Category Archives: Lawyer social media ethics

Pennsylvania lawyer disbarred after practicing law for 17 years while under administrative suspension

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss a recent disbarment of a lawyer who continued to practice law for 17 years while suspended for failing to pay the annual registration fee.  The case is Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Jason Michael Purcell, No. 2651 Disciplinary Docket 3, No. DB 2018 and the October 31, 2019 Pennsylvania Supreme Court Order disbarring the lawyer with the detailed Report and Recommendations of the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board dated September 4, 2019 is here:  http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/DisciplinaryBoard/out/142DB2018-Purcell.pdf

According to the Disciplinary Board Report, the lawyer was suspended on December 1, 2002, for failing to pay his annual attorney registration fee; however, he continued to claim that he was a practicing attorney through social media.  He claimed on LinkedIn that he had “15-plus years of diverse legal experience” and that he was licensed to practice in California, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

The lawyer also falsely claimed that he held several jobs in the legal field, including working as in-house counsel and an associate broker for a private boutique real estate firm in New York from 2012 to 2017.  The Report also found that the lawyer had appeared as counsel in a drunken driving case and custody matter in 2005, worked as counsel of record in a drug case, and helped prepare a petition to recanvass voting machines in 2006.

The lawyer also represented an individual in an abuse protection matter in 2018 and told the judge in that matter that he had been reinstated; however, he never provided any documents showing that he had been reinstated.

According to the Report: “During his lengthy period of administrative suspension, respondent engaged in serious professional misconduct by continuing to hold himself out to the public as an active member of the Pennsylvania Bar and representing clients in at least five legal matters in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

The lawyer was also convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol twice and he was charged with a third DUI in 2006; however, he failed to appear in the case.

The lawyer failed to respond to the disciplinary charges and did not appear at the disciplinary hearing.  The Supreme Court adopted the findings in the Board report and disbarred the lawyer.

Bottom line:  It is very surprising, to say the least, that this lawyer was able to practice for 17 years while under suspension for failing to pay his annual attorney registration fee.  It is somewhat more surprising that the lawyer did not address and pay the registration fee and request reinstatement.  Finally, it is surprising that the lawyer failed to participate in the disciplinary proceedings; however, this may be at least partially explained by the fact that he was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol twice and was charged with a third DUI in 2006, but failed to appear.

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 Bar obtains emergency suspension of lawyer for “waging a personal and public war on social media”

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent emergency suspension of a Florida lawyer for allegedly “waging a personal and public war on social media against attorneys representing clients” and “resort(ing) to terrorist legal tactics.”  The case is: The Florida Bar v. Ashley Ann Krapacs, Case No.: SC-277 Lower Tribunal No(s) 2018-50,829 (17I)FES; 2018-50,851(17I);2019-50,081(17I) and The Florida Bar’s Petition for Emergency Suspension is here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2019/277/2019-277_petition_72430_petition2dsuspension2028emergency29.pdf

According to the Petition, the lawyer “launched an attack of massive and continuous proportions” on social media and “(c)learly, respondent’s fury has no bounds.” The lawyer’s alleged “terrorist legal tactics” began after she moved to Florida and initiating a petition for a domestic violence injunction against a former boyfriend in Texas and lawyer Russell Williams represented the ex-boyfriend.  The lawyer dismissed the case; however, she then allegedly “began a social media blitz” on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.

The lawyer allegedly called  Williams an “old white male attorney” and a “bully attorney” who had threatened to file a motion for sanctions against her if she did not dismiss the case.  She also stated that “opposing counsel flat-out LIED” and the judge ‘didn’t bat an eye.’”.  She also allegedly used the hashtag #holymisogyny on social media when talking about the case and accused the judge of membership in the “Old Boys Club.”

The lawyer also allegedly continued the misconduct in a YouTube video posted after Williams hired lawyer Nisha Bacchus to represent him and filed a lawsuit against the lawyer for Libel, Slander, Malicious Prosecution and Injunctive Relief.  In the video, the lawyer allegedly called Williams “a moron and a sexist and a bully” and said Bacchus was “a backstabbing traitor” for representing “misogynist pigs, misogynist bullies.”  “Also, she’s a door lawyer. Which is basically a lawyer who takes anything that walks in the door in any area of law.  Because you can’t do every area of law and do them all well. You just can’t. Some people try and they end up like Nisha Bacchus who are so hard up that they’ll take anything, including shit like this. So I almost feel bad for her because he’s playing her. It is really obvious from the way that she presents herself that she’ll take anything if the price is right. Or even if it’s not.”  The lawyer also used hashtags #sellout and #womanhater for Bacchus.

The Petition states that the lawyer made multiple posts on Facebook “accusing The Florida Bar of being corruptly influenced by Nisha Bacchus. Bacchus requested a domestic violence injunction against the lawyer after she posted a Home Alone meme showing a shotgun pointed at an individual and added the caption “when opposing counsel tries to use the same exact trick you saw in your last case.”  According to the Petition, “(o)n February 1, 2019, Judge Moon granted an indefinite Final Judgment of Injunction for Protection Against Stalking against (the lawyer) as a result of her actions toward Nisha Bacchus”

The Florida Supreme Court granted the emergency petition in an Order dated February 27, 2019 with 2 of the court’s seven justices dissenting and stating that they would not grant it.  The February 27, 2019 Supreme Court Order suspending the lawyer on an emergency basis is here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2019/277/2019-277_disposition_145483_d31i.pdf.  A referee will be appointed.

Bottom line:  This Petition is highly unusual and there may be a question as to whether such conduct constitutes “great public harm” under the Florida bar Rule.  It will certainly be interesting to see how this drama plays out.

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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Florida lawyer suspended for hijacking former firm’s e-mail accounts and making disparaging comments on Facebook

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss recent Florida Supreme Court Order suspending a lawyer for, inter alia, hijacking his former firm’s e-mail accounts and making disparaging comments on Facebook.  The Supreme Court Order is here:  9/20/18 Florida Supreme Court Order-Paul Green

According to the report of referee, which is here:  8/20/18 Green Report of Referee, the lawyer was alleged to have retaliated against his former law firm after he was terminated by hijacking the firm’s e-mail account, posting false and disparaging comments on Facebook about the lawyer who fired him, and communicating inappropriately with a client.

The referee’s report states that the lawyer was fired from his law firm after he used the firm credit card for personal matters, took unauthorized draws from the firm, missed work and took vacations without discussing them with the owner of the firm, made political comments on the firm’s Facebook page, and wrote a derogatory text message about his wife’s lawyer during his divorce. The lawyer’s text said: “Tell Dana Price I hope she dies of dirty Jew AIDS.”

After being terminated, the lawyer changed the password to his former firm’s e-mail accounts and, when the firm turned off the lawyer’s telephones, he agreed to restore the e-mail access only if the firm turned his telephones back on.  After this occurred, however, the lawyer again blocked the firm’s access to e-mail and directed the e-mails to himself.

The lawyer also posted to the law firm’s Facebook page falsely claiming that the firm owner had been “Baker Acted”, a reference to the Florida law related involuntary commitments when a person has a mental condition which poses a danger to that person or to others. The lawyer’s Facebook post also said the letters sent by the former law firm to firm clients that the firm’s e-mails were hacked were untrue.

According to the referee’s report:

“On or about September 5, 2017, Respondent posted the following on Parker & Green, P.A.’s Facebook page:

If you’re wondering what’s going on…Patricia Parker was Baker Acted last Saturday. She has sent letters to all of you clients saying everything was hacked. It wasn’t but please be careful if you decide to go with the law office of Patricia L. Parker. Nothing was hacked but she is trying to get off her suicidal thoughts and is convincing clients she is ok. Don’t worry, my email still works and I am working with the Florida Bar to make sure she gets the help she needs. If you are a client, do not pay a bill until the Florida Bar decides what they will be doing with Ms. Parker. Any correspondence by Alix Diaz who has hacked email accounts owned by Mr. Green, should also be taken with a degree of skepticism. She’s been off her meds for a few months and things have finally taken their toll. I think her impending divorce to her husband for infidelity is part of the problem. If you’re trying to reach Mr. Green, he can still be reached at pgreen@itspersonaljax.com as he owns the domain and website.”

“A short time later in a second post on the firm’s page, Respondent stated:

Everyone should make sure their loved ones don’t need any mental help. Please check. If your brother, sister, father, mother, or business partner threaten to commit suicide … please get them help, before they hurt someone, themselves, or a trusted client. Luckily, Mr. Green doesn’t have that problem. pgreen@itspersonaljax.com.”

The lawyer told the false Baker Act story to a firm client he saw at Everbank Field in Jacksonville. He also said that the other lawyer in the firm had violated ethics rules and that he would finish the client’s case for free if she would make a statement about the other lawyer. He also told the client he would like to get together for drinks to discuss the case.  The lawyer sent numerous texts to the client; however, she did not respond and she subsequently filed a Florida Bar complaint against the lawyer. After the client filed her Bar complaint, the lawyer approached her while she was working as a bartender, slammed his hand down on the bar and said, “Good luck with that complaint.”

The referee recommended a 60 day suspension, a requirement that the lawyer contact Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc. (FLA, Inc.) within 30 days for an evaluation and comply with all requirements of the evaluation, including an FLA, Inc. contract if one is recommended, and payment of the Bar and FLA costs.  The Florida Supreme Court Order adopted the findings of the referee and suspended the lawyer for 60 days with the recommended conditions.

Bottom line: This is a lawyer who engaged in improper conduct while with a law firm and then apparently went out of control after being terminated, including posting disparaging comments on social media.  The Court has suspended the lawyer for 60 days and required that he undergo an evaluation through FLA, Inc. and, if recommended, to comply with any and all treatment requirements in an FLA contract.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert 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

 

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Florida Bar Professional Ethics Committee approves staff opinion addressing lawyer responses to negative online reviews

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the Florida Bar’s Professional Ethics Committee’s recent approval of Florida Bar Staff Opinion 38049, which addresses lawyer responses to negative online reviews.

On June 15, 2018, the Florida Bar’s Professional Ethics Committee unanimously approved Florida Bar Staff Opinion 38049 which states that a lawyer may post a limited response to a negative online review that the lawyer says falsely accuses her of theft; however, the lawyer may not reveal attorney/client confidences.  The Staff Opinion is here:  file:///C:/Users/jcorsmeier/Downloads/PRR_Corsmeier_-_38049_KNS_responding_to_negative_online_review_PEC_approved.pdf.  The Professional Ethics Committee will not issue a separate opinion.

The lawyer stated in her inquiry that she received a negative online review and would like to respond to the former client’s negative review that the lawyer “took her money and ran” by using the language suggested in Texas Ethics Opinion 662 and adding an “objectively verifiable truthful statement” that the Court entered an order authorizing the lawyer to withdraw as counsel for the former client.

The lawyer stated that she believed the added language was “proportional and restrained, consistent with the Texas Ethics Opinion, directly addressed the allegations of the former client, and should be permissible under the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar and the First Amendment.”  The staff opinion found that the post would reveal confidential information without obtaining the former client’s consent and cited the comment to Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6.

According to the staff opinion, “(a) fundamental principle in the client-lawyer relationship is that, in the absence of the client’s informed consent, the lawyer must not reveal information relating to the representation…. The confidentiality rule applies not merely to matters communicated in confidence by the client but also to all information relating to the representation, whatever its source.”

“The inquirer refers to Texas Ethics Opinion 622. That opinion explains that a lawyer may not respond to client’s negative internet review if the response discloses confidential information.  The opinion gives an example of a proportional and restrained response that does not reveal any confidential information:  A lawyer’s duty to keep client confidences has few exceptions and in an abundance of caution I do not feel at liberty to respond in a point by point fashion in this forum. Suffice it to say that I do not believe that the post presents a fair and accurate picture of the events.  The suggested language found in Texas Ethics Opinion 622 would be an acceptable response for the inquirer.”

“An attorney is not ethically barred from responding to an online review by a former client where the former client’s matter has concluded…(h)owever, the duty of confidentiality prevents the attorney from disclosing confidential information about the prior representation absent the client’s informed consent or waiver of confidentiality.”

In 2016, a Colorado lawyer was suspended for six months after he responded to a negative online review and revealed, among other things, that the client had bounced a check and committed unrelated felonies.  There have been other disciplinary cases where a lawyer has been sanctioned for revealing confidences in responding to a negative online review, including: In the Matter of Margrett A. Skinner, Case No. S14Y0661 (Ga. Supreme Court 5/19/14), where a Georgia lawyer received a reprimand for revealing confidences in responding to a negative online review, and In re John P. Mahoney, Bar Docket No. 2015-D141 (2015), where a lawyer received in formal admonishment in 2015.

Bottom line:  As I have blogged and advised in the past, lawyers are prohibited from revealing client confidences unless an exception to the Bar rules applies either requiring or permitting the disclosure.  Permissive exceptions include responding to a Bar complaint, defending a lawsuit filed against the lawyer, and defending against criminal charges involving the representation of a client.  A negative online review is not currently one of those exceptions.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert 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

 

 

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Illinois Disciplinary Board recommends 6 month suspension for lawyer who created false internet dating profile for opposing lawyer

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Illinois Disciplinary Hearing Board Report and Recommendation which recommended a 6 month suspension for a lawyer who created a false Match.com dating profile for an opposing lawyer, falsely denied doing it, and posted false negative internet reviews on the same lawyer.  The case is In re Drew Randolph Quitschau, Commission No. 2017PR00084 (June 6, 2018).  The Report and Recommendation of the Hearing Board is here: https://www.iardc.org/rd_database/rulesdecisions.html.

A disciplinary complaint was filed against the lawyer on August 4, 2017.  The complaint stated the lawyer was a partner in a law firm in Bloomington, Illinois until February 10, 2017 when he was terminated.  The lawyer and another Illinois lawyer named Michelle Mosby-Scott had appeared as opposing counsel in 17 proceedings and both appeared as opposing counsel in seven proceedings between June 2016 and February 2017.

Count I of the complaint alleged that the lawyer engaged in dishonesty by creating a false profile on Match.com in the name of another attorney, without the other attorney’s permission, and making several false representations in that profile and also that the lawyer made a false statement to a partner at his law firm by denying any responsibility for the false profile. Counts II through V alleged that the lawyer engaged in dishonesty by using the Internet to register with organizations or subscribe to materials in the name of the same other attorney, without the other attorney’s permission. Counts VI and VII alleged that the lawyer engaged in dishonesty by posting on the Internet false and negative reviews of the professional ability of the same attorney.  The disciplinary Complaint is here: https://www.iardc.org/17PR0084CM.html

According to the Report, the lawyer admitted to all of the misconduct allegations in his Answer to the complaint and the Hearing Board found that all misconduct charges were proven.  A hearing was held on February 6 and March 2, 2018 and the Report further states:

“The Match.com profile created by Respondent included the following representations that Respondent knew were false: Mosby-Scott was separated from her husband; her children sometimes live with her; she smokes but is trying to quit; she regularly drinks alcohol; she is an agnostic; she is 56 years of age; she does not exercise and enjoys auto racing and motor cross; she has cats; and her favorite hot spots are the grocery store, all restaurants, the Pizza Ranch, all buffets, and NASCAR.

Also in September 2016, Respondent downloaded several photos of Mosby-Scott from her law firm website. He then uploaded those photos to the Match.com profile he created so that the photos could be viewed by the general public. Respondent knew the profile he created in Mosby-Scott’s name was false and knew she had not authorized him to create the profile, user name, password, or email address.

In early October 2016, Mosby-Scott became aware of the Match.com profile in her name. She filed a lawsuit requesting the court to provide her with the Internet Protocol (IP) address associated with the Match.com profile. On December 9, 2016, Match.com provided to Mosby-Scott that IP address. On January 20, 2017, Comcast, the Internet provider for the Thomson & Weintraub law firm gave written notice that the law firm’s IP address was used to create the false Match.com profile for Mosby-Scott. On the same date, Terrence Kelly, a partner at Thomson & Weintraub informed employees that the firm’s IP address was used to create the false profile. He also announced that the firm would be hiring a computer expert to examine all of the firm’s computers. On about the same date, Kelly asked Respondent whether he had created the false profile, and Respondent denied doing so. Respondent knew his statement to Kelly denying that Respondent created the profile in Mosby-Scott’s name was false.”

The Report states that the Board “discussed the seriousness of the misconduct, the aggravating and mitigating factors, and concluded that a fixed term of a suspension, even a lengthy one, will not adequately maintain the integrity of the legal profession or protect the administration of justice from reproach and recommended Respondent be suspended from the practice of law for six months and until further order of the Court.”

Bottom line:  This lawyer admitted all of the bizarre allegations of misconduct in his Answer, including that he had created the Match.com profile “downloaded several photos of (the opposing lawyer) from her law firm website (and) then uploaded those photos to the Match.com profile he created so that the photos could be viewed by the general public” and lying to his law firm by denying that he created it.  He also admitted posting false and negative reviews of the lawyer’s professional ability on the internet; however, there is nothing in the Complaint or Report which discusses the actual motives behind this very strange and inexplicable conduct by the lawyer.  The Report and Recommendation will now be sent to the Illinois Supreme Court for review and a final opinion.

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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Herssein law firm files emergency motion with Florida Supreme Court to quash 3rd DCA opinion and order claiming violation of stay in Facebook disqualification matter

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert update which will discuss the recent (December 13, 2017) Motion to Quash filed by the Herssein law firm in the Florida Supreme Court proceeding challenging a Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge’s denial of a motion to disqualify a lawyer who was a former judge and “friend” of the judge on Facebook.  The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. d/b/a Herssein Law Group and Reuven T. Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Supreme Court Case No. SC17-1848).  The Herssein law firm’s Motion to Quash is here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2017/1848/2017-1848_motion_115391_motion2dother20substantive.pdf.

The law firm filed an emergency motion on December 13, 2017 asking the Florida Supreme Court to quash a December 13, 2017 3rd DCA opinion quashing two discovery orders and an order granting fees to USAA, claiming that the opinion and order violated the Supreme Court’s Stay Order dated December 7, 2017.

As I previously blogged, the Herssein law firm moved to disqualify the judge from a contract dispute against their client, the United States Automobile Association (USAA) in which a lawyer who represented a non-party USAA employee in the matter was identified as a potential witness/party.  The law firm argued that the judge could not be impartial in the case and cited JEAC Op. 2009-20 (Nov.17, 2009), which states: “Listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as ‘friends’ on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge.”  In 2012, the 4th DCA relied on the JEAC opinion in disqualifying a judge from a case for being Facebook friends with the criminal prosecutor. Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).

Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko found that she was not required to recuse herself from the case and the Herssein firm asked the Florida Supreme Court to invoke its discretionary jurisdiction to review the decision under Article V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const., and Rule 9.030(a)(2)(A)(iii) and (iv).  In a December 7, 2017 Order, the Court issued a stay of the lower court proceedings and, in an Order dated December 11, 2017, accepted jurisdiction and provided a briefing schedule.

Bottom line:  In a strange turn of events, the law firm has filed a motion claiming that the 3rd DCA rendered an opinion and order which violate the Florida Supreme Court’s stay of the lower court proceedings and asking the Supreme Court to quash the opinion and order.

Stay tuned…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert 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

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Florida Supreme Court stays lower court case where judge found that Facebook “friendship” with lawyer was not disqualifying

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert update which will discuss the recent (12/7/17) Order of the Florida Supreme Court granting the Herssein law firm’s Motion to Stay the lower court proceeding wherein Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge denied a motion to disqualify a lawyer who was a “friend” on the judge on Facebook.  The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. d/b/a Herssein Law Group and Reuven T. Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Supreme Court Case No. SC17-1848).  The Herssein law firm’s Motion for Stay is here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2017/1848/2017-1848_motion_114995_motion2dstay2028proceedings20below29.pdf and the December 7, 2017 Florida Supreme Court Order is here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2017/1848/2017-1848_order_224307_o03bo.pdf.

As I previously blogged, the Third DCA upheld the decision of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko that she was not required to recuse herself from a case in which she was a Facebook “friend” of the lawyer for one of the witnesses/potential parties.  The lawyer was also a former judge with whom she worked before he resigned as a circuit judge.  This decision departs from a previous 4th DCA opinion and an opinion of the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (JEAC).

The Third DCA opinion states:

“A random name drawn from a list of Facebook ‘friends’ probably belongs to casual friend, an acquaintance, an old classmate, a person with whom the member shares a common hobby, a ‘friend of a friend’ or even a local celebrity like a coach.  An assumption that all Facebook ‘friends’ rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking.”

The Herssein law firm had moved to disqualify the judge from presiding over a contract dispute against their client, the United States Automobile Association (USAA) in which an attorney named Reyes represented a non-party USAA employee in the matter, who was identified as a potential witness/party.  The law firm argued that the judge could not be impartial in the case and cited JEAC Op. 2009-20 (Nov.17, 2009).  That opinion states: “Listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as ‘friends’ on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge.”  In 2012, the 4th DCA relied on the JEAC opinion in disqualifying a judge from a case for being Facebook friends with the criminal prosecutor. Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).

The Third DCA opinion states that Facebook friendships could represent a close relationship that would require disqualification, however, many do not.  The opinion concluded:

“In fairness to the Fourth District’s decision in Domville and the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee’s 2009 opinion, electronic social media is evolving at an exponential rate. Acceptance as a Facebook “friend” may well once have given the impression of close friendship and affiliation. Currently, however, the degree of intimacy among Facebook “friends” varies greatly. The designation of a person as a “friend” on Facebook does not differentiate between a close friend and a distant acquaintance. Because a “friend” on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word, we hold that the mere fact that a judge is a Facebook “friend” with a lawyer for a potential party or witness, without more, does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook “friend.” On this point we respectfully acknowledge we are in conflict with the opinion of our sister court in Domville.”

The Herssein law firm filed a Notice asking the Florida Supreme Court to invoke its discretionary jurisdiction to review the decision under Article V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const., and Rule 9.030(a)(2)(A)(iii) and (iv). In support of the request, the Notice states:  “The decision expressly and directly affects a class of constitutional or state officers; all V judges in Florida, and the decision expressly and directly conflicts with the decision of another district court of appeal on the same question of law.”

Bottom line:  As I said in my previous blogs, the lower court’s order and the 3rd DCA opinion is contrary to the 2009 JEAC opinion and the 2012 4th  DCA opinion and acknowledges that it is in conflict with that opinion; however, it does provide the rationale that each case should be decided by examining the facts and the relationship.  This would seem to create potential confusion and potential disqualification motions would then have to be decided on a case by case basis.  The Florida Supreme Court has now stayed the lower court matter while it presumably looks at the issue and decides whether to invoke its discretionary jurisdiction.

Again, it would seem to be prudent for judges and lawyers who may appear before them not to be “friends” or otherwise connect on social media and professional networking sites or, if they are already connected and a case is assigned, to immediately remove the connection, disclose it to all parties, and (the judge may) possibly provide an option to recuse if the party believes that it could be potentially prejudiced.

Stay tuned…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert 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

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