Category Archives: Attorney/client confidentiality

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

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Lawyer’s ethical duties and responsibilities when a represented person requests a second opinion

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the lawyer’s ethical duties and responsibilities when a represented person contacts the lawyer to obtain a second opinion.  Although a lawyer is permitted to render a second opinion to a represented person who initiates the contact with the lawyer, there are important ethical and practical issues which should be considered before the lawyer agrees to do so.

A threshold issue is whether a second opinion would be an improper communication with a person represented by counsel.  In 2002, the ABA added a sentence to paragraph 4 of the Comment to Model Rule 4.2 which makes it clear that lawyers can provide second opinions if the lawyer is not representing another individual in the same matter.  Model Rule 4.2 has been adopted in substantial form by most jurisdictions, including Florida.  The Comment states:

(4) This Rule does not prohibit communication with a represented person, or an employee or agent of such a person, concerning matters outside the representation. For example, the existence of a controversy between a government agency and a private party, or between two organizations, does not prohibit a lawyer for either from communicating with nonlawyer representatives of the other regarding a separate matter. Nor does this Rule preclude communication with a represented person who is seeking advice from a lawyer who is not otherwise representing a client in the matter.

Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 02-5 (March 3, 2013, rev. August 24, 2011) discusses types of information a lawyer can give to an individual who is seeking a second opinion as well as potential solicitation.  The opinion states that, a lawyer may provide information about the lawyer’s availability and qualifications when contacted by an individual and if the information is requested.

The opinion concludes:

… a lawyer may provide a second opinion to a person who is represented by counsel at the person’s request. In providing the second opinion, the lawyer must give competent advice, and in doing so should carefully consider any limitations with which the lawyer is faced. Rule 4-1.1, Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. The lawyer should scrupulously avoid improperly soliciting the person. The lawyer may discuss what services the lawyer would be able to provide if the represented person requests not merely a second opinion, but also information about the lawyer’s availability and qualifications. Whether or not particular communications between the lawyer and the represented person might be considered tortious interference with an existing lawyer-client relationship is a legal question, outside the scope of an ethics opinion.

As is stated in the above ethics opinion, before giving a second opinion, the lawyer should consider whether he or she can competently render the opinion.  In order to be competent, the lawyer might need to review the client’s file, which may only be available through the client’s current lawyer.

South Carolina Bar Opinion 97-07 (1997) states:

…A lawyer may discuss a pending legal matter with a client who is represented by another attorney. If the client is seeking a second opinion based on a subjective opinion rendered by the client’s attorney, the lawyer should carefully consider the basis of the advice of the client’s attorney and may be required to consult with the client’s attorney in order to give competent legal advice. If so, the lawyer should advise the client accordingly prior to giving any opinion or advice.

A lawyer who provides a second opinion is also creating an attorney/client relationship and attorney/client confidentiality would apply.  The scope of confidentiality is extremely broad and includes all information related to the representation, including the fact that the client came to the lawyer for a consultation; therefore, the lawyer would not be able to contact the person’s current lawyer, unless the client consents or there is an exception to the confidentiality rule.

Oregon State Bar Opinion 2005-81 (Revised 2014) states:

A lawyer may provide a second opinion to a potential client regarding the quality of work done by another lawyer. The lawyer may not inform the other lawyer of the client’s request unless the client consents or another exception to the duty of confidentiality is applicable.

Bottom line:  It is not unethical for a lawyer to provide a second opinion; however, there are important ethical and practical issues that a lawyer should consider before agreeing to do so.

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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ABA Formal Opinion 477 addresses lawyer ethical duties when transmitting client information over the internet

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss ABA Formal Opinion 477, which was issued on May 11, 2017. The opinions addresses a lawyer’s ethical responsibilities to secure client confidential information when transmitting the information over the internet.  The Formal Opinion is here: ABA Formal Opinion 477.

ABA Formal Opinion 477 is an update opinion which specifically addresses “securing communication of protected client information” over the internet.

The Formal Opinion states:  “(i)n Formal Opinion 99-413 this Committee addressed a lawyer’s confidentiality obligations for e-mail communications with clients.  While the basic obligations of confidentiality remain applicable today, the role and risks of technology in the practice of law have evolved since 1999 prompting the need to update Opinion 99-413.  Formal Opinion 99-413 concluded: ‘Lawyers have a reasonable expectation of privacy in communications made by all forms of e-mail, including unencrypted e-mail sent on the Internet, despite some risk of interception and disclosure. It therefore follows that its use is consistent with the duty under Rule 1.6 to use reasonable means to maintain the confidentiality of information relating to a client’s representation.’ (footnote omitted).”

“Unlike 1999 where multiple methods of communication were prevalent, today, many lawyers primarily use electronic means to communicate and exchange documents with clients, other lawyers, and even with other persons who are assisting a lawyer in delivering legal services to clients.”

The opinion concludes: “A lawyer generally may transmit information relating to the representation of a client over the internet without violating the Model Rules of Professional Conduct where the lawyer has undertaken reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized access. However, a lawyer may be required to take special security precautions to protect against the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of client information when required by an agreement with the client or by law, or when the nature of the information requires a higher degree of security.”

Bottom line:  This ABA opinion addresses the ethical issues related to securing client communications when transmitting confidential information over the internet under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and is for guidance only and is not binding; however, the analysis would be applicable in most, if not all jurisdictions, including Florida.  Lawyers should consult the rules and ethics opinions of their jurisdiction for further guidance.

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

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ABA Formal Opinion 477 addresses lawyer ethical duties when transmitting client information over the internet

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss ABA Formal Opinion 477, which was issued on May 11, 2017. The opinions addresses a lawyer’s ethical responsibilities to secure client confidential information when transmitting the information over the internet.  The Formal Opinion is here: ABA Formal Opinion 477.

ABA Formal Opinion 477 is an update opinion which specifically addresses “securing communication of protected client information” over the internet.

The Formal Opinion states:  “(i)n Formal Opinion 99-413 this Committee addressed a lawyer’s confidentiality obligations for e-mail communications with clients.  While the basic obligations of confidentiality remain applicable today, the role and risks of technology in the practice of law have evolved since 1999 prompting the need to update Opinion 99-413.  Formal Opinion 99-413 concluded: ‘Lawyers have a reasonable expectation of privacy in communications made by all forms of e-mail, including unencrypted e-mail sent on the Internet, despite some risk of interception and disclosure. It therefore follows that its use is consistent with the duty under Rule 1.6 to use reasonable means to maintain the confidentiality of information relating to a client’s representation.’ (footnote omitted).”

“Unlike 1999 where multiple methods of communication were prevalent, today, many lawyers primarily use electronic means to communicate and exchange documents with clients, other lawyers, and even with other persons who are assisting a lawyer in delivering legal services to clients.”

The opinion concludes: “A lawyer generally may transmit information relating to the representation of a client over the internet without violating the Model Rules of Professional Conduct where the lawyer has undertaken reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized access. However, a lawyer may be required to take special security precautions to protect against the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of client information when required by an agreement with the client or by law, or when the nature of the information requires a higher degree of security.”

Bottom line:  This ABA opinion addresses the ethical issues related to securing client communications when transmitting confidential information over the internet under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and is for guidance only and is not binding; however, the analysis would be applicable in most, if not all jurisdictions, including Florida.  Lawyers should consult the rules and ethics opinions of their jurisdiction for further guidance.

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

Leave a comment

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ABA Ethics Opinion provides guidance regarding client confidentiality when lawyer withdraws from representation for failure to pay fees

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent ABA Formal Ethics Opinion which provides guidance regarding client confidentiality when a lawyer withdraws from representation.  The opinion is ABA Formal Opinion 476 (12/19/16) and is online here: ABA Opinion 476.

Model Bar Rule 1.16 related to withdrawal from representation

The ABA opinion discusses Model Rule 1.16, which is substantially similar to the Florida Bar Rule 4-1.16 and other state Bar rules.   According to the opinion, “Model Rule 1.16 addresses a lawyer’s duties and responsibilities when withdrawing from the representation of a client. Rule 1.16(a) sets forth the circumstances when a lawyer is required to withdraw, and Rule 1.16(b) describes the circumstances when a lawyer may be permitted to withdraw from a representation.  Among the permissive reasons, Rule 1.16(b)(5) provides that a lawyer may withdraw from representing a client when “the client substantially fails to fulfill an obligation to the lawyer regarding the lawyer’s services and has been given reasonable warning that the lawyer will withdraw unless the obligation is fulfilled.”

“Comment [8] to (Model Rule 1.16) states:  ‘A lawyer may withdraw if the client refuses to abide by the terms of an agreement relating to the representation, such as an agreement concerning fees or court costs . . . .’ In addition, Rule 1.16(b)(6) provides that a lawyer may withdraw where ‘the representation will result in an unreasonable financial burden on the lawyer or has been rendered unreasonably difficult by the client.’  As the courts have decided in the cases cited below, if a client fails over time to pay a lawyer’s fees, and that failure continues after a lawyer provides a reasonable warning to the client, the lawyer may be permitted to withdraw.  In effectuating a withdrawal, a lawyer should do so in a manner that minimizes any prejudice to the client.”

Model Bar Rule 1.16 related to the lawyer’s duty to maintain confidentiality 

“Neither Rule 1.6(b) nor the Comments expressly refer to motions to withdraw for unpaid fees. The Comments do, however, recognize that some disclosure of confidential client information otherwise protected by Rule 1.6(a) is permitted in fee-collection suits by lawyers, based on the “claim or defense” exception in Rule 1.6(b)(5).  Similarly, motions to withdraw based on a client’s failure to pay fees are generally grounded in the same basic right of a lawyer to be paid pursuant to the terms of a fee agreement with a client. Nonetheless, courts have differed widely as to whether any specific information regarding a lawyer’s reasons for seeking withdrawal is required in a motion to withdraw, and if so, how much.”

Limiting any required disclosures of confidential information to mitigate harm/prejudice to clients 

The opinion also discusses the requirements to limit disclosures to mitigate harm/prejudice to the client.  “Comment [16] to Rule 1.6 provides that disclosures under Rule 1.6(b) are permitted only to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to accomplish the purpose specified.  Of course, where practicable, a lawyer should first seek to persuade the client to take suitable action to remove the need for the lawyer’s disclosure. When such persuasion is not practicable or successful, and disclosure of some confidential information is required, ‘If the disclosure will be made in connection with a judicial proceeding, the disclosure should be made in a manner that limits access to the information to the tribunal or other persons having a need to know it and appropriate protective orders or other arrangements should be sought by the lawyer to the fullest extent practicable.’   Thus, Comment [16] anticipates the use of in camera submissions for disclosures where any of Rule 1.6(b)’s exceptions may apply. The situation is similar to discovery disputes over claims of privilege, whereby competing claims are often resolved by a court’s review in camera of the documents at issue and such procedures can help reconcile the competing issues involved in ruling on motions to withdraw as well.

The opinion’s final summary paragraph states:  “In moving to withdraw as counsel in a civil proceeding based on a client’s failure to pay fees, a lawyer must consider the duty of confidentiality under Rule 1.6 and seek to reconcile that duty with the court’s need for sufficient information upon which to rule on the motion. Similarly, in entertaining such a motion, a judge should consider the right of the movant’s client to confidentiality. This requires cooperation between lawyers and judges. If required by the court to support the motion with facts relating to the representation, a lawyer may, pursuant to Rule 1.6(b)(5), disclose only such confidential information as is reasonably necessary for the court to make an informed decision on the motion.”

Bottom line:  All lawyers must be aware of the ethics rules, issues, and requirements surrounding client confidentiality when a lawyer is withdrawing from representation due to the client’s failure to pay the fee and this opinion provides a good overview.  The fact that the client has failed to pay is confidential in itself and the lawyer should not include any client confidential information in the motion to withdraw and should only provide the information to the court if necessary or if ordered to do so by the judge.  If the court orders the lawyer to provide confidential information, the lawyer should consider an in camera appearance before the judge with the client and excluding the opposing counsel to preserve confidentiality, if plausible.

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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Arizona lawyer disbarred upon consent for disparaging book about his client Jodi Arias which violated client confidentiality

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent disbarment of an Arizona lawyer who represented notorious murder defendant Jodi Arias and published a book with disparaging details about the representation and revealing attorney/client confidential information without the consent of the client.  The case is In the Matter of Laurence K. Nurmi, Case No. PDJ-2016-9115.

The lawyer began representing Jodi Arias as an assistant public defender.  She was charged in the lurid and violent murder of her boyfriend in Arizona in 2008 and was found guilty of first degree murder in May 2013; however, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence her to death.

Another sentencing hearing was held in the fall of 2014 and that jury voted 11-1 to sentence Arias to death.  The death penalty vote must be unanimous in Arizona and Arias was subsequently sentenced to life in prison in April 2015.  She has appealed the verdict and sentence.

Sometime in 2015, the lawyer began writing a book detailing his representation of Arias without written/oral permission or authority from Arias to publish or disseminate any information related to the representation.  According to the allegations, the book presents a negative view of Arias and the case.  The lawyer’s self-published book, Trapped with Ms. Arias: Part 1 of 3 From Getting the File to Being Ready for Trial (Volume 1), was released in 2015.

The book includes multiple confidential discussions between the lawyer, Arias, and her family. The book also provides details of the case, makes disparaging remarks, and makes several statements regarding the substance of witness interviews and inadmissible exhibits.  The lawyer also continued to disclose and explain certain facts and circumstances in the book related to his representation of Arias in promotional radio interviews.

In October 2016, the State Bar of Arizona filed a formal complaint against the lawyer for revealing attorney-client confidential information about Arias and her case in the book.  The lawyer attempted to settle the case with a 4 year suspension; however, Jodi Arias objected to that sanction.

Immediately after the announcement of the consent agreement, the Maricopa County public defender, James Haas, objected to the Arizona Bar because the agreement did not specifically order the lawyer to stop violating ethical rules with regard to the Arias case, including revealing confidential information, since the book was listed as one of 3 volumes.

The lawyer filed a request for disbarment on November 14, 2016.  The presiding disciplinary judge accepted the lawyer’s request on November 21, 2016 and issued an order making the disbarment effective the same day.

Bottom line:  This lawyer chose to write a book in a highly publicized and lurid case which disparaged his client and revealed attorney/client confidential information, including conversations with her and her family and disparaging comments.  Aria’s conviction is currently on appeal and it has been alleged that information in the book may jeopardize that appeal.

All lawyers should be aware that, unless the client provides informed consent, a lawyer is strictly prohibited from revealing attorney/client confidential information, even after the representation has been concluded.

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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Lawyer-Client Confidentiality and Privilege: What is the Difference?

This Ethics Alert blog will discuss the terms lawyer-client confidentiality and lawyer-client privilege are often used interchangeably and the differences between them may become somewhat blurred.  Although both terms address information related to the client that a lawyer cannot reveal and both are used primarily to protect the client’s ability to confide freely with the lawyer, they are not synonymous.  There are several significant differences with regard to their scope, exceptions, and application.

The primary ethics rule addressing lawyer-client confidentiality in Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6, which is substantially similar to ABA Model Rule 1.6.  The Comment states that “(a) fundamental principle in the client-lawyer relationship is that, in the absence of the client’s informed consent, the lawyer must not reveal information relating to the representation…” A violation of the Bar rule may result in disciplinary sanctions.

Absent an exception, confidential information remains confidential during the representation and after the client dies.  The lawyer should not reveal confidential information if it will injure the client’s interests (absent an exception or legal compulsion), and it should only be disclosed to advance those interests.

A client may give informed consent for the lawyer to reveal confidential information or information that is protected by the privilege and consent may be implied under certain circumstances.  The client must give consent to the waiver of confidentiality; however, the privilege may be inadvertently and impliedly waived by the failure to object to testimony about the privileged communications.

In contrast to privilege, the lawyer’s ethical duties regarding confidentiality are much more extensive in scope and application, particularly as to what information is protected.  Confidentiality applies not only to information received from the client but all information related to the representation, regardless of whether the information came from the client or another source.  In addition, confidentiality applies in all situations, not just in litigation.

The lawyer-client privilege is a litigation concept that arose from the principles of evidence. In Florida, the privilege is set forth in F.S. 90.502.  The client, or someone acting legally for the client, may claim the privilege, typically through the lawyer.  F.S. 90.502(e) states that a lawyer is presumed to have the authority to assert the privilege on behalf of the client.  The privilege only protects communications between the client and lawyer in a litigation context, the communications are not protected if available from another source, and the communications are not necessarily protected simply because of the communication to the lawyer.  The Comment to Bar Rule 4-1.6 states “(t)he attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine apply in judicial and other proceedings…”

The “crime-fraud” exception to the privilege in F.S. 90.502(4)(a) permits the disclosure of information communicated to the lawyer if the client attempts to use the lawyer’s services to commit or cover up a crime or fraud.

Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6(b) requires disclosure of confidential information to prevent a client from committing a crime or to prevent a death or substantial bodily harm to another.  This mandatory exception is different from the crime-fraud exception to privilege in that it requires the threat of substantial injury or death to require that the information be revealed.  There are other exceptions under Bar Rule 4-1.6(c) which permit (but do not require) disclosure by the lawyer.

Even if information is not covered by privilege, it may still be confidential.  Depending on the circumstances, a lawyer may also be compelled to reveal the information regardless of whether it is privileged or confidential.

Bottom line:  Although the use of the terms “lawyer-client confidentiality” and “lawyer-client privilege may often be used interchangeably, they are very different in concept, scope, and application.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

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

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