Category Archives: Lawyer discipline

Iowa lawyer suspended for 4 months without possibility of reinstatement for misappropriating fees from his law firm

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Iowa Supreme Court opinion which suspended a lawyer for 4 months without the possibility of reinstatement for misappropriating fees from his law firm and stated that “(w)e think the time has come to ratchet up the disciplinary sanctions for nonclient theft.”  The case is Iowa Supreme Court Disciplinary Board v. Curtis Den Beste, No 19-0360.  The September 13, 2019 Iowa Supreme Court opinion is here: https://www.iowacourts.gov/courtcases/7209/embed/SupremeCourtOpinion.

The lawyer began practicing law in Iowa in 2000.  He received an offer in 2007 to practice with a law firm and entered into an agreement with the law firm regarding fees.  The agreement required him to deposit all earned client fees into the firm trust account or the general/operating account and he would be paid fifty percent of the earned fees and the firm would keep the remainder.

Beginning in 2015, the lawyer accepted cash payments for fees from some clients and kept the fees instead of depositing them as required by his agreement with the firm.  According to the opinion, after his misconduct was discovered, “(the lawyer) agreed to self-report his misconduct to the disciplinary board and to provide an accounting of the diverted funds as well as a repayment plan.”

The lawyer’s accounting (which was confirmed by the Iowa Bar/Disciplinary Board) showed that he received a total of $18,200.00 and, after for the fifty-percent split and other tax and reimbursement considerations, the lawyer wrongfully misappropriated $9,200.00 from the law firm.

“It is certainly true that, in many cases, fee disputes between a lawyer and his or her current or former law firm might simply be contract disputes and nothing more. For example, a lawyer with a good-faith claim to fees should not be sanctioned merely for exercising or asserting such a claim. But not all fee disputes between a lawyer and a law firm are garden variety contract disputes. Some involve outright and undisputed theft. In such cases, the imposition of discipline is clearly appropriate.”

“The question then arises whether theft from a client is more serious than theft from a law firm or other third party. In our prior cases, the difference has often been dramatic. Theft of any amount by a lawyer from a client ordinarily results in revocation. Iowa Supreme Ct. Att’y Disciplinary Bd. v. Parrish, 925 N.W.2d 163, 170–71 (Iowa 2019); Iowa Supreme Ct. Att’y Disciplinary Bd. v. Guthrie, 901 N.W.2d 493, 500–01 (Iowa 2017). But theft of funds from a law firm can result in much lesser sanctions. Henrichsen, 825 N.W.2d at 529–30.”

“There are, perhaps, some reasons for the distinction between client theft and law firm theft. For instance, many clients have little power against a lawyer in whom the client places trust. A lawyer who steals from a client is preying on those often in an extremely vulnerable position who have placed trust in the lawyer and advanced funds to the lawyer to protect their interests. The relationship between a law firm and a lawyer ordinarily will have less of a power imbalance. The firm is in a better position, perhaps, than a client to monitor the proper handling of fees.”

“Yet, a lawyer who acts dishonestly toward an employer raises serious questions of whether the lawyer has the necessary integrity to practice law.”

“(W)e think the time has come to ratchet up the disciplinary sanctions for nonclient theft. That said, this case may not be the appropriate case to do so. In particular, given our caselaw, Den Beste was not on notice that he faced a possible revocation when he entered into the stipulation in this case. Cf. Iowa Supreme Ct. Att’y Disciplinary Bd. v. Cepican, 861 N.W.2d 841, 845 (Iowa 2015) (finding the attorney did not waive his right to contest a complaint of theft-based misconduct by failing to respond because he did not receive adequate notice of the allegation of theft). Thus, we rely on our precedent and impose a sanction in this case consistent with our prior cases. At the same time, we use this case as a vehicle to put the bar on notice that an attorney who steals from a law firm without a colorable claim may well incur stiffer disciplinary sanctions than have been imposed in our past cases.”

Thus, we rely on our precedent and impose a sanction in this case consistent with our prior cases. At the same time, we use this case as a vehicle to put the bar on notice that an attorney who steals from a law firm without a colorable claim may well incur stiffer disciplinary sanctions than have been imposed in our past cases.

“Upon full consideration of this matter, we order that the license of Curtis W. Den Beste to practice law in Iowa be suspended indefinitely with no possibility of reinstatement for a period not less than four months, effective with the filing of this opinion.”

A dissenting justice would have revoked the lawyer’s license to practice law.

“On multiple occasions, Den Beste knowingly embezzled money from his law firm and then attempted to conceal what he had done. He had no colorable claim to nor was there any fee dispute regarding that money. “[I]t is almost axiomatic that the licenses of lawyers who convert funds entrusted to them should be revoked.” Iowa Supreme Ct. Bd. of Prof’l Ethics & Conduct v. Irwin, 679 N.W.2d 641, 644 (Iowa 2004). Accordingly, I would revoke Den Beste’s license to practice law.”

Bottom line:  The opinion discusses the differences between law firm theft and theft from the client and others.  The Iowa Supreme Court has provided notice to lawyers that future law firm theft will result in stiffer disciplinary sanctions than in the past.

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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Florida Supreme Court permanently disbars lawyer for, inter alia, breaking into former law firm, creating parallel firm, and filing multiple improper fee liens

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court Order permanently disbarring a Florida lawyer for, inter alia, breaking into his former law firm and the firm’s storage unit, creating a parallel law firm, and filing multiple improper fee liens.  The case is The Florida Bar v. Christopher Louis Brady, Case No.: SC19-39, TFB No. 2019-10,127(12B)(HES).  The July 11, 2019 Florida Supreme Court Order is here: https://lsg.floridabar.org/dasset/DIVADM/ME/MPDisAct.nsf/DISACTVIEW/2A42CACF97608E7785258439000C41B7/$FILE/_11.PDF 

According to the referee’s report, the lawyer was employed as an associate at a law firm and was fired in July 2018 after missing hearings and for exhibiting “odd and concerning behavior.”  Almost immediately after his firing, the lawyer began holding himself out as the owner of the former law firm even though there was one sole owner.  The Report of Referee is here: https://lsg.floridabar.org/dasset/DIVADM/ME/MPDisAct.nsf/DISACTVIEW/32070D97303477DA852583DF000AB0F1/$FILE/_19.PDF.  The lawyer justified his actions by claiming that the former law firm’s failure to use periods in “PA” when created as a professional association gave him the right to create a new firm of the same name by filing as a professional association with periods, so that it read “P.A.”.

The lawyer and his twin brother were also criminally charged with burglarizing the former law firm’s office in August 2018.  A videotape of the burglary apparently showed the lawyer and his brother backing a truck up to the law firm, tying a rope from the truck to the front door and using the vehicle to rip the door open. The video also showed the lawyer and his brother removing a safe and the law firm’s computer server.  A few days later, the lawyer and his brother burglarized the law firm owner’s storage unit using keys which were taken from a safe that was stolen during the law firm burglary, according to the referee.  The lawyer also stole a firearm during the burglary.

The lawyer filed several documents on behalf of the law firm and its clients without their knowledge or authority, and filed a false confession of judgment in his own favor.  He also filed more than 100 notices of liens for fees in the law firm’s pending cases “in an attempt to grab fees from cases to which he was not entitled.”

The law firm owner obtained an injunction which barred the lawyer from harassing him or interfering with his business.  The injunction also prohibited the lawyer from contacting the firm owner, his employees, his clients or his attorney. The lawyer violated that injunction multiple times and a court order was issued holding him in contempt for violating the injunction three times.

The referee’s report cited the lawyer’s refusal to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct as one of the multiple aggravating factors and recommended permanent disbarment.  According to the referee’s report, “(the lawyer’s failure to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his misconduct) is perhaps the most profoundly implicated aggravator in this case”.  The lawyer “clings to his justification for his actions with a ferocity that is quite disturbing.”

Bottom line:  This case is certainly very bizarre and the lawyer’s conduct as set forth in the report of referee is extremely disturbing.

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

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

 

 

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Tennessee lawyer disbarred for, inter alia, false and exaggerated time entries and making false statements in court under oath

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Tennessee Supreme Court opinion disbarring a lawyer for, inter alia, giving a false statement under oath, knowingly testifying falsely in a court proceeding, and seeking an unreasonable fee  The case is Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility v. Loring Edward Justice, Case No. E2017-01334-SC-R3-BP.  The link with the July 2, 2019 SC opinion is here: https://docs.tbpr.org/justice-2254-sc-decision.pdf.

According to the opinion, the lawyer made false and exaggerated time entries when he submitted a request for more than $103,000 in legal fees for the time that he spent fighting Lowe’s Home Centers over a discovery violation.  The lawyer also claimed his paralegal’s work as his own and falsely stated that he had kept “contemporaneous records” of the time he spent in the underlying discovery dispute.  The lawyer also submitted a “grossly exaggerated” fee itemization that included work for which he was not supposed to be paid.

A federal district judge had ordered that the lawyer be paid for the time that he spent locating and deposing a store human resources manager as a sanction for the store’s failure to disclose the name in discovery.  After questions arose about Justice’s legal billings, including seventeen items described as attorney time which were identical or nearly identical to invoices submitted by the lawyer’s paralegal, the judge declined to award fees to the lawyer..  In addition, other billings in the lawyer’s fee itemization were found to be for tasks that were “completely unrelated” to the issues in the dispute.

A Board of Professional Responsibility hearing panel had recommended a one-year suspension rather than a disbarment and the lawyer, and the Board of Professional Responsibility appealed.  The hearing panel’s Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law are here:  https://docs.tbpr.org/justice-2254-hp-judgment.pdf.

A judge assigned to hear the case later modified the suspension recommendation to disbarment, stating that the lawyer’s “intentional deceit” and “total lack of remorse” required disbarment.

The lengthy Supreme Court opinion stated that the evidence “furnishes an eminently sound factual basis for the hearing panel’s decision” and the judge’s modification of the sanction to disbarment.  In a footnote, the opinion stated that some of the lawyer’s arguments were “too outlandish to dignify with discussion”, including the argument that the trial judge’s given name illustrates bias. The footnote states: “Not only is this argument without merit, it is absurd.”  The opinion disbarred the lawyer.

Bottom line:  According to the very lengthy opinion, this lawyer apparently decided to fabricate his time, make false statements, and then continue to argue and claim that the fee was appropriate throughout the proceedings.  He and his lawyers also made arguments that were “too outlandish to dignify with discussion.”

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

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

 

 

 

 

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California lawyer suspended for 30 days for failure to disclose client’s death while continuing to litigate matter

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent California Supreme Court Order which suspended a lawyer for failing to disclose the death of his client while continuing the litigation. The case is In the Matter of: Steven Pabros, Case No. 17-O-05369.   The Stipulation Re Facts, Conclusions of Law and Disposition are here: https://appellatecases.courtinfo.ca.gov/search/case/dockets.cfm?dist=0&doc_id=2280292&doc_no=S254475&request_token=NiIwLSIkTkw6WyBdSCM9SE9IMEA0UDxTJiNeVz1SICAgCg%3D%3D and the May 2, 2019 California Supreme Court Order is here: http://members.calbar.ca.gov/courtDocs/17-O-5369.pdf

According to stipulated facts, the lawyer represented Alfeo and Leann Mattei, who were commercial landlords, as defendants, individually and as co-trustees of a trust in a civil suit that was brought by tenants whose antique shop was damaged by a fire in 2011. The fire started in the business of an adjacent tenant who sold the contents of storage units. The antique shop tenants claimed that the landlords knew the storage business was a fire hazard but did nothing about it.  The landlords claimed in a counterclaim that the contract required the tenants to indemnify them.

After a trial, the jury found the landlords liable based upon a theory of passive negligence; however, the trial judge found that the negligence was active and rendered a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The lawyer appealed the judge’s findings.  While the appeal was pending, one of the landlords (Alfeo) died. The lawyer ultimately prevailed on the appeal, and the case returned to the trial court.

According to the stipulated facts, “Respondent learned of Alfeo Mattei’s death in or about June 2016 after the Court of Appeal remanded the case but failed to inform the court or opposing counsel, as required by Sonoma County Superior Court Local Rule 4.1(A). Local Rule 4.1(A) states “When a party to a case dies, the attorney for that party shall promptly serve and file a notice with the court.”

The lawyer failed to inform the court (or opposing counsel) of the death of Alfeo, even though Alfeo was the only person who could testify about the landlord’s contractual intent since he other landlord (Leann) was not involved in the lease.  The lawyer stated that he believed that he could establish intent by legal argument, by cross-examination or by use of an expert. He successfully opposed the tenants’ motion for summary judgment, and a trial was scheduled for April 2017.

On the first day of the trial, opposing counsel asked the lawyer why Alfeo was not on the witness list and the lawyer did not answer. The trial judge heard pretrial motions and opposing counsel commented on the fact that Alfeo had not been in court. Opposing counsel again asked whether Alfeo would testify, and the lawyer again did not answer.

Opposing counsel then conducted an internet search during a break in the proceedings, learned that Alfeo had died, and informed the judge.  The judge asked the lawyer if that was true, and the lawyer responded: “He has passed, yes.”.  The judge sanctioned the lawyer approximately $31,000.00 for continuing to litigate the case for more than a year without informing the court or the opposing counsel of the death and the judge also reported the order to the California State Bar.

The lawyer appealed the judge’s sanction, which is pending, and the judge also granted the tenants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that there was no triable issue of fact on intent behind the lease.  That order is also on appeal.

The lawyer stipulated to a 30-day actual suspension, one-year stayed suspension, and a three-year probationary period with a condition that he attend Bar Ethics School and pay costs.  The May 2, 2019 Supreme Court Order approved the discipline.

Bottom line:  In this case, a defendant died during the pendency of litigation and the lawyer who represented him failed to advise the judge or opposing counsel (even after he was asked multiple times by opposing counsel) and he continued to litigate the case.  This case is somewhat unusual since many of the reported cases involve lawyers who are representing plaintiffs who die during ongoing litigation and fail to advise the judge and opposing counsel.

This lawyer apparently concluded that he could defend the matter without the testimony of the client; however, he clearly should have informed the judge and opposing counsel that his client had died and that he was planning to proceed without the client’s testimony.  The failure to disclose the death violated the local rule and the disciplinary rules, and the lawyer was suspended for 30 days with one year suspended.

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

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Illinois disciplinary complaint alleges that lawyer lied about cancer to obtain delays in litigation and justify LSAT score

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Illinois disciplinary complaint that alleges that a lawyer falsely claimed that both he and a nonexistent son had stomach cancer in multiple false statements that began when he applied for admission to law school.  The disciplinary matter is: In the Matter of Vincenzo Field, Commission No. 2018PR00015.  The first amended disciplinary complaint was filed on February 8, 2019 and the link is here:  https://www.iardc.org/18PR0015CM.html

The amended disciplinary complaint alleges that the lawyer made the false cancer claims to courts as well as to his law school and that he made false statements to his former law firm regarding an expert witness who was supposedly unable to provide services because his daughter was hit by a car.

The amended complaint also alleges the lawyer falsely told his law school he had a score of 158 the first time he took the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) because he recently had surgery for a stomach cancer called leiomyosarcoma. He also told the law school that he obtained a score 173 on a later LSAT after he allegedly recovered from the surgery.

The amended complaint further alleges that the lawyer used the false cancer tumor and surgery excuse in August and October 2013 when he asked for an extension to the discovery deadline in a litigation matter, and again in another case in December 2015 when he requested a discovery extension. He also allegedly asked for an extension to the deadline to file a court document in the 2013 matter and falsely stated that he had to fly to Montreal for a funeral.

Further, according to the amended complaint, in July 2016, the lawyer told lawyers in another litigation matter who were representing the government that his son was scheduled to undergo cancer surgery and that he would need an extension of time. He later said his son suffered from leiomyosarcoma.  The lawyer did not have a son.  The lawyer then allegedly admitted to the court in August 2016 that he had made the false statements and said that “this is something that I have never done before.”

The lawyer is represented by counsel in the disciplinary matter, and his answer to the initial complaint states that the lawyer had used the false cancer statement in his law school application because he suffered from depression and that the depression required him to take a leave of absence from his studies and affected his ability to perform on the LSAT.

The lawyer admitted to other factual allegations in his answer, but he denied that he acted in bad faith or with the intent to mislead.  He also denied that he had any serious illness and did not admit to any disciplinary rule violations.  The answer to the complaint is here:  https://www.iardc.org/ANS18pr0015.pdf

Bottom line:  If true, the allegations against this lawyer show a serious lack of integrity and truthfulness, to say the least.  If there is an underlying health condition, this should certainly not excuse the alleged conduct; however, it must be addressed, particularly since the lawyer (through his lawyers) denies that he has a “serious illness”.

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

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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