Category Archives: Lawyer diligence

The client is missing and the statute of limitations expires soon:  what can or must a lawyer do?

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the ethics issues when a client is missing (or refuses to communicate) and the statute of limitations is about to expire.  I have been asked this question (or a variation of it) many times in my over 30 years of practice and I have provided guidance to lawyers.  Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 72-36 RECONSIDERATION) July 1, 1987 addresses this issue and the opinion is here: https://www-media.floridabar.org/uploads/2017/04/FL-Bar-Ethics-Op-72-36-Rec.pdf

In the initial Ethics Opinion 72-36 (published in 1972), the facts were that “the inquiring attorney was retained by his client under a contingent fee contract in a personal injury matter. The client disappeared sometime after retaining the attorney and before suit was filed. Two years passed and, despite his diligent efforts, the attorney was unable to locate the client. The attorney asked whether he was ethically obligated to file suit before the limitations period expired.”

The initial opinion stated that “the attorney’s duty of zealous representation required him to take whatever action was necessary to prevent loss of the client’s rights due to the passage of time. Specifically, the attorney was obligated to file suit unless he could obtain the opposing party’s agreement to waive the statute of limitations.”  Emphasis supplied.

After the Florida Ethics Opinion was published in 1972, ABA Informal Opinion 1467 was published, which stated that the ABA Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility had determined that an attorney has no duty to file suit to toll the statute of limitations if the client’s unavailability was not caused by the attorney’s neglect.

After the ABA Informal Opinion was published, the Florida Bar’s Professional Ethics reconsidered Ethics Opinion 72-36.  After reviewing the facts and Informal Opinion 1467, the committee stated:

“The Committee is now in accord with the conclusions reached in ABA Informal Opinion 1467. There, the attorney’s reasonable efforts to locate the client had been unsuccessful and the attorney believed there was no reasonable likelihood that the client would return. The ABA Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility determined that the attorney had no duty to file suit to toll the statute of limitations if the client’s unavailability was not caused by the attorney’s neglect. The ABA committee further stated that it was not improper for an attorney to include in his employment agreement a provision requiring the client to promptly notify the attorney of any change in address and providing that, if the client failed to so notify the attorney, the attorney was not obligated to proceed with the case.

In view of ABA Opinion 1467, the Professional Ethics Committee is now of the opinion that an attorney whose client cannot be located despite the attorney’s reasonable efforts is not obligated to file suit to toll the running of the statute of limitations if the client’s unavailability is not caused by the attorney’s neglect or inaction (see Rule 4-1.3, Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, requiring an attorney to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client) and: (1) the attorney believes there is no reasonable chance the client will return; or (2) the client’s unavailability is a breach of the attorney-client employment agreement. However, even in these situations it would not be unethical for the attorney to file suit in order to toll the statute of limitations.”

The executive summary of Ethics Opinion 72-36 (RECONSIDERATION) states:  “A lawyer retained for litigation by a client who has since disappeared is not obligated to file suit to toll the running of the statute of limitations if the lawyer has made a reasonable effort to locate the client and the client’s unavailability is not the result of neglect on the part of the lawyer.”

Bottom line:  Although ethics opinions are for guidance only and are not binding, the Florida Ethics Opinion (and the ABA Informal Opinion) makes it clear that al lawyer is not required to file a lawsuit on behalf of a client when the client is unavailable and cannot be located, even if the statute of limitations will run; however, the lawyer is also not ethically prohibited from filing the lawsuit.

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.

2999 Alt. 19, Suite A

Palm Harbor, Florida

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Please note:  My office has moved and the new office address is 2999 Alt. 19, Palm Harbor, FL 34683.  All other contact information remains the same.

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Filed under ABA Informal Opinion 1467- filing lawsuit when client is missing, Attorney Ethics, Florida Bar, Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 72-36 - filing lawsuit when client is missing, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer diligence, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer negligence, Uncategorized

New Jersey lawyer receives censure for neglecting client matters, failing to communicate with clients, and fraud and dishonesty

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court Order which adopted the findings of the New Jersey Disciplinary Review Board and censured a lawyer for neglecting client matters, failing to communicate with clients, and engaging in conduct involving fraud or dishonesty.  The case is In The Matter of John R. Dusinberre, D-37 September Term 2015 078531 (Supreme Court of New Jersey April 5, 2017).  The New Jersey Supreme Court Order is here:  http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1082216 and the Disciplinary Board (DRB) Decision dated November 9, 2016 is here:  http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1077667

According to the DRB Decision, the lawyer was charged with violating Bar rules in four separate matters:

“In the first matter, respondent represented Anthony Domenick and 407-409 Summer Associates, LLC for a Paterson condominium development known as ‘Sandy Hill at Summer Street.’ The terms of the representation called for respondent to file a public offering statement (POS) with the New Jersey Division of Community Affairs (DCA) and to record a master deed in the county clerk’s office. Respondent told his client that he had filed the POS with the DCA and furnished him with a copy of a November 12, 2007 POS carrying registration number ‘04368.’ Respondent stipulated that he never filed a POS with the DCA. Rather, he had fabricated the POS and created a fictitious registration number; the DCA had never assigned a registration number to the Sandy Hill project. Although respondent also failed to record the master deed, he either informed his client, or led him to believe, that he had done so.

“In a second matter, respondent represented a client identified only as ‘Mr. Cerquirra’ and ‘88 St. Francis LLC’ regarding a condominium development project at 88 St. Francis Street in Newark. The representation required respondent to register the project with the DCA and to obtain a registration order. Respondent informed the client that he had obtained a registration order for the project from the DCA. He also gave the client an October 27, 2008 letter, purportedly from DCA’s Manager of the Planned Real Estate Department, Stewart P. Pallonis. Enclosed with that letter was an order of registration from the DCA carrying registration number 04487, and signed ‘Stewart P. Pallonis.’  In fact, respondent never registered the 88 St. Francis Street project with the DCA. Rather, he had fabricated both the Pallonis letter and the registration order, signing Pallonis’ name to both documents before giving them to the client.

“In a third matter, respondent represented Sterling Properties (Sterling) for a Cedar Knolls condominium project known as ‘Viera at Hanover.’ The representation required respondent to register the project with the DCA, but he failed to do so. Respondent, nevertheless, led Sterling to believe that he had registered the project with the DCA, knowing that he had not done so. In reliance on respondent’s false information, Sterling went forward with the project.

“In a fourth matter, respondent represented Sterling for another condominium project in Piscataway. That representation, too, required respondent to register the project with the DCA. Again, respondent failed to do so. Respondent led Sterling to believe that the Piscataway project, too, was registered with the DCA, knowing that it was not. Relying on respondent’s statements, Sterling proceeded with the development project.”

“During respondent’s entire thirty-four-year career at MSLD, he reported to Barry Mandelbaum, the managing attorney, and twelve years his senior. Respondent described Mandelbaum as a “benevolent despot” and a “mentor.” Respondent was never “encouraged” to generate business for the firm. Rather, he tended to work on legal matters that Mandelbaum generated.

“Respondent described his relationship with Mandelbaum as a stressful one. Mandelbaum would berate respondent publicly, place notes on respondent’s door about perceived failings, and subject him to ‘105 decibel,’ public ‘dress downs,’ all of which were extremely embarrassing.

“As the law firm grew larger, younger attorneys became partners. By the mid-2000s, some of those partners had come to expect respondent to complete work on projects that they had generated, placing additional pressure on respondent to perform.

“Several years before respondent engaged in the within misconduct, MSLD established an executive committee to manage the law firm. Respondent perceived that the new arrangement rewarded some of the younger, income-generating attorneys, at his expense. Feeling exposed, he became “terrified” about losing his job. At that juncture, he grew even more reliant on Mandelbaum for protection:

So my desire and drive to please him became extremely strong. And I can’t tell you the number of times when I would have an issue with a client, I would hear the client five minutes later on the phone with Barry and then I would hear Barry’s footsteps stomping down the hall to basically dress me down or yell at me and to confront me, or whatever it might be very publicly.

And it was extremely upsetting and got to the point where I went from a lawyer who loved to go to work every day to a lawyer who dreaded pulling into the parking lot of my law firm, counting whose cars were in to try and decide whose work I should be doing that day so that I wouldn’t get yelled at or — or, you know, almost — I almost use the word bullied, although I’m an adult and was an adult at the time, and it’s a hard concept to have, but it’s the desperate situation I found myself in. (T20-10 to T21-2.)

“Worried about being ‘kicked out’ of MSLD, respondent felt tremendous pressure to complete tasks on time, according to schedules that other attorneys prepared for him. Also pressing was the fear that, because he was over sixty years old and had never been in another legal setting, he could not strike out on his own.”

The DRB Decision also found that the lawyer had no prior discipline, expressed remorse for his misconduct, and paid former clients, the firm and the DCA hundreds of thousands of dollars as restitution.  The DRB recommended a censure (which is a stronger sanction than a reprimand in New Jersey).  The New Jersey Supreme Court adopted that sanction and censured the lawyer.

Bottom line:  This case is unusual, to say the least.  Although the lawyer provided significant mitigation (including the serious “berating” by a supervising partner and “cracking under the pressure” of the partner’s criticism), his underlying misconduct, including his multiple false statements to clients, neglecting client matters and failing to communicate, would appear to be serious enough to merit a suspension, notwithstanding the mitigation that he provided.  The lawyer was in his 50’s and 60’s when the misconduct occurred. One could certainly conclude that the lawyer’s testimony about the “pressure” of the practice was somewhat of an excuse and not an explanation.

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

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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