Category Archives: Lawyers and social media

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge’s Facebook “friendship” with Florida lawyer and former judge leads to motion to disqualify and appeal

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent denial of a Motion to Disqualify a Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge who was “friends” with opposing counsel on Facebook as well as the pending appeal.  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.: _______________, Lower Tribunal No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Third District Court of Appeal) and the Motion for Writ of Prohibition is here:  http://www.almcms.com/contrib/content/uploads/sites/292/2017/07/FILED-HLG-Petition-for-Writ-of-Prohibition-3D17-1421-1.pdf 

According to the Petition, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko is a “friend” of attorney Israel Reyes on Facebook.  Reyes is also a former Miami-Dade judge who served with Judge Butchko and now has a private law firm in Coral Gables.  Reyes represents a USAA employee in the case who retained separate counsel after Herssein apparently accused the employee of witness tampering.  Herssein told the court that he planned to add the employee as a defendant and Reyes entered an appearance on behalf of the employee/non-party.

The Motion to Disqualify filed by the Herssein law firm on behalf of USAA alleged that the Facebook friendship between the judge and Reyes would cause Reyes to be able to influence the judge, and that she could not be impartial.  The judge denied the motion, stating that it was legally insufficient.  The law firm then filed the Petition for Writ of Prohibition with the Third District Court of Appeal.

The Florida Supreme Court’s Judicial Advisory Committee (JEAC) issued an opinion on this issue in 2009.  The JEAC opinion states that judges should not send or accept social media friend requests from lawyers who may appear before them.  The advisory opinion excludes campaign sites created by a committee.  The opinion is JEAC Op. No. 2009-20 (11/17/09) and is here:  http://www.jud6.org/legalcommunity/legalpractice/opinions/jeacopinions/2009/2009-20.htmlt  The opinion states:

“The Committee believes that 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.  This is not to say, of course, that simply because a lawyer is listed as a “friend” on a social networking site or because a lawyer is a friend of the judge, as the term friend is used in its traditional sense, means that this lawyer is, in fact, in a special position to influence the judge.  The issue, however, is not whether the lawyer actually is in a position to influence the judge, but instead whether the proposed conduct, the identification of the lawyer as a “friend” on the social networking site, conveys the impression that the lawyer is in a position to influence the judge.  The Committee concludes that such identification in a public forum of a lawyer who may appear before the judge does convey this impression and therefore is not permitted.”

The JEAC applied the same analysis in a 2012 opinion related to professional networking websites, such as LinkedIn, and stated that there is no “meaningful distinction” between Facebook, and LinkedIn.  The opinion is JEAC Op. No. 2012-12 (5/9/12) and is here:  http://www.jud6.org/legalcommunity/legalpractice/opinions/jeacopinions/2012/2012-12.html.  The opinions states:

The Committee continues to believe that the process of selecting persons to be connections on LinkedIn, and the communication by the judge of the list of the judge’s connections to others who the judge has approved, violates Canon 2B.  The Committee does not believe that there is meaningful distinction in this regard between Facebook, and LinkedIn, a site used for professional networking, because the selection and communication process is the same on both sites.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal relied on the 2009 opinion in a 2012 decision disqualifying a judge in a criminal case for being Facebook friends with the prosecutor. The court found the social media connection could “create in a reasonably prudent person a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.”

USAA argued that the 2012 Fourth DCA decision should not apply since it involved a criminal defendant who might have a reasonable fear of prejudice; however, the law firm is more sophisticated and should not have such a fear only because two judges who both previously sat as judges in Miami-Dade County are “friends” on Facebook.

Other states have also provided guidance on judicial social media use and Florida’s opinion is one of the most restrictive.  California, Kentucky and New York have opined that judges may accept Facebook friend requests from lawyers who may appear before them under certain conditions.  California permits judges to be friends with lawyers on Facebook if those pages are used only for professional activities, such as communications with members of a law school alumni group and other factors include how many friends the judge has, whether he or she declines some attorneys’ friend requests but accepts others and how often the attorney appears before the judge.

Bottom line:  As this case illustrates, judges (and lawyers who may appear before them) would be well advised 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 and disclose it to all parties and provide an option to recuse if the party believes that it would potentially be prejudiced.

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

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California Ethics Opinion addresses ethics issues related to lawyer blogging and advertising and provides guidelines

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent California Formal Ethics Opinion which addresses ethics issues related to lawyer blogging and advertising and provides guidelines for lawyers who blog.  The Opinion is The State Bar of California Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct Formal Opinion No. 2016-196 and the ethics opinion is here: Cal. Formal Opinion No. 2016-196

The opinion reviews the application of advertising rules to attorney blogging and when blogging by an attorney considered a “communication” under the California Bar Rules and the provisions of California Business and Professions Code which regulate attorney advertising.  The California rules prohibit false or deceptive “communications” which confuse, deceive or mislead the public (as do most, if not all Bar rules throughout the U.S.)  This proscription applies to both affirmative statements and/or to omissions necessary to make a statement not misleading.

The opinion discusses U.S. Constitution First Amendment principles, including the fact that lawyer advertising is protected commercial speech, and truthful lawyer advertising cannot be absolutely prohibited; however, it can be subject to reasonable regulation and restrictions.  In addition, communications for publication by lawyers that are primarily informational and educational have long been considered to be core political speech and protected under the First Amendment, and such speech can be restricted only under extraordinary circumstances.

The First Amendment protections apply even if the lawyer also hopes, as a partial motive, to use the informational and educational communications to increase his or her legal business; however, commercial motivation is only one factor to be considered.  The key questions are whether a blog is a message or offer (1) made by or on behalf of a California attorney; (2) concerns the attorney’s availability for professional employment; and; (3) is directed to a former, present or prospective client.  Since all blogs will meet factors 1 and 3, the important question is whether the blog concerns the attorney’s availability for professional employment under question 2.

The opinion discusses Cal. Formal Opinion 2012-186, which analyzes the application of California advertising rules to attorney social media posts, and found that a post which has words of offer or invitation relating to representation is a “communication’; however, if a post is only informational in nature, it is not a communication. The opinion concluded that this same analysis applies to lawyer blogs.

The opinion also discusses Cal. Formal Opinion 2001-155, which found that, even without specific words of invitation or offer, a website that included information such as a detailed listing of services, qualifications, backgrounds, and other attributes of the attorney or law firm, with their distribution to the public, could carry a “clear implication” of availability for employment, and would therefore be a “communication” subject to advertising  regulation. The opinion concluded that the same analysis applies to lawyer blogs.

The opinion states that a listing of all of an attorney’s cases and outcomes, without comment, could be considered informational and not a “communication”; however, a communication with the result of a specific case or cases without providing information related to the facts and/or law giving rise to the result, would be presumed to be false, misleading or deceptive, and could be a prohibited “guarantee, warranty or prediction regarding the result of representation.” The opinion stated that even a numbered listing of “wins” might be misleading without clarification about what is considered a “win.”  The use of disclaimers may (but will not necessarily) overcome a presumption of violation.

Bottom line:  Lawyer blogging has become a very popular and somewhat ubiquitous form of legal communication and is often recommended to lawyers as a business strategy.  This recent California Bar ethics opinion provides solid guidance to lawyers who are blogging or plan to blog to attempt to insure compliance with the Bar rules, regardless of whether the lawyer is in California or another state.  If a lawyer blogs, each blog should primarily informational and educational to potentially avoid the application of Bar advertising rules (like this one).

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.

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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Washington D.C. lawyer receives informal admonition for revealing client confidences in response to client’s negative website comments

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent informal admonishment of a Washington D.C. lawyer who responded to a client’s negative and critical comments and revealed confidential and specific information about her case, her emotional state, and confidential details about the attorney-client relationship.  The disciplinary case is In re John P. Mahoney, Bar Docket No. 2015-D141 and the ODC’s informal admonition letter is here: http://www.dcbar.org/discipline/informal_admonition/20150609Mahoney.pdf.

The D.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) sent the lawyer a letter dated June 9, 2016 stating that the his internet response to a client’s complaint violated D.C. Bar Rule 1.6 since it revealed attorney/client confidential information and there was no exception to the rule allowing the lawyer to reveal the confidences.  Further, the lawyer violated D.C. Bar Rule 8.4(c)  “when (he) posted a further response on the website concerning Disciplinary Counsel’s investigation of the client’s allegations and Disciplinary Counsel’s statements.”  According to the letter, the lawyer’s claim that he had been “cleared” of the charges in the complaint “was, at best, misleading…”.

The ODC letter states:

The client’s principal complaint was that your fees were excessive. She claimed that she had prepared most of the documents you submitted on her behalf and you billed her an inordinate number of hours to proof or edit the documents, but did not advise her that a concise account of the discrimination she suffered would suffice. She further alleged that the expenses you charged were unwarranted and unnecessary. The client also was critical of your representation of her during the mediation, including the settlement demand that you made on her behalf. She claimed that you were verbally abusive, leading to her terminating the relationship.

After the attorney-client relationship ended, the client posted comments about you on a website in which she was highly critical of you and the representation you provided. You responded to her comments and, in doing so, revealed specific information about her case, her emotional state, and what transpired during your attorney-client relationship – although you did not identify the client by name.

The letter found that there was no misconduct found in the lawyer’s underlying representation of the client.  Under the D.C. Bar rules, since the lawyer did not submit a written request for a hearing within 14 days of the ODC letter, the informal admonition constitutes final discipline.  The lawyer must also complete three hours of CLE related to a lawyer’s confidentiality obligations.

Bottom line:  This lawyer responded to what he believed were false allegations by a client on a public website and provided attorney/client confidential information in defending himself.  Unfortunately, responding  to internet allegations is not one of the exceptions to the Bar confidentiality rules (Rule 4-1.6 in Florida) which permits a lawyer to reveal client confidences.

As I have stated in my earlier blogs on this topic, in our digital/instant communication brave new world, it is much too easy to react quickly and badly to a  perceived slight, such as a bad client internet review.  Before responding to any internet postings, a lawyer must seriously consider the ethical implications and not act impulsively and reveal confidential information, which may result in a Bar investigation and potential sanctions.

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.

Please note:  Effective June 27, 2016, my new office address is:

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150, Clearwater, Florida 33761

E-mail addresses and telephone numbers below will remain the same. 

My main office number, (727) 799-1688, is temporarily unavailable due to a telephone company issue.  Please call (727) 286-6625 (my rollover number) if you need to contact me immediately.   Thank you. 

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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New Jersey Supreme Court opinion holds that lawyers accused of improper Facebook access can be charged with ethics violations

 

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Supreme Court of New Jersey opinion which held that lawyers who allegedly engaged in improper conduct related to access of an opposing party’s Facebook page can be charged with disciplinary rule violations.  The disciplinary matter is John J. Robertelli v. The New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics (A-62-14) (075584) (New Jersey Supreme Court 4/19/16).  The disciplinary opinion is here: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/opinions/supreme/A6214JohnRobNJ.pdf

According to the opinion, in the underlying matter, the plaintiff sued Bergen County New Jersey related to injuries that he allegedly sustained when a police car struck him in 2007.  The two lawyers represented the plaintiff and:

“(i)n order to obtain information about Hernandez, plaintiffs directed a paralegal employed by the firm to search the internet. Among other sources, she accessed Hernandez’s Facebook page. Initially, the page was open to the public. At a later point, the privacy settings on the account were changed to limit access to Facebook users who were Hernandez’s “friends.” The OAE contends that plaintiffs directed the paralegal to access and continue to monitor the non-public pages of Hernandez’s Facebook account.  She therefore submitted a “friend request” to Hernandez, without revealing that she worked for the law firm representing defendants or that she was investigating him in connection with the lawsuit. Hernandez accepted the friend request, and the paralegal was able to obtain information from the non-public pages of his Facebook account.

The opinion states that the plaintiff learned of the alleged misconduct when the lawyers “sought to add the paralegal as a trial witness and disclosed printouts” from the plaintiff’s Facebook page.  The opinion did not address whether the two lawyers violated any ethics rules or should face sanctions, but whether the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) could prosecute the lawyers for the alleged misconduct after a regional disciplinary committee found that the lawyers’ actions, even if proven, did not constitute unethical conduct and dismissed the matters.

The OAE disagreed with the disciplinary committee and filed a disciplinary complaint with the Supreme Court against the lawyers.  The complaints alleged, inter alia, that the two lawyers communicated with a represented party without consent of the party’s lawyer and engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.  The two lawyers argued that they acted in good faith and had not committed any unethical conduct. They also stated that they were “unfamiliar with the different privacy settings on Facebook.

The opinion noted the unique nature of this attorney disciplinary matter and stated that it involves a “novel ethical issue” and “no reported case law in our State addresses the sort of conduct alleged.”  The court unanimously held:

“Consistent with the broad authority that the Rules of Court grant the Director and the important goals of the disciplinary process, the Director has authority to review a grievance after a DEC Secretary has declined to docket the grievance. The OAE may therefore proceed to prosecute plaintiffs’ alleged misconduct.”

Bottom line:  Lawyers beware: although this issue has not previously been addressed by the New Jersey Supreme Court (or the Florida Supreme Court), the Florida Bar Rules (and the Bar disciplinary rules of most, if not all jurisdictions, including New Jersey), prohibit a lawyer from communicating with a represented person without the consent of that person’s lawyer.  Florida Bar Rule 4-4.2(a) prohibits lawyers from communicating “about the subject of the representation with a person the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer.”  The Rule is here:  Florida Bar Rule 4-4.2.  This rule would appear to prohibit a lawyer (or the lawyer’s agent) from accessing an opposing party’s Facebook (or other social media) page by sending a “friend” or other request and obtaining information that has been made private on that person’s settings.

Be careful out there.

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 e-mail 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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New York City Bar Association issues ethics opinion addressing LinkedIn profiles and New York attorney advertising rules

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Formal Opinion of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York Committee on Professional Ethics which concluded that a lawyer’s LinkedIn profile is not subject to New York Bar advertising rules if it is not posted specifically for the purpose of attracting clients and the profile will be considered to be attorney advertising only if it meets all five of the criteria listed in the opinion.  The opinion is Formal Opinion 2015-7: Application of Attorney Advertising Rules to LinkedIn (December 2015) and the link to the opinion is here: http://www.nycbar.org/ethics/ethics-opinions-local/2015opinions/2350-formal-opinion-2015-7-application-of-attorney-advertising-rules-to-linkedin

According to the opinion, a New York lawyer’s LinkedIn profile or other content will be considered to be lawyer advertising only if it meets all five of the following criteria:

  • it is a communication made by or on behalf of the lawyer;
  • the primary purpose of the LinkedIn content is to attract new clients to retain the lawyer for pecuniary gain;
  • the LinkedIn content relates to the legal services offered by the lawyer;
  • the LinkedIn content is intended to be viewed by potential new clients; and
  • the LinkedIn content does not fall within any recognized exception to the definition of attorney advertising.

The opinion further states that “(g)iven the numerous reasons that lawyers use LinkedIn, it should not be presumed that an attorney who posts information about herself on LinkedIn necessarily does so for the primary purpose of attracting paying clients. For example, including a list of ‘Skills’, a description of one’s practice areas, or displaying ‘Endorsements’ or ‘Recommendations’, without more, does not constitute attorney advertising.”

The opinion concludes that: “(i)f an attorney’s individual LinkedIn profile or other content meets the definition of attorney advertising, the attorney must comply with the requirements of Rules 7.1, 7.4 and 7.5, including, but not limited to: (1) labeling the LinkedIn content ‘Attorney Advertising’; (2) including the name, principal law office address and telephone number of the lawyer; (3) pre-approving any content posted on LinkedIn; (4) preserving a copy for at least one year; and (5) refraining from false, deceptive or misleading statements. These are only some of the requirements associated with attorney advertising. Before disseminating any advertisements, whether on social media or otherwise, the attorney should ensure that those advertisements comply with all requirements set forth in Article 7 of the New York Rules.

Bottom line:  According to this New York City ethics opinion, a LinkedIn profile will not be considered to be a lawyer advertisement unless certain conditions are met.  It is my opinion that most, if not all, other jurisdictions would agree with this analysis and opinion.  This opinion provides a good summary of the conditions which may cause a LinkedIn profile to become a lawyer  advertisement.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this e-mail 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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Louisiana lawyer disbarred for social media campaign with “false, misleading and inflammatory statements” to influence custody case

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Louisiana Supreme Court disciplinary opinion disbarring a lawyer who, inter alia, made false statements and used Twitter and an online petition to urge readers to contact two presiding judges who she alleged were unwilling to consider the evidence in two child custody cases involving allegations of sexual abuse.  The disciplinary opinion is In Re: Joyce Nanine McCool, No. 2015-B-0284 (June 30, 2015) and the opinion is online here: http://www.lasc.org/opinions/2015/15B0284.opn.pdf

According to the opinion, the lawyer solicited others to make ex-parte contact with presiding judges and the Louisiana Supreme Court to make comments about the cases, which were sealed and confidential proceedings.  The opinion referred to several examples of the lawyer’s media comments, including this tweet: “GIMME GIMME GIMME Evidence! Want some? I got it. Think u can convince a judge to look at it? Sign this petition.”  “Another tweet said, ―Judge

Gambrell at it again – turned a 4 YO child over to a validated abuser – PLEASE TELL ME WHAT IT WILL TAKE FOR EVERYON [sic] TO SAY ‗ENOUGH‘.”

The lawyer also made the following comment: “Please sign the petition, circulate it to all of your friends and families and call Judge Amacker and Judge Gambrell during the hours of 8:30 to 5:00 starting Monday, August 15 to ask why they won’t follow the law and protect these children. Let them know you’re watching and expect them to do their job and most of all, make sure these precious little girls are safe!”

The opinion stated: “These online articles and postings by respondent contain numerous false, misleading, and inflammatory statements about the manner in which (the presiding judges) were handling the pending cases. But respondent denies any responsibility for these misstatements, contending these were ―Raven‘s perceptions of what had happened‖ and respondent was simply ―helping [Raven] get her voice out there.”

The lawyer argued that her conduct was protected by the First Amendment; however, the majority of the Court rejected that argument. “We disagree and take strong exception to respondent’s artful attempt to use the First Amendment as a shield against her clearly and convincingly proven ethical misconduct.” The opinion also stated that the lawyer had an “utter lack of remorse” and a “defiant attitude” by asserting her actions had First Amendment protection.  “The appropriate method for challenging a judge’s decisions and evidentiary rulings, as respondent even conceded, is through the writ and appeal process, not by starting a social media blitz to influence the judges’ and this court’s rulings in pending matters and then claiming immunity from discipline through the First Amendment.”

A disciplinary hearing committee conducted a hearing on February 27, 2014, and March 27, 2014 in which both presiding judges testified. The lawyer also testified and repeatedly denied that she violated the Rules of Professional Conduct.  She also implied and/or stated that her conduct was justified by what the judges had done in the underlying cases and in the interest of protecting the minor children.  The hearing committee recommended that the lawyer be found guilty and recommended a suspension of a year and a day and the disciplinary board concurred.

The opinion concluded: “Respondent’s misconduct is further distinguishable because of her use of the internet and social media to facilitate her misconduct.  As a result, the petition and associated offensive postings had and still have the potential to reach a large number of people world-wide and remain present and accessible on the world wide web even today.  Coupled with her complete lack of remorse and admitted refusal to simply allow our system of review to work without seeking outside interference, respondent’s misconduct reflects a horrifying lack of respect for the dignity, impartiality, and authority of our courts and our judicial process as a whole.”

“Respondent’s social media campaign conducted outside the sealed realm of the underlying judicial proceedings constitutes, in our view, an intolerable disservice to these traditions and our judicial system, which the constraints of our rules of professional conduct seek to safeguard against. Accordingly, we find her ethical misconduct warrants the highest of sanction—disbarment.”

Bottom line:  This lawyer’s misconduct involved the extensive use of social media in a campaign to discredit the judicial system/obtain justice for the children.  The Louisiana Supreme Court found that her misconduct “reflects a horrifying lack of respect for the dignity, impartiality, and authority of our courts and our judicial process as a whole.”  All lawyers must be very wary of using social media to promote their clients’ causes.  This lawyer’s use of social media led to her disbarment.

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.

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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