Category Archives: Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge’s Facebook “friendship” with Florida lawyer and former judge leads to motion to disqualify and appeal

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent denial of a Motion to Disqualify a Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge who was “friends” with opposing counsel on Facebook as well as the pending appeal.  The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. d/b/a Herssein Law Group and Reuven T. Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No.: _______________, Lower Tribunal No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Third District Court of Appeal) and the Motion for Writ of Prohibition is here:  http://www.almcms.com/contrib/content/uploads/sites/292/2017/07/FILED-HLG-Petition-for-Writ-of-Prohibition-3D17-1421-1.pdf 

According to the Petition, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko is a “friend” of attorney Israel Reyes on Facebook.  Reyes is also a former Miami-Dade judge who served with Judge Butchko and now has a private law firm in Coral Gables.  Reyes represents a USAA employee in the case who retained separate counsel after Herssein apparently accused the employee of witness tampering.  Herssein told the court that he planned to add the employee as a defendant and Reyes entered an appearance on behalf of the employee/non-party.

The Motion to Disqualify filed by the Herssein law firm on behalf of USAA alleged that the Facebook friendship between the judge and Reyes would cause Reyes to be able to influence the judge, and that she could not be impartial.  The judge denied the motion, stating that it was legally insufficient.  The law firm then filed the Petition for Writ of Prohibition with the Third District Court of Appeal.

The Florida Supreme Court’s Judicial Advisory Committee (JEAC) issued an opinion on this issue in 2009.  The JEAC opinion states that judges should not send or accept social media friend requests from lawyers who may appear before them.  The advisory opinion excludes campaign sites created by a committee.  The opinion is JEAC Op. No. 2009-20 (11/17/09) and is here:  http://www.jud6.org/legalcommunity/legalpractice/opinions/jeacopinions/2009/2009-20.htmlt  The opinion states:

“The Committee believes that listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as “friends” on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer “friends” are in a special position to influence the judge.  This is not to say, of course, that simply because a lawyer is listed as a “friend” on a social networking site or because a lawyer is a friend of the judge, as the term friend is used in its traditional sense, means that this lawyer is, in fact, in a special position to influence the judge.  The issue, however, is not whether the lawyer actually is in a position to influence the judge, but instead whether the proposed conduct, the identification of the lawyer as a “friend” on the social networking site, conveys the impression that the lawyer is in a position to influence the judge.  The Committee concludes that such identification in a public forum of a lawyer who may appear before the judge does convey this impression and therefore is not permitted.”

The JEAC applied the same analysis in a 2012 opinion related to professional networking websites, such as LinkedIn, and stated that there is no “meaningful distinction” between Facebook, and LinkedIn.  The opinion is JEAC Op. No. 2012-12 (5/9/12) and is here:  http://www.jud6.org/legalcommunity/legalpractice/opinions/jeacopinions/2012/2012-12.html.  The opinions states:

The Committee continues to believe that the process of selecting persons to be connections on LinkedIn, and the communication by the judge of the list of the judge’s connections to others who the judge has approved, violates Canon 2B.  The Committee does not believe that there is meaningful distinction in this regard between Facebook, and LinkedIn, a site used for professional networking, because the selection and communication process is the same on both sites.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal relied on the 2009 opinion in a 2012 decision disqualifying a judge in a criminal case for being Facebook friends with the prosecutor. The court found the social media connection could “create in a reasonably prudent person a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.”

USAA argued that the 2012 Fourth DCA decision should not apply since it involved a criminal defendant who might have a reasonable fear of prejudice; however, the law firm is more sophisticated and should not have such a fear only because two judges who both previously sat as judges in Miami-Dade County are “friends” on Facebook.

Other states have also provided guidance on judicial social media use and Florida’s opinion is one of the most restrictive.  California, Kentucky and New York have opined that judges may accept Facebook friend requests from lawyers who may appear before them under certain conditions.  California permits judges to be friends with lawyers on Facebook if those pages are used only for professional activities, such as communications with members of a law school alumni group and other factors include how many friends the judge has, whether he or she declines some attorneys’ friend requests but accepts others and how often the attorney appears before the judge.

Bottom line:  As this case illustrates, judges (and lawyers who may appear before them) would be well advised not to be “friends” or otherwise connect on social media and professional networking sites or, if they are already connected and a case is assigned, to immediately remove the connection and disclose it to all parties and provide an option to recuse if the party believes that it would potentially be prejudiced.

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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Florida lawyer accused of “planning” Allied Veterans scam is reinstated nunc pro tunc after criminal charges were reversed

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Order of the Florida Supreme Court reinstating the license of a lawyer who had been charged with felony crimes for allegedly planning Allied Veterans scam and whose conviction was reversed.  The case is The Florida Bar v. Kelly Bernard Mathis, Case No.: SC13-2031 (Supreme Court of Florida, July 17, 2017) and the SC Order is here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2013/2031/2013-2031_disposition_138842.pdf

As some of you may recall, an alleged financial scam involving an entity called Allied Veterans, based in St. Augustine, was in the media extensively a number of years ago.  The alleged scam involved gambling and “internet cafes”.  The lawyer had advised Allied Veterans that the internet cafes were legal and, after a law enforcement investigation, he was charged with planning the scam and with multiple felonies.  In 2013, Attorney General Pam Bondi said that the lawyer was the “mastermind” behind the alleged $300 million racketeering and money laundering scheme with internet cafes where people were actually illegally gambling.

Although 57 people were arrested, the lawyer was the only defendant who went to trial.  He argued that he was giving legal advice to a client and many lawyers were concerned about what that might mean for the potential criminal liability of attorneys who advise clients on a future course of conduct.  The former presidents of the nonprofit pleaded no contest and the former Fraternal Order of Police president and vice president pleaded guilty and faced no prison time.

The criminal prosecutors argued that, although Allied Veterans claimed that it was a nonprofit organization created to help veterans, it had only given about two percent of its profits to charitable causes.  The prosecutors also argued that the lawyer’s law firm had billed the nonprofit about $6 million for his legal services, although his lawyers stated the amount was most likely less than that and that he only billed for actual work his firm had performed.

During the trial, prosecutors presented testimony from witnesses who said that they had purchased hundreds of hours of internet time but never used it because they actually came to gamble. The lawyers wanted to argue in the lawyer’s defense that the lawyer had properly advised Allied Veterans that it was his opinion that offering a sweepstakes game that was legal under Florida law, which permits sweepstakes if they are used to bring a customer into a business that sells a legal product, such as McDonald’s sweepstakes.  The judge rejected their request to make that argument.

After his conviction on 103 criminal counts, the lawyer was sentenced to six years in prison.  He appealed and the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, finding that the trial judge improperly prohibited his lawyers from arguing that the internet cafes were legal and not gambling.  The Attorney General’s office decided not to pursue charges against the lawyer after the conviction was reversed.

In disciplinary matter, The Florida Bar did not oppose the lawyer’s reinstatement and Fourth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon issued a report in March 2017 recommending that the Florida Supreme Court immediately reinstate the lawyer.  In its July 17, 2017 Order, the Florida Supreme Court reinstated the lawyer nunc pro tunc to the date of his felony suspension in 2013.

Bottom line:  This lawyer was charged with multiple felonies and chose to go to trial instead of accepting a plea bargain which would not have resulted in prison time; however, the conviction would most likely have resulted in his disbarment.  After his trial in 2013, the lawyer was convicted and sentenced to 6 years in prison.  He was also automatically suspended because of the felony conviction.  Pursuant to the Florida Supreme Court’s July 17, 2017 Order, the lawyer was reinstated to practice nunc pro tunc to November 28, 2013, the date of his felony suspension.  The lawyer was ultimately suspended and unable to practice for over 3 ½ years for a conviction that was later reversed.

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

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

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

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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New Jersey joint ethics opinion finds that fees paid to Avvo for client referrals violate New Jersey Bar rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New Jersey joint ethics opinion which found that lawyers in New Jersey are prohibited from participating in client referral services provided by AVVO because the services involve improper lawyer referral fees and fee sharing with a non-lawyer.  The joint ethics opinion is here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5plgfqgi26zuym1/ACPE%20732%20Avvo%2C%20LegalZoom%2C%20Rocket%20Lawyer%206.21.17.pdf?dl=017  and the New Jersey Supreme Court Notice to The Bar of the joint ethics opinion is here: https://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/notices/2017/n170621i.pdf

The joint ethics opinion found that none of the legal service plans interfered with the independent professional judgment of participating lawyers, and Avvo’s procedure of holding fees until the legal services are performed does not violate lawyer trust account rules.

The joint opinion also describes the services offered by three companies’ websites.  Avvo offers two legal services products through its website: “Avvo Advisor” and “Avvo Legal Services”.  Individuals who use “Avvo Advisor” pay a flat fee for a 15-minute phone conversation with a lawyer, while consumers who use “Avvo Legal Services” purchase specific services, such as an uncontested divorce, for a flat fee.  Avvo then deposits the flat fee into the lawyer’s bank account and withdraws a “marketing fee.”

The ethics opinion found the “marketing fee” is an impermissible referral fee, and not a permitted fee for the cost of advertising, as well as an impermissible shared fee between a lawyer and the non-lawyer.  The ethics opinion referred to ethics opinions in Ohio, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania that found marketing fees charged by “Avvo-type companies” were improper referral fees or constituted impermissible fee sharing.

The opinion found that services provided by LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer appear to comply with the ethics rules if they were registered with the courts’ administrative office, as required by New Jersey’s rules.  LegalZoom’s “Business Advantage Pro” and “Legal Advantage Plus” charge a flat monthly fee for legal advice and consumers can purchase additional services from participating lawyers at a discounted rate.  LegalZoom keeps the monthly subscription fees.  Rocket Lawyer’s legal services plan charges a flat fee for limited legal advice on document-related matters and a free 30-minute lawyer consultation.  Rocket Lawyer keeps the subscription fees and participating lawyers can offer legal services at discounted rates.

Bottom line:  This ethics opinion is the most recent which has reviewed the recent legal services plans of AVVO (and other entities) and found that the fee charges in AVVO’s plan constitute improper referral fees and fee sharing.  Other jurisdictions may weigh in with their own ethics opinions in the future (or the rules may be changed).  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

 

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Can a lawyer forgive a client’s costs which were contingent on the outcome and the client’s responsibility under the fee agreement?

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss whether a lawyer can forgive a client’s costs client’s which were contingent on the outcome of the matter and the client’s responsibility under fee agreement.  Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 16-1 states that this would be ethical if the client was not unconditionally responsible for the payment of costs under the fee agreement, the cost forgiveness occurs after the settlement. and the lawyer does not receive any fees for the representation.  The Ethics Opinion is here: Florida Bar Ethics Op. 16-1 and it provides a thorough analysis of ethical considerations surrounding the ethics rule which prohibits providing financial assistance to a client.

Under the facts of the ethics opinion, the lawyer represented a client in a negligence case.  After a lawsuit was filed, an appellate decision changed the law and eliminated the cause of action. A settlement was reached and client’s outstanding medical bills and costs were nearly double the amount of the settlement.  The settlement exceeded the amount of costs advanced by the lawyer by a small amount.

The lawyer had paid the litigation costs on behalf of the client and repayment was contingent on the outcome of the matter. The lawyer stated that he or she would not take fee and would like to reduce the amount of costs owed to the lawyer to allow the client to receive some of the settlement proceeds after payment of liens and any other amounts.

The lawyer requested an opinion as to whether he or she could reduce the amount of the costs that the client owes notwithstanding Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 96-1, which discusses Florida Bar Rule 4-1.8(e) (Financial Assistance to Client) and states that a lawyer cannot agree to be unconditionally responsible to pay for a client’s litigation costs.

The opinion reviewed Florida Bar Rule 4-1.8(e) and discussed Michigan Ethics Opinion RI-14 (1989) which sets forth the underlying reasons for the financial assistance rule.  The Michigan Ethics Opinion states:

“Lawyers may not subsidize lawsuits or administrative proceedings brought on behalf of their clients, including making or guaranteeing loans to their clients for living expenses, because to do so would encourage clients to pursue lawsuits that might not otherwise be brought and because such assistance gives lawyers too great a financial stake in the litigation. These dangers do not warrant a prohibition on a lawyer advancing a client court costs and litigation expenses, including the expenses of diagnostic medical examination used for litigation purposes and the reasonable costs of obtaining and presenting evidence, because these advances are virtually indistinguishable from contingent fees and help ensure access to the courts. Similarly, an exception allowing lawyers representing indigent clients to pay court costs and litigation expenses regardless of whether these funds will be repaid is warranted.”

“MRPC 1.8 (e) is the result of the common law rules against champerty and maintenance. Champerty is an investment in the cause of action of another by purchasing a percentage of any recovery. Maintenance is another form of investment by providing living or other expenses to finance litigation. When a lawyer has a financial stake in the outcome of a client’s lawsuit, there is a legitimate concern that the lawyer’s undivided loyalty to the client may be compromised in an effort to protect the lawyer’s personal financial investment in the outcome. Also financial support to a client could interfere with settlement efforts, by enabling the client to prolong the dispute.”

The opinion then discusses Florida Ethics Opinion 96-1, which addressed the issue of financial assistance to clients.

Under the facts in Ethics Opinion 96-1, a lawyer agreed to be responsible for costs in representing a state agency, regardless of whether there was a recovery.  After discussing Rule 4-1.8(e) and the reasons underlying the rule, the opinion concluded that, “under the plain language of Rule 4-1.8(e), it would be ethically impermissible for the inquiring attorney to unconditionally be responsible for all costs and expenses as provided in the proposed agreement.”

The opinion provides the following summary:

“…the committee is of the opinion that the inquirer’s proposal not to seek reimbursement for some of the costs the inquirer has advanced on behalf of the client is permissible under these specific circumstances: where there has been no agreement for the inquirer to be unconditionally responsible for the costs at the outset of representation, the cost “forgiveness” occurs after settlement, and the inquirer will receive no fees for the representation. The committee believes that the rule’s prohibition is inapplicable because there was no agreement at the outset of representation for the inquirer to be responsible for the costs, and the committee believes that application of the exception to Rule 4-1.8(e) leads to the same result, as the recovery is insufficient to cover all medical bills and litigation costs and the repayment of the costs is therefore “contingent on the outcome of the matter” under the rule.”

Bottom line:  Ethics Opinions are not binding; however, this Florida opinion states that it is not unethical for a lawyer to forgive a client’s costs after settlement, even if the costs are the client’s responsibility under the fee agreement, as long as the client was not unconditionally responsible under the fee agreement, the cost forgiveness occurs after the settlement, and the lawyer does not receive any fees for the representation.

Be careful out there.  

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

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

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

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

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

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

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

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

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

The opinion concludes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be careful out there.

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

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

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

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Filed under Attorney Ethics, Confidentiality, Florida Bar, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, lawyer confidentiality, Uncategorized

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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