Tag Archives: lawyer confidentiality

New York Bar opinion states that lawyers must take reasonable steps to protect confidential information in a border search

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New York City Bar Association ethics opinion which states that lawyers must take reasonable precautions to protect attorney/client confidential information if the lawyer is searched by U.S border/customs agents (and/or agents of other countries).  The ethics opinion is NYCBA Formal Opinion 2017-5:  An Attorney’s Ethical Duties Regarding U.S. Border Searches of Electronic Devices Containing Clients’ Confidential Information and it is here: NYCBA Opinion 2017-5.

The opinion states that the lawyer should take reasonable precautions, which will be dependent upon various factors, including the sensitivity of the information, the likelihood of disclosure, and the cost and difficulty caused by implementation of the precautions.  The opinion further states that the simplest way to avoid the issue is to not possess any client confidential information when crossing the border and options would include carrying a “burner” telephone, laptop computer, or other digital device, removing confidential information from digital devices, signing out of cloud-based services, uninstalling applications allowing remote access to confidential information, storing confidential information in secure online locations rather than locally on digital devices, and using encrypted software.

If a border agent asserts lawful authority to search an electronic device containing confidential data, the opinion states that the lawyer should try to prevent disclosure which would include advising the border agent that the device contains confidential information and files, requesting that the confidential information and/or files not be searched or copied and, if the agent is not deterred from conducting the search, asking to speak to the agent’s superior. The lawyer should also carry proof of his or her Bar membership to support the argument.

The opinion states that lawyers should also consider having printed copies of the border agency’s policies and/or guidelines on border searches available since, under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection guidelines, agents who are advised of a confidentiality claim state that an agent should seek further review to determine whether there is a “suspicion” that the asserted confidential material may constitute evidence of a crime or pertain to matters within the agencies’ jurisdiction.

“Although it is uncertain how border agents apply this ‘suspicion’ standard in actual searches, attorneys should take advantage of this possible avenue for preventing the disclosure of clients’ confidential information.”  Finally, if confidential information is seized or compromised during a search, the affected clients should be promptly notified.

Bottom line:  This ethics opinion appears to be the first to address the issues related to searches of a lawyer’s electronic devices during a border search.  According to the opinion, lawyers who travel outside of the United States should take reasonable measures to avoid disclosure of client information if U.S. border agents (or border agents of another country) search their electronic devices and, if confidential or privileged material is disclosed, lawyers must notify the affected clients.  My recommendation to lawyers is to avoid the issue by carrying “burner” devices and not having any client confidential information when crossing the border or, if that option is not feasible, storing confidential information in a secure online location and/or using encrypted software.

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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Ohio lawyer receives 1 year stayed suspension for citing to, inter alia, the client’s “potentially illegal actions” in motion to withdraw

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Supreme Court of Ohio opinion imposing a one-year stayed suspension on a lawyer who filed a motion to withdraw which revealed attorney/client confidential information without the client’s permission or an exception authorizing the disclosure.  The case is Cleveland Metro. Bar Assn. v. Heben, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-6965 (July 27, 2017) and the opinion is here:  http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2017/2017-Ohio-6965.pdf

According to the opinion, the lawyer had briefly represented the client in 2008 during the initial stages of her divorce case.  The divorce proceedings were still pending in September 2013 and the client again retained the lawyer for legal assistance. The parties stipulated to the following facts in the Bar matter: (1) the client paid the lawyer a $3,000 retainer on or about September 15, 2013, (2) the lawyer filed a notice of appearance in the divorce case on September 16, 2013, and (3) less than two weeks later, the client terminated the lawyer’s legal services.

After the client terminated his services, the lawyer moved to withdraw as counsel and also submitted a supporting affidavit purporting to state his reasons for seeking withdrawal with the motion. According to the opinion, in the affidavit, the lawyer “recounted communications he had had with (the client) about the scope of his representation and his compensation, accused her of refusing to pay his agreed-upon fees ‘without cause,’ and disclosed legal advice that he had given her. He also described (the client’s) discharge of him as ‘retaliatory’ and alleged that it had ‘occurred because of [his] advice to her concerning her objectionable and potentially illegal actions’ relating to her exhusband, which he characterized as ‘a problem similar to the one [he] experienced in [his] previous representation of her.’”

The judge in the divorce case struck the lawyer’s affidavit from the record and, in his testimony at the disciplinary hearing, the judge stated that he believed that the contents of the affidavit, specifically the disclosure of attorney/client communications, were inappropriate and not necessary to seek withdrawal.

The opinion imposed a one-year suspension which was stayed on the condition that he “commit no further misconduct.”  Two justices dissented and “would suspend respondent for one year with six months stayed”, which was the recommendation of the Disciplinary Board.

Bottom line:  As this case again illustrates, lawyers must never reveal confidential attorney/client confidences in court documents, including a Motion to Withdraw, unless the client authorizes the disclosure or an exception applies which would permit or require the disclosure.

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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Lawyer’s ethical duties and responsibilities when a represented person requests a second opinion

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the lawyer’s ethical duties and responsibilities when a represented person contacts the lawyer to obtain a second opinion.  Although a lawyer is permitted to render a second opinion to a represented person who initiates the contact with the lawyer, there are important ethical and practical issues which should be considered before the lawyer agrees to do so.

A threshold issue is whether a second opinion would be an improper communication with a person represented by counsel.  In 2002, the ABA added a sentence to paragraph 4 of the Comment to Model Rule 4.2 which makes it clear that lawyers can provide second opinions if the lawyer is not representing another individual in the same matter.  Model Rule 4.2 has been adopted in substantial form by most jurisdictions, including Florida.  The Comment states:

(4) This Rule does not prohibit communication with a represented person, or an employee or agent of such a person, concerning matters outside the representation. For example, the existence of a controversy between a government agency and a private party, or between two organizations, does not prohibit a lawyer for either from communicating with nonlawyer representatives of the other regarding a separate matter. Nor does this Rule preclude communication with a represented person who is seeking advice from a lawyer who is not otherwise representing a client in the matter.

Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 02-5 (March 3, 2013, rev. August 24, 2011) discusses types of information a lawyer can give to an individual who is seeking a second opinion as well as potential solicitation.  The opinion states that, a lawyer may provide information about the lawyer’s availability and qualifications when contacted by an individual and if the information is requested.

The opinion concludes:

… a lawyer may provide a second opinion to a person who is represented by counsel at the person’s request. In providing the second opinion, the lawyer must give competent advice, and in doing so should carefully consider any limitations with which the lawyer is faced. Rule 4-1.1, Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. The lawyer should scrupulously avoid improperly soliciting the person. The lawyer may discuss what services the lawyer would be able to provide if the represented person requests not merely a second opinion, but also information about the lawyer’s availability and qualifications. Whether or not particular communications between the lawyer and the represented person might be considered tortious interference with an existing lawyer-client relationship is a legal question, outside the scope of an ethics opinion.

As is stated in the above ethics opinion, before giving a second opinion, the lawyer should consider whether he or she can competently render the opinion.  In order to be competent, the lawyer might need to review the client’s file, which may only be available through the client’s current lawyer.

South Carolina Bar Opinion 97-07 (1997) states:

…A lawyer may discuss a pending legal matter with a client who is represented by another attorney. If the client is seeking a second opinion based on a subjective opinion rendered by the client’s attorney, the lawyer should carefully consider the basis of the advice of the client’s attorney and may be required to consult with the client’s attorney in order to give competent legal advice. If so, the lawyer should advise the client accordingly prior to giving any opinion or advice.

A lawyer who provides a second opinion is also creating an attorney/client relationship and attorney/client confidentiality would apply.  The scope of confidentiality is extremely broad and includes all information related to the representation, including the fact that the client came to the lawyer for a consultation; therefore, the lawyer would not be able to contact the person’s current lawyer, unless the client consents or there is an exception to the confidentiality rule.

Oregon State Bar Opinion 2005-81 (Revised 2014) states:

A lawyer may provide a second opinion to a potential client regarding the quality of work done by another lawyer. The lawyer may not inform the other lawyer of the client’s request unless the client consents or another exception to the duty of confidentiality is applicable.

Bottom line:  It is not unethical for a lawyer to provide a second opinion; however, there are important ethical and practical issues that a lawyer should consider before agreeing to do so.

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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Arizona lawyer disbarred upon consent for disparaging book about his client Jodi Arias which violated client confidentiality

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent disbarment of an Arizona lawyer who represented notorious murder defendant Jodi Arias and published a book with disparaging details about the representation and revealing attorney/client confidential information without the consent of the client.  The case is In the Matter of Laurence K. Nurmi, Case No. PDJ-2016-9115.

The lawyer began representing Jodi Arias as an assistant public defender.  She was charged in the lurid and violent murder of her boyfriend in Arizona in 2008 and was found guilty of first degree murder in May 2013; however, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence her to death.

Another sentencing hearing was held in the fall of 2014 and that jury voted 11-1 to sentence Arias to death.  The death penalty vote must be unanimous in Arizona and Arias was subsequently sentenced to life in prison in April 2015.  She has appealed the verdict and sentence.

Sometime in 2015, the lawyer began writing a book detailing his representation of Arias without written/oral permission or authority from Arias to publish or disseminate any information related to the representation.  According to the allegations, the book presents a negative view of Arias and the case.  The lawyer’s self-published book, Trapped with Ms. Arias: Part 1 of 3 From Getting the File to Being Ready for Trial (Volume 1), was released in 2015.

The book includes multiple confidential discussions between the lawyer, Arias, and her family. The book also provides details of the case, makes disparaging remarks, and makes several statements regarding the substance of witness interviews and inadmissible exhibits.  The lawyer also continued to disclose and explain certain facts and circumstances in the book related to his representation of Arias in promotional radio interviews.

In October 2016, the State Bar of Arizona filed a formal complaint against the lawyer for revealing attorney-client confidential information about Arias and her case in the book.  The lawyer attempted to settle the case with a 4 year suspension; however, Jodi Arias objected to that sanction.

Immediately after the announcement of the consent agreement, the Maricopa County public defender, James Haas, objected to the Arizona Bar because the agreement did not specifically order the lawyer to stop violating ethical rules with regard to the Arias case, including revealing confidential information, since the book was listed as one of 3 volumes.

The lawyer filed a request for disbarment on November 14, 2016.  The presiding disciplinary judge accepted the lawyer’s request on November 21, 2016 and issued an order making the disbarment effective the same day.

Bottom line:  This lawyer chose to write a book in a highly publicized and lurid case which disparaged his client and revealed attorney/client confidential information, including conversations with her and her family and disparaging comments.  Aria’s conviction is currently on appeal and it has been alleged that information in the book may jeopardize that appeal.

All lawyers should be aware that, unless the client provides informed consent, a lawyer is strictly prohibited from revealing attorney/client confidential information, even after the representation has been concluded.

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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Lawyer-Client Confidentiality and Privilege: What is the Difference?

This Ethics Alert blog will discuss the terms lawyer-client confidentiality and lawyer-client privilege are often used interchangeably and the differences between them may become somewhat blurred.  Although both terms address information related to the client that a lawyer cannot reveal and both are used primarily to protect the client’s ability to confide freely with the lawyer, they are not synonymous.  There are several significant differences with regard to their scope, exceptions, and application.

The primary ethics rule addressing lawyer-client confidentiality in Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6, which is substantially similar to ABA Model Rule 1.6.  The Comment states that “(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…” A violation of the Bar rule may result in disciplinary sanctions.

Absent an exception, confidential information remains confidential during the representation and after the client dies.  The lawyer should not reveal confidential information if it will injure the client’s interests (absent an exception or legal compulsion), and it should only be disclosed to advance those interests.

A client may give informed consent for the lawyer to reveal confidential information or information that is protected by the privilege and consent may be implied under certain circumstances.  The client must give consent to the waiver of confidentiality; however, the privilege may be inadvertently and impliedly waived by the failure to object to testimony about the privileged communications.

In contrast to privilege, the lawyer’s ethical duties regarding confidentiality are much more extensive in scope and application, particularly as to what information is protected.  Confidentiality applies not only to information received from the client but all information related to the representation, regardless of whether the information came from the client or another source.  In addition, confidentiality applies in all situations, not just in litigation.

The lawyer-client privilege is a litigation concept that arose from the principles of evidence. In Florida, the privilege is set forth in F.S. 90.502.  The client, or someone acting legally for the client, may claim the privilege, typically through the lawyer.  F.S. 90.502(e) states that a lawyer is presumed to have the authority to assert the privilege on behalf of the client.  The privilege only protects communications between the client and lawyer in a litigation context, the communications are not protected if available from another source, and the communications are not necessarily protected simply because of the communication to the lawyer.  The Comment to Bar Rule 4-1.6 states “(t)he attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine apply in judicial and other proceedings…”

The “crime-fraud” exception to the privilege in F.S. 90.502(4)(a) permits the disclosure of information communicated to the lawyer if the client attempts to use the lawyer’s services to commit or cover up a crime or fraud.

Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6(b) requires disclosure of confidential information to prevent a client from committing a crime or to prevent a death or substantial bodily harm to another.  This mandatory exception is different from the crime-fraud exception to privilege in that it requires the threat of substantial injury or death to require that the information be revealed.  There are other exceptions under Bar Rule 4-1.6(c) which permit (but do not require) disclosure by the lawyer.

Even if information is not covered by privilege, it may still be confidential.  Depending on the circumstances, a lawyer may also be compelled to reveal the information regardless of whether it is privileged or confidential.

Bottom line:  Although the use of the terms “lawyer-client confidentiality” and “lawyer-client privilege may often be used interchangeably, they are very different in concept, scope, and application.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

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 lawyer censured for settling deceased client’s injury case without informing court or opposing counsel of the death

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent censure of an Illinois lawyer for settling a deceased client’s personal injury case without informing court or opposing counsel of the client’s death.  The case is In the Matter of: Anthony Patrick Gilbreth, No. 6289576, Commission No. 2015PR00100 (Ill. SC May 18, 2016).  The summary of the censure is here: http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/supremecourt/Announce/2016/051816.pdf.

The lawyer’s law firm filed a lawsuit against Orthotic & Prosthetic Lab (O&P) on behalf of a client in 2008 which alleged that a prosthesis that O&P had designed, manufactured, and sold had failed.  The client subsequently died in January 2013 and, in August 2013, his son was appointed administrator of the estate.  In September 2013, O&P offered to settle the case for $110,000.00.  The lawyer responded and stated that his client had instructed him to accept it.

The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission’s (ARDC) petition for discipline states: “At the time of the settlement, defense counsel was unaware because (the lawyer) had not told him that (the client) had died.” “(The lawyer) withheld the fact of (the client’s) in part because he knew that (the client’s) death would reduce the value of any claim for damages.  (The lawyer) also felt that it would be improper to reveal (the client’s) death because (the lawyer)  thought that information was confidential under Rule 1.6 of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, and its revelation would harm his former client’s claim. (The lawyer) did research the issue and discussed it with other attorneys in his firm, but did not research ARDC case precedent, discussed infra, in which attorneys have been disciplined for failure to disclose his or her client’s death under similar circumstances.”

According to the petition for discipline, on November 15, 2013, the lawyer sent defense counsel an amended release and informed him that the client had died and that the client’s son had been appointed administrator of the estate.  Defense counsel responded by informing the lawyer that the settlement (which had not yet been paid) was no longer valid. The trial court allowed the client’s son to substitute in as plaintiff on January 21, 2014, and granted the lawyer’s motion to enforce the settlement agreement. The defendant appealed and the appeals court vacated the trial court’s order enforcing the settlement.

The appeals court found that, since the client had died, there was no plaintiff on the date of the purported agreement to settle the case and also that the lawyer’s arguments for concealing the death of his client to be “specious and incredible.”  The appeals court also stated: “in failing to disclose the fact of the plaintiff’s death, Mr. Gilbreth intentionally concealed a material fact that would have reduced the overall value of the claim for damages.”  The court remanded the case to the trial court and, as of the date the parties filed the joint motion to approve the petition to impose discipline on consent, the case filed on behalf of the client remained pending. The lawyer’s Answer to the disciplinary charges is here:  http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/supremecourt/Announce/2016/051816.pdf.

The petition for discipline stated, in mitigation, that the lawyer had not been disciplined since his 2006 admission to practice.  In addition, five lawyers, a reverend from Columbia, and a judge would testify that the lawyer has a good reputation for truth and veracity, the lawyer was cooperative in the disciplinary proceedings, and was remorseful for his conduct.  In aggravation, the petition stated that the lawyer’s “actions in attempting to enforce the settlement, even after being supplied with controlling precedent, caused the defendant to incur the expenses of an appeal to obtain a ruling that the settlement was invalid.”  The ARDC petition for discipline is here: https://www.iardc.org/rd_database/rulesdecisions.html  (type in lawyer’s name).

Bottom line:  This Illinois disciplinary case illustrates the paramount importance of candor in a lawyer’s representation of a client.  The lawyer believed that the information related to the death of the client was confidential; however, the appellate court decision found that the lawyer’s duty of candor supersedes attorney/client confidentiality.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert  is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice, and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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