Category Archives: Lawyer failure to notify clients of suspension

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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Oklahoma Supreme Court publicly censures lawyer who had been permanently suspended by bankruptcy court for disobeying order

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss recent Oklahoma Supreme Court opinion censuring a lawyer who had been permanently suspended from practicing before the bankruptcy court for disobeying a bankruptcy judge’s order.  The case is State ex rel. Oklahoma Bar Association v. Oliver, case number Case Number: SCBD-6268 (Oklahoma Supreme Court, March 29, 2016).  The disciplinary opinion is here:  http://www.oscn.net/applications/oscn/DeliverDocument.asp?CiteID=477506

According to the opinion, the lawyer was suspended for 30 days by a bankruptcy judge in the Western District of Oklahoma on October 29, 2014, he was reinstated on December 1, 2014, and he was suspended again for 60 days on January 14, 2015.

In a show cause hearing on May 6, 2015, the bankruptcy judge told the lawyer that he had errors in nine documents that she had assigned for him to complete and required that he show cause as to why he should not be permanently suspended from practicing in that court. The lawyer stated that he had an attorney friend who would be willing to assist him with his filings.  The judge told the lawyer that he had 30 days to have a bankruptcy attorney who was well-versed in the local bankruptcy rules and guidelines to assist him and file a document confirming that attorney’s assistance. The judge also required the lawyer to resubmit the documents without any substantive or typographical errors.

The judge issued an order on May 7, 2015 confirming her instructions at the show cause hearing. The lawyer was required to refile the nine documents and, “(i)n doing so, (the lawyer) may not seek or obtain assistance from this Court’s law clerk, the staff of the Court Clerk’s office or any other person.”  The order also confirmed that the lawyer was required to file a document under oath from a bankruptcy attorney who was “well versed in the Local Rules and Guidelines of the court and the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure” and agreeing to assist in the preparation and filing of documents with the court.

On June 15, 2015, the judge permanently suspended the lawyer from practicing in the court after concluding that he had disobeyed her order by contacting a bankruptcy attorney who was admitted in that court and paying him $1,000.00 to prepare and provide the nine documents that she had required in the show cause order.

The bankruptcy attorney testified at the disciplinary hearing that the lawyer had only asked him to review the nine documents that he had already completed and that the $1,000.00 was for the attorney to continue to help the lawyer in his bankruptcy practice. The attorney submitted the agreement which stated that part of the $1,000.00 was to be credited to future months, and provided the amounts of future payment.  He also testified that he had contacted the clerk to obtain guidance on the court’s requirements and he not been asked to prepare the documents for the lawyer nor had he written them.  The opinion stated that the evidence did not support any discipline related to that issue.

The Bar trial panel recommended that the lawyer be publicly reprimanded for failing to provide notice to the Oklahoma Bar regarding his bankruptcy court suspensions. The panel also found that the lawyer did not deliberately conceal his suspensions and that he had admitted that his oversight resulted from his ignorance of the rule.  The lawyer had notified his clients of the January 14, 2015 sixty day suspension on April 21, 2015 and he admitted that he should have provided more timely notice of his suspensions to his clients.

The Bar prosecutor’s office recommended that the lawyer’s discipline be in the range of a public censure to a 6 month suspension.  After hearing the mitigating evidence and the witnesses, the trial panel recommended that the lawyer receive a public censure and found that “(t)here is no evidence of a deliberate effort at concealment.”  The panel also noted that the lawyer continued to attend bankruptcy CLE seminars even though he was no longer required to attend them.

The disciplinary opinion stated that the lawyer acknowledged his lack of expertise in computer skills and his frustration in trying to meet the federal court’s expectations in filing electronic pleadings and that he also admitted that he had failed to report his suspensions to the Oklahoma Bar and that he did not timely notify his clients of the suspensions.  The lawyer received a public censure; however, two justices dissented and stated that they would suspend the attorney for two years plus one day.

Bottom line:  This is an unusual case.  The lawyer was permanently suspended by a bankruptcy judge from practicing in (after being suspended on two previous occasions) and then failed to report his suspensions to the general counsel of the Oklahoma Bar Association and failed to “timely” notify his bankruptcy clients of the suspensions; however, he received only a public censure of his license to practice in Oklahoma.  This is an example of how discipline imposed by a federal bankruptcy court (or other federal or administrative court) does not automatically result in the same discipline by the state court, unlike state court discipline, which typically results in reciprocal discipline of the lawyer’s license to practice in other states.

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, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer disobeying order of tribunal, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer failure to notify clients of suspension, Lawyer sanctions, Lawyer technology competence, yer disobey order of tribunal

North Dakota Supreme Court suspends lawyer for an additional 6 months for failing to notify “like 9,450 clients” of his prior disciplinary suspension

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss recent North Dakota Supreme Court opinion which imposed a 6 month suspension on a lawyer who failed to notify clients of a previous suspension although he executed an affidavit attesting that he done so.  The North Dakota disciplinary case is In re Loren McCray, 2012 ND 249, No. 20120363 (12/3/12).  The disciplinary opinion is online at: http://www.ndcourts.gov/court/opinions/20120363.htm.

According to the opinion, the lawyer was suspended from practicing law in North Dakota in October 2008 and, as a condition of the suspension, he was required to send notice of the suspension to all of his clients and execute an affidavit attesting to same and file it with the court.   After the suspension was imposed, the lawyer filed an affidavit attesting that he had served 106 notices to clients; however, he had testified at the hearing which resulted in the 2008 suspension, that his law firm “had like 9,450 (clients) or something along those lines” at that time.

In correspondence dated April 30, 2009, the North Dakota disciplinary counsel asked him to explain the apparent discrepancy between the number of clients notified (106) and the number that he claimed in his sworn testimony (“like 9,450”).  In a response to disciplinary counsel dated May 20, 2009, the lawyer stated that on May 15, 2008, he “sold Bradley Ross Law and its clients to Facemyer and Associates in Utah.”  He also stated that “on or before September 17, 2008, all remaining Bradley Ross Law clients and there (sic) files had been transferred to Facemyer and Associates.”

Not surprisingly (or maybe quite surprisingly), after receiving this response, the North Dakota disciplinary counsel requested that the lawyer provide more information showing that he had complied with notice requirements of the suspension order.  In a Stipulation, the attorney admitted that he failed to provide the requested information until September 10, 2012, that he violated North Dakota Bar Rule 8.1(b), which provides that “a lawyer shall not knowingly fail to respond to a lawful demand for information from a disciplinary authority”, and that his failure to provide clients with notice, by certified mail, of the sale of his law firm violated the notice provisions of North Dakota Bar Rule 1.17(c); however, “the actual or potential injury resulting from the violation was substantially alleviated by (his) efforts to provide notice by other means.”  The disciplinary hearing panel recommended that the Stipulation be accepted and that the lawyer be suspended for 6 months.  The North Dakota Supreme Court opinion adopted the Stipulation and recommendation and suspended the lawyer for 6 months effective December 3, 2012, the date of the order.

Bottom line:  This lawyer “planted the seeds” of his own suspension, so to speak, and he may also deserve the “dumbest lawyer” award for 2012.  The facts of the case itself are also a bit puzzling: why did it take so long for the case to be concluded (over 3 1/2 years) and why in the world would the lawyer state that he “had like 9,450 (clients) or something along those lines” at the hearing on his previous Bar disciplinary case?  Was he just trying to brag?  We may never know…

I wish everyone a very happy and safe holiday and a healthy and prosperous 2013…and be careful out there!

Disclaimer: this e-mail 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, joe corsmeier, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer failure to notify clients of suspension