Category Archives: Lawyer permanent disbarment

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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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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