Category Archives: Lawyer disbarment

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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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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Florida Supreme Court disbars 3 lawyers for misconduct in the settlement of multiple PIP and bad faith claims

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida which disbarred 3 Florida lawyers for misconduct in settling multiple PIP and bad faith claims.  The opinion is The Florida Bar v. Charles Jay Kane, The Florida Bar v. Harley Nathan Kane, The Florida Bar v. Darin James Lentner, No. SC13-388 (October 6, 2016) and the opinion is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2016/sc13-388.pdf.

The lengthy opinion outlines and discusses the complicated underlying facts, including the involvement of the lawyers in settling the PIP claims and failing to inform and misleading both the clients and the lawyers who were handling separate bad faith claims against Progressive Insurance.   Although this is a fairly lengthy Ethics Alert, the relatively short format of my Ethics Alerts do not permit a full discussion of the case, and readers are urged to read the case for more information and clarification.

According to the opinion, the lawyers took on the representation of 441 PIP claims on behalf of various medical providers.  Two other lawyers were retained to file bad faith claims.  The claims were filed in a matter called the “Goldcoast” litigation, in which only 37 of the PIP clients were involved.  Each of the PIP law firms (Kane & Kane, Watson & Lentner, and Marks & Fleischer) and each of the bad faith attorneys executed a contract agreeing to jointly represent all thirty-seven plaintiffs.

During the bad faith litigation, the bad faith lawyers were able to compel disclosure of documents which strengthened the bad faith claims.  At mediation on the bad faith claims, Progressive offered only $3.5 million, which offer was rejected.

The disclosure of the documents apparently caused Progressive to consider settlement.  Progressive’s counsel later initiated settlement negotiations with the PIP lawyers only and the bad faith lawyers were not part of those negotiations.  Progressive  offered an aggregate amount of $14.5 million, to settle all of the claims, including both the PIP and bad faith claims, and attorney fees.  On May 16, 2004, all six of the PIP lawyers (including the disbarred lawyers) met with lawyers from Progressive to put the agreement in writing.  The bad faith lawyers were not told of Progressive’s offers, and they were not asked to attend the meeting.

“As a result of the meeting, the PIP lawyers signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MOU) settling all cases and claims, subject to client agreement.  Pursuant to the MOU, the clients were required to release all claims against Progressive, including both PIP claims and bad faith claims. The MOU did not specify how the settlement funds would be allocated and it was left to the PIP lawyers to divide the funds between the claims and the costs and fees.”

“The only requirement to trigger the $14.5 million payment was a certain number of signed client releases: 100 percent of the named Goldcoast case plaintiffs and 80 percent of the remaining PIP clients of all three PIP firms. Also as a part of the MOU, the PIP lawyers agreed to defend, indemnify, and hold the Progressive entities harmless from any claims of their clients.  Several days later, the PIP lawyers, including the disbarred lawyers, met with one of the bad faith lawyers, Larry Stewart, and offered him $300,000 to compensate all three bad faith attorneys for their work on the bad faith case. The PIP lawyers did not disclose the terms of the settlement with Progressive, stating only that the cases and claims had been settled.”

According to the opinion, “the bad faith attorneys then wrote a letter to each of the named plaintiffs in the Goldcoast case, explaining their efforts to compel production of Progressive’s internal documents and the April 2004 mediation. The letter asserted that as a result of the PIP lawyers’ secret settlement with Progressive, the clients’ bad faith claims may have been ‘compromised or even sacrificed.’”

“The bad faith attorneys sent a copy of their letter to each of the PIP law firms and asked the PIP lawyers to forward the letter to their clients who were not named in the Goldcoast case; however, the lawyers did not forward the letter as requested. Instead, Respondent Charles Kane drafted a letter, titled ‘Notice of Disagreement Between Counsel’ (disagreement letter), for the PIP law firms to send to clients who were named as plaintiffs in the Goldcoast case.  The letter contained misleading statements regarding the bad faith attorneys and their efforts to pursue the bad faith claims on behalf of the clients.”

An Amended Memorandum of Understanding (AMOU) was later drafted and, after the law firm contacted the clients and obtained the releases, the settlement funds were paid by Progressive.  Kane & Kane received $5.25 million. The firm paid $672,742 to its PIP clients, $433,202 in costs, and took $4,144,055 in attorney fees. Watson & Lentner received $3,075,000, and the firm paid $361,470 to its PIP clients, $190,736 in costs, and took $2,522,792 in attorney fees. Once the firms received the settlement money, the bad faith attorneys were discharged, and a notice of voluntary dismissal with prejudice was filed, ending the Goldcoast case.

The bad faith lawyers then sued the PIP lawyers and, in April 2008, Judge David F. Crow entered a final judgment in favor of the bad faith attorneys on their quantum meruit and/or unjust enrichment claims. The final judgment included extensive findings as to the PIP lawyers’ actions, noting that the matter “could be a case study for a course on professional conduct involving multi-party joint representation agreements and the ethical pitfalls surrounding such agreements.”

The Supreme Court opinion upheld the finding of guilt and rule violations made by the referee and disbarred all three lawyers.  “We agree with the referee that the PIP lawyers’ most egregious violation occurred when they abandoned their clients’ bad faith claims in favor of a greater fee for themselves.”  The opinion states that the “considerable violation of (the lawyers’) ethical responsibilities to their clients and the legal system, entirely for their own financial interests and at the expense of their clients, warrants disbarment.

Bottom line:  The 3 lawyers were disbarred for the misconduct which is briefly described above and is further detailed in the opinion.

The opinion also addressed a very important practice point for lawyers who handle PIP claims on behalf of medical providers since it upheld the referee’s findings that all three lawyers failed to provide their clients with closing statements in the PIP cases in violation of Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(f).  “Although there was testimony presented to the referee that a closing statement is not typically provided in a PIP case because the attorney fee is not taken as a portion of the client’s overall recovery, the referee found, and we agree, that there is no specific exception in the Bar Rules authorizing this practice.”  The Court found that lawyers must provide closing statements to clients in PIP first party claims, even though the fees and costs are typically paid by the insurance company and not taken out of the client’s settlement funds.

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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Zealous representation or lawyer misconduct? Where does the Florida Supreme Court draw the line?

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert will discuss the lawyer’s duty to competently and zealously represent a client and the Florida Supreme Court decisions addressing when a lawyer’s conduct may cross the line and constitute misconduct and violate the Florida Bar Rules.  Lawyers understand that they should zealously represent clients and, while that understanding is correct, the Supreme Court of Florida has repeatedly stated that lawyers must act professionally and ethically during the course of the representation, both in and out of the courtroom.

The Florida Bar Rules do not use the word “zealous”; however, the Preamble to Chapter 4 of the Bar Rules states, in part, as follows:

As a representative of clients, a lawyer performs various functions.  As an adviser, a lawyer provides a client with an informed understanding of the client’s legal rights and obligations and explains their practical implications.  As an advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client’s position under the rules of the adversary system.  As a negotiator, a lawyer seeks a result advantageous to the client but consistent with requirements of honest dealing with others.  As an evaluator, a lawyer acts by examining a client’s legal affairs and reporting about them to the client or to others… A lawyer’s responsibilities as a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system, and a public citizen are usually harmonious.  Zealous advocacy is not inconsistent with justice (emphasis supplied).

The Supreme Court of Florida has addressed zealous advocacy/ethical misconduct in multiple opinions through the years and has addressed when zealous conduct is a violation the Florida Bar Rules.  The following cases are a sample of those opinions and the evolution of the Court’s position on the issue.

In The Florida Bar v. Martocci, 791 So.2d 1074 (Fla. 2001), the Court reprimanded and imposed a two year probation on a lawyer who engaged in unprofessional and abusive conduct and for unethical comments and behavior toward opposing counsel, the opposing party, and the opposing party’s family during depositions, in court, and outside the courtroom during breaks in the proceedings.  The attorney was representing the husband in a bitter divorce, child custody, and child dependency matter.  As a condition of the probation, the attorney was required to be evaluated by Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc. for possible anger management skills training or mental health assistance or both.

In The Florida Bar v. Morgan, 938 So.2d 496 (Fla.2006), the Court suspended an attorney for ninety-one days for courtroom misconduct. The attorney had been publicly reprimanded and suspended for ten days on two prior occasions. The attorney refused to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct but the referee found (and the Supreme Court adopted) the mitigating factor of good character and reputation, including the provision of pro bono legal services, serving as a role model for an assistant state attorney, and being held in high esteem as an excellent and passionate advocate by two judges and an attorney.

In The Florida Bar v. Abramson, 3 So.3d 964 (Fla. 2009), the attorney was found to have been repeatedly disrespectful and rude to the trial judge at a hearing and was suspended for ninety-one days.  The Supreme Court opinion stated that:

“Abramson’s misconduct was egregious. He was disrespectful and confrontational with the presiding judge in an ongoing courtroom proceeding in the presence of the pool of prospective jurors in a criminal case. Regardless of any perceived provocation by the judge, Abramson responded inappropriately by engaging in a protracted challenge to the court’s authority. His ethical alternative, if he believed the trial court had erred, was by writ or appeal. He has also been publicly reprimanded twice before for serious misconduct.  See also The Florida Bar v. Wasserman, 675 So.2d 103 (Fla. 1996) (two six-month consecutive suspensions on an attorney in his fifth discipline case before the Court where the attorney had an angry outburst in court after an unfavorable ruling and expressed contempt for the court, stated in the hallway outside the courtroom that he would counsel his client to disobey the court’s ruling, and used profane language over the telephone to a judge’s judicial assistant);  The Florida Bar v. Price, 632 So.2d 69 (Fla.1994) (ninety-one day suspension for appearing in court under the influence of alcohol and behaving in a hostile, abrasive, and belligerent; reinstatement conditioned on ability to show that satisfactorily completion of an evaluation and course of treatment for substance abuse approved by the Bar.”

In The Florida Bar v. Norkin, 132 So.3d 77 (Fla. 2013), the lawyer was suspended for two (2) years and required to appear before the Florida Supreme Court for a public reprimand.  The Court’s opinion detailed numerous instances of misconduct by the lawyer, including engaging in “tirades and antagonistic behavior” in exchanges with judges and other attorneys.  The opinion noted that it is “profoundly concerned with the lack of civility and professionalism demonstrated by some Bar members. The Court has repeatedly ruled that unprofessional behavior is unacceptable.  (citations omitted).”  The lawyer appeared before the Court for the reprimand in February 2014, which was read by then Chief Justice Ricky Polston, and smirked during the proceeding.  The opinion is here:  Florida SC Norkin 2013

In The Florida Bar v. Norkin, 183 So. 3d 1018 (Fla. 2015), The Florida Bar filed a petition for contempt and a complaint alleging that Norkin had failed to comply with the Court’s (and Bar Rule’s) requirement that he notify clients of his suspension and provide an affidavit confirming same and that the lawyer “had engaged in the practice of law after the effective date of the suspension by sending an e-mail to opposing counsel in a case pending in the circuit court questioning a hearing date and discussing the results of the hearing and the legal sufficiency of the motion addressed, and by preparing a pleading for his former client, which the client filed in the circuit court case.”  He also sent disparaging e-mails to Bar Counsel and admitted during the underlying Bar proceedings that he had smirked during the public reprimand before the Court.

The referee granted summary judgment in favor of the Bar and recommended disbarment.  In an unanimous opinion dated October 8, 2015 (which is here Florida SC Norkin 10/8/15, the Court permanently disbarred the lawyer and stated:

“As found by the referee in his report, Norkin’s e-mails to bar counsel referred to bar counsel as “evil” and “despicable”; called the proceedings against him “the most unjust act in judicial history”; stated that bar counsel had no conscience; and stated, “I’m preparing the lawsuit against you. Keep an eye out.”  At the hearing on the motion for sanctions, the referee questioned Norkin about the e-mails and his behavior during the public reprimand administered by this Court. In response, Norkin asserted his “right to speak freely and to express his beliefs in the manner of his choosing,” and freely admitted that during the public reprimand, he intentionally smirked and stared down each Justice one by one. We have disciplined attorneys for similar conduct as a violation of rule 4-8.4(d), including Norkin himself. See Norkin, 132 So. 3d at 86; Fla. Bar v. Martocci, 791 So. 2d 1074, 1075, 1078 (Fla. 2001) (finding that making insulting facial gestures at opposing counsel, making sexist comments, and disparaging opposing counsel violated rule 4-8.4(d)); Fla. Bar v. Buckle, 771 So. 2d 1131, 1132 (Fla. 2000) (finding that humiliating and intimidating letter, sent by attorney to alleged victim of his client, violated rule 4-8.4(d)). Accordingly, we approve the referee’s recommendation.

Here, disbarment is amply supported. As noted by the Bar, the Court has not hesitated to disbar attorneys who continue to practice law after being suspended. See Fla. Bar v. Lobasz, 64 So. 3d 1167, 1173 (Fla. 2011) (disbarring attorney for practicing law while suspended, even where attorney suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression); Fla. Bar v. D’Ambrosio, 25 So. 3d 1209, 1220 (Fla. 2009) (disbarring suspended attorney who held himself out as eligible to practice law by sending letters on firm letterhead subsequent to suspension); Fla. Bar v. Forrester, 916 So. 2d 647, 654-55 (Fla. 2005) (disbarring attorney for practicing law while suspended); Fla. Bar v. Heptner, 887 So. 2d 1036, 1045 (Fla. 2004) (disbarring attorney for multitude of violations, but noting that disbarment would be appropriate solely on basis of continuing to practice law after being suspended); Fla. Bar v. Rood, 678 So. 2d 1277, 1278 (Fla. 1996) (disbarring attorney for practicing while suspended); Fla. Bar v. Greene, 589 So. 2d 281 (Fla. 1991). Moreover, given Norkin’s continuation of his egregious behavior following his suspension and during the administration of the public reprimand, we conclude that he will not change his pattern of misconduct. Indeed, his filings in the instant case continue to demonstrate his disregard for this Court, his unrepentant attitude, and his intent to continue his defiant and contemptuous conduct that is demeaning to this Court, the Court’s processes, and the profession of attorneys as a whole. Such misconduct cannot and will not be tolerated as it sullies the dignity of judicial proceedings and debases the constitutional republic we serve. We conclude that Norkin is not amenable to rehabilitation, and as argued by the Bar, is deserving of permanent disbarment. See Fla. Bar v. Behm, 41 So. 3d 136, 139-40 (Fla. 2010) (stating that persistent course of unrepentant misconduct warrants permanent disbarment); Fla. Bar v. Carlson, 183 So. 2d 541 (Fla. 1966) (stating that permanent disbarment is warranted where conduct of respondent indicates he is beyond redemption).”

Bottom line:  While Norkin may be an extreme case, lawyers must be on notice that the Supreme Court of Florida has become far less tolerant of rude, belligerent, and disrespectful behavior, regardless of whether it is couched in terms of “zealous advocacy” on behalf of a client.

Be careful out there!

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

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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Pennsylvania lawyer agrees to disbarment for forging judge’s name on court order and misspelling it

 

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court disciplinary Order disbarring a lawyer on consent for forging a judge’s name on an Order and misspelling it. The disciplinary case is In the Matter of Stephen P. Ellwood, Docket No. 181 DB 2015 (11/10/15), and the disbarment entry is here:  http://www.padisciplinaryboard.org/look-up/supreme-court-actions.php

According to media reports, the lawyer represented a client in a matter and claimed that he had obtained the $250,000.00 judgment.  The former client then went to another lawyer for assistance in collecting the judgment that he thought he had received; however, the new lawyer noticed that the judge’s name had been misspelled in the order.

After being confronted with the evidence, the lawyer admitted to forging the signature and agreed to two years of probation with 75 hours of community service in a criminal prosecution.  The lawyer then agreed to be disbarred by consent after admitting to forging a judge’s signature on a $250,000.00 judgment.  The media reports are here:  http://www.pennlive.com/news/2015/11/schuylkill_attorney_disbarred.html and here: http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/lawyer_gets_probation_for_forging_judges_name_on_court_order_and_is_disbarr/

Bottom line: This is a very bizarre example of a lawyer who apparently wanted a client to believe that he had accomplished a positive result and resorted to creating a false judgment, which led to his criminal prosecution and disbarment.

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.

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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Florida lawyer permanently disbarred for, inter alia, soliciting and making misrepresentations on website and representing clients in other states

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court Order approving the Report of Referee and permanently disbarring a Florida lawyer for soliciting over the internet and representing clients in states in which she was not admitted, lack of diligence and communication, making false statements, and failing to respond to the allegations.  The case is: The Florida Bar v. Alma C. Defillo, Case No. SC15-593 (August 28, 2015).  The Order is here: http://www.floridabar.org/DIVADM/ME/MPDisAct.nsf/DISACTVIEW/4C69AF1FB7B03A1285257EB4000922AC/$FILE/_27.PDF.

According to the Report of Referee, which is attached, The Florida Bar filed a 6 count Complaint against the lawyer and a Request for Admissions on March 31, 2015.  The lawyer failed to respond and the referee entered a default and “the matters pled in the Bar’s Complaint became the substantive facts in this case by operation of law.”

“(R)espondent, despite being only a member of The Florida Bar, also maintained offices in North and South Carolina given her immigration practice. As a result of respondent’s significant misconduct in South Carolina (detailed below), the South Carolina Supreme Court permanently debarred respondent in that state. In order to protect the interests of respondent’s South Carolina clients, the South Carolina Supreme Court appointed a Receiver. The Florida Bar was able to track down some of respondent’s files and has been cooperating with the Receiver to provide the files of respondent’s South Carolina clients that are in the Bar’s possession.”

The Report states that the lawyer represented various clients who were residents of North Carolina and South Carolina in immigration/INS matters.  The clients complained that the lawyer failed to communicate with them, lacked diligence, and did not perform any services on their behalf.  In addition, according to the Report:

On November 1, 2013, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (“ODC”) of the Supreme Court of South Carolina charged respondent with violations of their Rules.

Although respondent is not admitted in South Carolina, she maintained a law office, advertised, and offered legal services there.

The ODC charged respondent with writing to state judicial officers regarding her South Carolina clients’ criminal cases in violation of Rules 7.1 and 7.5(a)&(d) South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct (“SCRPC”) and Rule 407 South Carolina Appellate Court Rules (“CSACR”).

Respondent’s letterhead and advertisements also failed to clarify that she was not admitted in South Carolina in violation of  Rules 5.5(b)(2), 7.1, and 7.5(a)&(b) SCRPC.

Similarly respondent’s website, available to residents of South Carolina and referencing her office in Greenville, contained misrepresentations and omitted facts necessary to make the contents considered as a whole not materially misleading in violation of Rule 7.1(a) SCRPC by failing to state that she was not admitted in South Carolina.

Additionally, respondent’s website advertised her experience in both criminal and family matters and offered to “analyze the facts of [her prospective client’s] cases by applying current … State Laws” in violation of Rules 5.5(b)(2) and 7.1(a) SCRPC.

Respondent’s website misleadingly referred to “lawyers” and “attorneys” when in fact, respondent was a sole practitioner in violation of Rules 7.1(a) and 7.5(d) SCRPC.

Respondent’s website compared her services to other lawyers in a way that could not be factually substantiated in violation of Rule 7.1(c) SCRPC.

Respondent’s website used “specialist” and “expert” in violation of Rule 7.4(b) SCRPC despite not being certified by the Supreme Court of South Carolina.

Respondent’s business cards and other print advertisements, regarding her Greenville office, failed to disclose that respondent was not admitted in South Carolina in violation of Rules 5.5(b)(2) and 7.1(a) SCRPC.

Respondent’s radio advertisements, disseminated in South Carolina, failed to disclose that respondent was not admitted in South Carolina in violation of Rules 5.5(b)(2) and 7.1(a) SCRPC.

Respondent, despite initially cooperating with the investigation in South Carolina, then failed to respond in violation of Rule 8.1(b) SCRPC.

Based on respondent’s failure to respond, the ODC noticed respondent for an interview. Respondent failed to appear in violation of 8.1(b) SCRPC.

In respondent’s initial response to ODC, she misrepresented that her practice was limited to immigration law and that she had not communicated otherwise in any way in violation of Rule 7(a) Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement (“RLDE”).

By virtue of the foregoing respondent also violated Rules 7(a)(1)&(3) RLDE and Rules 407 & 413 SCACR by violating or attempting to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct and failing to respond to a lawful demand from a disciplinary authority.

On July 29, 2014, based on the charges filed by ODC, the Supreme Court of South Carolina entered its Order permanently debarring respondent from seeking any form of admission to practice in South Carolina and from advertising or soliciting business in South Carolina without first seeking leave of that Court. The Court also ordered that respondent complete the South Carolina Bar’s Legal Ethics and Practice Program Ethics School and Advertising Workshop before asking leave of the Court to practice or advertise.

The Report further states:  “Respondent is currently serving a one-year suspension in SC14-1419, TFB File Nos. 2012-00,321(4B) and 2013-00,832(4B). Additionally, Respondent was recently held in contempt for her failure to respond to the two initial grievances herein and was therefore also suspended indefinitely in SC15-293, TFB File No. 2015-00,468(4B).”

After considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances, case law, and the Florida Standards for Lawyer Sanctions, the referee recommended permanent disbarment and payment of the Bar’s costs.  The lawyer did not request review of the recommendation and the Supreme Court adopted the Report of Referee and permanently disbarred the lawyer.  The Supreme Court approved the Report of Referee and permanently disbarred the lawyer.

The lawyer was also permanently barred from practicing law in South Carolina in 2014 and my blog on that case here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/south-carolina-supreme-court-prohibits-another-florida-lawyer-from-practicing-law-who-solicited-over-the-internet-made-misrepresentations-and-represented-clients/

Bottom line: This lawyer was advertising for clients in immigration matters on the internet and made misrepresentations regarding the scope and location of her practice.  The lawyer also was negligent, failed to communicate with clients, and failed to perform services.  This shows how the internet can be misused by a lawyer to obtain clients in other states in which the lawyer is not admitted to practice.

Let’s 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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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney misrepresentation, dishonesty, Florida Bar, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer advertising rules, Lawyer disbarment, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer lack of communication with client, Lawyer lack of diligence, Lawyer misrepresentation, Lawyer permanent disbarment, Lawyer sanctions, Lawyer sanctions for unlicensed practice of law, Lawyer unlicensed practice of law, Unauthorized practice of law