Category Archives: Lawyer sanctions

Referee recommends that former Florida judge who accepted Tampa Bay Rays tickets be suspended for 90 days and placed on probation

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Report of Referee which recommends that former Lee County Judge John Lakin, who was alleged to have improperly accepted tickets to Tampa Bay Rays baseball games, be suspended from practice for 90 days and be placed on probation for one year.  The case is The Florida Bar v. John Francis Lakin, SC17-542.  The June 25, 2018 Report of the Referee is here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4564632-Referee-Report-Lakin.html

The Judicial Qualification Commission charged the judge with misconduct in 2016 alleging, inter alia, that he had requested and received Tampa Bay Rays tickets from a law firm in 2015 while presiding over a pending case in which the law firm represented one of the parties.  A jury ruled in favor of opposing party; however, the judge subsequently reversed that verdict in favor of the law firm’s client.  Five of the tickets that the judge received were given to him the day before he reversed the jury verdict.  The judge denied that the receipt of the tickets influenced his actions and later retired from the bench and went into private practice.

The Florida Bar filed a Complaint in March 2017 alleging that the lawyer violated Bar Rules related to dishonesty, deceitfulness, misrepresentation and/or fraud.  The referee assigned to hear the Bar matter recommended that the former judge’s law license be suspended for 90 days, and that he be placed on supervised probation one year, complete the Bar’s practice and professionalism enhancement program, “speak to new judges” about the circumstances, and pay the Bar’s costs of $5,244.00.

Under the Florida Bar rules, the referee’s report will now be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court, which will render a final disciplinary opinion.  The judge and The Florida Bar can file a petition with the Court to review the findings and file briefs.

Bottom line:  This former judge accepted tickets from lawyers who were representing a party before him on a pending case and, soon after receiving the tickets, made a ruling which favored that law firm’s clients.   Even if the tickets did not influence the judge’s decision, the circumstances would certainly seem to create an appearance of impropriety and an arguable violation of the Judicial Canons.  The referee has now recommended that the judge be found guilty of Florida Bar Rule violations and suspended from practicing law for 90 days.  The Florida Supreme Court will now decide whether the referee’s findings will be upheld.

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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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Florida Bar, Florida judge ethics, Florida Judicial Canons, Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Florida Supreme Court, Former judge lawyer discipline accepting gifts while judge from party's lawyer, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Judge ethics accepting gifts, Judicial ethics, Lawyer conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer sanctions

Florida Supreme Court suspends two lawyers for conflict of interest Bar Rule violations under “hot potato doctrine”

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida suspending two Florida lawyers for 30 days for violating Bar Rules related to conflicts of interest under what is being called the “hot potato” doctrine. The cases are: The Florida Bar v. Steven Kent Hunter, Case No.: SC16-1006, TFB No. 2014-70,728(11C) and The Florida Bar v. Philip Maurice Gerson, Case No.: SC16-1009, TFB No. 2014-70,729(11C).  The April 11, 2018 Supreme Court opinion is here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2016/1006/2016-1006_disposition_141625_d31a.pdf

The Florida Supreme Court opinion suspended the two lawyers for 30 days each for seeking payments for their clients from a scientific institute created in a class action tobacco settlement notwithstanding objections from their previous clients.  The opinion found that the lawyers violated Florida Bar Rules 4-1.7 (conflict of interest – current clients), and 4-1.9 (conflict of interest – former clients) by seeking relief adverse to the clients’ interests.  The case involved the so called “hot potato doctrine”, which was established in a March 27, 2014 Florida Supreme Court opinion involving the same lawyers.

The 2014 Supreme Court opinion quashed a Third District Court of Appeals opinion reversing a trial court order disqualifying the lawyers on the same underlying facts as the 2018 Bar case.  That opinion stated:  “Additionally, with this opinion, we ask The Florida Bar to investigate whether any Florida Rules of Professional Conduct were violated during the underlying proceedings or during the presentation of this case to this Court.  The case is Patricia Young et al. vs. Norva Achenbauch, et al., Case No. SC12-988, and the March 27, 2014 opinion is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2014/sc12-988.pdf

In Young, the Court said that a lawyer who has a conflict of interest between two current clients cannot avoid the current-client conflict rule (4-1.7) by dropping one client “like a hot potato.”  Before that opinion, it was argued that a client who a lawyer dropped because of a conflict of interest became a former client under Bar Rule 4-1.9, which is potentially less restrictive.

The underlying litigation began with a putative class-action lawsuit filed by a different lawyer on behalf of a number of flight attendants alleging damages for second hand smoke inhalation. That case settled with no compensation to class members; however, the settlement provided that $300 million would be paid to create a foundation sponsoring scientific research on cigarette smoking.  The settlement also allowed individual suits for compensatory damages by class members, as long as those claims were not based on alleged fraud and misrepresentation.  The lawyers were among the lawyers who took on individual suits by flight attendants.

The referee found in his report that the lawyers (and the other lawyers) were “wholly unsuccessful” in the individual cases, partly because class members could not prove causation.  The referee also found that, after the unsuccessful lawsuit, the lawyers then turned to “Plan B”, which was to negotiate payments to class members from the foundation. Two of Gerson’s former clients sent letters to the foundation stating they objected to any plan to undercut the foundation’s activities and funding.  Hunter, the other lawyer, received an objection from a foundation board member who he had previously represented in one of individual lawsuits, and who was being paid $60,000 annually to serve on the foundation board.

According to the referee’s report, Gerson believed the letters were solicited to stop the petition to approve a distribution from the foundation. Gerson and Hunter then withdrew from representing anyone who had voiced an objection, and filed a petition alleging that the institute had substantially deviated from its approved purpose and had misused settlement funds.

The institute and the objectors then filed a petition to disqualify the lawyers because of a conflict of interest and the disqualification issue was addressed in the Florida Supreme Court’s 2014 opinion, which created the so called “hot potato” doctrine.  The referee found that the 2014 opinion was binding in the ethics case; however, the referee recommended only an admonishment, finding that neither lawyer had any prior disciplinary record, the case involved legal issues that were unsettled before the 2014 Supreme Court decision, and the issue of whether the petition sought relief adverse to class members was “fairly debatable.”

The Florida Supreme Court opinion approved the referee’s findings of fact and the recommendation that the lawyers be found guilty of violating Florida Bar Rule 4-1.7; however, the opinion rejected the recommendation that the lawyers be found not guilty of violating Bar Rule 4-1.9, and found both lawyers guilty of violating that rule. The opinion also disapproved the referee’s recommendation of an admonishment and suspended both lawyers for 30 days.

Bottom line:  This is an unusual case where the Florida Supreme Court issued an opinion in an underlying case and sent the case to The Florida Bar for investigation.  The opinion relied on the court’s previous finding in the civil case and suspended the lawyers, even though the referee found the conflict to be “fairly debatable”.

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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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Conflict of Interest "hot potato" doctrine, Disqualification, Florida Bar, Florida Supreme Court, Grounds for lawyer withdrawal, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer conflict of interest, Lawyer conflict of interest former clients, Lawyer conflict of interest- current clients, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer disqualification, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer sanctions

Florida lawyer who improperly advised clients regarding marijuana business resulting in their arrest and charged $799 for false marijuana card is disbarred

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

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney misrepresentation, dishonesty, Florida Bar, Florida Supreme Court, fraud, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer disbarment, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer lack of competence, Lawyer lack of diligence, Lawyer lying to clients, Lawyer misconduct and fraud marijuana advice disbarment, Lawyer sanctions

Florida Bar opposes lawyer initiated petition to make appeal court finding of frivolousness “conclusive” rule violation

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Bar’s response opposing the Petition initiated by a Florida lawyer to amend Florida Bar Rule 3-4.3 which states that a final decision of the Florida Supreme Court, Florida appeals court, or federal appellate court determining prosecution of a frivolous claim“ constitutes a conclusive determination of guilt of misconduct by the lawyer(s) who prosecuted such frivolous claim or defense for violation of Rule 4-3.1.”    The matter is The Florida Bar Re: Petition to Amend Rules Regulating The Florida Bar 3-4.3, 3-5.3, and 4-3.1 (Case No. SC17-1965).  The Response is here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2017/1965/2017-1965_response_49952_response.pdf

The proposed rule amendment would add a section to Florida Bar Rule 3-4.3 (misconduct or minor misconduct), providing that if the Florida Supreme Court or any Florida or federal appellate court has determined that a court action violated F.S. §57.105, Florida appellate Rule 9.410, or Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, that “constitutes a conclusive determination of guilt of misconduct by the lawyer(s) who prosecuted such frivolous claim or defense for violation of Rule 4-3.1.”

The proposed rule would also require a lawyer who has had such a ruling against him or her to notify the Bar within 10 days with copies to opposing counsel.  Bar counsel would docket the case and “The Florida Bar shall prosecute the misconduct in accordance with the rules considering the conclusive determination of a violation of Rule 4-3.1.”

The BOG Disciplinary Procedure Committee (DPC) voted 7-0 to oppose the proposed petition in November 2017 and the BOG voted unanimously to file a response opposing the petition at its December 8, 2017 meeting.  The Bar filed its response opposing the proposed amendment on December 29, 2018.

Bottom line:  As I previously stated, this is rare member initiated petition to amend the Florida Bar rules.  The rule amendment appears to be well intended; however, it is problematic and ill advised.  The Bar’s Response sets forth the reasons that the Bar opposes the rule amendment, including the fact that a civil case involves different parties, different rules and statutes, different goals, and lower evidentiary standards.

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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Filed under Attorney Ethics, Florida Bar, Florida Bar - petition to make finding of frivolous filing conclusive proof of Bar rule violation, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Florida Supreme Court, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer filing frivolous pleading, Lawyer Professionalism, Lawyer sanctions, Lawyer sanctions for frivolous filings

Indiana criminal prosecutor suspended for 4 years for twice eavesdropping on confidential attorney/client conversations

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Indiana Supreme Court opinion suspending a lawyer for 4 years for eavesdropping on confidential attorney/client conversations with no automatic reinstatement.  The case is In the Matter of Robert Neary, No. 46S00-1512-DI-705 (Ind. SC), and the November 6, 2017 disciplinary opinion is here: http://www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/11061701per.pdf

The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission filed a two-count disciplinary complaint against the lawyer on December 17, 2015, and later amended the complaint.  The amended complaint charged the lawyer with “professional misconduct in connection with his actions in two criminal cases while serving as the chief deputy prosecutor in LaPorte County (Michigan).”

The first count of the complaint alleged that the prosecutor had surreptitiously watched video feeds of an attorney/client confidential conversation in March 2014 at the Michigan City Police Department.  A defense lawyer had flipped a switch that was supposed to prevent the conversation from being recorded; however, the police controlled the live video and audio.

The lawyer and police detectives watched the conversation from the police station’s “war room.”  During the conversation, the defendant (Taylor) told his lawyer where a gun could be found.  The lawyer advised the police detectives not to recover the weapon; however, they ignored his advice and recovered the weapon.

The chief of police later learned of the recording and told the lawyer that he should provide the information the defendant’s counsel.  The lawyer subsequently provided the information to the defendant’s lawyer and also reported his misconduct to the Indiana Bar authorities.

The second count alleged that the lawyer listened to an attorney/client confidential conversation that was recorded in December 2012 at the Long Beach (Michigan) Police Department.  The defendant (Larkin) had agreed to speak with police with his lawyer present, in exchange for being charged with voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.

During an 11-minute break in the questioning, the defendant discussed defense strategy and other confidential matters with his lawyer; however, the recording system was not turned off.  The lawyer viewed the recorded interview that included the attorney/client confidential discussion during the break about a month later.

According to the opinion, “Respondent first viewed the DVD of the interview, including the break discussion, about one month later. Respondent watched the entire break discussion even though the privileged status of that discussion either was, or should have been, immediately apparent to Respondent.  Respondent provided a copy of the DVD, including the break discussion, to Larkin’s counsel but did not mention to counsel that the break discussion had been recorded.”

The Larkin’s lawyer later filed a motion to dismiss the voluntary manslaughter charge alleging prosecutorial misconduct because of the recording of the discussion.  The lawyer’s response, which was sealed, provided the contents of the break discussion and included the written transcript and a DVD.  A judge later unsealed sealed the information.

The opinion noted that both of the cases had led to appeals and stated that the lawyer’s conduct had “fundamentally infringed on privileged attorney-client communications and, at an absolute minimum, has caused significant delays and evidentiary hurdles in the prosecutions of Taylor and Larkin, even assuming they still can be prosecuted at all.”  The court had reviewed the Taylor matter on appeal and described the eavesdropping as “egregious,” “flagrant,” “unconscionable,” “shameful,” “abhorrent” and “reprehensible.”

After a hearing, the hearing officer found that the lawyer had committed the Bar rule violations charged in the amended complaint and recommended a sanction ranging from a four-year suspension to disbarment.  The Indiana Bar Commission recommended disbarment.

According to the opinion: “(i)n many respects, these proceedings have painted an even more alarming picture of Respondent, in that they show Respondent gradually has retreated from his initial self-report to the Commission and has given evasive and inconsistent explanations and statements regarding the war room eavesdropping.  As aptly found by the hearing officer, ‘Respondent’s ever evolving narrative points to a lack of honesty.’”

The opinion further states: “(t)he severity of the misconduct and Respondent’s repeated transgressions certainly lend support to the notion that he should be disbarred. On the other hand, Respondent has no prior discipline, he self-reported his conduct to the Commission, and several persons testified to his good reputation in the community (although, as noted by the hearing officer, these persons did not appear to have been particularly well informed of the circumstances giving rise to these disciplinary proceedings). At the end of the day, these considerations persuade us that the door should not permanently be closed on Respondent’s legal career and that he should be afforded an opportunity at an appropriate juncture to prove by clear and convincing evidence his professional rehabilitation and fitness to resume practicing law.”

Bottom line: This prosecutor was involved in two separate serious violations of attorney/client confidentiality by viewing and listening to surreptitious recordings and clearly should have known better.  In my opinion, the lawyer was extremely fortunate that he avoided disbarment for his misconduct.

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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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney misrepresentation, Attorney/client confidentiality, attorney/client privilege, Attorney/client privilege and confidentiality, Confidentiality, Confidentiality and privilege, dishonesty, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer conduct adversely affecting fitness to practice, Lawyer conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, lawyer confidentiality, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer false statements, Lawyer false statements in response to Bar complaint, Lawyer false testimony, Lawyer sanctions, Prosecutor misconduct discipline, Prosecutor misconduct eavesdropping on attorney/client conversations, Prosecutorial misconduct ethics