How Stupid is that Other Party?; Should I Push that Client?; Extra Punishment for Public Officials; Ogden Update

Legal writing experts tell lawyers to be careful with tone and expressions of disdain or dismissive attitudes towards opponents in motions and briefs.  And lawyers understand (usually) that what might work in traffic court should not be tried in Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals.  And lawyers who represent big clients, like State Farm Auto ought to expect extra scrutiny from courts and judges (mostly due to the respect courts often are suspected of giving to the biglaw lawyer types who represent the big companies.

Imagine what the discussion with General Counsel for State Farm was for the lawyers in Bennett v. State Farm earlier this week.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (one level below the US Supreme Court in the judicial hierarchy) mocked the insurance company’s lawyers for their brief opposing the efforts of the Bennetts to get what they had coming from Mrs. Bennett being struck while walking her dog.

The opening sentence of the opinion states:

There are good reasons not to call an opponent’s
argument “ridiculous,” which is what State Farm calls Barbara Bennett’s principal argument here. The reasons include civility; the near-certainty that overstatement will only push the reader away (especially when, as here, the hyperbole begins on page one of the brief); and that, even where the record supports an extreme modifier, “the better practice is usually to lay out the facts and let the court reach its own conclusions.”[citations omitted]  But here the biggest reason is more simple: the argument that State Farm derides as ridiculous is instead correct. (emphasis is added).
Oops.  That qualifies as a slapdown.  Now we don’t know which lawyer of the team of Richard M. Garner or Gregory H. Collins, both Ohio lawyers, gets credit for the brief, but the other probably had an opportunity to say “maybe we ought to read our client’s insurance policy before we ask the court to ignore the definition plaintiff is asking for.”

****

Clients in dissolution cases can be difficult. they are going through a stressful time in their lives. They often have to deal with their lawyer, the spouse, the spouse’s lawyer, and maybe the kids.  you expect them to lose their cool on occasion.

Lawyers are to be the professionals, even when our client is not dealing well with matters.as well as we want.  Kokomo lawyer Dan May, a long time practitioner, forgot for a moment.

The details are sketchy, but include him shoving the client over the courtroom railing, a battery charge, a diversion agreement, and now a 60 days suspension with automatic reinstatement.

As Sgt. Esterhaus used to say:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jmg86CRBBtw

****

We appreciate our public officials in strange ways.  We pay them less than they could make as practicing lawyers (at least that is the myth – see the SSF Conference Salary Survey report here from 2007).  Then when a public official has a bad moment, we hold her to a higher standard.

Lori Hittle is a part-time deputy prosecutor in Howard County.  She pleaded guilty to OVWI.  Took her punishment in court, got a month suspension from her job without pay, and now gets a public reprimand. That is a bit more than the normal lawyer gets for such an offense, often getting a private reprimand with JLAP provisions.

But we hold public officials to a stricter standard.

***

Finally, Paul Ogden update.

I have commented on the Ogden disciplinary case several times, like here, and here. Paul writes about it on his blog with more regularity than most would. Tuesday Ogden said that the Disciplinary Commission is seeking a one year suspension in his post here. He follows up with more commentary in Thursday’s post here.

I will let Paul Ogden speak for himself.  The issues are complex, and important. As a lawyer, you need to think about them.  If you are not a lawyer, you ought to consider where your rights to speak freely are if the lawyers lose their rights.

Lawyer’s Speech and Advertising – Trouble in the Making

Ethnic Slurs Will Not Be Tolerated

“Your client doesn’t understand what laws and court orders mean I guess. Probably because she’s an illegal alien to begin with.”

The lesson of Joe Barker is to not use this method of trying to resolve a parenting time issue. At least I hope that is the lesson, because the only other potentially “burdensome” act is to state that “we’ll be demanding she be put in JAIL for contempt of court.” (emphasis in original).

The Indiana Disciplinary Commission filed charges and the Supreme Court imposed a 30 days suspension from the practice effective Oct. 14, but not allowing Barker to undertake new legal matters between Sept. 6 and Nov. 14.

Costly outburst, for aggressive advocacy.  No prior disciplinary issues, but Barker “has no insight into his misconduct.” Charges filed in 2010, and just now being concluded.  This matter was heard by Judge Kim Brown acting as the hearing officer for the Indiana Supreme Court.  Judge Brown has her own problems now with the Judicial Qualifications Comm. and one of the charges she must answer to related to the length of time she took in completing this matter.

***

Faxing Those Canned Newsletters as a Means of Advertising 

Many of us get and a few of us have used the canned newsletters that inform our clients and potential clients that we are current on some legal topic or another.  And 25 years ago the fax machine helped make sharing our knowledge as cheap as the price of a phone call.  Now with the internet, it is even cheaper, unless!

Greg Turza, an IL lawyer got caught up in the practice of faxing newsletters to lots of folk.  He had 200 people or businesses he would fax his newsletters to.  He forgot to read the articles about the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, 47 USC 227.  But a few of the recipients did not overlook that issue.  The federal law states that senders must have consent to fax advertising materials, and that unwanted faxes must have opt-out provisions on the materials. The penalty is $500 per fax, per recipient. Oops.

$4,215,000 penalty and judgment against Turza for 8,430 faxes was upheld in the 7th Circuit. Will he pay it?  If he does, then the opinion by J. Easterbrook takes on some interesting aspects with what happens to the damage award.  It looks like the lawyers will demand their $1,430,055.90, and lead plaintiff will expect his $7,500 for the 32 faxes (seems like it should have been $16,000).  Who after that will get paid?  Remanded to determine after the $1.437M is paid into the court.

***

Lawyer’s Speech and Paul Ogden

Anyone who cares about the boundaries of lawyers’ freedom of speech rights and the consequences of the disciplinary process in Indiana must pay attention to the ongoing saga of Indy lawyer (for now) Paul Ogden and his long battle with the Disciplinary Commission, former Executive Director Don Lundberg, current Executive Director Mike Witte, the Supreme Court, and a Hendrick County judge in a seemly private email.

You can catch up by following this link to Ogden’s blog site, the tagline Disciplinary Commission, where it appears he is telling his side of the story. He also links to the Indiana Business Journal’s editorial on the priorities that the Disciplinary Commission has shown in pursuing Ogden instead of others, including Paul Page, David Wyser and the handling of William Conour.

The current DI matter, criticizing a judge in violation of the rules. has been heard by the hearing officer who will make findings and a recommendation to the Supreme Court.  Ogden predicts that he will lose his law license.

***

Seeking Recusal as a Basis for Discipline? 

In a story that has not made local impact, except for Ogden’s blog, a pro-life website Life Site News in 2009 reported that a couple of local lawyers were seeking the recusal of a South Bend judge due to perceived prejudices of the judge’s husband, a noted advocate for abortion rights. The defendants before the judge were pro-life advocates arrested for protesting on the Notre Dame campus when President Obama spoke at graduation.

Ogden reports, and I have verified by the Clerk of the Supreme Court Docket Sheet, that disciplinary charges are on file against Thomas M. Dixon and David A. Wemhoff, the lawyers in the ND88 case.  The docket sheet does not inform the nature of the charge, but Ogden says the recusal issue, as an unwarranted attack on the judge is at the heart of the matter.

This will also bear watching, if you have a tendency to speak the truth to power, or try to protect your clients from a judge who should not hear a particular case for a particular litigant.

***

I remembered these matters last week, when I got a call from a lawyer in Indianapolis, to ask about the judicial temperament and other qualities of a certain judge in Northern Indiana.

I apologize to you in advance, but for now, if you call and ask about the character, quality or work ethics of any judge, please understand that my “walks on water” response might be code.  Or it might not.

In my opinion, lawyers must be able to state facts and reasonable (to the reasonable person standard) opinions about judges in pleadings, (especially in recusal motions) and in conversations with clients, lawyers and the courts.  Judge Witte benefitted from those kinds of comments in his time on the bench, and in moving to the Commission. Other judges should have that benefit, or if they are poor judges, that burden.  We do this justice thing for those standing before the bench, not for the one on the bench or the ones at the bar.

It is dangerous if we lawyers cannot protect the rights of our clients, under the rules, by seeking the recusal of judges who are bad fits for the clients’ cases, just like we are duty bound to seek the dismissal of a juror who has some bias or prejudice against our client.

KEEP A WATCH OUT,  as Indy lawyer Patrick Olmstead and I will be speaking on advertising and ethics at the 2014 Solo and Small Firm Conference in June 2014, at French Lick.

Legal Websites with Comments – Strike Back at Critical Client? What are these Sites? Fake a Review?

Social Media is a Tool, You are a Lawyer, Don’t be the Fool

So a lawyer in the Chicago area Betty Tsamis, is active with AVVO, a lawyer rating site.  Her AVVO page is here. She has a 6.2 rating, pretty good.  Tsamis handled a case for a client, Rinehart and appealed his denial of Unemployment Benefits case against American Airlines, and the case did not go well, which happens.  Whose fault?  It depends on who you believe.  Client wrote an unfavorable review and said that he paid her fee, which she took “knowing full well” he would lose the case.

The trouble for the lawyer came about when Tsamis replied with facts and information that she got during the confidential client communications. The details are here. She stated in the reply to his review that he had beaten up a woman co-worker, and not advised her of that before she filed the appeal. (If you beat up co-workers, you usually do not get UE coverage).  The IL disciplinary office has filed charges for breaching Rule 1.6 of the RPC.  Tsamis still posts replies to critical comments, but they are now toned down.

***

The Ratings Game – Martindale Hubbell to AVVO to Super Lawyer to Yelp, and beyond.

Lawyer ratings were once the sacred province of now absorbed publisher Martindale-Hubbell. Today there are several lawyer and law firm ratings sites,  Avvo (above) offers ratings on lawyers and other professionals. [full disclosure, my AVVO rating linked here]  AVVO seems the most aggressive of the new generation.  MH did the same kind of ratings, but in the old days, the rating was bound in a series of books taking up 5-6 feet of library shelf space and costing hundreds of dollars and updated yearly, but MH is now is found online at http://www.martindale.com {my martindale.com rating is here].  AVVO allows client comments, as does Martindale. Both sites focus on lawyers and other professionals.

Another new entrant in the legal and medical fields does it differently. SuperLawyers.com names what it calls the “super lawyers” in most of the states. It works with magazine publishers and sends out ad-filled supplements annually on lawyers nominated and selected as the best.  [full disclosure – I am told I have been nominated, but I have not been selected as a super lawyer (or as a colleague calls them “the superest duperest lawyers”) in Indiana]. There are several ethics opinions on the propriety of advertising the designation. Most states seem to have lost interest in prosecuting this issue, even though there are regulations on lawyer advertising.

Yelp offers webpages for most businesses in the country, in an online “yellow page” style that gives the business name, address, phone number, and then lets customers comment on every business in town, from spas to restaurants and lawyers. The business owner can claim the page and edit the information about the business.

Breach of Yelp’s Policy

San Francisco lawyer Julian McMillan stands accused of taking the review matter just a step further, by allegedly having his staff create and post favorable reviews.  Favorable reviews are hard to come by, and may have a positive economic benefit to the lawyer praised. As Ms. Tsamis can attest, unfavorable reviews may have more impact.

So Yelp claims that it monitors and prosecutes businesses and now lawyers who abuse the comments policy. It should be noted that McMillan responds that he had sued Yelp and won in the trial court on an advertising contract dispute.  He suggests this is payback by Yelp.

We will see how this comes out over the next few months.

***

Ernie the Attorney’s take on these matters!

The leading blogger in the legal field, Ernie the Attorney and I were discussing the “dangerous tool” of social media last week.  I do not agree with ethics guru Stephen Gillers, that all lawyers should avoid social media, and who Ernie takes apart in this post (else I would not be posting here).

Any tool can be dangerous.  Lawyers get trained  to look out for danger in every area of life. I advocate removing dangerous tools from idiots and infants, who are found in lots of places.

I hope there are few idiots and no infants among the lawyers who are posting on any of the social media sites. But still be careful out there, and learn how to run spell checker on the site.

Thinking about Staying Out of Trouble? Do it Every Day.

Sometimes in addition to looking a proverbial car wrecks, we need to examine our cars. Are the tires safe? Do the blinkers work?

Today we look at our practices from a new perspective. I offer you a couple of short articles that we lawyers might want to consider to help inoculate ourselves from the mistakes that can occur.

A speech transcript from Eric Cooperstein, a member and new president of the Hennepin County (Minneapolis MN) Bar Association, on the road to trouble for lawyers, and a way to change that road’s path — the tie between ethics and the Bar Association.

It seems to be the road less travelled these days, but one you may want to look at, as Indiana’s Annual Bar Meeting is coming up Oct. 16-18 at French Lick.

***

Cutting corners, finding excuses, bending the rules, padding the time-sheet.  It seems to happen all the time.  When we talk about performance enhancing drugs in athletes, or adjusting the grading curve among educational reformers, we see the impact.  Closer to home, the impact is tougher to see.

Finding the holes in the tax code, or the criminal code, that give a second chance to our clients is the essence of the practice for many lawyers.  Looking for exits from the tenor of ethics found in the Rules of Professional Conduct cannot be our essence as we seek to make daily decisions.

Why do we cheat? is a column by business builder, writer and author Harvey Mackay.  It is worth a moment to use it to reflect in the mirror.  Am I one of the “we” in his question?  Will I be a “we” the rest of today?  Tomorrow? Is it time to check our proverbial tires, and blinkers?

Attend your next local or state bar meeting. Rejoin the community of lawyers.  See you in French Lick.