this Court declines to decide it in the first instance. The possibility of waiver should therefore be the initial order of business on remand.”

The opinion held that “(w)hen a federal court exercises its inherent authority to sanction bad-faith conduct by ordering a litigant to pay the other side’s legal fees, the award is limited to the fees the innocent party incurred solely because of the misconduct—or put another way, to the fees that party would not have incurred but for the bad faith.”  The case was reversed and remanded.

Bottom line: This U.S. Supreme Court opinion is important since it addresses and resolves (at least in the federal courts) the question of whether a court exercising its inherent authority to sanction bad faith misconduct by awarding fees must limit the fees to those incurred as a direct result of the lawyer’s misconduct.  The opinion found in the affirmative and that the fees awarded must be shown to have been incurred solely as a result of the 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

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New Jersey lawyer receives censure for neglecting client matters, failing to communicate with clients, and fraud and dishonesty

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court Order which adopted the findings of the New Jersey Disciplinary Review Board and censured a lawyer for neglecting client matters, failing to communicate with clients, and engaging in conduct involving fraud or dishonesty.  The case is In The Matter of John R. Dusinberre, D-37 September Term 2015 078531 (Supreme Court of New Jersey April 5, 2017).  The New Jersey Supreme Court Order is here:  http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1082216 and the Disciplinary Board (DRB) Decision dated November 9, 2016 is here:  http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1077667

According to the DRB Decision, the lawyer was charged with violating Bar rules in four separate matters:

“In the first matter, respondent represented Anthony Domenick and 407-409 Summer Associates, LLC for a Paterson condominium development known as ‘Sandy Hill at Summer Street.’ The terms of the representation called for respondent to file a public offering statement (POS) with the New Jersey Division of Community Affairs (DCA) and to record a master deed in the county clerk’s office. Respondent told his client that he had filed the POS with the DCA and furnished him with a copy of a November 12, 2007 POS carrying registration number ‘04368.’ Respondent stipulated that he never filed a POS with the DCA. Rather, he had fabricated the POS and created a fictitious registration number; the DCA had never assigned a registration number to the Sandy Hill project. Although respondent also failed to record the master deed, he either informed his client, or led him to believe, that he had done so.

“In a second matter, respondent represented a client identified only as ‘Mr. Cerquirra’ and ‘88 St. Francis LLC’ regarding a condominium development project at 88 St. Francis Street in Newark. The representation required respondent to register the project with the DCA and to obtain a registration order. Respondent informed the client that he had obtained a registration order for the project from the DCA. He also gave the client an October 27, 2008 letter, purportedly from DCA’s Manager of the Planned Real Estate Department, Stewart P. Pallonis. Enclosed with that letter was an order of registration from the DCA carrying registration number 04487, and signed ‘Stewart P. Pallonis.’  In fact, respondent never registered the 88 St. Francis Street project with the DCA. Rather, he had fabricated both the Pallonis letter and the registration order, signing Pallonis’ name to both documents before giving them to the client.

“In a third matter, respondent represented Sterling Properties (Sterling) for a Cedar Knolls condominium project known as ‘Viera at Hanover.’ The representation required respondent to register the project with the DCA, but he failed to do so. Respondent, nevertheless, led Sterling to believe that he had registered the project with the DCA, knowing that he had not done so. In reliance on respondent’s false information, Sterling went forward with the project.

“In a fourth matter, respondent represented Sterling for another condominium project in Piscataway. That representation, too, required respondent to register the project with the DCA. Again, respondent failed to do so. Respondent led Sterling to believe that the Piscataway project, too, was registered with the DCA, knowing that it was not. Relying on respondent’s statements, Sterling proceeded with the development project.”

“During respondent’s entire thirty-four-year career at MSLD, he reported to Barry Mandelbaum, the managing attorney, and twelve years his senior. Respondent described Mandelbaum as a “benevolent despot” and a “mentor.” Respondent was never “encouraged” to generate business for the firm. Rather, he tended to work on legal matters that Mandelbaum generated.

“Respondent described his relationship with Mandelbaum as a stressful one. Mandelbaum would berate respondent publicly, place notes on respondent’s door about perceived failings, and subject him to ‘105 decibel,’ public ‘dress downs,’ all of which were extremely embarrassing.

“As the law firm grew larger, younger attorneys became partners. By the mid-2000s, some of those partners had come to expect respondent to complete work on projects that they had generated, placing additional pressure on respondent to perform.

“Several years before respondent engaged in the within misconduct, MSLD established an executive committee to manage the law firm. Respondent perceived that the new arrangement rewarded some of the younger, income-generating attorneys, at his expense. Feeling exposed, he became “terrified” about losing his job. At that juncture, he grew even more reliant on Mandelbaum for protection:

So my desire and drive to please him became extremely strong. And I can’t tell you the number of times when I would have an issue with a client, I would hear the client five minutes later on the phone with Barry and then I would hear Barry’s footsteps stomping down the hall to basically dress me down or yell at me and to confront me, or whatever it might be very publicly.

And it was extremely upsetting and got to the point where I went from a lawyer who loved to go to work every day to a lawyer who dreaded pulling into the parking lot of my law firm, counting whose cars were in to try and decide whose work I should be doing that day so that I wouldn’t get yelled at or — or, you know, almost — I almost use the word bullied, although I’m an adult and was an adult at the time, and it’s a hard concept to have, but it’s the desperate situation I found myself in. (T20-10 to T21-2.)

“Worried about being ‘kicked out’ of MSLD, respondent felt tremendous pressure to complete tasks on time, according to schedules that other attorneys prepared for him. Also pressing was the fear that, because he was over sixty years old and had never been in another legal setting, he could not strike out on his own.”

The DRB Decision also found that the lawyer had no prior discipline, expressed remorse for his misconduct, and paid former clients, the firm and the DCA hundreds of thousands of dollars as restitution.  The DRB recommended a censure (which is a stronger sanction than a reprimand in New Jersey).  The New Jersey Supreme Court adopted that sanction and censured the lawyer.

Bottom line:  This case is unusual, to say the least.  Although the lawyer provided significant mitigation (including the serious “berating” by a supervising partner and “cracking under the pressure” of the partner’s criticism), his underlying misconduct, including his multiple false statements to clients, neglecting client matters and failing to communicate, would appear to be serious enough to merit a suspension, notwithstanding the mitigation that he provided.  The lawyer was in his 50’s and 60’s when the misconduct occurred. One could certainly conclude that the lawyer’s testimony about the “pressure” of the practice was somewhat of an excuse and not an explanation.

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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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New Jersey lawyer receives censure for neglecting client matters, failing to communicate with clients, and fraud and dishonesty

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court Order which adopted the findings of the New Jersey Disciplinary Review Board and censured a lawyer for neglecting client matters, failing to communicate with clients, and engaging in conduct involving fraud or dishonesty.  The case is In The Matter of John R. Dusinberre, D-37 September Term 2015 078531 (Supreme Court of New Jersey April 5, 2017).  The New Jersey Supreme Court Order is here:  http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1082216 and the Disciplinary Board (DRB) Decision dated November 9, 2016 is here:  http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1077667

According to the DRB Decision, the lawyer was charged with violating Bar rules in four separate matters:

“In the first matter, respondent represented Anthony Domenick and 407-409 Summer Associates, LLC for a Paterson condominium development known as ‘Sandy Hill at Summer Street.’ The terms of the representation called for respondent to file a public offering statement (POS) with the New Jersey Division of Community Affairs (DCA) and to record a master deed in the county clerk’s office. Respondent told his client that he had filed the POS with the DCA and furnished him with a copy of a November 12, 2007 POS carrying registration number ‘04368.’ Respondent stipulated that he never filed a POS with the DCA. Rather, he had fabricated the POS and created a fictitious registration number; the DCA had never assigned a registration number to the Sandy Hill project. Although respondent also failed to record the master deed, he either informed his client, or led him to believe, that he had done so.

“In a second matter, respondent represented a client identified only as ‘Mr. Cerquirra’ and ‘88 St. Francis LLC’ regarding a condominium development project at 88 St. Francis Street in Newark. The representation required respondent to register the project with the DCA and to obtain a registration order. Respondent informed the client that he had obtained a registration order for the project from the DCA. He also gave the client an October 27, 2008 letter, purportedly from DCA’s Manager of the Planned Real Estate Department, Stewart P. Pallonis. Enclosed with that letter was an order of registration from the DCA carrying registration number 04487, and signed ‘Stewart P. Pallonis.’  In fact, respondent never registered the 88 St. Francis Street project with the DCA. Rather, he had fabricated both the Pallonis letter and the registration order, signing Pallonis’ name to both documents before giving them to the client.

“In a third matter, respondent represented Sterling Properties (Sterling) for a Cedar Knolls condominium project known as ‘Viera at Hanover.’ The representation required respondent to register the project with the DCA, but he failed to do so. Respondent, nevertheless, led Sterling to believe that he had registered the project with the DCA, knowing that he had not done so. In reliance on respondent’s false information, Sterling went forward with the project.

“In a fourth matter, respondent represented Sterling for another condominium project in Piscataway. That representation, too, required respondent to register the project with the DCA. Again, respondent failed to do so. Respondent led Sterling to believe that the Piscataway project, too, was registered with the DCA, knowing that it was not. Relying on respondent’s statements, Sterling proceeded with the development project.”

“During respondent’s entire thirty-four-year career at MSLD, he reported to Barry Mandelbaum, the managing attorney, and twelve years his senior. Respondent described Mandelbaum as a “benevolent despot” and a “mentor.” Respondent was never “encouraged” to generate business for the firm. Rather, he tended to work on legal matters that Mandelbaum generated.

“Respondent described his relationship with Mandelbaum as a stressful one. Mandelbaum would berate respondent publicly, place notes on respondent’s door about perceived failings, and subject him to ‘105 decibel,’ public ‘dress downs,’ all of which were extremely embarrassing.

“As the law firm grew larger, younger attorneys became partners. By the mid-2000s, some of those partners had come to expect respondent to complete work on projects that they had generated, placing additional pressure on respondent to perform.

“Several years before respondent engaged in the within misconduct, MSLD established an executive committee to manage the law firm. Respondent perceived that the new arrangement rewarded some of the younger, income-generating attorneys, at his expense. Feeling exposed, he became “terrified” about losing his job. At that juncture, he grew even more reliant on Mandelbaum for protection:

So my desire and drive to please him became extremely strong. And I can’t tell you the number of times when I would have an issue with a client, I would hear the client five minutes later on the phone with Barry and then I would hear Barry’s footsteps stomping down the hall to basically dress me down or yell at me and to confront me, or whatever it might be very publicly.

And it was extremely upsetting and got to the point where I went from a lawyer who loved to go to work every day to a lawyer who dreaded pulling into the parking lot of my law firm, counting whose cars were in to try and decide whose work I should be doing that day so that I wouldn’t get yelled at or — or, you know, almost — I almost use the word bullied, although I’m an adult and was an adult at the time, and it’s a hard concept to have, but it’s the desperate situation I found myself in. (T20-10 to T21-2.)

“Worried about being ‘kicked out’ of MSLD, respondent felt tremendous pressure to complete tasks on time, according to schedules that other attorneys prepared for him. Also pressing was the fear that, because he was over sixty years old and had never been in another legal setting, he could not strike out on his own.”

The DRB Decision also found that the lawyer had no prior discipline, expressed remorse for his misconduct, and paid former clients, the firm and the DCA hundreds of thousands of dollars as restitution.  The DRB recommended a censure (which is a stronger sanction than a reprimand in New Jersey).  The New Jersey Supreme Court adopted that sanction and censured the lawyer.

Bottom line:  This case is unusual, to say the least.  Although the lawyer provided significant mitigation (including the serious “berating” by a supervising partner and “cracking under the pressure” of the partner’s criticism), his underlying misconduct, including his multiple false statements to clients, neglecting client matters and failing to communicate, would appear to be serious enough to merit a suspension, notwithstanding the mitigation that he provided.  The lawyer was in his 50’s and 60’s when the misconduct occurred. One could certainly conclude that the lawyer’s testimony about the “pressure” of the practice was somewhat of an excuse and not an explanation.

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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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Lawyer receives 1 year suspension in New York and Oregon for, inter alia, falsely claiming completion of CLE

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New York appellate court opinion suspending a New York lawyer for one year on a reciprocal basis after he was suspended by the Oregon Supreme Court for one year for making false representations regarding his completion of the required Oregon CLE and providing false testimony.  The New York case is: Matter of Joseph R. Sanchez, 017 NY Slip Op 01869 (Appellate Division, Second Department March 15, 2017) and the New York opinion is here:  http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2017/2017_01869.htm.  The Oregon disciplinary board opinion is here:  http://www.osbar.org/_docs/dbreport/dbr29.pdf

The lawyer was admitted to practice in both New York and Oregon.  He was required to complete 45 CLE hours for the 2009 to 2011 Oregon reporting period and he purchased on-line CLE courses.  Two days later, he certified to the Oregon Bar that he had completed the required 45 hours of CLE although he had not previously completed any CLE for that reporting period.

After receiving the lawyer’s certification, the Oregon Bar’s CLE administrator asked him how he was able to watch 48 hours of CLE courses in about one day.  The lawyer responded by providing copies of his CLE completion certificates.  He later provided “evasive, incomplete and/or untruthful” answers under oath. The panel also found that the lawyer made the misrepresentations knowingly and intentionally.

According to the New York opinion:

“The trial panel found the respondent’s overall testimony lacking in credibility:

(The lawyer’s) testimony was inconsistent with his prior writings, including an affidavit he prepared and signed under oath in 2012. The testimony he provided at the hearing was inconsistent with the testimony he previously provided at his deposition in this matter on September 3, 2014, which was also provided under oath. The [respondent] presented facts during his testimony that he had never presented before, notwithstanding having had multiple opportunities to have done so during the course of the [Oregon] Bar’s investigation. Put simply, the panel finds that the [respondent’s] testimony was untruthful. Lastly, the panel finds that the [respondent] made his misrepresentations knowingly and intentionally. The [respondent] was provided multiple opportunities to explain how he could have possibly fit 48 hours of work into a shorter (and potentially significantly shorter) period of time and each time he failed to do so. It is clear he changed the facts over time, [and] added explanations’ when prior ones were not accepted, with each subsequent explanation less plausible than the prior.”

The trial panel concluded that the respondent violated his duty to the public and to the legal profession when he intentionally and knowingly misrepresented to both Lawline and the Oregon Bar the fact that he had attended and successfully completed the CLE courses he had purchased.”

Based upon the reciprocal Oregon discipline (and the facts), the New York opinion suspended the lawyer from the practice of law for one year, beginning on April 14, 2017.  He was also required to “furnish satisfactory proof that during the period of suspension he (1) refrained from practicing or attempting to practice law, (2) fully complied with this order and with the terms and provisions of the written rules governing the conduct of disbarred and suspended attorneys (see 22 NYCRR 1240.15), (3) complied with the applicable continuing legal education requirements of 22 NYCRR 691.11(a), and (4) otherwise properly conducted himself.”

Bottom line:  It should certainly should go without saying that lawyers must never provide false information to the Bar (or at any other time); however, this lawyer apparently very blatantly believed that he could pass under the Bar radar in making the false representations.  He compounded the misconduct by providing “inconsistent testimony” that as “lacking in credibility.”  Not only is this conduct completely unethical, but lawyers should never assume that the Bar will fail to detect false representations such as these.

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.              

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 misrepresentation, deceit, dishonesty, False statements regarding CLE, fraud, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer false statements, Lawyer false statements in response to Bar complaint, Lawyer false testimony, Lawyer misrepresentation, Lawyer Professionalism, Lawyer sanctions

Ethical issues and requirements for lawyers in compensating nonlawyer employees

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the ethical considerations for lawyers when compensating non-lawyer employees.  State Bar disciplinary rules, including Florida Bar Rule 4-5.4(a), prohibit lawyers from sharing legal fees with nonlawyers.  The Comment to the Florida Bar Rule states, “The provisions of this rule express traditional limitations on sharing fees.  These limitations are to protect the lawyer’s professional independence of judgment….”  Notwithstanding this prohibition, the Bar rules provide for exceptions.

Florida Bar Rule 4-5.4(a)(4) states that “bonuses may be paid to nonlawyer employees for work performed, and may be based on their extraordinary efforts on a particular case or over a specified time period. Bonus payments shall not be based on cases or clients brought to the lawyer or law firm by the actions of the nonlawyer. A lawyer shall not provide a bonus payment that is calculated as a percentage of legal fees received by the lawyer or law firm…”

In Florida Bar Ethics Op. 02-1 (1/11/02), the lawyer requested an ethics opinion regarding the following question:  “May I bonus a non-lawyer employee based on the number of hours the non-lawyer employee has worked on a case for a particular client?”  The lawyer stated that “I would like to bonus my employees based on their own productivity. I would not be utilizing any portion of the fees received by me for that purpose.”

The opinion concluded:

“Based on the rules and opinion, the inquiring attorney may pay the legal assistant a bonus based on the legal assistant’s extraordinary efforts on a particular case or over a specific period of time. While the number of hours the legal assistant works on a particular case or over a specific period of time is one of several factors that can be considered in determining a bonus for the legal assistant, it is not the sole factor to be considered. It must be remembered that the rule allows a bonus to be paid to a nonlawyer based on “extraordinary efforts” either in a particular case or over a specific time period. A bonus which is solely calculated on the number of hours incurred by the legal assistant on the matter is tantamount to a finding that every single hour incurred was an “extraordinary effort”, and such a finding is very unlikely to be true. Therefore, unless every single hour incurred by the legal assistant was a truly extraordinary effort, it would be impermissible for the inquiring attorney to pay a bonus to his legal assistant calculated in the manner the inquiring attorney has proposed. However, the number of hours incurred by the legal assistant on the particular matter or over a specified time period may be considered by the lawyer as one of the factors in determining the legal assistant’s bonus.” (emphasis added). 

Florida Bar Rule 4-5.4 (b) – Qualified Pension Plans, states that a “lawyer or law firm may include nonlawyer employees in a qualified pension, profit-sharing, or retirement plan, even though the lawyer’s or law firm’s contribution to the plan is based in whole or in part on a profit-sharing arrangement.”

ABA Model Rule 5.4(a)(3) states that: “A lawyer or law firm may include nonlawyer employees in a compensation or retirement plan, even though the plan is based in whole or in part on a profit sharing arrangement…”  ABA Informal Opinion 1440 also states that a compensation plan proposed for an office administrator which relates to the net profits and business performance of the firm and not to the receipt of particular fees does not violate the model rules.

Other state bar opinions address when nonlawyers can participate in such compensation plans.  New York State Bar Assoc. Ethics Op. 887 (2011) states that a law firm may pay a marketing employee a bonus based on the firm’s profits, the profits of a department, or as a percentage of the marketer’s salary; however, the bonus cannot be based on referrals of specific legal matters or on firm profits that come from cases that the marketer brought to the firm.  District of Columbia Ethics Op. 322 (2004) states that a nonlawyer employee may not be paid a bonus based on fees the firm receives from a specific case or series of related cases, but may be paid a bonus contingent upon the firm’s overall profitability.

Unless there is an exception, lawyers are prohibited from paying nonlawyers a bonus that is based on the referral of specific clients to the firm.  Florida Bar Rule 4-1.17(b) -Payment for Referrals- states that a lawyer “may not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services, except that a lawyer may pay the reasonable cost of advertising permitted by these rules, may pay the usual charges of a lawyer referral service, lawyer directory or other legal service organization, and may purchase a law practice in accordance with rule 4-1.17.”

A lawyer cannot circumvent the Rule by providing non-monetary “gifts” to nonlawyer employees.  Such gifts would most likely be considered to be something “of value” under Florida Bar Rule 4-1.17(b) and would therefore by prohibited under that rule as well. The key issue is whether something “of value” is exchanged for future referrals.

Examples include: Maryland Ethics Op. 2000-35 (2001)- lawyers who participate as panelists in seminars offered by accounting and financial services company, in exchange for referrals, could be interpreted as giving “something of value” to accounting firm; Pennsylvania Bar Association in Op. 2005-81- a lawyer may not give a nonlawyer employee a paid day off for referring a new client to the firm; and Connecticut Informal Ethics Op. 92-24 (1992)- a lawyer may not give indirect benefits, including gifts, to a client who made referrals to a lawyer.

Bottom line:  Lawyers must be aware of the Bar rules governing compensation to non-lawyers in order to fully comply with the rules and avoid an unintentional failure to comply.

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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Georgia Supreme Court rejects lawyer’s agreement for reprimand for threatening and improper e-mails in his divorce case

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent opinion of the Georgia Supreme Court rejecting an agreement between a lawyer and the Georgia Bar for a reprimand as a sanction for the lawyer’s “inappropriate threatening language, intimidation and personal attacks directed to opposing counsel” during his divorce case. The case is In the Matter of John Michael Spain, No. S17Y0010 (February 27, 2017) and the Court’s opinion is here:  http://www.gasupreme.us/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/s17y0010.pdf

The lawyer, who was admitted in Georgia in 1999, sent the e-mails over a period of two days while he was representing himself in his divorce matter.  He pled no contest to misdemeanor charges of stalking and harassing communications related to the e-mails and was sentenced to one year of probation on each count to be served consecutively.

In the agreement with the Georgia Bar, the lawyer admitted that the e-mails included “inappropriate threatening language, intimidation and personal attacks directed to opposing counsel, including inappropriate remarks about counsel and members of her family, and ad hominem statements about his wife.”

The lawyer cited as mitigating factors that he had no prior discipline and that he was suffering from his personal and emotional problems related to the marriage and stated that he has received professional help for his problems and he has retained a lawyer to represent him in the divorce.  He also stated that acted in good faith to rectify the consequences of his conduct by entering the pleas, that he has cooperated fully with the Bar, that his misconduct did not involve his practice or his clients, that he was deeply remorseful and recognized that his conduct was contrary to his professional obligations and longstanding personal values, and that he wished that he could reverse his actions.

The Georgia Bar agreed to the reprimand under the “unique set of circumstances’; however, after reviewing the record and relevant cases, and analyzing the facts, the opinion rejected the petition for voluntary discipline for a reprimand.

Bottom line:  This case involves some allegedly egregious conduct by a lawyer who was representing himself in his own divorce proceeding.  A lawyer is responsible for his or her actions, even if the conduct occurs outside of the representation of a client if they result in violations of the Bar Rules.  This also appears to clearly demonstrate the application of the old proverb, commonly attributed to Abraham Lincoln (although likely much older), that: “A man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client”.

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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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer criminal conduct, Lawyer derogatory remarks, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer discipline for criminalconviction, Lawyer disparaging statements to opposing counsel in own divorce, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer threatening e-mails, Lawyer threats and discipline

California Bar files disciplinary charges against former Los Angeles City Attorney alleging prosecutorial misconduct

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recently filed disciplinary charges filed by the California Bar against former a Los Angeles City Attorney alleging prosecutorial misconduct during a death penalty case that he handled when he was a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney more than 30 years ago.  The case is State Bar of California v. Carmen Anthony Trutanich, Case No. 16-O-12803 (filed February 9, 2017) and is here:  http://members.calbar.ca.gov/courtDocs/16-O-12803.pdf

The lawyer served as the elected Los Angeles City Attorney from 2009-2013.  He was a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County prior to that time and, while he was a deputy district attorney, he is alleged to have failed to provide exculpatory information in responding to discovery by withholding the true name and address of a witness from the defendant in the People v. Barry Glenn Williams.  He is also alleged to have failed to correct a police detective’s false testimony regarding the detective’s investigation in 1985 and a murder witness’ false testimony regarding the name a person who was driving a vehicle during a crime in 1986.

A federal judge cited prosecutorial misconduct in overturning the defendant’s murder conviction and death sentence in 2016, which resulted in a review by the California State Bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel.  The California Bar is notified when a criminal conviction is reversed because of alleged attorney misconduct.

The lawyer will have an opportunity to respond to the charges, which must be proven by the California Bar and approved by the California Supreme Court before any discipline can be imposed.

Bottom line: This lawyer will be defending very serious allegations that allegedly occurred over 3 decades ago.   As you may already know, criminal prosecutors are held to higher ethics standards and have special responsibilities to seek justice and disclose exculpatory information.  If these allegations are true, this prosecutor not only failed to provide exculpatory information, but also actively participated in providing false information and testimony in the case.  Stay tuned…

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 misrepresentation, 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, Lawyer sanctions, Prosecutor misconduct discipline, Prosecutorial misconduct ethics