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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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Louisiana lawyer suspended for submitting false billable hours because he believed his partnership status required them

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Louisiana Supreme Court Opinion suspending a lawyer for 30 months with all but one (1) year deferred for false billable hours that he believed were necessary to maintain his partnership position and “in an effort to make himself look better on paper each month.”   The disciplinary case is:  In re: Kenneth Todd Wallace, Case No. 2017-B-0525.  The disciplinary opinion is dated September 22, 2017 and is here:  http://www.lasc.org/opinions/2017/17B0525.OPN.pdf

According to the opinion, the lawyer “joined the law firm of Liskow & Lewis as an associate attorney in 1998. After his promotion to shareholder in 2005, he served as the firm’s hiring partner and head of recruiting. He also chaired the firm’s diversity committee as the firm’s first minority recruiting and retention partner. In 2012, respondent was elected to the firm’s board of directors and served as the board’s junior director through April 2015.”

The lawyer stated that he made the false billing entries because he was concerned that his correct billable hours (along with an insufficient number of clients) were not adequate for a partner with his status.  “When his practice began to decline, (the lawyer) gave in to his own internal pressures and began to submit false time on a dismissed contingency fee matter, and eventually other matters, in an effort to make himself look better on paper each month.”

After the law firm became aware of his false billing in some client matters, the lawyer assisted the firm in conducting a full investigation.  The firm’s investigation showed that, between 2012 through 2015, the lawyer submitted 428 billing entries that the firm believed were “certainly false” and another 220 entries that the firm believed could be false or inflated; however, the law firm concluded that none of the false billing entries adversely affected any of the firm’s clients.

The lawyer had received $85,000.00 in merit bonuses between 2012 through 2015 and the firm concluded he would have received some or all of the bonuses even if he had not inflated his billable hours. The lawyer had also spent significant time with his firm management and committee responsibilities and had also met or exceeded billable targets during the years in question.  The lawyer resigned from the firm in 2015 and gave up his available bonus.

The disciplinary opinion imposed a 30 month suspension with all but one-year deferred.  The suspension was also made retroactive to January 2016, when the lawyer had been suspended on an interim basis pending the outcome of the matter.

Bottom line:  This is a very clear and unfortunate example of a lawyer who most likely destroyed his legal career after succumbing to the stress and pressure of a law partner’s need for large billable hours and a large number of clients (book of business).  I would imagine that, if asked, this lawyer would tell you that it was not worth it.

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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New Jersey lawyer receives censure for neglecting client matters, failing to communicate with clients, and fraud and dishonesty

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court Order which adopted the findings of the New Jersey Disciplinary Review Board and censured a lawyer for neglecting client matters, failing to communicate with clients, and engaging in conduct involving fraud or dishonesty.  The case is In The Matter of John R. Dusinberre, D-37 September Term 2015 078531 (Supreme Court of New Jersey April 5, 2017).  The New Jersey Supreme Court Order is here:  http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1082216 and the Disciplinary Board (DRB) Decision dated November 9, 2016 is here:  http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1077667

According to the DRB Decision, the lawyer was charged with violating Bar rules in four separate matters:

“In the first matter, respondent represented Anthony Domenick and 407-409 Summer Associates, LLC for a Paterson condominium development known as ‘Sandy Hill at Summer Street.’ The terms of the representation called for respondent to file a public offering statement (POS) with the New Jersey Division of Community Affairs (DCA) and to record a master deed in the county clerk’s office. Respondent told his client that he had filed the POS with the DCA and furnished him with a copy of a November 12, 2007 POS carrying registration number ‘04368.’ Respondent stipulated that he never filed a POS with the DCA. Rather, he had fabricated the POS and created a fictitious registration number; the DCA had never assigned a registration number to the Sandy Hill project. Although respondent also failed to record the master deed, he either informed his client, or led him to believe, that he had done so.

“In a second matter, respondent represented a client identified only as ‘Mr. Cerquirra’ and ‘88 St. Francis LLC’ regarding a condominium development project at 88 St. Francis Street in Newark. The representation required respondent to register the project with the DCA and to obtain a registration order. Respondent informed the client that he had obtained a registration order for the project from the DCA. He also gave the client an October 27, 2008 letter, purportedly from DCA’s Manager of the Planned Real Estate Department, Stewart P. Pallonis. Enclosed with that letter was an order of registration from the DCA carrying registration number 04487, and signed ‘Stewart P. Pallonis.’  In fact, respondent never registered the 88 St. Francis Street project with the DCA. Rather, he had fabricated both the Pallonis letter and the registration order, signing Pallonis’ name to both documents before giving them to the client.

“In a third matter, respondent represented Sterling Properties (Sterling) for a Cedar Knolls condominium project known as ‘Viera at Hanover.’ The representation required respondent to register the project with the DCA, but he failed to do so. Respondent, nevertheless, led Sterling to believe that he had registered the project with the DCA, knowing that he had not done so. In reliance on respondent’s false information, Sterling went forward with the project.

“In a fourth matter, respondent represented Sterling for another condominium project in Piscataway. That representation, too, required respondent to register the project with the DCA. Again, respondent failed to do so. Respondent led Sterling to believe that the Piscataway project, too, was registered with the DCA, knowing that it was not. Relying on respondent’s statements, Sterling proceeded with the development project.”

“During respondent’s entire thirty-four-year career at MSLD, he reported to Barry Mandelbaum, the managing attorney, and twelve years his senior. Respondent described Mandelbaum as a “benevolent despot” and a “mentor.” Respondent was never “encouraged” to generate business for the firm. Rather, he tended to work on legal matters that Mandelbaum generated.

“Respondent described his relationship with Mandelbaum as a stressful one. Mandelbaum would berate respondent publicly, place notes on respondent’s door about perceived failings, and subject him to ‘105 decibel,’ public ‘dress downs,’ all of which were extremely embarrassing.

“As the law firm grew larger, younger attorneys became partners. By the mid-2000s, some of those partners had come to expect respondent to complete work on projects that they had generated, placing additional pressure on respondent to perform.

“Several years before respondent engaged in the within misconduct, MSLD established an executive committee to manage the law firm. Respondent perceived that the new arrangement rewarded some of the younger, income-generating attorneys, at his expense. Feeling exposed, he became “terrified” about losing his job. At that juncture, he grew even more reliant on Mandelbaum for protection:

So my desire and drive to please him became extremely strong. And I can’t tell you the number of times when I would have an issue with a client, I would hear the client five minutes later on the phone with Barry and then I would hear Barry’s footsteps stomping down the hall to basically dress me down or yell at me and to confront me, or whatever it might be very publicly.

And it was extremely upsetting and got to the point where I went from a lawyer who loved to go to work every day to a lawyer who dreaded pulling into the parking lot of my law firm, counting whose cars were in to try and decide whose work I should be doing that day so that I wouldn’t get yelled at or — or, you know, almost — I almost use the word bullied, although I’m an adult and was an adult at the time, and it’s a hard concept to have, but it’s the desperate situation I found myself in. (T20-10 to T21-2.)

“Worried about being ‘kicked out’ of MSLD, respondent felt tremendous pressure to complete tasks on time, according to schedules that other attorneys prepared for him. Also pressing was the fear that, because he was over sixty years old and had never been in another legal setting, he could not strike out on his own.”

The DRB Decision also found that the lawyer had no prior discipline, expressed remorse for his misconduct, and paid former clients, the firm and the DCA hundreds of thousands of dollars as restitution.  The DRB recommended a censure (which is a stronger sanction than a reprimand in New Jersey).  The New Jersey Supreme Court adopted that sanction and censured the lawyer.

Bottom line:  This case is unusual, to say the least.  Although the lawyer provided significant mitigation (including the serious “berating” by a supervising partner and “cracking under the pressure” of the partner’s criticism), his underlying misconduct, including his multiple false statements to clients, neglecting client matters and failing to communicate, would appear to be serious enough to merit a suspension, notwithstanding the mitigation that he provided.  The lawyer was in his 50’s and 60’s when the misconduct occurred. One could certainly conclude that the lawyer’s testimony about the “pressure” of the practice was somewhat of an excuse and not an explanation.

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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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Florida Supreme Court increases referee’s recommended discipline for multiple Bar Rule violations from 91 day suspension to disbarment

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida increasing the referee’s recommended discipline from a 91 day suspension to disbarment.  The opinion is The Florida Bar v. Swann, SC11-836 (June 20, 2013).  The opinion is attached and is also here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2013/sc11-836.pdf

According to the opinion, in April 2011, The Florida Bar filed a five-count complaint against the lawyer, alleging that he engaged in misconduct in violation of several of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar.  A referee was appointed to consider the matter and, following the final hearing, submitted his report with findings and recommendations to the Court.  The report found numerous Bar Rule violations on all five counts and recommended a 91 day suspension.  The report found that the lawyer engaged in dishonest and deceitful conduct, took improper advantage of his mother in serving as personal representative of his late father’s estate, concealed assets in his divorce and was involved with his girlfriend to take advantage of an elderly and vulnerable client.  The opinion states:

“In this case, (the lawyer)’s various acts of misconduct must be considered together as a whole.  (The lawyer) engaged in twenty-six separate rule violations, spanning a period of several years.  Some of his conduct, especially his involvement with Ms. Rhoualmi to exploit his client, Mr. Shelton, is particularly serious.  (The lawyer)’s extensive and egregious misdeeds warrant a more severe sanction than the ninety-one-day suspension recommended by the referee.

“Moreover, every count described in the referee’s report involves some instance of (the lawyer)’s dishonest and deceitful conduct. Our prior decisions have made clear that basic fundamental dishonesty is a serious flaw, one which cannot be tolerated by a profession that relies on the truthfulness of its members.  Fla. Bar v. Rotstein, 835 So. 2d 241, 246 (Fla. 2002); Fla. Bar v. Korones, 752 So. 2d 586, 591 (Fla. 2000).  We conclude that (the lawyer)’s numerous acts of dishonest conduct, together with his other serious ethical violations, warrant disbarment

“Finally, the fact that much of the misconduct in this case involves (the lawyer)’s personal affairs does not change our conclusion that disbarment is warranted. This Court has long held that ethical violations which occur while a member of The Florida Bar is not acting as an attorney can nonetheless subject the attorney to disciplinary proceedings. 

 

As this Court has stated before, “an attorney is an attorney is an attorney.” Even in personal transactions and when not acting as an attorney, attorneys must avoid tarnishing the professional image or damaging the public. . . . The practice of law is a privilege which carries with it responsibilities as well as rights. That an attorney might, as it were, wear different hats at different times does not mean that professional ethics can be “checked at the door” or that unethical or unprofessional conduct by a member of the legal profession can be tolerated.  

 

Fla. Bar v. Della-Donna, 583 So. 2d 307, 310 (Fla. 1989) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).  “This Court has previously imposed lengthy suspensions or disbarment when attorneys engage in dishonest conduct in their personal matters. See, e.g., Fla. Bar v. Draughon, 94 So. 3d 566, 571 (Fla. 2012) (suspending an attorney for one year for defrauding the former property owner in a real estate transaction) (‘Although Draughon was acting on behalf of his own corporation, and not as a lawyer representing a client in a transaction, he is nonetheless a member of The Florida Bar and subject to the disciplinary authority of this Court. The Court expects members of the Bar to conduct their personal business affairs with honesty and in accordance with the law.’) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); Fla. Bar v. Hall, 49 So. 3d 1254 (Fla. 2010) (disbarring an attorney for harassing property owners who refused the attorney’s offer to buy their property and creating a false agreement for sale). In Hall, the Court expressly noted that Hall ‘purposefully used her knowledge of the law to harm others, for her own personal benefit.’ Id. at 1258. Similarly, in this case, we conclude that Swann used his knowledge of the law to manipulate others.”

“Ultimately, based upon (the lawyer’s) numerous acts of dishonest conduct, Ultimately, based upon Swann’s numerous acts of dishonest conduct, together with the aggravating2 and mitigating factors found by the referee, we conclude that disbarment is warranted. Thus, we disapprove the referee’s recommended sanction, a ninety-one-day suspension, and instead disbar (the lawyer).”  

Bottom line: This is another example of the Florida Supreme Court not hesitating to increase the discipline recommended by the referee assigned to the Bar disciplinary case, in this case from a 91 day suspension (which is the minimum for a rehabilitative suspension requiring reinstatement) to disbarment, which was requested by The Florida Bar.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this blog 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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