Glitch in the TN disciplinary procedural rules?

I got a call a week or two ago from another Tennessee lawyer trying to noodle through a situation.  The caller was curious to see if I could offer any insight about why a situation that seemed a bit broken was not.

I couldn’t.  Instead, I was able to sort of confirm for the lawyer that the situation does seem to be a bit broken.  The situation involves an aspect not of the ethics rules in Tennessee but the rules that govern disciplinary proceedings and the enforcement of their outcomes – which are housed in Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9.

More particularly, the situation involves the application of a provision that governs certain things a lawyer must do by way of notice when being disbarred, suspended (even temporarily), or having their license transferred to disability inactive status.  The problem arises from treating suspensions and disbarment the same way.  When the suspension is a lengthy one, these provisions make sense, but when you are talking about a short suspension — 30 or 60 days for example — the analogy breaks down.

The specific section, Section 28, contains 11 sub-parts of provisions addressing requirements that are triggered by any order of disciplinary suspension just as with an order of disbarment.  The first four sub-parts, Section 28.1 through 28.4, present no real issues as they address the effective date of an order, that a notice has to be sent by the lawyer to clients, and opposing counsel/adverse parties within 10 days of the order, and requirements to maintain records about such things having being timely done.

The problem with having this rule apply to”[o]rders imposing disbarment, suspension, transfers to disability inactive status, or temporary suspension” alike kicks in with the next three sub-parts of the rule:

28.5.  Return of Client Property.  The respondent attorney shall deliver to all clients any papers or other property to which they are entitled and shall notify them and any counsel representing them of a suitable time and place where the papers and other property may be obtained, calling attention to any urgency for obtaining the papers or other property.

28.6.  Refund of Fees.  By no later than fifteen days after the effective date of the order, the respondent attorney shall refund any part of any fees, expenses, or costs paid in advance that has not been earned or expended, unless the order directs otherwise.

28.7.  Withdrawal from Representation.  The respondent attorney shall within twenty days after the effective date of the order file in the court, agency or tribunal in which the proceeding is pending a motion for leave to withdraw or a motion or agreed order to substitute and shall serve a copy of the motion or agreed order on opposing counsel or the adverse party, if unrepresented, in the proceeding.

Now, again if we are talking about a lengthy suspension, these provisions make sense.  And, Section 28.6 at least acknowledges that the order imposing a suspension could even direct otherwise as to refunding unearned fees, but similar language, however, surely needs to be added to Sections 28.5 and 28.7 because the application of these requirements might not only be contrary to a client’s interest but will have the impact of essentially practically extending the length of an otherwise short-term suspension.

Looking at Section 28.7 specifically, if you do not even have to file such a motion until twenty days from the order, by the time you have it heard and ruled on by a court, a lawyer’s 30-day suspension will either be over, or practically will be over.

Now, perhaps the justification for these provisions is that even for 30 days a client shouldn’t be left defenseless in a matter and represented by a lawyer who cannot do anything, but there seems to be a very good reason to believe that all three of these provisions ought to reference the potential for an order to direct to the contrary and not just Section 28.6.  It may be more trouble for client and lawyer alike for these things to have to happen for just a short suspension rather than permitting the order to say to the contrary so that the client can simply choose to wait out the suspension.  Likewise, in situations in which more than one lawyer (whether at the same firm or different firms) is representing the same client in the same matter, during the suspension the client won’t be left defenseless at all.

This situation particularly seems in need of fixing when other related provisions in Rule 9 are examined.

Section 28.10 indicates that “[p]roof of compliance with Section 28 shall be a condition precedent to any petition for reinstatement.”  Section 12.2(a)(1) makes clear that, unlike in the past when lawyers could automatically resume practice after certain short-length suspensions, “no attorney suspended” under any part of Rule 9 :shall resume practice until reinstated by order of the Court.”

And, Section 12.2(a)(3) plainly indicates that all suspensions “regardless of duration” are subject to Section 28 “unless otherwise expressly provided in” Rule 9.

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