Category Archives: attorney/client privilege

Two Ohio lawyers receive stayed six-month suspensions for violating client confidences while engaged in a personal relationship

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Ohio Supreme Court Order imposing a six month stayed suspension on two lawyers who violated client confidences while engaged in a personal romantic relationship.  The case style is: The Disciplinary Counsel v. Holmes and Kerr, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4308 and the opinion is here:  https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2018/2018-Ohio-4308.pdf

According to the stipulated facts, the lawyers began a romantic relationship after meeting at a conference in November 2014. They represented different public school districts and were employed by different law firms.  Between January 2015 and November 2016, the lawyers exchanged more than a dozen e-mails in which they disclosed confidential client information.

According to the opinion, one of the lawyers (Kerr) generally forwarded e-mails from her clients asking for documents to the other lawyer (Holmes), who then provided the legal documents that he had prepared for clients with similar requests.  According to the opinion, “In about one-third of these email exchanges, Holmes had ultimately completed Kerr’s work for her.”

The opinion further states that Holmes was terminated from his law firm in June 2016 after the disclosure of confidential client information was discovered.  A partner in Holmes’ law firm then filed a Bar complaint against Holmes and notified Kerr’s firm about the confidential e-mail exchanges.  Notwithstanding the termination and notification, the lawyers continued to trade information. Kerr resigned from her law firm in November 2016.

Both lawyers stipulated to a violation of two Bar rules: improper disclosure of confidential information, and conduct which adversely reflects on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law.  The opinion states: “We agree that Holmes and Kerr engaged in the stipulated misconduct and that based on our precedent, a stayed six-month suspension is appropriate. We therefore adopt the parties’ consent-to-discipline agreements.”

Bottom line: This is a rare example of lawyers who were involved in a personal relationship being disciplined for violating attorney/client confidentiality.  The Ohio disciplinary agency was advised of the lawyers’ conduct by a partner in one of the lawyer’s firm, and both lawyers stipulated that they had violated Bar rules related to confidentiality and conduct adversely reflecting the lawyer’s fitness to practice.  Unless there is an exception or the client consents, confidential information cannot be provided to another person or otherwise disseminated.

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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Florida Supreme Court specifically incorporates lawyer-fiduciary privilege into the Florida Evidence Code, F.S. §90.5021

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court opinion adopting and incorporating lawyer/fiduciary privilege into Florida Evidence Code, F.S. §90.5021.  The Supreme Court opinion adopting the revisions is In Re: Amendments to the Florida Evidence Code – 2017 Out of Cycle Report, Case No. SC17-1005 (January 25, 2018) and the court’s opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2018/sc17-1005.pdf

As background, in 2011, the Florida Legislature enacted F.S. §90.5021, which applies the privilege to attorney communications with a client who is a trustee, personal representative, or guardian to the same extent as if the client were not acting as a fiduciary.  The statute was intended to end the issue of whether beneficiaries should be given access to information and advice given to fiduciaries by their lawyers and the statute appeared to confirm that they should not be provided such information and advice.

Also in 2011, the Florida Bar’s Probate Rules Committee petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to adopt an amendment to Florida Probate Rule 5.240(b)(2), which provides the requirements for notices of estate administration.  The amendment required the notice to include a statement that “the fiduciary lawyer-client privilege in section 90.5021, Florida Statutes, applies with respect to the personal representative and any attorney employed by the personal representative.”   This probate rule was approved by the Florida Supreme Court, effective September 28, 2011.

The Florida Evidence Code provisions which contain substantive law are reviewed and implemented by the Florida legislature and the procedural provisions are reviewed and implemented by the Florida Supreme Court; therefore, the court does not review and implement substantive law provisions.

In 2014, the Florida Supreme Court declined to adopt proposed F.S. §90.5021, which would have protected attorney/fiduciary privilege in the Florida Statutes.  This created a conflict with the previously approved Florida Probate Rule, which applied the privilege created by the 2011 F.S. §90.5021 to fiduciaries, which caused uncertainty.

To attempt to resolve this uncertainty, The Florida Bar’s Probate Rules Committee and the Code and Rules of Evidence Committee filed an out of cycle report and petition requesting the Court to resolve the conflict and implement the statutory provision to the extent that it is procedural.  In response to that petition, the Florida Supreme Court issued its opinion adopting §90.5021, Fla. Stat., which provides that the attorney-client privilege applies even when the client is a fiduciary to the extent that it is procedural.  The opinion stated that the provision “is effective retroactively to June 21, 2011, the date it became law.”

Bottom line:  I have discussed this issue and the uncertainty with lawyers and in seminars since the issue arose in 2014.  This opinion resolves the uncertainty and protects the lawyer/fiduciary privilege along with Florida Probate Rule 5.240(b)(2) and it is unlikely that the legislature will challenge the statutory provision as substantive.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

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

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Filed under .S. Supreme Court, Attorney fiduciary privilege, attorney-client privilege, attorney/client privilege, Attorney/client privilege and confidentiality, Confidentiality and privilege, Florida Bar, Florida Statutes lawyer fiduciary privilege, Florida Supreme Court, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier

Florida Bar’s former president responds and opposes Bar’s motion to disqualify him from TIKD v. Florida Bar/Ticket Clinic antitrust suit

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert Update which will discuss the recent responses to the Bar’s Motion to Disqualify by its former president, Ramon Abadin.  The Response claims, inter alia, that the information that received was public record; that even if it was confidential, it is not substantially related to the matter; he has no duty of loyalty; that the Bar did not object to his representation in the UPL matters; and that he will not be a necessary witness in the lawsuit.  The case is TIKD Services LLC, v. The Florida Bar, et al., Case No. 1:17-cv-24103-MGC (U.S. District Court Southern District of Florida-Miami Division).

As I previously blogged, on December 1, 2017, The Florida Bar filed a Motion to Disqualify Ramón A. Abadin alleging that, during his 2015-16 term as president, he “was provided attorney-client and attorney work-product communications and advice about and involving the specific antitrust issues and allegations asserted in this action”, including an amicus brief that was filed in the U.S. Supreme Court case of North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission, 135 S. Ct. 1101 (2015).  In that opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the N.C. dental board did not have state action immunity because its decisions were final and not subject to review. The Florida Bar joined in an amicus brief in that case arguing state action immunity should apply.

The former Bar president and TIKD have now filed responses in opposition to the Bar’s Motion to Disqualify.  In his “Response on Behalf of Plaintiff’s Counsel Ramon Abadin in Opposition to The Florida Bar Defendant’s Motion to Disqualify Plaintiff’s Counsel and Incorporated Memorandum of Law” dated December 19, 2017, Mr. Abadin states:

Disqualification of Mr. Abadin is not warranted for the following reasons:

  1. Mr. Abadin is not in violation of specific Bar Rules regarding disqualification based upon prior service with the Bar;
  1. The alleged “confidential” information received when Mr. Abadin was an executive officer of The Florida Bar or a member of the Board of Governors regarding the Bar’s response to the Dental Examiners case (other than legal advice) is public information;
  1. Even assuming the information received by Mr. Abadin is confidential, such information is not relevant to the cause of action in this lawsuit and, therefore, is not substantially related to this matter and would not be used to the Bar’s disadvantage;
  1. Mr. Abadin’s fiduciary duty of loyalty to The Florida Bar ended when his service as President was complete, which was prior to the time Plaintiff was formed;
  1. The Florida Bar did not object to Mr. Abadin’s representation of Plaintiff in connection with the Bar’s UPL investigation; and
  1. Mr. Abadin is not a necessary witness, and Plaintiff does not intend to call Mr. Abadin as a witness on its behalf.

Bottom line:  As I previously stated, this is one of the first cases in Florida which directly alleges that The Florida Bar’s procedures violate the Sherman Antitrust Act based upon the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission.  As an added element of drama, the Bar has filed a motion to disqualify Ramon Abadin, its recent former president, from representing the plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Bar and Abadin and TIKD have now filed responses in opposition to the motion.

Stay tuned…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

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

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Attorney Ethics, Attorney/client confidentiality, attorney/client privilege, Attorney/client privilege and confidentiality, Confidentiality, Confidentiality and privilege, Florida Bar TIKD antitrust lawsuit, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer antitrust, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, North Carolina Dental Board, North Carolina dental whitening case and UPL, TIKD v. Florida Bar antitrust federal lawsuit, TIKD v. Florida Bar motion to disqualify ex-president

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

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

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

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Florida Supreme Court finds that attorney-client privilege prohibits inquiries into lawyer/doctor referral relationships

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the important very recent Florida Supreme Court opinion which prohibit inquiries by defense counsel into referral relationships between the plaintiff’s law firm and a physician.  The case is Worley v. Central Florida Young Men’s Christian Ass’n, Inc., No. SC15-1086 (Fla. SC April 13, 2017).  The Florida Supreme Court opinion is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2017/sc15-1086.pdf

The Florida Supreme Court considered the case because of a certified conflict under art. V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const. in the opinions of the Fifth District Court of Appeal (in this case) and the Second District Court of Appeal (in Burt v. Government Employees Ins. Co., 603 So. 2d 125 (Fla. 2d DCA 1992).

According to the opinion, Heather Worley was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against YMCA after she allegedly fell in a Florida YMCA parking lot.  Worley was represented by Morgan & Morgan.  At Worley’s depositions, YMCA’s lawyer asked if she was referred to her specialists by her attorneys and Worley’s lawyer objected on the ground that the information was attorney-client privileged.

YMCA then served interrogatories directed to specific doctors employed by three medical providers with whom Worley treated and also served a supplemental request to produce to Morgan & Morgan, to attempt to establish the existence of a referral relationship between Morgan & Morgan and the treating physicians.  The opinion states that “(t)hese efforts were based on YMCA’s suspicions that there was a ‘cozy agreement’ between Morgan & Morgan and the physicians, due to the amounts of Worley’s medical bills.”

Worley objected (through Morgan & Morgan) and stated that the discovery requests were “overbroad, vague, unduly and financially burdensome, irrelevant and in violation [of] allowable discovery pursuant to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.280(b)(4).”  She also contended that Morgan & Morgan does not maintain “information for treating physicians as in this matter, or otherwise.”

At a hearing on Worley’s objections, “the trial court only sustained Worley’s objection to the question regarding whether she was referred to the doctors by her attorneys and ‘did not address Worley’s objections to YMCA’s other outstanding discovery requests at that time.’”  The Fifth DCA upheld the lower court’s order and relied on Florida district court decisions which held that the financial relationship between a law firm and a plaintiff’s treating physician is discoverable if evidence of a referral relationship can be shown.  Those cases relied upon the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Allstate Ins. Co. v. Boecher, 733 So. 2d 993 (Fla. 1999).

In its 4-3 decision, the Court rejected the application of Boecher and found that the defense attorneys were prohibited from inquiring about the referral relationships between plaintiff’s firm, Morgan & Morgan, and Sea Spine Orthopedic Institute stating that “(a)llowing further discovery into a possible relationship between the physician and the plaintiff’s law firm would only serve to uncover evidence that, even if relevant, would require the production of communications and materials that are protected by attorney-client privilege.”  “We do not agree with the Fifth District’s attempt to circumvent the attorney-client privilege out of perceived necessity. The attorney-client privilege is the oldest confidential communication privilege known in the common law.”

“Even in cases where a plaintiff’s medical bills appear to be inflated for the purposes of litigation, we do not believe that engaging in costly and time-consuming discovery to uncover a “cozy agreement” between the law firm and a treating physician is the appropriate response. We are concerned that this type of discovery would have a chilling effect on doctors who may refuse to treat patients who could end up in litigation out of fear of becoming embroiled in the litigation themselves. Moreover, we worry that discovery orders such as the one in this case will inflate the costs of litigation to the point that some plaintiffs will be denied access to the courts, as attorneys will no longer be willing to advance these types of costs. Finally, attempting to discover this information requires the disclosure of materials that would otherwise be protected under the attorney-client privilege.”

The Supreme Court opinion quashed Fifth DCA’s decision permitting the discovery and approved the decision of the Second DCA.

Bottom line: This case is important since it addresses and appears to settle the question of whether the defense in a personal injury case (or any case) can use discovery to attempt to determine if there is a “cozy” relationship between the plaintiff’s law firm and treating medical providers.  The opinion found that the information sought was protected by the attorney/client privilege, §90.502(2), Fla. Stat., and that the discovery was prohibited.

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 .S. Supreme Court, attorney/client privilege, Attorney/client privilege and confidentiality, Attorney/client privilege discovery of referral relationships with doctors, Confidentiality and privilege, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics duties re subpoena for client confidential documents and information, prohibition of inquiries into lawyer/doctor referrals