Category Archives: Attorney/client privilege and confidentiality

ABA issues formal ethics opinion addressing lawyer’s duties upon receipt of subpoena or other process for client confidential documents

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent American Bar Association Formal Opinion 473, which provides guidance to lawyers regarding ethical duties and obligations under the Model Rules upon receipt of a subpoena or other compulsory process for client documents and information.  ABA Formal Opinion 473 (February 17, 2016) is here: http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/FormalOpinion_473.pdf.

According to the opinion, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility was asked to review ABA Formal Opinion 94-385 (July 5, 1994) regarding a subpoena for a lawyer’s client files since ABA Model Rule 1.6(b)(6) was adopted in 2002 and which states that: “A lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation of a client to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to comply with other law or court order.”

When Formal Opinion 94-385 was issued, Model Rule 1.6(b) specifically required a lawyer to disclose confidential information in only two situations: (i) to prevent certain crimes, and (ii) to establish certain claims or defenses on behalf of the lawyer.  Formal Opinion 94-385 advised that the lawyer “must comply with the final orders of a court or other tribunal of competent jurisdiction requiring the lawyer to give information about a client.”

The opinion states that the model rule and Formal Opinion 94-385 do not address “complex, critical, and fact-intensive questions on how to respond” when the lawyer receives a subpoena or other process which is not a “final order of a court or other tribunal”.  The opinion addresses these issues and provides guidance to lawyers regarding their duties and obligations.  The opinion states that a lawyer who receives a subpoena or other compulsory process (but not a court order) for documents or information relating to the representation of a client (which is, of course, confidential) has multiple ethical duties and obligations, including:

  1. The lawyer “must notify—or attempt to notify—the client.  For former clients, the lawyer must make reasonable efforts to reach the client by, for example, internet search, phone call, fax, email or other electronic communications, and letter to the client’s last known address.”
  1. If the client is available, the lawyer must consult with the client about how to respond. If instructed by the client (or if the client is unavailable), the lawyer must assert all reasonable claims against disclosure and seek to limit the subpoena or other initial demand on any reasonable ground.  Such a consultation should include a discussion regarding the applicability of the attorney-client privilege, the work-product doctrine, and the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
  1. If the client wants to challenge the subpoena or process, the lawyer should challenge “on any reasonable ground.”  If that challenge fails, the lawyer should consult with the client about appeal options.
  1. If there is an order to disclose confidential or privileged information and the client is available, a lawyer must consult with the client about whether to produce the information or appeal the order.
  1. The lawyer should seek appropriate protective orders or other protective arrangements so that access to the information is limited to the court or other tribunal ordering its disclosure and to persons having a need to know.
  1. If the lawyer discloses documents and information, whether it is in response to a demand or an order, and regardless of whether client is available, the lawyer may reveal information only to the extent reasonably necessary.
  1. If the client and the lawyer disagree about how to respond to the initial demand or to an order requiring disclosure, the lawyer should consider withdrawing from the representation pursuant to Model Rule 1.16.
  1. If the lawyer is unable to find the client, the lawyer must “assert all reasonable objections and claims when the lawyer receives the initial demand.” If those “objections and claims” are rejected by the tribunal, the lawyer must produce the information to the extent reasonably necessary to comply with the order; however, the lawyer “is not ethically required to take an appeal on behalf of a client whom the lawyer cannot locate after due diligence.
  1. If there is an order to disclose and the client is unavailable, the lawyer is not ethically required to appeal.

With regard to fees for the consultation and services regarding the response to the subpoena/process, the lawyer should consult with the client regarding whether responding to the demand was included in the scope of work under the fee agreement.  If not, the lawyer should discuss the fee for doing so.  Regardless, the lawyer may still “be required to challenge the initial demand” under the ethics rules even if the services were not included in the initial fee agreement.  The opinion states that a lawyer “should consider” providing for this circumstance in the lawyer’s retainer agreements.

Bottom line: This ABA Formal Opinion provides guidance regarding issues involving client confidentiality which lawyers confront fairly frequently and that I frequently address in my ethics presentations.  The opinion’s guidance is important and should be considered by lawyers who receive a subpoena or process demanding client confidential information, regardless of whether the lawyer’s jurisdiction’s ethics rules include the specific language in Model Rule 1.6(b)(6).

Note to Florida lawyers:  Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6 does not include the specific language in ABA Model Rule 1.6(b)(6) that: “A lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation of a client to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to comply with other law or court order”; however, Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6(d) states that: “When required by a tribunal to reveal confidential information, a lawyer may first exhaust all appellate remedies.”  In addition, Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6(f) states that: “When disclosure is mandated or permitted, the lawyer must disclose no more information than is required to meet the requirements or accomplish the purposes of this rule.”

The ethical duties and obligations regarding subpoenas and other process addressed in the opinion should apply to Florida lawyers upon receipt of a subpoena or other process to provide confidential documents/information.

Be careful out there!

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

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.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Missouri lawyer alleged to have used payroll document and opposing counsel’s written direct exam questions from e-mails hacked by client

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the disciplinary case against a Missouri lawyer who is alleged to have used a payroll document and direct examination questions of opposing counsel which were obtained by the client/ex-husband by hacking the wife’s e-mail account.  The disciplinary counsel’s brief is here: Disciplinary Counsel Brief.

According to the brief, the lawyer’s client (the husband in a divorce proceeding) provided the lawyer with two documents that the client had obtained by hacking the wife’s e-mail account.  The documents included a payroll document showing the wife’s recent salary and distribution document and a list of direct examination questions prepared by the wife’s attorney for the divorce trial.  The lawyer allegedly used the payroll document information during a settlement conference in July 2013 without disclosing that he had possession of it.

On February 11, 2014, the second day of trial, the list of the direct examination questions was included in a stack of exhibits provided by the lawyer in the courtroom and opposing counsel learned that the lawyer had the document for the first time.  When opposing counsel asked the lawyer why he had possession the list, he replied (apparently flippantly) that it contained a lot of leading questions and he planned to object to them.  The lawyer later stated that his paralegal had included the questions in the stack of exhibits and that he was joking when he made the remark about the leading questions.

In a conference held in the judge’s chambers the same day, the lawyer initially said that he had not seen the list of direct examination questions before that day; however, he later admitted he had seen the list of questions but claimed that he did not read the document.  The lawyer’s client admitted under oath that he had obtained the documents by accessing his wife’s personal e-mail account without her permission and that he had provided the documents to the lawyer.

According to the brief: “When questioned about his statement under oath on February 11, 2014, ‘that at some point in time [he] had read the first portion of that and realized that it was verboten, it was something that [he] should not have,’ Respondent testified that when he said ‘at some point in time’ he meant ‘that day’ in court when Jones confronted him with the list.”

The brief outlines the lawyer’s prior disciplinary record, which includes:

March 9, 1991 admonishment for communicating ex parte with the judge on two occasions during the pendency of a lawsuit in violation of Rule 4-3.5(b).

June 17, 1997 suspension with leave to apply for reinstatement not sooner than six (6) months as a result of a guilty plea in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri to the misdemeanor of willfully failing to submit an Income Tax Return.

November 2, 1999 admonishment for communicating ex parte with the judge during the pendency of a lawsuit in violation of Rule 4-3.5(b.

January 18, 2001 admonishment for failing to respond to the OCDC on three occasions for requests for information regarding an ethics complaint in violation of Rule 4-8.1(b).

July 6, 2004 admonishment for a Rule 4-3.3(d) violation for “failing to inform the tribunal in an ex parte proceeding of all material facts known to the lawyer enabling the tribunal to make an informed decision, whether or not the facts are adverse. Specifically: ‘When asked by Judge Dildine of Lincoln County what the exigent circumstances were that required his signature on a consent order presented by Respondent, Respondent replied that it was necessary to get the minor child at issue on a health insurance policy. The statement to the Court was inconsistent with Respondent’s testimony before the Division IV Committee wherein he stated that obtaining the judge’s signature on the order was necessary in order that Respondent’s clients regain custody of the minor child from parties whom his clients considered inappropriate.’”

The brief also alleges that the lawyer threatened opposing counsel regarding her “gossip” about the matter.  The disciplinary counsel’s brief seeks an indefinite suspension with no leave to apply for reinstatement until after 12 months.  The Missouri Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the case this month.

Bottom line: If the facts in the brief are true, this is a rather egregious case of a lawyer acting unethically.  The lawyer was (or should have been) aware that the documents were obtained by the client improperly and without the wife’s permission and, compounding the misconduct, the lawyer failed to advise opposing counsel that he had received the improperly obtained privileged and confidential documents (as is required in most, if not all jurisdictions).  The lawyer also used the payroll document against the wife in a mediation and may have arguably been planning to use the direct examination questions without opposing counsel’s knowledge until the paralegal included the document with the copies of exhibits apparently by mistake.

Be careful out there and don’t do this (if it is true)!

Disclaimer:  this e-mail 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.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Colorado lawyer suspended for 18 months for disclosing confidential information in response to client internet criticism

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent disciplinary opinion suspending a Colorado lawyer for 18 months for disclosing confidential client information in response to their internet criticism.  The disciplinary opinion is People v. James C. Underhill Jr. Case No. 15PDJ040 (consolidated with 15PDJ044 and 15PDJ059) (August 12, 2015) and is here: http://www.coloradosupremecourt.us/PDJ/ConditionalAdmissions/Underhill,%20Conditional%20Admission%20of%20Misconduct,%2015PDJ040,%2015PDJ044,%2015PDJ059,%208-12-15.pdf.

The opinion approved the conditional admission of misconduct and suspended the lawyer from the practice of law for eighteen (18) months which will begin after his current suspension ends.  The lawyer admitted that he disclosed client confidential information in response to clients’ internet complaints about his fees or services in two client matters.

In the first matter, a married couple retained the lawyer to assist with the husband’s ongoing post-dissolution dispute with his former spouse. The clients could not pay all the fees up and the lawyer verbally agreed to monthly payments, with an initial $1,000.00 deposit; however, “he did not explain that he reserved the right to demand full payment at his sole discretion.  He collected an additional $200.00 for a ‘filing fee,’ though he took no action that required such a fee.”

The lawyer also “failed to adequately communicate with the clients and did not inform them of opposing counsel’s objections to their discovery responses. Underhill later threatened to withdraw in two business days unless the clients made full payment of all fees. When the couple terminated the representation, (lawyer) declined to refund the $200.00 ‘filing fee.’”

The clients posted complaints about the lawyer on two different websites. The lawyer responded with “internet postings that publicly shamed the couple by disclosing highly sensitive and confidential information gleaned from attorney-client discussions.”  The lawyer then sued the couple for defamation and communicated directly with them, although “he knew that the couple had retained counsel, (lawyer) communicated with them ex parte on several occasions, even though their counsel repeatedly implored him not to do so.”  When that suit was dismissed, the lawyer filed a second defamation action in a different court, “alleging without adequate factual basis that the couple had made other defamatory internet postings.”

In a second matter, the lawyer represented a couple  to renegotiate a lease for their business. The couple eventually became dissatisfied with the lawyer’s services and terminated him. The clients posted a complaint about the lawyer on the Better Business Bureau’s website. The lawyer responded by providing an attorney-client communication and making “uncomplimentary observations about and accusations against the couple based on confidential information related to the representation.”

The lawyer’s 18 month suspension will begin after he serves a current suspension of 3 months and one day for communicating directly with his former clients who were represented by counsel while on disciplinary probation. That disciplinary order is here: http://www.coloradosupremecourt.us/PDJ/OpinionsAndSummaries/Underhill,%20Revocation%20of%20Probation,%2012PDJ071,%206-29-15.pdf.

The suspension takes effect on October 1, 2015.  After the suspension period, he must apply for reinstatement and prove by clear and convincing evidence that he has been rehabilitated, that he has complied with the disciplinary orders and rules, and that he is fit to practice law. 

The lawyer was also suspended for one year and one day for trust account violations in 2012.  That disciplinary order is here:  http://www.coloradosupremecourt.com/PDJ/ConditionalAdmissions/Underhill,%20Conditional%20Admission%20of%20Misconduct,%2012PDJ071,%2010-1-12.pdf

According to the Colorado Supreme Court’s website, the opinions of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge are final orders and may be appealed to the Supreme Court; however, since the opinion approved an agreed conditional admission of misconduct, it will not be appealed.

Bottom line: This is yet another cautionary tale for lawyers practicing in the digital age.  As all lawyers know, attorney/client confidences must be preserved unless the client authorizes disclosure (preferably be in writing) or there is an exception to the confidentiality rule, such as defending a Bar complaint or malpractice action.  A client’s criticism of the lawyer on internet websites is certainly not one of those exceptions and revealing confidential information in response to criticism on those platforms is a violation of the Bar rules.

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.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New York ethics opinion states that lawyers cannot reveal client confidences solely to respond to a former client’s criticism on a lawyer-rating website

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New York State Bar Association ethics opinion which states that lawyers cannot reveal client confidences solely to respond to a former client’s criticism on a lawyer-rating website. The opinion is: New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics Opinion 1032 (10/30/2014) and the opinion is here: http://www.nysba.org/CustomTemplates/Content.aspx?id=52969.

A New York law firm sent a request for an opinion stating that it “believes that a ‘disgruntled’ former client has unfairly characterized the firm’s representation of the former client on a website that provides reviews of lawyers. A note posted by the former client said that the former client regretted the decision to retain the firm, and it asserted that the law firm provided inadequate services, communicated inadequately with the client, and did not achieve the client’s goals. The note said nothing about the merits of the underlying matter, and it did not refer to any particular communications with the law firm or any other confidential information. The former client has not filed or threatened a civil or disciplinary complaint or made any other application for civil or criminal relief.”

“The law firm disagrees with its erstwhile client’s depiction of its services and asserts that the firm achieved as good a result for the client as possible under the difficult circumstances presented. The firm wishes to respond to the former client’s criticism by telling its side of the story if it may do so consistently with its continuing duties to preserve a former client’s confidential information.”

The question posed was: “When a lawyer’s former client posts accusations about the lawyer’s services on a website, may the lawyer post a response on the website that tends to rebut the accusations by including confidential information relating to that client?”
The opinion discussed whether a lawyer “may rely on the ‘self-defense’ exception to the duty of confidentiality set forth in Rule 1.6, which as to former clients is incorporated by Rule 1.9(c). Rule 1.6(b)(5)(i) says that a lawyer ‘may reveal or use confidential information to the extent that the lawyer reasonably believes necessary … to defend the lawyer or the lawyer’s employees and associates against an accusation of wrongful conduct’ to disclose the former client’s confidential information in responding to a negative web posting, even though there is no actual or threatened proceeding against the lawyer.”

The opinion found that the above exception does not apply and that “(a) lawyer may not disclose client confidential information solely to respond to a former client’s criticism of the lawyer posted on a website that includes client reviews of lawyers.”

Bottom line: Lawyers be aware: according to this opinion, a lawyer may not include confidential information in responding to a negative posting by an ex-client (or current client for that matter) on a lawyer-rating website (or other third party website).

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.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
jcorsmeier@jac-law.com
http://www.jac-law.com

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Georgia lawyer reprimanded for violating lawyer/client confidentiality in responding to client’s negative internet reviews

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Georgia Supreme Court disciplinary opinion which imposed a reprimand on a lawyer who violated attorney/client confidentiality in response to negative reviews that a client had made on internet “consumer Internet pages”. The opinion is In the Matter of Margrett A. Skinner, Case No. S14Y0661 (Ga. Supreme Court 5/19/14) and the disciplinary opinion is here: http://www.gasupreme.us/sc-op/pdf/s14y0661.pdf

According to the opinion, the lawyer submitted a petition for voluntary discipline for a review panel reprimand, which was rejected and a special master was assigned to conduct proceedings and hold proceedings and an evidentiary hearing. In his report, the special master found that a client retained the lawyer in July 2009 to represent her in an uncontested divorce, and paid $900.00, including $150.00 for the filing fee.

The client had no contact from the lawyer for six weeks and, after multiple attempts to contact the lawyer, the client was able to reach her in October 2009. The lawyer said that she had lost the documents that the client had given to her in July 2009. The lawyer and the client then met again and the lawyer then began to draft pleadings for the divorce. The initial drafts of the pleadings had multiple errors, and the lawyer and the client exchanged several drafts and communicated by e-mail about the status of the case in October and early November 2009. These communications ended by mid-November 2009 and there were no more communications until March 18, 2010, when the client told the lawyer that her husband would not sign the divorce papers without revisions.

There was a dispute over fees and expenses and the lawyer asked the client for an additional $185.00 for travel expenses and the filing fee. In April and early May 2010, the lawyer and the client exchanged e-mails about the request for additional fees and expenses. On May 18, 2010, the client told the lawyer that she had hired another lawyer and asked the lawyer to deliver her file to her new lawyer and refund $750.00. The lawyer said that she would not release the file unless she was paid. The lawyer eventually refunded $650.00 to the client; however, she never provided the file to the new lawyer, stating that it had only her “work product.” The new lawyer completed the divorce within three months of being retained.

The client then posted negative reviews of the lawyer on three “consumer Internet pages”. When the lawyer learned of the negative internet reviews, she posted an online response which contained personal and confidential information about the client which the lawyer had obtained in the course of the representation. The lawyer identified the client by name, identified the employer of the client, stated how much the client had paid, identified the county where the divorce had been filed, and stated that the client had a boyfriend.

The client subsequently filed a Bar complaint against. In her response in August 2011, the lawyer said that she would remove her posting from the internet; however, it was not removed until February 2012.

The special master held a hearing and found that the lawyer violated Georgia Bar Rule 1.4 (communication with client) when she failed to keep her client reasonably informed of the status of the divorce between July and October 2010, and Georgia Bar Rule 1.6 (confidentiality) when she disclosed confidential information about the client on the Internet. After discussing the underlying circumstances and mitigation, the special master recommended a public reprimand.

The disciplinary opinion stated “(i)n this case, the improper disclosure of confidential information was isolated and limited to a single client, it does not appear that the information worked or threatened substantial harm to the interests of the client, and there are significant mitigating circumstances.” The opinion imposed a public reprimand and required the lawyer to consult with the Georgia Bar’s Law Practice Management Program and implement any suggestions in her law practice.

Bottom line: As it is with personal digital/internet communication (including e-mail, texting, and facebook etc.), this is a clear example of how the internet can make it much too easy to react quickly and badly to a perceived slight, such as a bad client internet review. Before responding to any internet postings, a lawyer must seriously consider the ethical implications and not act impulsively, which this lawyer apparently did.

Let’s be careful out there.

Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert blog 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.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
jcorsmeier@jac-law.com
http://www.jac-law.com

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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney/client confidentiality, Attorney/client privilege and confidentiality, Communication with clients, Florida Lawyer Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer revealing client confidential information on internet, Lawyer sanctions

D.C lawyer disbarred for, inter alia, filing frivolous motions, failing to appear, introducing confidential records into public record, and fabricating appeal record

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals opinion disbarring a lawyer who, inter alia, filed several frivolous and inflammatory motions, failed to appear at a deposition of an important witness, failed to file certain motions which prejudiced the client, introduced the client’s confidential medical records into the public record, and sought and received a six month continuance of the client’s trial without her consent. In another matter, the lawyer failed to include fact witnesses in a pretrial statement which caused his client’s case to be dismissed and then fabricated a pretrial statement on appeal. The opinion is In re Ellis S. Frison, Jr., Case No. 13-BG-545 (D.C. Ct. of Appeals 4/24/14) and the opinion is here: http://www.dccourts.gov/internet/documents/13-BG-545.pdf

According to the opinion, the lawyer represented a client in an employment discrimination suit starting in September 2005, until she discharged him in November 2008. During the representation, the lawyer filed several frivolous and inflammatory motions, failed to appear at a deposition of an important witness who was hostile to the client, failed to file certain motions which prevented the client from presenting evidence for her retaliation claims, placed the client’s confidential medical records into the public record without justification, and sought and received a six month continuance of the client’s trial without consulting with her or obtaining her consent.

After the client discharged the lawyer in November 2008, he threatened her and refused to release her file to her. She then filed a Bar complaint and initiated an arbitration claim seeking repayment of some of the fees she had paid to the lawyer. The lawyer then submitted inconsistent bills that he had never given the client and which inflated the amount owed under the initial fee agreement.

After an award was entered against the lawyer, he filed a civil suit against her using the same falsified billing records that the arbitrator had rejected. He also submitted similar falsified billing records to the Bankruptcy Court, where he had filed a claim against the client. The opinion states that “(the lawyer) repeatedly submitted (the client’s) confidential medical records subject to attorney-client privilege into the public records in these and other proceedings.

In a second matter, the lawyer represented a client and her minor daughter in a personal injury action. He failed to identify any fact witnesses in the joint pretrial statement and was not able to put any fact witnesses on at trial to establish that the defendant had caused the client’s daughter’s injuries. The court then entered a judgment as a matter of law for the defendant. On appeal, respondent submitted a fabricated joint pretrial statement that included fact witnesses, and told the appeals court (the same court that issued this opinion) at oral argument that he had sent the fabricated document to opposing counsel prior to trial.

Bottom line: This lawyer certainly stretched the limit of how many Bar rules can be found to have been violated in a single Bar discipline matter. The misconduct also occurred at the trial and appellate levels and, amazingly, the lawyer fabricated a document in an appeal before the appellate court which determines discipline in D.C. Bar cases.

Let’s be careful out there.

Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert blog 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.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
jcorsmeier@jac-law.com
http://www.jac-law.com

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The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors considers revisions to confidentiality, trust account and fee rules and include definitions of retainers, flat fees, and advance fees

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Notice of the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors of its intent to consider changes to the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. The Notice is in the February 15, 2014 Florida Bar News and is on the Bar’s website here: http://www.floridabar.org/DIVCOM/JN/jnnews01.nsf/8c9f13012b96736985256aa900624829/d77053b5698a70ef85257c7b004b3384!OpenDocument

The most significant of the proposed revisions would amend Rule 4-1.6 to permit lawyers and law firms to reveal some confidential client information when a lawyer is changing law firms or law firms are merging if the confidential information will not injure the client. The proposed change to Rule 4-1.6 would add subsection (c)(6) to provide for limited disclosure of information “to detect and resolve conflicts of interest between lawyers in different firms arising from the lawyer’s change of employment or from changes in the composition or ownership of a firm, but only if the revealed information would not compromise the attorney-client privilege or otherwise prejudice the client.” Language would also be added subsection (e) to provide that, “A lawyer must make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client.”

Another proposed revision would amend Rule 4-1.5 stating that nonrefundable fees are considered earned on receipt and must not be placed in lawyers’ trust accounts and also providing a definition for retainers, flat fees, and advance fees. The Comment to Rule 4-1.5 would also provide, “A nonrefundable retainer or nonrefundable flat fee is the property of the lawyer and should not be held in trust. If a client gives the lawyer a negotiable instrument that represents both an advance on costs plus either a nonrefundable retainer or a nonrefundable flat fee, the entire amount should be deposited into the lawyer’s trust account, then the portion representing the earned nonrefundable retainer or nonrefundable flat fee should be withdrawn within a reasonable time. An advance fee must be held in trust until it is earned. Nonrefundable fees are, as all fees, subject to the prohibition against excessive fees.”

The proposed revisions would also amend Rule 5-1.1 and create an exception within subdivision (a)(1) related to commingling to permit a lawyer to deposit sufficient funds into the lawyer’s trust account to make up a shortfall in the trust account caused by misappropriation, bank error, bank charge or a bounced check.

The amendments to Rule 4-1.6 resulted from recommendations made by the ABA Ethics Commission 20/20 and, as I pointed out in a previous Ethics Alert, the amendments to Rule 4-1.5 resulted from an earlier attempt by The Florida Bar to amend the Comment to Rule 4-1.5 which was rejected by the Florida Supreme Court in an opinion stating that any definitions should be in the rule, not the comment. According to the Notice, if you would like a copy of the text of any of the proposed amendment, you can e-mail jgreen@flabar.org or call Janellen Green at (850) 561-5751. You should refer to the title or item number and the date of publication (2/15/14).

Bottom line: If approved by the BOG and implemented by the Florida Supreme Court, these rule revisions would clarify issues related to confidentiality when a lawyer leaves a law firm and/or the law firm is purchased, prevent lawyers who place funds into a trust account to reduce shortages from being charged with commingling, clarify the nature of a non-refundable fee, and provide definitions for retainers, flat fees, and advance fees.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and is for informational purposes only. It 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.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
jcorsmeier@jac-law.com
http://www.jac-law.com

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