Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court Order imposing a a censure on a lawyer who told a client who was behind on payment of fees that he would not prepare for his criminal trial and to “have fun in prison”. The case style is: In the Matter of Logan M. Terry, No. DRB 17-417 (November 1, 2018). the Order and New Jersey Disciplinary Review Board’s Decision are here: http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1105750 and here: http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1098836.
According to the Disciplinary Review Board’s decision, the attorney represented a client facing criminal charges of sexual assault on four minors and:
In the days immediately prior to a jury trial scheduled for June 7, 2016, respondent communicated with his client in an attempt to collect outstanding fees, informing AM that respondent could not “provide an adequate defense” unless AM ……… paid respondent’s legal fees. Furthermore, in a text message, respondent warned AM that he would not prepare for the trial during the weekend immediately preceding it, unless he was first paid. He then wrote, “HAVE FUN IN PRISON.” The maximum sentence that AM could have received exceeded 200 years.
The lawyer had previously asked the judge to allow him to withdraw twice and the judge refused to allow the withdrawal. At the beginning of the June 7, 2016 trial (after the jury had been picked), the client told the trial judge about the lawyer’s communications, showed the judge copies of the communications, and stated that he wanted to terminate the lawyer’s legal services. The lawyer was then removed and the trial was continued.
The New Jersey disciplinary agency opened an investigation on the lawyer and, in a letter to the agency, the lawyer admitted that his actions had been unethical and stated that the client had not cooperated in preparing a defense to the charges and had refused a plea offer that the lawyer considered to be favorable.
The Disciplinary Review Board found that the lawyer’s actions constituted a conflict of interest because he “placed his own personal interest in receiving a legal fee above his client’s interest in receiving the best possible defense to the charges against him.” The Board also found that the lawyer’s text was prejudicial to the administration of justice because the judge was required to release the jury and reschedule the trial.
The decision found as an aggravating factor that the trial had been previously rescheduled because the lawyer had failed to pay the annual fee to the New Jersey Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection. According to the decision: “(t)o be sure, (the lawyer) was in a difficult position, having been required to continue representing an uncooperative, nonpaying client in a criminal matter. Nevertheless, (the lawyer’s) reaction to that predicament was one of defiance—to subvert the court’s directive by ‘poisoning’ the representation on the eve of trial.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the Board’s findings and imposed a censure and required the lawyer to pay the costs of the disciplinary proceeding.
Bottom line: This lawyer clearly became frustrated with the client’s lack of cooperation and failure to pay his fee; however, the lawyer’s communications were obviously improper and he was fortunate to receive only a censure for his conduct.
Be careful out there, and don’t do this…
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