Category Archives: Confidentiality and privilege

Michigan board recommends disbarment for lawyer who allegedly lied about, inter alia, being on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Michigan Disciplinary Board opinion recommending disbarment for lawyer who allegedly lied about his qualifications and participation on a U.S. Olympic team.  The case is Michigan Grievance Administrator, v. Ali S. Zaidi, Case No. 14-117-GA (January 11, 2017).  The Disciplinary Board’s opinion is here: http://www.adbmich.org/coveo/opinions/2017-01-11-14o-117.pdf

According to the Board opinion, the lawyer made misrepresentations that “run the gamut from outlandish and extravagant to what might be termed modifications of his record inspired by some actual events”.  The lawyer misrepresented and inflated the time of his employment and invented fictional summer associate positions at law firms where he worked at other times.  He was employed for short periods by law firms in Connecticut and Missouri and he falsely claimed that he was admitted to practice in those states.

The lawyer also falsely claimed that he was on the 1996 U.S. Olympic field hockey team and that he had a master of liberal arts from Harvard University.  He also maintained a website that represented that his law firm, called Great Lakes Legal Group, was associated with multiple lawyers at several locations around the country.  The lawyer admitted that this representation was false and that law firm was just an “idea that is still in progress.”

A disciplinary hearing was scheduled before a Board panel.  The lawyer requested that the hearing be continued because of a birthday party for his children and later because he could not obtain child care. The request was denied and the hearing was held without his presence.  The panel found the lawyer guilty, found numerous aggravating factors, and recommended disbarment.

The lawyer filed a petition for review claiming that he missed the hearing because his daughter was recovering from surgery on her eye; however, the disciplinary board found that the lawyer had been provided proper notice and upheld the decision not to continue the hearing.

The lawyer appeared at the sanctions hearing before the panel and admitted that he made misrepresentations regarding his qualifications since he was “scared nobody would hire me if they realized why I was moving around so much…and I wanted to create this impression of longevity and create this impression of consistency of my movements.”

According to the Board opinion, the lawyer “did not present any coherent reason or evidence for his conduct that could be viewed as mitigating, in part, he claimed, because he did not want to inconvenience his character witnesses. Furthermore, he failed to present any argument on what sanction would be appropriate.”

The Board opinion found that, “(c)ollectively, (the lawyer’s) actions are indicative of a cumulative pattern of a lack of honesty and candor, which is contrary to the fundamental characteristics of an attorney. Although respondent does not have any prior discipline, there is no question he has an established track record of deceit. Given the number and pattern of violations, respondent’s dishonesty, and his overall lack of candor and cooperation, the panel properly found that disbarment is appropriate in this case.”

Bottom line:  This a somewhat bizarre case, to put it mildly.  The lawyer appears to have a problem with the truth and apparently tried to justify his actions with self-serving excuses.  The Michigan Supreme Court will now review the case and determine the sanction.

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 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

 

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N.J. Supreme Court reverses reprimand and dismisses complaint against lawyer who posted allegedly confidential information on his website

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court opinion reversing a Disciplinary Review Board’s reprimand recommendation and dismissing a complaint against lawyer who was alleged to have posted client confidential information on his website.  The disciplinary case is In the Matter of Jay J. Chatarpaul, Docket No. 15-134 (July 15, 2016).  The opinion is here: http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1073877 and the Review Board’s Decision is here: http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1068061

According to the Decision, the disciplinary complaint originated from a discrimination lawsuit filed by the lawyer against Rite Aid on behalf of his client Rameena Khan, which was ultimately settled. The settlement agreement stated:

Plaintiff’s Attorney agrees that as of the execution of this Agreement, it [sic] has removed: (a) any and all articles, blogs, or other writings that have been authored, posted, publicized or controlled by it [sic], which disparage or discuss the Lawsuit, Complaint, Federal Action, Amended Complaint, the Trial or the Appeal in any manner whatsoever, from the Internet and elsewhere, including but not limited to the articles attached hereto as Exhibit A; and (b) all hyperlinks and references to said articles from the Internet. In addition, [respondent] agrees not to write any further articles or blogs, or make any nonprivileged statements, regarding or referencing the Lawsuit, the Complaint, the Amended Complaint, the Federal Action, the Trial or the Appeal.

The lawyer had previously published an article on his website discussing, inter alia, the facts of the case and alleged errors made by the Superior Court Judge who presided over the case:

At trial, the case was assigned to Judge Christine Farrington. Judge Farrington was recently appointed as a judge of the Superior Court and took the bench in June 2010. Prior to being appointed judge, Judge Farrington spent 10 years as deputy counsel for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and worked in claims administration, risk management and environmental matters.  During the trial, Judge Farrington made various prejudicial comments suggesting lack of impartiality, improperly excluding [sic] evidence and testimonies, etc., which are the subject of a pending appeal. Judge Farrington excluded various documents and testimonies, including documents and witnesses relating to the unemployment appeals hearing, documents and witnesses relating to Ms. Lazzaro [sic] termination and replacement, and other matters that are the subject of an appeal. The plaintiff’s position is that the jury’s verdict in favor of Rite Aid was the product of many errors of the trial judge, including various comments suggesting favoritism towards the position of Rite Aid. The plaintiff is confident that the appellate courts would [sic] grant a new trial based on these perceived errors.

The lawyer testified that although “in retrospect, he should not have made such statements about the judge and her rulings, respondent did not believe they were unethical. Still, he would not publish such an article again because he did not want to be the subject of another ethics investigation.”

The New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics advised the lawyer to remove the article from his website because it allegedly contained client confidential information.  The lawyer removed the article from his website; however, it was still visible through a Google search.  The lawyer also argued that the information was public record and prohibiting him from publishing it would violate the First Amendment.

According to the Decision, “In respondent’s view, after the hyperlink had been removed from the law firm’s website, the article remained within the internet archives, but he did not know how to ‘get rid of that.'”  The Special Master found that the lawyer’s representations that he had removed the article constituted “gross negligence” since the article was still accessible on the internet, that the article violated the New Jersey lawyer advertising rules, and that the failure to remove the article was prejudicial to the administration of justice since the lawyer “failed to take reasonable and necessary steps to make sure the Kahn [sic] Article was completely removed from the Internet (especially after Respondent received the OAE’s April 8, 2013 letter), and that his failure to do so has unnecessarily consumed resources of the State.”

In the New Jersey Disciplinary Review Board Decision, four members recommended a reprimand, one member voted for an admonition, and another member voted to dismiss the disciplinary matter.  The majority found that the article violated client confidentiality and that the lawyer failed to preserve his website pages for 3 years under N.J. Bar Rule 7.2(b) (b) (A copy or recording of an advertisement or communication shall be kept for three years after its last dissemination along with a record of when and where it was used.”  The Decision acknowledged that there was no precedent for applying the requirement to website pages.

The New Jersey Supreme rejected the Disciplinary Review Board’s reprimand recommendation and dismissed the complaint.  The opinion found that “the respondent’s conduct in revealing information that was a matter of public record under the circumstances here did not violate (the client confidentiality rule)” and “there is a lack of precedent for applying RPC 7.2(b) to impose discipline on an attorney for failure to retain webpages of the attorney’s or a law firm’s website.”  The opinion also recommended that the New Jersey advisory committee on professional ethics consider amending the rules to require lawyers to retain their webpages for a minimum period of time.

Bottom line:  The factual and procedural circumstances underlying this opinion are convoluted; however, the lawyer argued that the article that he posted on his website contained public record and prohibiting him from publishing the information would be a violation First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The opinion found that revealing information that is a matter of public record does not violate the New Jersey client confidentiality rules.

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.

Please note:  Effective June 27, 2016, my new office address is:

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150, Clearwater, Florida 33761

E-mail addresses and telephone numbers below will remain the same. 

My main office number, (727) 799-1688, is temporarily unavailable due to a telephone company issue.  Please call (727) 286-6625 (my rollover number) if you need to contact me immediately.   Thank you. 

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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Washington D.C. lawyer receives informal admonition for revealing client confidences in response to client’s negative website comments

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent informal admonishment of a Washington D.C. lawyer who responded to a client’s negative and critical comments and revealed confidential and specific information about her case, her emotional state, and confidential details about the attorney-client relationship.  The disciplinary case is In re John P. Mahoney, Bar Docket No. 2015-D141 and the ODC’s informal admonition letter is here: http://www.dcbar.org/discipline/informal_admonition/20150609Mahoney.pdf.

The D.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) sent the lawyer a letter dated June 9, 2016 stating that the his internet response to a client’s complaint violated D.C. Bar Rule 1.6 since it revealed attorney/client confidential information and there was no exception to the rule allowing the lawyer to reveal the confidences.  Further, the lawyer violated D.C. Bar Rule 8.4(c)  “when (he) posted a further response on the website concerning Disciplinary Counsel’s investigation of the client’s allegations and Disciplinary Counsel’s statements.”  According to the letter, the lawyer’s claim that he had been “cleared” of the charges in the complaint “was, at best, misleading…”.

The ODC letter states:

The client’s principal complaint was that your fees were excessive. She claimed that she had prepared most of the documents you submitted on her behalf and you billed her an inordinate number of hours to proof or edit the documents, but did not advise her that a concise account of the discrimination she suffered would suffice. She further alleged that the expenses you charged were unwarranted and unnecessary. The client also was critical of your representation of her during the mediation, including the settlement demand that you made on her behalf. She claimed that you were verbally abusive, leading to her terminating the relationship.

After the attorney-client relationship ended, the client posted comments about you on a website in which she was highly critical of you and the representation you provided. You responded to her comments and, in doing so, revealed specific information about her case, her emotional state, and what transpired during your attorney-client relationship – although you did not identify the client by name.

The letter found that there was no misconduct found in the lawyer’s underlying representation of the client.  Under the D.C. Bar rules, since the lawyer did not submit a written request for a hearing within 14 days of the ODC letter, the informal admonition constitutes final discipline.  The lawyer must also complete three hours of CLE related to a lawyer’s confidentiality obligations.

Bottom line:  This lawyer responded to what he believed were false allegations by a client on a public website and provided attorney/client confidential information in defending himself.  Unfortunately, responding  to internet allegations is not one of the exceptions to the Bar confidentiality rules (Rule 4-1.6 in Florida) which permits a lawyer to reveal client confidences.

As I have stated in my earlier blogs on this topic, in our digital/instant communication brave new world, it is 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 and reveal confidential information, which may result in a Bar investigation and potential sanctions.

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.

Please note:  Effective June 27, 2016, my new office address is:

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150, Clearwater, Florida 33761

E-mail addresses and telephone numbers below will remain the same. 

My main office number, (727) 799-1688, is temporarily unavailable due to a telephone company issue.  Please call (727) 286-6625 (my rollover number) if you need to contact me immediately.   Thank you. 

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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Illinois lawyer censured for settling deceased client’s injury case without informing court or opposing counsel of the death

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent censure of an Illinois lawyer for settling a deceased client’s personal injury case without informing court or opposing counsel of the client’s death.  The case is In the Matter of: Anthony Patrick Gilbreth, No. 6289576, Commission No. 2015PR00100 (Ill. SC May 18, 2016).  The summary of the censure is here: http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/supremecourt/Announce/2016/051816.pdf.

The lawyer’s law firm filed a lawsuit against Orthotic & Prosthetic Lab (O&P) on behalf of a client in 2008 which alleged that a prosthesis that O&P had designed, manufactured, and sold had failed.  The client subsequently died in January 2013 and, in August 2013, his son was appointed administrator of the estate.  In September 2013, O&P offered to settle the case for $110,000.00.  The lawyer responded and stated that his client had instructed him to accept it.

The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission’s (ARDC) petition for discipline states: “At the time of the settlement, defense counsel was unaware because (the lawyer) had not told him that (the client) had died.” “(The lawyer) withheld the fact of (the client’s) in part because he knew that (the client’s) death would reduce the value of any claim for damages.  (The lawyer) also felt that it would be improper to reveal (the client’s) death because (the lawyer)  thought that information was confidential under Rule 1.6 of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, and its revelation would harm his former client’s claim. (The lawyer) did research the issue and discussed it with other attorneys in his firm, but did not research ARDC case precedent, discussed infra, in which attorneys have been disciplined for failure to disclose his or her client’s death under similar circumstances.”

According to the petition for discipline, on November 15, 2013, the lawyer sent defense counsel an amended release and informed him that the client had died and that the client’s son had been appointed administrator of the estate.  Defense counsel responded by informing the lawyer that the settlement (which had not yet been paid) was no longer valid. The trial court allowed the client’s son to substitute in as plaintiff on January 21, 2014, and granted the lawyer’s motion to enforce the settlement agreement. The defendant appealed and the appeals court vacated the trial court’s order enforcing the settlement.

The appeals court found that, since the client had died, there was no plaintiff on the date of the purported agreement to settle the case and also that the lawyer’s arguments for concealing the death of his client to be “specious and incredible.”  The appeals court also stated: “in failing to disclose the fact of the plaintiff’s death, Mr. Gilbreth intentionally concealed a material fact that would have reduced the overall value of the claim for damages.”  The court remanded the case to the trial court and, as of the date the parties filed the joint motion to approve the petition to impose discipline on consent, the case filed on behalf of the client remained pending. The lawyer’s Answer to the disciplinary charges is here:  http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/supremecourt/Announce/2016/051816.pdf.

The petition for discipline stated, in mitigation, that the lawyer had not been disciplined since his 2006 admission to practice.  In addition, five lawyers, a reverend from Columbia, and a judge would testify that the lawyer has a good reputation for truth and veracity, the lawyer was cooperative in the disciplinary proceedings, and was remorseful for his conduct.  In aggravation, the petition stated that the lawyer’s “actions in attempting to enforce the settlement, even after being supplied with controlling precedent, caused the defendant to incur the expenses of an appeal to obtain a ruling that the settlement was invalid.”  The ARDC petition for discipline is here: https://www.iardc.org/rd_database/rulesdecisions.html  (type in lawyer’s name).

Bottom line:  This Illinois disciplinary case illustrates the paramount importance of candor in a lawyer’s representation of a client.  The lawyer believed that the information related to the death of the client was confidential; however, the appellate court decision found that the lawyer’s duty of candor supersedes attorney/client confidentiality.

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.

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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