Be Careful Helping your Friends – Sharing with Friends – Treating Staff and Litigants

When is a Lawyer just a Friend — in trouble?

Jameson Conrad was with a friend on New Year’s Eve, in Charleston WV. Conrad’s friend got into a dispute with another man, and used his gun to make his point. The shooting was caught on tape. Conrad then used his lawyerly skills to advise friend to “run,” he then kept friend’s cell phone and refused to identify friend when police asked.

When you are a fact witness, it is hard to claim a lawyer-client privilege, because the police think you are an “accessory to malicious wounding.” It might work, we will know in several months.

But, upon these facts, WV Bar Counsel alto thinks you are enough of a menace to make a prompt Complaint to the Investigation Commission, seeking suspension from the practice, and to report it when asked by the local paper.

H/T Gary Welsh.

***

Who do YOU Trust with your Client’s Secrets?

It is only a little secret. Something you learned while working with the world’s most famous writer. Surely your wife’s best friend can be trusted not to tell what you should not have told her.  But she told, and now you pay, in a couple of ways.

JK Rowling has been known to write some pretty good books, sold millions of books, and movie tickets from the Harry Potter series.  She ought to be able to trust her secrets to her solicitors.  But Robert Galbraith’s identity was not safe with Christopher Gossage, one of her lawyers.  Robert Galbraith is the pseudonym Rowling used on a new book she wrote, trying to see if she could enjoy writing without the hype and expectations of her name.  She was displeased, even though the book sales jumped after the word was leaked by the trusted friend of Gossage’s wife.

The law firm fell on the sword, quickly admitting that Gossage had shared the information with Judith Callegari during a private conversation. “The disclosure was made in confidence to someone he trusted implicitly.”  Not a great judge of character there.

Who do you trust implicitly enough to turn your license over for their discretion? The Solicitors Regulation Authority in England fined Gossage £ 1,000. for the breach of confidentiality.  Rowlings charged even more.

There was a winner in this matter. “The Soldiers Charity” was the recipient of all the book proceeds, plus the settlement damages Gossage and his firm, as well as his trusted friend paid to Ms. Rowling. Nice touch.  Hard for a billionaire to get much in the way of sympathy for herself.

***

Judge Suspended for Treatment of Staff, Lawyers and Litigants.

The Judge Kimberly Brown story is a big story in Indiana legal circles. She has been through a protracted hearing before the Master Panel to determine a recommended punishment, based on a multi-count complaint of judicial misconduct. She was reported to have mistreated staff, lawyers and litigants in unusual and contemptible ways.

The Master Panel has recommended her removal in spite of some clever legal maneuvering by her new lawyer-team, after firing her earlier team of lawyers.  Now the Supreme Court has temporarily suspended Judge Brown and will take further action in due course.  Her suspension, as recommended is with pay.

***

Ted Waggoner will be offering the annual kickoff session to the IVY Tech Agricultural Seminar Series on Jan. 22, at the Cole campus in Logansport. The topic – Family Farm Ownership: What is the Right Solution for You and Your Family. For more information, contact Julie Byrd at IVY Tech, 765-459-0651 x 288.

Bad way to finish the year – Two cases, One Good Finish for the Lawyer.

Stealing from a church is bad enough, but…

To have the Ohio Supreme Court choose Christmas Eve to suspend your license might make you think that the court believes there are greater punishments in store for Mark Anthony than a long term license suspension. The underlying problem was a gambling issue. The amount exceeded $118 000 for the lawyer, who was also the business manager of the Catholic Church in Lebanon, OH. The terms of suspension require full restitution to the church’s insurer of $128,000 before he can apply for reinstatement, plus establish a gambling addiction plan, and maintain the plan.  The fact that he did not get disbarred prompted a dissent from 3 of the 7 justices. A similar, but distinguishable case of gambling prompted embezzlement had resulted in disbarment.

***

Biglaw Pro Bono seems different

Lots of biglaw firms are having associates do pro bono work. That is a good thing, the young lawyers get experience, the clients get free legal services.  Winston & Strawn is among the biggest of the Biglaw firms. A former juvenile prisoner sued the City of New York as a pro bono case.  He claimed he was attacked by guards at Rikers Island, injured and not treated. The court referred the case to Winston & Strawn, who assigned an associate lawyer to handle the case.

A discovery issue broke out. The City did not respond to demands for information and for a witness for deposition. The city asked the court for a protective order, and W&S responded. The court found the city did not comply and that it was responsible for fees.  W&S asked for $20,000 for 33 hours work.  The senior associate billed at $620 an hour, three other associates billed from $390 to $570 per hour.

The magistrate found the motion and responses “very simple and straightforward” not requiring the expertise or efforts of four lawyers, and he disregarded hours billed for such issues as “preparation for filing” at 4.5 hours, and for issues in the case, but not germane to the discovery issues which could be billed.

The court set the rate for all lawyers on the case at $300 per hour and said no more than 12 hours could be charged.

** The firm in a statement said that W&S “generally donates fee awards in pro bono cases to public interest agencies after deducting for expenses.”  That is a good Christmas thing to do.

****

Good to be back after a couple decades?

Bill Drozda’s troubles started in 1991, when the Disciplinary Commission charged him with 10 counts of misconduct, then increased the number to 13. They all had to do with neglect of clients cases, and the consequences of such neglect. Drozda accepted an immediate and temporary suspension, which was finalized in 1995. After finding him guilty of all 13 counts the Supreme Court imposed a 3 year suspension, with credit for time served.  As I calculate that, he had some work to do to clear up the record (pay costs, and now includes take the  multistate ethics exam).  Well he finally requested reinstatement last year, and the Court granted his return of license, 22 years after he lost it, as of Dec. 19, 2013.

Before his troubles he was a three term member of the Indiana General Assembly.

Little Corruption or Little Jail Time? Wyser – No Time=Right result?; Conour Redux, again!

What is the cost for fixing tickets?

How corrupt is a NJ judge who fixes tickets for her “significant other?”  Corrupt enough to get kicked off the bench, and have her license suspended it appears.  Former judge Wanda Molina already lost her position as chief municipal judge, and the NJ Supreme Court will decide on whether and how long to suspend her license to practice law.  The disciplinary prosecutors are asking for a 2-3 year suspension, but others expect maybe a six month layoff.

Four other municipal court judges were also caught up in the ticket fixing scandal, and resolved their charges.

****

Was Wyser’s Punishment the Right Result?

The Indy Star story starts: “Former deputy prosecutor David Wyser’s after-the-fact acceptance of $2,500 for approving the early release of a convicted killer was a “wobble” in an otherwise unblemished career of public service, federal Judge Sarah Evans Barker said [Nov. 25] as she sentenced Wyser to three years of probation.”

Paula Willoughby, convicted of murdering her husband, was sentenced to 70 years, but after lobbying by her defense lawyer (who appears to have offered a bribe and has not been charged yet) the deputy prosecutor David Wyser agreed to reduce the sentence to the 18 years she had served.  That was followed by a “campaign contribution” of $2500 from the father of Willoughby. The timing was apparently critical.  In 2006 Wyser decided that a sentence modification was appropriate “once she served the minimum time” she could have been sentenced to, which was the 18 years, in 2009. When that time came, Wyser filed the paperwork. He was campaigning for Hamilton County Prosecutor at that time, and says the contribution came when he needed some campaign cash.

The victim’s family thought a travesty occurred when Federal Judge Sarah Barker ordered six months sentence of house arrest and three years probation (reports do not identify the underlying sentence that would be imposed if Wyser violates the terms of the probation).

Judge Barker comment that Wyser helped with investigations into the defense lawyer who offered the contribution and Carl Brizzi, Wyser’s former boss. No charges have been filed against either person, and none apparently will be filed against Brizzi.

A check today shows that Wyser’s law license is still “Active in Good Standing.”

My take: The law license matter is incredible.  That should have been resolved by now with a disbarment or resignation.  Interesting when/if it will occur.  The sentence is a more difficult matter to decide. Judge Barker is not a “softee” on anyone. Her rationale makes some sense – if the law license is gone.  But there are lawyers who do crimes similar to non-lawyers, and who get more favorable treatment. Sorry fellow lawyers, but the Courts should hold us to the standards of the law.  Exceptions ought to be the rare event, and it does not seem like it is.

That is the troubling trend.

***

Another Round for Conour?

This blog has covered the William Conour matter in some detail. With six previous stories, his sentencing and McKinney Law stripping his name off the wall of the atrium, I thought I was done with him.  Today the federal prosecutors are talking out loud about the possibility of appealing the 10 year sentence he got for stealing millions from widows, orphans, and severely injured clients.   A notice of appeal was filed last week in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The sentencing judge said at the time of sentencing that the time was set so there is a possibility that Conour will make some restitution to the victims. At 66 years of age there is some concern that a longer sentence will make that impossible. But there is the troubling trend.

A check on the status of Conour’s license:  Resigned.

No published report from the ISBA on the impact on the Client’s Financial Assistance Fund.

More to come.

Will Lawyers get in trouble blowing smoke?; Be careful what you share with an Inmate; 3-2 vote on an Agreed Discipline – what does that mean?

Good to see a Bar Association help out the member lawyers on difficult ethics issues. The King Co. Bar Assoc. in Washington State has asked for guidance from the State Supreme Court on how to handle a conflict in the drug laws. Marijuana use will soon be legal under WA state law, but the federal law has not changed. So is it unethical for a state licensed attorney to use dope? Is it unethical to advise companies on how to comply with the state law on selling dope?

There are other issues where state law and federal law are at odds in various states. Voting rights issues come up, gun possession issues, campaign finance, and abortion laws.  Are lawyers at risk for following state laws, and not federal laws?  Will drug laws be different?

Wait and see.

***

When will lawyers learn to be careful when visiting inmates?

Lake County lawyer Carl Jones should have followed the rules about sharing information with a jailed client.  He could have sent the inmate’s girlfriend’s letter through the mail, but it would probably be read, and her promise to lie for the inmate at trial would have been found.

More importantly, he could have told the Disciplinary Commission the truth about the matter when first asked.  When he was later testifying he told a different story, and for that he got a suspension for six months, without automatic reinstatement.

Lawyers interactions with inmates are constitutionally protected, up to a point. The inmate is entitled to private conferences so that a legitimate defense can be presented to the court.  But because we have special privileges, we must be extra careful to follow the rules.  Jones is the second lawyer this year to get disciplined for an improper interaction with a prisoner-client.  Earlier this year this blog reported this story.A Google search found: “About 66,000 results (0.31 seconds)”  to that lawyer’s name – most for this event.

Be careful out there, or more especially, when you are visiting someone in there!

***

Value of a Conditional Agreement for Discipline

Plea bargains are a way of life for criminal defense lawyers, and negotiated settlements are the rule for civil litigators, it makes sense to try to work out a disciplinary matter as well.  At least today, that is.

In the Matter of Noah Holcomb, Jr. is a case on point.  Holcomb’s opinion shows that he violated several pretty important rules, 1.15 (3 subsections as different violations) on safekeeping of client funds, commingling client and attorney funds; 8.4 fraudulent conduct (hiding cash from the IRS); 1.5 setting and honoring fee agreements, not charging unreasonable fees, 8.4 conversion, and four different A&D Rules on handling trust accounts.  In addition he neglected client files (Rule 1.3).

By the time the matter got to the Supreme Court he still had not made restitution, but — he had cooperated with the Disc. Comm.

The Court starts its discussion with the following:  “This Court has disbarred attorneys who committed the type of misconduct to which Respondent has admitted.”  The important part is next: “The discipline the Court would impose might have been more severe than proposed by the parties had this matter been submitted without the Commission’s agreement.”

Now the agreement did not result in a slap on the wrist – Holcomb got a three-year suspension, without automatic reinstatement – and the  strong language of warning that reinstatement could be hard to come by:

We note, however, that regardless of the date on which Respondent is eligible to petition for reinstatement, reinstatement is discretionary and requires clear and convincing evidence of the attorney’s remorse, rehabilitation, and fitness to practice law. See Admis. Disc. R. 23(4)(b). Moreover, the parties agree that restitution should be a condition for Respondent’s reinstatement. 

The vote to approve the outcome was an unusual 3-2 with Justices David and Rush dissenting with the comment: “believing the Respondent should be disbarred.”

It sounds unlikely that Holcomb will return to the practice, but he might. After reading the opinion, you might wonder, as I do, if we want him back in the profession.

Did the Commission go too light on Holcomb in order to get an agreement, and if so, why? Apparently three justices accepted the reason (assuming it was explained somewhere), although they did not include the reason in their rationale.  Will they accept that next time?  Is this opinion a shot across the Commission’s bow?

Or is it a shot across the bow of those attorneys who stand their ground?

Slap for not Following Trial or Appellate Rules; CFAF & Attorney Surrogate Issues: Outing your Client, not a good thing: Let’s Party

Lawyers Need to Know (or read) and Follow Rules

It seems to be painful to be a stickler for rules (which appellate judges often are) and read some appellate submissions.  From time to time the Court of Appeals will send a subtle message to the Bar about the quality of advocacy, but subtly was not the tool used in Judge Bradford’s opinion in Duensing v. Johnson.  The appellate lawyer was 3 for 3 in footnotes admonishing him for rules violations or for confusing the court. A couple other chiding comments come through over the weakness of the arguments submitted.

Appellee lawyer also took a shot for citing a NFP opinion as authority for an argument as well.

Read the case and remember that some trial judges also expect the lawyers to know the difference between different kinds of motions made at different times in the trial.

****

Hamilton the Birdman – Two Lessons in One Headline:  What do you know about CFAF? How are you with the Attorney Surrogate Rule?

Bradley Hamilton, a Kokomo lawyer appears to have closed shop and fled to Australia.  He had some notoriety in the Howard County area for his willingness to “flip the bird” to news cameras.  The story reports that several clients had paid funds to Hamilton, and may have lost their retainers.  No criminal charges have yet been filed.

Local Kokomo lawyer Brent Dechert is stepping up to help the clients of Hamilton.  He filed a Petition for Appointment of an Attorney Surrogate* to allow him to access the files and trust account of Hamilton.  The Petition was granted and Dechert has given public notice of the appointment.  This results in the clients getting their files back, or transferred to a new lawyer who will work with them on their matters. Dechert said that he does not handle the kinds of cases Hamilton did, so there is little likelihood that he will take over many of the cases.

Not reported in the article is the existence of the Clients Financial Assistance Fund, of the Indiana State Bar Association.**  The fund, created by the  ISBA several decades ago, provides a partial remedy to those clients who have had funds stolen from them by their lawyer.  An individual client can recover up to $15,000 with a standing cap of $50,000  total reimbursement for all client losses due to the acts of a single lawyer.

The CFAF committee meets as needed (and fortunately it is not needed too often) to consider and investigate claims.  The funds in the CFAF are a part of the annual dues of ISBA members. The claim application is available.at the ISBA website here.

*  I am chair of the ISBA Special Committee on Attorney Surrogate Rule

**  I served more than ten years as a member of the Clients Financial Assistance Fund Committee for the ISBA.

****

Sharing evidence on YouTube can get you suspended.

An IL lawyer thought his client was entrapped by police in a drug bust, so he posted the undercover video taken by the police online.  He titled the video  “Cops and Task Force Planting Drugs.”

By doing so he exposed a confidential informant of the police department, and he violated the client’s confidentiality without informed consent. The Disciplinary Counsel also accused Jesse Raymond Gilsdorf of Mount Sterling, IL with implying police wrongdoing without evidence to back up the charge.

Apparently he watched the video on a small monitor and thought it showed entrapment, but after posting the video, and then seeing the recording on a large screen monitor realized it proved the client’s guilt. She took a plea, he got charged.

The IL Hearing Board recommended a five month suspension of Gilsdorf’s license.  We will see what happens.

**

Party in Rochester, courtesy of PWP

This Friday, the Peterson Waggoner & Perkins law firm will host “A Grand Night for Music III.” It is an occasional celebration for clients and friends of the law firm  The Atlanta Music Hall Band, straight from Atlanta Music Hall in Atlanta IN, will perform Swing and Jazz standards, and the dance floor will be out. Love to have you here. Call the office for tickets.

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.

Hiding Things Brings Trouble: Assets, Evidence and a Court Order.

Hiding Assets

The case started for Washington State lawyer, Thomas McGrath when his wife, a chiropractor, started a fight with her ex-employee.  Forbes reports on his bad actions: first to represent his wife in a case where she lost a judgment of $500,000; and then to do improper asset protection in violation of the RPC.

Shifting assets when the case is going badly is a time honored tactic, but shifting a spouse’s asset through the office trust account in violation of Rule 1.15 is still a forbidden mixture of personal assets with clients’ assets.

Filing bankruptcy is not generally improper, but falsifying the Bankruptcy Petition is a federal felony and an ethical violation.

As Jay Atkisson, the Forbes columnist explains: “This case has nothing to do with legitimate asset protection planning, and everything to do with plain old fraud on creditors.”

What do you think the Washington State Supreme Court did to the husband lawyer, just trying to help his wife?

***
Hiding Evidence on Facebook:

Matthew Murray was slow to advise his client about the eternal nature of electronic evidence. Murray’s client lost his wife and filed a wrongful death case.  Among the damages claimed was loss of love, affection and companionship.  After being asked to produce “screenshots” from his client’s Facebook account, Murray told his paralegal to make sure the account had been “cleaned up. ” The plaintiff-client’s photos disappeared from his Facebook wall, but the defense counsel already had 16 of them, including the one that showed him wearing a T-shirt that said “I ♥ hot moms” while holding a beer, soon after the wife’s death.  Since the suit was for the losses he suffered due to the wrongful death of the plaintiff’s wife as caused by the defendant, the photo was thought to be material to damages.

First, the trial court ordered the payment of defendant’s attorney fees against Murray and his client in the amount of $722,000 and slashed the jury’s $8.5M verdict. The VA Supreme Court reinstated the verdict, but allowed the attorney fees order to stand.

It also found Murray violated the RPC and entered a sanction: What would you have ordered?

***

Hiding the Court Order?

A busy time for the Washington State Disciplinary Board.
And Tom Kamb was a busy lawyer. He had a criminal law practice, mostly DUI defense work. On the day of the problem, he had 20 case hearings set in the morning.  He got a plea on one case, which was submitted, and approved by the court.  He forgot to get the breath test suppressed, which appears to be a normal event, since suppression of the breath test protects the client’s driver’s license.

Kamb later had a hearing with the Dept. of Licensing’s ALJ about his client’s driver’s license, Kamb reported that he had gotten the breath test suppressed in the criminal charge.  Now he had to find a way to prove that.  Bad idea.  He asked for the closed file from the clerk, and penciled a note about the test being suppressed on the signed order. The now suspicious clerk refused to provide him with a certified copy of the newly forged order, and sent him to the prosecutor.  The prosecutor agreed to a retroactive suppression, not knowing that Kamb had lied to the DOL’s ALJ, and forged the court’s order.  When Kamb returned with the note from the prosecutor, the clerk sent him to the presiding judge who was not pleased.

The judge files disciplinary charges, and after the investigation by bar counsel, there was a finding of Kamb’s guilt on three counts:

Count 1 charge[d] Kamb with misrepresenting the existence of an order suppressing his client’s breath test to the hearing officer in violation of RPC
3.3(a)(1). Count 2 charge[d] Kamb with changing Judge Svaren’s order in violation of RPC 8.4(b ), 8.4( c), and 8.4( d). Count 3 charge[d] Kamb with violating RPC 1.3 which  requires a lawyer to act diligently and promptly, by failing to discuss suppression of the breath test with [prosecutor] Johnson before the DOL hearing.
Kamb challenged the Hearing Officer’s findings. The court found his version of facts lacked credibility.  The transcript of the ALJ’s hearing proved the timeline and his misstatement of facts about the existence of a court order that helped his client.
What did the WA Supreme Court do in this case?

Poll Results:

1. Washington Supreme Court disbarred the lawyer after 40+ years of practice – citing the filing of false filings and claims, and lack of remorse.

2. Murray got a five-year suspension from the practice of law.

3. The opinion cites as authority: “The American Bar Association’s Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions (1991 & Supp. 1992)” as the guide for lawyer discipline in Washington State.   Kamb got disbarred.

Trust Advice; Old Joke – Who goes to jail at the end of the day?; Cameras – get you canned – NSFW

Trust Advice: Have good witnesses

Out of state cases this week.  A prominent NY lawyer got a reprimand when his trust account checks bounced. Usually a more serious matter, the highly regarded lawyer got reprimanded instead of suspended. He pled ignorance, and stupidity. The NY Appellate Div. found the abuse was “non-venal” and the result of the aforementioned ignorance and stupidity.  Neal H. Rosenberg  was lucky enough to have great witnesses:

A former Associate Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, and a Justice of the Supreme Court, both testified that they had retained respondent to represent them and their respective children. Both Justices stated that respondent is known to be trustworthy, honest and a tremendously fine attorney, possessing great skill, integrity, and character. 

Have good friends, do non-venal things, and do no harm to clients, you might avoid the more serious punishment that others get.

***

Bribing a Witness?

I repeat an old joke I first heard in law school, from the late Pat Baude: “At the end of the day, a lawyer’s first duty is to make sure that only the client goes to jail.”

Cranston Rhode Island’s Gerard Donley, a well-known criminal defense lawyer based out of Providence, today was found guilty of obstruction of justice, bribery and conspiracy to bribe a witness…

reports the Cranston Patch.  It promptly resulted in an Interim Suspension of Donley’s license to practice law.

The conviction was June 13, the Order of Suspension came out Aug. 6.

***

NSFW – Lawyer gets himself canned

In case you live in a virtual cave, you may not know that the initials NSFW means Not Safe For Work, a euphemism for there might be something in this link that your office spam blocker will reject, or your staff will be surprised to hear coming from your computer.  It also is probably not safe for nearby children.

Lawyers are often called on to sit through boring, even mundane public hearings.  If you represent a board that holds public meetings, there is a certain “professional look” you adopt.  Something between interested and bored, engaged but not transcribing the comments.

Here Long Island NY lawyer Chris Kirby offers the wrong look.  He smirks.  And when called out about it during the meeting, it gets worse. The hearing appears to on be a cable channel broadcast.  But the cell phone camera goes on in the parking lot.  If inappropriate language offends, I suggest you ignore the link.

By the way, the lawyer and his firm lose the client school board.

h/t Gary Welsh and Advance Indiana blog.

“Causing grief to clients” = slapdown by judge; Learn from your neighbor lawyers’ mistakes; attend your clients.

Fee Shifting is no Reason to Mishandle a Case

There are a number of statutes that allow for fee shifting, and we hear calls daily for “tort reform” that pushes that idea.  Here it caused all kinds of bad incentives, as pointed out in a 113 page trial court order on the Fee Petitions under USTA and/or ELA environmental laws. [My experience in front of Judge Goshorn in a few cases is that he is normally a judge who uses few words to make his points – this output is unlike his normal work.]

Judge Goshorn of Wells County was asked to approve fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyer in the amount of $676,986.11. He denied the request, mostly due to the conduct of the plaintiff’s counsel in the handling of the case.  Award to counsel $0. actually less, due to several contempt of court orders.

The judge said many things in 113 pages, none complimentary to Mark E. Shere, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in this case. A few direct slapdowns:

  • …Shere caused “untold grief and damage to [his] former clients”… [p.2]
  • “has been an impediment, not a facilitator, to the just resolution of this cause.” [p.2]
  • “this case has been extraordinarily and needlessly protracted…due to Mr. Shere’s fee agreement with his client.”  [p.3]
  • “… Shere drove this case off a cliff, leaving in his wake two bankrupt and divorced clients and a third client in financial trouble with its reputation sullied.” [p.5]

The judge was just getting warmed up.  He continued through 169 Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, never letting up on Shere.  On page 96 he found that the Fee Agreement Shere had with his clients violated Rule 1.8(i) of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct which states:

(i) A lawyer shall not acquire a proprietary interest in the cause of action or subject matter of litigation the lawyer is conducting for a client, except that the lawyer may:

(1)acquire a lien authorized by law to secure the lawyer’s fee or expenses; and

(2)contract with a client for a reasonable contingent fee in a civil case.

Judge Goshorn saw the fee agreement as giving Shere a stake in the case for clients Witt, to his favor and to the favor of co-client Hydrotech. He found that:

  • “… the driver of this litigation was recovery of the maximum amount of fees for Mr. Shere, not assisting the Witts.” [p.99]

But this was not a screed against plaintiffs’ lawyers, he gave some fees to lawyers who worked for Shere, ordering the payment to the Clerk, and the clerk to direct the fees to those lawyers. [p.113].

The judge did not feel particularly sorry for the defendants in the case either, denying their petition for fees from Shere or his clients. The Court found:

  • “This litigation was a caged grudge match [I like that word-picture offered by the judge] with both sides throwing punches. … The Court is concerned about the chilling effect an award of fees to defendants in a USTA or ELA action might have…” [p.111-2]

Shere gets nothing due to the way he tried the case, putting his interests above those of the client.

This case was also addressed by the Indiana Supreme Court in a March 21, 2012 opinion where Shere and his clients were held in contempt of court.  The Court, in  a 3-2 opinion agreed with the contempt finding, overturning a reversal by the Court of Appeals.

For some reason I suspect we may see another Supreme Court opinion coming out in the future concerning the actions taken by counsel in this case.

****

Learn from your Neighbors*

One lesson that is important is for lawyers to learn from the mistakes of their neighbors. It is one of the reasons this blog exists. Elden Stoops, for example, should have learned from neighboring county lawyer Jeffrey Price‘s 2009 public reprimand.  The cases as described sound surprisingly similar.  Both lawyers filed family law matters, seeking emergency relief.  Both offered proposed Orders to the court granting the emergency relief their clients sought. Neither petition cited or certified the steps made to notify the opposing parties of the filing of the emergency filing, as required under Trial Rule 65(B).  Both courts set hearings and immediately granted the emergency relief. [Query, when can parties, and lawyers, count on judges reading pleadings and knowing the law on such things?]

Later the opposing parties were notified of the actions taken.

Unlike Price, who was charged with one offense, Stoops was charged and sanctioned for two offenses. The one above was for violating Rules 3.5(b) – ex parte communication with a judge; 8.4(d) & (f) conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, and assisting a judicial officer in violation of rules of judicial conduct. Stoops second violation was a conflict of interest, when co-clients turned against each other, and he took the case of one of the former co-clients.

Public reprimand for his actions. He had a clean record, and the court accepted the idea that he was trying to protect children, were mitigating factors accepted by the court.

* A lawyer from my firm was involved in the Stoops case.

***

Take Care of the Clients

Ron Weldy has been a frequent poster on the ISBA email discussion lists.  He should have been paying attention to his clients’ matters a bit better.  The Supreme Court recently suspended Weldy for 180 days, 90 to serve and one year probation.  From the six counts, there were issues of fee agreements, client communication, case management, and knowledge of the law were problems for the respondent.  The list of rule problems is lengthy:

Violations: The parties agree that Respondent violated these Indiana Professional Conduct Rules prohibiting the following misconduct:

1.2(a): Failure to abide by a client’s decision concerning the objectives of representation.

1.3: Failure to act with reasonable diligence and promptness.

1.4(a)(3): Failure to keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter.

1.4(a)(4): Failure to comply promptly with a client’s reasonable requests for information.

1.4(b): Failure to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit a client to make informed decisions.

1.5(b): Failure to communicate the basis or rate of the fee for which a client will be responsible before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation.

1.5(c): Failure to disclose to a client the method by which a contingent legal fee will be determined.

1.7(a)(2): Representing a client when the representation may be materially limited by the attorney’s own self-interest.

1.15(e): Failure to properly secure disputed property until the dispute is resolved.

1.16(a)(3): Continuing representation of a client after the lawyer is discharged.

3.1: Asserting a position for which there is no non-frivolous basis in law or fact.

3.2: Failure to expedite litigation consistent with the interests of a client.

3.3(a)(1): Knowingly making a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal.

8.4(c): Engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

8.4(d): Engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

This case is a good one to review before taking a weekend off.  Stay diligent, read the law. Be careful with your fee agreements

Want Fewer Troubles? See a small firm lawyer; Prenda Redux; Township Courts

I had a good week leading up to and at the Indiana Solo and Small Firm Conference June 6-8 at French Lick Indiana. Kudos to Marc Matheny (also of the National SSF Conf. Board and the ABATECH Show Board) who chaired the conference this year and next.

Indiana’s conference was its largest yet, and I chaired the new series of courses called STAFF TRACK, which added to the knowledge and skills of law firm staff members.

Why do I say if you want fewer troubles see a small firm lawyer? Last month AM LAW, a leading legal publisher came out with an article on the latest big law survey by Altman-Weil Co. on where the law and practice is headed.  Steve Harper, an author and blogger interpreted the AM LAW article here.

His topic sentences are “The Troubling Big Picture; Group Stupidity; Lateral Incompetence; Institutional Ineptitude; and, Cognitive Dissonance” finding the focus of the leaders of the big firms as wrongheaded:  When asked to identify their greatest challenges over the next 24 months, most managers cited “increasing revenue.” The rest of the list is, in order: new business, growth, profitability, management transition, cost management, and attracting talent. If you’re wondering where clients fit—other than as a source of revenue and profits in items one, two, and three—“client value” finished eighth.

He summarizes the report of the responses by 250 of the largest 800 firms, as follows:

•Managing partners know that change is coming and clients are demanding it, but firms aren’t revisiting their basic strategies or business models.

•Growth and profits finish far ahead of enhancing client value as most law firm leaders’ top concerns.

•Leaders view aggressive lateral hiring as critical to law firm growth, but when laterals don’t produce, most firms don’t do much about it.

•Succession planning is problematic because senior partners don’t want to relinquish compensation that is tied to their client billings.

•As senior leaders continue to pull up the equity partner ladder on the next generation, morale plummets and managing partners worry about the absence of midlevel talent to serve clients in the future.

Client Value comes in Eighth? (One commentator was surprised the clients made the top ten at Biglaw!)  No wonder the mood at the SSF Conference was upbeat. Our “big” siblings at the Biglaw Firms are now leaving the good clients to those of us who care.

H/T Patrick Olmstead.

***

More on Prenda Law.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned a federal judge is ticked-off at the Chicago law firm Prenda, that was pursuing copyright violations against folks it alleged had viewed internet pornography in violation of the copyright law.  Tying the copyright violation with the fear of exposure for that private act, lots of folks were settling the claims, and others who did not do so prior to the suit quickly settled before court notices were out.

In the earlier reports the judge said from the bench that something was not right. Well now he has unloaded on the lawyers, with this Order of the Court.  In an eleven page order he finds violations of Rule 11, (requiring lawyers to know the facts that they are alleging have some basis in fact) and acts of fraud upon the court.  He orders the firm to pay $81,000+ to the Court in 14 days to repay the John Doe defendant in the order for costs and attorney fees. The judge doubled the fees requested by the lawyers, due to the egregious acts of the Prenda firm.

The judge also reports the two lawyers in his case to the Disciplinary Committee of the State of California, plus every other state where they practice, and every court, both state and federal, where the lawyers have cases pending. He says they suffer from a moral turpitude that should not infect the bar.

Just to top things off, he sends his report to the US Attorney’s office to consider RICO charges and to the IRS for investigation of every lawyer in the law firm.

Moral of the story: Federal Judges do not play games with scoundrels.

H/T Vic Indiano

***

Marion County Township Courts

More coming on this issue soon. Will the Legislature or Supreme Court do anything? I have recently had a chance to read the Small Claims Task Force Report: Report on the Marion County Small Claims Courts, authored by Court of Appeals Judges John Baker and Betty Barteau, Sr. Judge.

Some solid recommendations that went no place in the Indiana Legislature.  What will the Supreme Court do?  Will the Legislature do anything?

Is it all on WTHR 13 News to push the changes? I had a conversation on fees, ethics, and lawyer and judge discipline with Sandra Chapman this week.  It will be interesting to follow this story.