Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court opinion disbarring a Florida lawyer who, inter alia, incompetently advised a client regarding a marijuana growing business and charged individuals $799.00 for a falsified “patient identification card” he claimed could keep them from getting arrested for having or growing marijuana. The case is The Florida Bar v. Ian James Christiansen (Case No. SC16-1081) (January 18, 2018). The Supreme Court opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2018/sc16-1081.pdf
According to the opinion, The Florida Bar filed a complaint against the Jacksonville lawyer in 2016, which was assigned to a referee who held hearings. The referee found that “in 2013, less than three months after being admitted to The Florida Bar, Respondent founded IJC Law Group, P.A., and began offering legal services and advice to clients. At the time, Respondent had no training in the area of medical marijuana. Six months later, Respondent formed Health Law Services (HLS), and five months after that, incorporated Cannabinoid Therapy Institute (CTI). Respondent listed IJC Law Group, P.A., as CTI’s registered agent and nonlawyer Christopher Ralph—a self-professed expert in the medical marijuana industry— represented himself as CTI’s director. Ralph was also the ‘Legal Administrator and Consultant’ for HLS.”
The referee also found that the lawyer charged clients $799 for a doctor’s visit through CTI. If the doctor found a medical necessity for the client to use marijuana, the lawyer, through HLS, provided the client with an “Official Legal Certification” and patient identification card stating that he or she had received a marijuana prescription.
The referee also found that the “doctor” to whom the lawyer referred three of the clients was not licensed to practice medicine in Florida (and the clients were not told of this”. Two of the lawyer’s clients were provided with an “Official Legal Certification” and a “grow sign” to be posted at their residence which stated that medical marijuana cultivation was underway. The third client was provided an “Official Legal Certification” that identified one of the clients with the “grow sign” as his “authorized agent” to produce cannabis medically necessary to treat his debilitating condition.
According to the opinion, “(t)his ‘Official Legal Certification’ purported to advise law enforcement of the client’s right to cannabis as a medical necessity. Respondent advised his clients, and his clients believed, that based on Florida law, the clients had a right to possess, use, and grow cannabis due to medical necessity and that they were protected by the affirmative defense of medical necessity. Respondent did not tell his clients that this affirmative defense would not apply, if at all, until after the clients were arrested, charged, and prosecuted.”
The referee found that a number of the lawyer’s clients were arrested and prosecuted after following the lawyer’s advice. Somewhat unbelievably, the lawyer refused to refund the fees that he charged after the clients were charged. The lawyer was ordered to refund the fees when the trial court granted the clients’ motion for disgorgement of attorney’s fees; however, he failed to comply with the order and filed an untimely notice of appeal, which was dismissed. He also failed to respond to the trial court’s order to show cause and failed to appear at the show cause hearing. The court granted the motion for order to show cause and issued a warrant for his arrest.
“In January 2015, the police responded to the residence of the clients with the ‘grow sign’ pursuant to a 911 call. The next day, the clients contacted Respondent to ask him if they needed to dismantle their growing operation, in expectation that law enforcement would return, and were told by Respondent they had nothing to worry about and that he or someone from his office would contact law enforcement to discuss the situation. There was no record that Respondent ever did this. In February 2015, a fully armed SWAT team raided the clients’ home, and they were arrested and charged with manufacture of cannabis, possession of cannabis with intent to sell or deliver, possession of a place or structure for trafficking or manufacturing a controlled substance, possession of paraphernalia, and trafficking in cannabis in excess of twenty-five pounds. In response to their arrests, Respondent encouraged the clients to file an internal affairs report regarding the damage done to their home and belongings during the raid. The clients’ home, valuables, and vehicles were ultimately seized and detained for forfeiture.”
“The clients then hired a new attorney and accepted plea deals of three years’ probation, a $15,000 fine, and 100 hours of community service. One of the clients lost her nursing license of twenty-five years and the other lost his engineering job of fifteen years. In addition, their landlord sued them for damages to the home during the raid and lost rent. The landlord prevailed and obtained a judgment in excess of $25,000 against them.”
The referee recommended that the lawyer be found guilty of violating multiple Rules Regulating the Florida Bar, be suspended for two years, and pay the Bar’s costs. Neither the Bar nor the lawyer filed petitions for review of the referee report and recommendations; however, on July 26, 2017, the Supreme Court issued an order “requiring the lawyer to show cause why the recommended sanction should not be disapproved and a more severe sanction, including disbarment, be imposed.” The lawyer filed a response on August 10, 2017, and the Bar filed a reply on August 21, 2017.
After reviewing the response and reply, the Court found that disbarment was the appropriate sanction citing the lawyer’s incompetence and the extremely serious harm to clients. The opinion also noted that the lawyer “erroneously advised his clients and provided them with legally meaningless ‘Official Legal Certifications’ purportedly authorizing them to grow and use marijuana, based on determinations made by a physician not licensed to practice medicine in the State of Florida. Several clients who relied upon Respondent’s erroneous advice were arrested and criminally prosecuted, and their lives were devastated. Further, during the criminal proceedings pertaining to the clients and during the proceedings in this disciplinary matter, Respondent continued to insist on the correctness of his clearly erroneous legal positions, until he was ordered to show cause to this Court why he should not be disbarred. We will not tolerate such misconduct by members of The Florida Bar.” The opinion disbarred the lawyer effective immediately.
Bottom line: This is a quite egregious example of a lawyer’s incompetence (or worse) resulting in a nightmare of consequences for the clients, including a SWAT team raid and criminal charges and convictions. As this case shows, a lawyer’s advice to clients regarding allegedly legal marijuana growing businesses is fraught with uncertainly and the wrong advice may result in extremely serious consequences for the clients (and the lawyer), particularly with the recent by the recent announcement by the U.S. Attorney General that the federal government will enforce federal criminal laws related to marijuana even if it is legal in an individual state.
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