Utahlking Ethics Opinions to Me? (Also Texas)

I’m interested in writing today about two recent ethics opinions that manage to go together quite nicely.  Utah Ethics Adv. Op. 18-04 and Texas Professional Ethics Committee Op. 679.  Both involve RPC 1.8 (or at least both should).  And, not only does neither opinion do a very good job with the subject matter it tackles but both tackle subjects where lawyers need to tread very carefully and could use really good advice.

But, as just a quick aside before doing so, I wanted to express some gratitude from last week and point you to a very important story worth reading.  As the culmination of a many-months-long project, I had the chance to share the stage last week at the ABA Forum on Franchising with two excellent lawyers – Shannon McCarthy Associate General Counsel for Chihuly, Inc. and Kevin Kennedy, General Counsel of Wiggin and Dana in Connecticut — and talk about a tricky and delicate topic – lawyers and obligations to report other lawyers with a particular emphasis on issues involving harassment and other toxic behavior.  I was really fortunate to get to work with them both.  For a story that offers something of a how-not-to manual offered by the experience of one of the world’s largest law firms, you can go read up here.

Now, back to regularly-scheduled programming…

While I missed it around the time it came out, the Utah State Bar put out an interesting ethics opinion explaining to lawyers a way they might be able ethically to mitigate their risk exposure in the event of third-party claims against the lawyer based on the client’s conduct.

The opinion declares that “[a]n attorney may include an indemnification provision in a retainer agreement at the commencement of representation that requires the client to indemnify the attorney and related entities against claims that arise from the client’s behavior or negligence.”

In explaining this outcome, the Utah opinion points out that nothing about RPC 1.8(h) directly prohibits it.  However, it doesn’t just stop there, it goes on to explain … just kidding actually.  It stops there on that issue.

As a practical matter, that is sort of a shame because lawyers ought to be cautioned a bit about the problems associated with starting the relationship with a client off with that sort of provision — particularly because if you are that concerned about that risk of liability from the client’s conduct, then maybe a rethink about whether to take them on is in order.  But, if one is going to do it, the beginning of the relationship is certainly more viable than mid-stream.

Speaking of which, that brings me to the Texas opinion, which tasked itself with answering this question:

May a lawyer renegotiate his fixed, flat fee for representing a client in litigation after the litigation is underway if the matter turns out to be greater in scope and complexity than the lawyer and client contemplated?

If Texas was interested in doing this right, it would recognize that the answer lies in application of its version of Model Rule 1.8(a) because that situation is a business transaction between lawyer and client.  Instead, Texas actually announced that its version of that rule does not apply to a mid-stream renegotiation of a fee.

Instead, the opinion points out that Texas courts have considered the issue and have said that it can occur but that there is a “presumption of unfairness.”  Rejecting the opportunity to apply Rule 1.8 to these circumstances is all the more baffling because — providing guidance to interpret ethics rules is the kind of thing ethics opinion writing bodies are supposed to do, rather than providing guidance about what court decisions mean.

In the end though, I’m likely being too harsh on the Texas opinion because it, at least, summarizes pretty nicely the analysis of the dynamic from the lawyer side of things and why, in most situations, effectuating an enforceable renegotiation will be unlikely:

The fundamental nature of a flat or fixed fee is that there is risk to the lawyer that the legal work and time required may exceed what the lawyer might have earned if the lawyer instead billed by the hour.  The client knows with certain that the total fee charged, no matter how much lawyer time or effort is involved, will not exceed the fixed amount.  The client’s risk in a flat or fixed fee agreement is the possibility of paying more than the client would have paid under an hourly billing agreement if the lawyer is able to complete the representation is [sic] less time than originally expected.  Because the lawyer is better able to anticipate the time and legal work required, the lawyer should be mindful that he knowingly assumed the risk — and should not unreasonably seek to change the fee agreement simply because the lawyer agreed to a fixed fee that, in hindsight, is no longer adequate.

(emphasis added).  And, also, amen to that.

 

 

Yet another reason for change. Pretty much the most serious reason.

So there are things that can really make you feel small.  And there are things that can really lead to despair and a feeling of helplessness.  Fortunately, there are few things that do both at once.  The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change can do both of those things pretty simply.  If you haven’t read it, or at least parts of it, you can do so at this link.  If you don’t want to read the report itself (or parts of it), then you can go read one of the many articles discussing at length its sobering warnings of what the future (the close-enough-future that we can imagine ourselves in it pretty easily) here or here or here for example.

You really ought to read as much about it as you can because, to a pretty significant extent, whether we have a habitable planet is just about all that really matters.  And, though the more you digest the news about the situation the easier it is to feel small and helpless, the reaction needs to be significantly different from that.

Why am I writing about this at a legal ethics blog?  (Beyond the cop-out sort of reason in which I would tell you it feels a bit petty to write about anything else given the stakes, of course.)  Well, it isn’t because lawyers are somehow going to save us from this outcome.  For every lawyer out there who lobbies a state legislature to impose some new regulation to try to reduce carbon emissions, there will be another lawyer who ends up representing the industry that seeks to challenge that legislation in court.  That’s the nature of our profession.

But, our profession can try to do a few things to not be part of making the problem worse.

A lot of the discussion about what the future of the practice of law is going to look like involves embracing technology and regulatory questions about ways in which the traditional approach to lawyer regulation may be stifling innovation that would ultimately benefit consumers of legal services.  In my opinion, all of that should continue as quickly as we can move the conversation forward.  But, as we try to talk about what the future of the profession should look like, we ought to be bearing in mind many of these much larger issues.

What can we do to make sure that technological solutions are used so that people in the court system do not have to make multiple, ultimately unnecessary, trips across town for court when nothing happens that couldn’t be handled over the telephone or by video conference or web stream if courts would permit that to occur?

What options should we be considering empowering so that fewer disputes go into the traditional court system at all if they could be resolved through online dispute resolution?  What can we do to try to better fashion courts into places that can themselves be resolving disputes online?

What can we do to persuade those remaining jurisdictions that have been unwilling to move to electronic filing to give up the fight and swiftly enact electronic filing?

Pursuit of these sorts of initiatives can save an incremental number of natural resources.

And, why can our profession readily get comfortable with relaxing the artificial barriers we impose on the ability of a lawyer licensed in one state to actively practice law in another state only in the aftermath of disasters?  Many states have issued ethics opinions in the wake of various weather disasters or passed court rules to permit flexibility for out-of-state lawyers to go to the disaster area and render legal assistance without fear of being accused of unauthorized practice of law.  My own state did so a few years back.

The ABA very recently just issued Formal Ethics Opinion 482 encouraging lawyers to be ready for disasters and to plan ahead to protect their own practice and protect their clients’ cases and matters from adverse impact in the wake of disasters.  The ethics opinion gives very good guidance and, perhaps, it gave that guidance far enough in advance of the devastating impact that Hurricane Michael is currently inflicting on a part of the world where my family has vacationed every summer for the last almost 20 years, Apalachicola and St. George Island, Florida, so that lawyers in that part of the world knew enough to have been prepared in advance.

The IPCC report presents a pretty clear indication of the coming disaster if radical change is not undertaken.  Overhauling the regulation of the legal system to remove artificial barriers to cross-border practice and barriers that prevent technology from making it easier for clients to find lawyers and for lawyers to practice law without unnecessarily wasting resources seem like some things that amount to the least our profession can do to not be part of making worst-case scenarios even more likely to come to pass.

 

 

“Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up.”

Serial, perhaps the best known podcast of all podcasts, has recently launched its third season and like one of the REM songs off of Life’s Rich Pageant it focuses on Cuyahoga – but not the river but the County in Ohio – more particularly, it focuses on what goes on inside the Justice Center in Cuyahoga County.  Yet, much like the song was according to Peter Buck, the podcast also may just really be about America and its lost promises too.

So far the first three episodes have dropped, and they are particularly good.  Good, of course, in a troubling way for what they show with respect to the inner workings of the justice system.  Admittedly, all this season of Serial can truly do is show problems in just one particular courthouse in one particular location, but we all know there are universal themes that recur in many other similar venues in the nation.

The first three episodes alone have also given fodder for discussions of legal ethics for those so inclined.  The first episode follows an unfortunate and unfair bar fight through the court system.  The host, Sara Koenig, is given extensive access to the criminal defense lawyer involved.  (The series so far reveals that she was given nearly free rein in the building altogether.)  Even though there is one spot in which Koenig explains that had to be excluded from a meeting between the lawyer and his client in order to protect the attorney-client relationship while they talked, those familiar with the duty of client confidentiality still know that given how incredibly much is actually revealed by the lawyer about the case he is handling, how he is handling it, what he and his client have discussed, that surely there must have been a thorough and clear consent provided by the client for there to be no breach of the lawyer’s duty under Ohio’s version of RPC 1.6.

The second of the first three episodes introduces you to a judge who almost certainly needs to be made the subject of multiple judicial ethics complaints and who seems to have no business sitting in judgment of other people.  But the judge it introduces you to is likely a character-type that will sound very familiar to you in many respects no matter whether you’ve ever been in Cuyahoga County, Ohio or not.

The third episode tackles the very relevant topic of police brutality, the intricacies that can arise when one situation results in intertwining civil and criminal matters, and, for true ethics nerds, raises (at least indirectly) issues associated with a lawyer who swaps places in the system later in their career as well as problematic issues regarding where the line is in court proceedings between advocacy and assisting someone with manipulating evidence and testimony to assure an end result that may be believed to be just.

Anyway, your mileage may vary, but I find myself hooked.  I also find myself really wishing that Karen Rubin over at The Law For Lawyers Today might be able to weigh in at some point on her take on how the show portrays things, but, because she practices in Cleveland, I’m guessing that she is likely too close to the courts and the lawyers involved to be able to comfortably weigh in.

The fourth episode should be out tomorrow.  You should check it out.  (And, yes, I’m a guy with a pretty decent sense of humor and I see the hilarity in me encouraging the few hundred or so people who read this blog to go check out something that has millions upon millions of downloads.)

Proposed revisions to the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges

So last week I was quoted a bit in a Law360 story related to Judge Kavanaugh’s continued effort to ascend to the highest judicial position in our nation.  If you are a subscriber, you can read the article here.  It had to do with the news of the lawyer who was going to be representing Dr. Blasey-Ford and whether his departure from his firm was really sudden or not and the reasons why a firm with a significant appellate court practice might not want to let themselves have to treat Judge Kavanaugh as an adverse party.  If you are not a subscriber, I’ll offer you the two snippets involving what I had to say:

If Bromwich had stayed at Robbins Russell, Judge Kavanaugh would consequently have become an adverse party for conflicts purposes, potentially complicating the firm’s appellate efforts on behalf of clients, said Brian S. Faughnan, a legal ethics attorney at Lewis Thomason.

“That could have led to Judge Kavanaugh recusing himself from any appellate cases in which Robbins Russell was counsel of record or likely required the firm to seek Judge Kavanaugh’s recusal in all such cases. If he were confirmed, that would mean placing firm clients in a position where potentially only eight justices could hear their cases,” Faughnan said.

Even if Kavanaugh is not confirmed to the Supreme Court, the representation of Blasey Ford could still hurt the law firm as long as Judge Kavanaugh continues to hold a spot on the D.C. Circuit, Faughnan said.

Although that article came out just a week ago, it feels more like a year ago.

Based on the highly partisan nature of what Judge Kavanaugh had to say in his prepared testimony, it seems likely that, for as long as he has a position as a federal judge in any capacity, there will be lots of litigants and counsel that will have to seriously weigh whether to pursue motions for him to recuse from their cases.  “What goes around comes around,” could be a recurring quote referenced in motions seeking recusal for many years to come.

There are lots of other things I might write today about the troubling nature of things, but I will instead send anyone with an interest in where my perspective is at the moment to this piece published elsewhere.

While we are on the subject of federal judicial ethics though, I’d like to point out that there are proposed revisions to the Code of Conduct for United State Judges pending and for which there is a November 13, 2018 deadline for public comment.  The proposed changes do not impact in any fashion the existing rules for disqualification of federal judges — Canon 3(C) —  nor the rule that would be most difficult for a federal judge to claim would permit the making of any false statement under oath — Canon 2(A).

What the proposed changes do address are the conclusions of the June 1, 2018 Report of the Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group and the perceived need for additional ethical guidance regarding workplace harassment in the world of federal judges — an area to which none of the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh extend.

The most extensive proposed changes are set out in Canon 3(B) addressing the performance of administrative responsibilities and in new explanatory Commentary.  The rules would include a new provision:

(4) A judge should practice civility, by being patient, dignified,
respectful, and courteous, in dealings with court personnel,
including chambers staff. A judge should not engage in any form
of harassment of court personnel. A judge should not engage in
retaliation for reporting of allegations of such misconduct. A
judge should seek to hold court personnel who are subject to the
judge’s control to similar standards in their own dealings with
other court personnel.

A new paragraph in the Commentary would further explain:

Canon 3B(4). A judge should neither engage in, nor tolerate, workplace
conduct that is reasonably interpreted as harassment, abusive behavior, or retaliation
for reporting such conduct. The duty to refrain from retaliation reaches retaliation
against former as well as current judiciary personnel.  Under this Canon, harassment encompasses a range of conduct having no legitimate role in the workplace, including harassment that constitutes discrimination on impermissible grounds and other abusive, oppressive, or inappropriate conduct directed at judicial employees or others. See also Rules for Judicial-Conduct and Judicial-Disability Proceedings, Rule 4(a)(2) (providing that “cognizable misconduct includes: (A) engaging in unwanted, offensive, or abusive sexual conduct, including sexual harassment or assault; (B) treating litigants, attorneys, judicial employees, or others in a demonstrably egregious and hostile manner; or (C) creating a hostile work environment for judicial employees”) and Rule 4(a)(3) (providing that “cognizable misconduct includes discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender, gender identity, pregnancy, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, age, or disability”).

You can read all of the proposed revisions here.

Supreme problems

A lot of attention is focused on goings-on related to the U.S. Supreme Court – and rightly so given the stakes and given the nature of the saga that continues to unfold.

But, lost in the shuffle is the fact that 2 state Supreme Courts in our nation are, at present, entirely in a state of disarray.  One of them – West Virginia – has descended into chaos as a result of something that appears, to some extent, to simply be a naked political power play.  The West Virginia legislature has impeached all 4 0f the justices remaining on its state supreme court.  That court has only 4 justices because one resigned shortly before the impeachment proceedings were set to begin.  Some media reports focus on the fact that this effort could permit the current Governor of West Virginia to appoint an entirely new state supreme court.  But the effort seems to go beyond party-line politics as elections for the West Virginia Supreme Court became non-partisan in 2015 and two of the justices impeached previously ran as Republicans while two had run as democrats.  And to make matters a bit less clear, one of the four justices also is the subject of a 20+ count federal indictment, and the one who resigned before impeachment proceedings began has also agreed to plead guilty to a criminal charge.  The impeachment charges vary a bit as the only thing that all four justices alike were charged with was failing in their administrative duties, three of them were impeached for paying senior status judges more than the law allows, and two of them were also impeached in connection with monies they spent refurnishing their offices.

The other situation also has the portent of removal from office of a majority of members of a state’s highest court but involves the prosecution of a judicial ethics complaint instead of something that is complicated by issues involving separation of powers and what sort of role politics is playing in the process.

In Arkansas, the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission filed formal disciplinary charges against six of the seven sitting justices in that state over the Court’s treatment of a trial court judge.  The trial court judge filed a disciplinary complaint against all seven of the justices, and, just this past week, a special disciplinary counsel has filed a formal complaint for discipline against 6 justices for their actions in ordering that all of the trial court’s cases involving the death penalty be reassigned after giving the trial judge next to no notice of what was happening.

Now there is certainly a political undercurrent to the Arkansas situation – given that the underlying issues revolve around the death penalty – but, unlike what appears to be going on in West Virginia, the Arkansas process at least feels less like anything that could be described as a political power grab.

You can read the 10-page disciplinary complaints against each of the six justices here [each complaint is essential identical), but let me offer a very short synopsis of the events.

Arkansas, like my own state, has watched its judicial process struggle with questions about the mechanics involved in carrying out death penalty sentences, specifically questions about whether the use of a particular three-drug compound to accomplish lethal injection is constitutional or amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

In Arkansas, a lawsuit was filed on April 14, 2017 by one of the manufacturers of one of the drugs proposed to be used in Arkansas’s three-drug protocol seeking an order that the State of Arkansas not be permitted to use its drug for that purpose.

That case was assigned to Judge Wendell Griffen, and Judge Griffen swiftly entered a requested TRO prohibiting such use by 4:25 pm on April 14.  Judge Griffen is outspoken in his personal opposition to the death penalty and even reportedly participated in an anti-death penalty march around the time of the entry of this injunction.  The Arkansas Attorney General immediately filed an emergency petition for mandamus and prohibition on the next day April 15, which was a Saturday.  The Attorney General was seeking to have the TRO vacated and Judge Griffen removed from the case.  By a little before noon on April 15, the Court sent out a notice providing the parties with a deadline for responding to the petition by 3:00 pm on that Saturday.  Because of the nature of the proceeding – one seeking mandamus and prohibition – Judge Griffen should have been copied on all of the filings to this point but had not been.  The Clerk of the Court realized later in the day that Judge Griffen had not been given any notice and sent an email with copies of the filings to Judge Griffen’s chambers email address just before 4:30 pm on that Saturday providing a deadline for responding by 9:00 a.m. on Monday April 17, 2017.

When that deadline came and went without a response from Judge Griffen, the Arkansas Supreme Court entered an order that not only vacated the TRO but made a ruling regarding Judge Griffen that no party had requested – that all the cases assigned to him involving the death penalty were to be reassigned and that any future cases also be reassigned and that he be referred to the Committee for potential discipline.

Ten days later, Judge Griffen filed a judicial disciplinary complaint against all seven members of the Arkansas Supreme Court.  In what seems like a remarkably bad judgment call, one of the justices responded – apparently on behalf of all of them – with an argument that the Commission did not have jurisdiction to take any action.

The fundamental takeaway from the decision of the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission to move forward with formal charges is difficult to pinpoint as the order finding probable cause does not directly engage in much analysis of any particular judicial ethics rule.  Rather, the order sets out a number of rules stated as being implicated in evaluating all the parties but does not do more than that.  The only one in the mix that seems to apply directly to the question of the justices conduct in taking action against Judge Griffen with the barest of notice though is Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.6(a): “A judge shall accord to every person who has a legal interest in a proceeding, or that person’s lawyer, the right to be heard according to law.”

The other rules flagged largely would appear to be more pertinent to questions about whether it is appropriate for Judge Griffen to hear cases involving the death penalty or not.  Along those lines, the order manages with one noteworthy paragraph to put in stark relief the Commission’s willingness to conclude that the justice may have acted arbitrarily and capriciously and explain why those who would jump to a conclusion about whether Judge Griffen’s conduct was wrongful should not move so hastily:

In acting on such matters involving judges, it is important to consider the well established case law that judges are presumed to be impartial and unbiased and presumptively will act with honesty and integrity in adjudicating cases.  [citations omitted] A personal belief of a judge, even if expressed publicly by word or conduct, is insufficient to overcome this strong presumption of a judge’s impartiality in ruling on matters of law before the court.

Any outcome in this matter will certainly bear watching.  Not only is a special prosecutor involved in the bringing of the charges, but any ultimate resolution of the case would likely eventually have to be heard by a specially-appointed set of replacements for the sitting justices.

Withdrawing a guilty plea is notary-ly easy thing to do.

The pun was, of course, inevitable.  It was also fully intended.  In fact, it is, at least for me, repetitive as back in 2013 I was asked to do a seminar on the ethics of being a notary public — they have their own ethics code — and I called it “Notary-ly Common Topic: The Intersection of Lawyer and Notary Public Ethics.”

I’m writing today about a relatively straightforward criminal case arising out of federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands but that has at least four interesting lawyer ethics percolating under the surface of it.  The decision also has one of the most elegant and timeless statements penned by the district judge authoring the opinion that I’ve read in a federal court opinion.  It is either one of the most useful statements of insight into the human condition or one of the best pieces of universal (but indirect) advice to offer to anyone – including lawyers — or possibly both.

In case you want to stop reading at this point, I’ll just share with you the district judge’s statement which, for many reasons (no matter when you manage to read this) will be timely:

Probably every adult feels that there is some important decision she has made that she wishes she could do over.  But that does not mean she did not make that decision voluntarily and did not know what she was doing at the time.

To be exceedingly candid, I’m also writing this post about this case because an incredible lawyer, and a giant in the field of legal ethics issues, Bill Freivogel, brought the case to my attention and encouraged to me to think I might have something to say about it that would be worth reading.

The case is U.S. v. Li and you can grab the PDF of it here: United States v. Li (D. N.Mariana Is., 2018).  In sum, Li was a notary public.  He managed to mess up a document he was notarizing for a passport application for a minor child, and the application was rejected for that discrepancy.  When folks reassembled to try to fix it and reapply, the father had already flown back home to China.  Despite the fact that it was contrary to the ethics code for a notary public, and despite the fact that the form was requiring him to speak under oath, Li signed the form misrepresenting under oath that the father was physically present the second time when he was not.

It seems clear that Li did this thinking that it was his own mistake that created the problem and that this would fix the error.  How the falsehood came to light is much less clear, but it did and Li was charged with two federal criminal counts related to false statements on a passport application.

A week before the case was set for trial, the parties submitted a plea agreement and proceeded to a change of plea hearing.  At that hearing, Li’s attorney – Holmes – was present as was a more senior attorney from Holmes’ law firm.  The opinion walks through the fairly detailed line of questioning the federal judge presented to Li designed to ensure that the record was crystal clear about the voluntariness of the guilty plea.  These questions solicited many clear answers demonstrating voluntary and knowing decision-making, including Li’s statements that he was fully satisfied with his attorney’s advice and legal representation.

Two months after the guilty plea was entered and about two months before the date set for sentencing, a new lawyer for Li filed a notice of appearance.  About 45 days later, Holmes moved to withdraw from representing Li citing “professional reasons.”  That motion was denied without prejudice based on failure to demonstrate good cause.

Two things then occurred right about a week before sentencing: Li, through the new counsel, filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea and Holmes renewed the motion to withdraw now pointing to statements in a pre-sentence report that were alleged to create a conflict between her firm and Li.  This renewed motion to withdraw was granted.  (The opinion does not provide a ready explanation or insight into what the nugget was in that pre-sentence report that Holmes was forced to surface in order to be let out of the case.)

The order then details what Li argued as his grounds for seeking now to withdraw his guilty plea – it largely involved accusations that his attorneys would not listen to him and coerced him – through time pressures, denigrating his chances at trial, and hammering the potential of a prison sentence of more than a year, even allegedly going so far as to tell Li that he would be sexually assaulted if he had to do prison time.

The district court, however, was entirely unconvinced by Li’s allegations and walked through an objective view of what the attorney time records, and other underlying documents, showed about the events that occurred surrounding the plea negotiations.

Three of ethics issues here are, I think, readily recognizable.

The case is at least an indirect reminder for attorneys that RPC 1.2 doesn’t provide crystal clear guidance on all decision-making as between clients and attorneys but leaves no room for doubt that the decision whether to plead guilty in a criminal matter is always the client’s to make.

The case also is a good, indirect reminder to attorneys who have support staff who are notaries that your obligations under RPC 5.3 can be considered to include having some measures in place to provide reasonable assurance that they know how important complying with the law and their own code of ethics as to notarizing documents can be.  (For the record, there was no indication in the opinion itself that Li had any employment situation where he was working for an attorney.)

Also, the case reveals how sometimes – despite the best efforts of the drafters of the rules – the guidance given to attorneys seeking to withdraw from representation doesn’t always work as designed.  ABA Model Rule 1.16 cmt. [3] tries to provide guidance to attorneys about situations when they should begin by stating only that “professional considerations” require withdrawal and indicating the hope that courts will accept that “statement as sufficient,” but courts do not always go along and end up putting attorneys into a situation where they have to disclose information the client might rather not have aired.

The fourth ethics issue, however, is not as obvious but is, I think, the most interesting and compelling.  The district judge, without explicitly saying so, made clear that if the lawyers had scared Li into pleading guilty “by conjuring the nightmare of sexual assault in prison,” that would have been the kind of thing that could have “put their bar license on the line.”  I’m torn on that front.  Obviously, if the lawyers had actually threatened to cause that to happen or otherwise crossed lines into coercing someone against their will to plead guilty, then I’d agree wholeheartedly.  But, if a lawyer representing someone facing potential jail time, and knowing their client had the chance to take a plea that was likely to result in no jail time at all, engaged their client in discussions about the possibility of going to prison and the realities of the problems in the U.S. prison system including the statistics on violence and sexual assault that happens there on a daily basis, would that really be unethical conduct?

I tend to think the exact opposite.  I think that a lawyer would certainly be entitled under Model Rule 2.1 to discuss as “other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation.”  In fact, depending on the client and the likely prison in play, a lawyer might well be ethically obligated to discuss such issues under Model Rule 1.4(b)’s obligation “to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”

Neither a stalker nor a burglar be.

Matters of the heart have caused people lots of problems throughout the course of human history.  Matters of the heart, when the heart is located inside the chest of a lawyer, work pretty much the same way.

Of course, sometimes stories that, on the surface, seem like matters of the heart might be more fairly characterized as being really about the inability of men to avoid controlling or toxic behavior directed toward the women in their lives (or who used to be in their lives).

This post is about a story of a Pennsylvania lawyer who is now suspended from practice over really bad judgment flowing either from a matter of the heart or from the more toxic issue of controlling behavior.  I don’t know the back story or the people involved in any way so I don’t know which, but I have my suspicions.  The story itself makes for an interesting post (maybe?) over and above just being an example of a lawyer behaving badly because it offers another reminder of how aspects of the ethics rules can apply to a lawyer even when they aren’t practicing law, and it taught me that I apparently do not know the full extent of what can constitute burglary.

If this blog is on your reading list, you likely already have read at least one article about this suspended lawyer (hopefully this one) — but in case you haven’t the suspension flowed from his secretly putting a GPS tracking device on the back of his ex-girlfriend’s car and hiding an audio recording gadget insider her car (under the driver’s seat to be more specific) in order to spy on her in hopes of finding out who she was now dating.

To some extent, being suspended for a year followed by four more years of probation is a secondary problem professionally for this particular lawyer because he also will be serving probation in the criminal system for five years as result of a guilty plea to two felonies: criminal trespass and to something of a violation of a criminal wiretapping statute in Pennsylvania for the same conduct.

Because of the felony convictions, it should certainly come as no surprise that the ethics violations with which he was tagged include a violation of Pennsylvania’s Rule 8.4(b) – conduct involving the commission of a crime reflecting dishonesty.

His suspension was also premised on a violation of Rule 8.4(c) which is simply the general provision prohibiting lawyers from engaging in any conduct involving dishonesty or fraud.  I’ve written in the past about the problematic potential scope of Rule 8.4(c)’s prohibition for lawyers given that it is not in any way actually textually moored to representation of a client or even to conduct related to the practice of law.

This probably would not be the kind of case where a lawyer would get much traction trying to argue that applying that rule to this kind of conduct would amount to overreaching.

As promised above, the other tidbit of note – more just educational for me – is the notion that, although he didn’t plead to the charge, he was also charged with burglary under Pennsylvania law for what he did to his ex-girlfriend.  That’s a new one for me given that while he may have broken into her vehicle, he didn’t actually take anything out of it but instead left something inside of it.

Turns out, under Pennsylvania law, burglary is defined to be entering any building or occupied structure with the intent to commit a crime inside.  So, this must mean that for the charge against him to have been colorable, his ex-girlfriend’s car was inside a garage at the time he put the recording device inside.

So, while there are many lessons to take from the situation described above, hopefully for most of you reading this the most practical one — the one that addresses the thing you are most likely to do that would be bad — is to remember that if you do not regularly practice a particular area of law you probably don’t know as much about it as you think you do.

(Also, though I know you don’t need this reminder, once your significant other moves on, you should too.  And, even if you can’t, don’t stalk them.  Seriously.)

Nebraska demonstrating less patience than Tennessee

Although I live in SEC country, I am a Chelsea FC fan rather than a follower of college football.  So this is not a sly college football reference in my title.  (I am aware that apparently UT lost its first game of the season but have literally no idea whether the Cornhuskers have even played yet in 2018.)  This post title is actually a very short description of the difference in how quickly the Nebraska Supreme Court managed to disbar an attorney who was obviously flouting the rules than did the Tennessee Supreme Court in the last matter about which I wrote.  The less patient approach on display in Nebraska was entirely understandable because the underlying rule being flouted was related to trust accounts and not conflicts.

The now-former lawyer in question – John Nimmer – went from one prior instance of having received a public censure to being disbarred for his next offense in 2018 because he repeatedly commingled funds and used money in client trust accounts to pay an array of personal expenses.  He also managed to get disbarred because his only defense to the charges – which were first pursued in 2016 but covered his banking for more than a decade – was something of an attempt to plead ignorance.  (He also managed a too-cute-by-half variation of something I’ve written about before as apparently having worked for one particular Wisconsin lawyer – failing to also keep records sufficient to fully prove what you did.)

Interestingly, before I tell you all that I will tell you about why the outcome seems so justifiable, it is worth noting that the initial decision against him was not disbarment, it was merely a 1-year suspension followed by 2-years of probation.  Nimmer objected to/appealed that proposal and, ultimately, got disbarment.  (It likely would come as no surprise to anyone who does disciplinary defense to hear that Nimmer was pro se on appeal.)

Also interestingly, unlike your normal trust account violation disciplinary proceeding, this one began when the SEC (no, not that one I referenced earlier, the Securities and Exchange Commission) made a referral in March 2016 to Nebraska bar regulators after gaining access by subpoena to Nimmer’s trust account records and finding much questionable activity.

The SEC’s “review of Nimmer’s trust account transactions revealed that he wrote numerous checks for personal expenses, ranging from rent and child support to
dog boarding and landscaping fees.”

Nebraska bar counsel first asked Nimmer to explain a number of the checks and he declined to do so.  They then issued their own subpoena for his trust account records covering a time period going back more than 10 years to January 1, 2006.  Thereafter, they pursued a formal petition for discipline against him alleging that:

between January 2006 and February 2016, Nimmer wrote personal checks on
his client trust account to 29 different businesses, individuals, and organizations. Additionally, it alleged that on December 20, 2007, Nimmer deposited a $10,000 check from his mother issued to him with the notation “loan” into his client trust
account.

As often happens in pro se disciplinary proceedings, Nimmer first challenged (unsuccessfully) the notion that there was any jurisdiction since bar counsel worked for the Supreme Court and also sought out a requirement that bar counsel should have to be disqualified because Nimmer was going to call him as a witness.  He ultimately got a special counsel assigned to his case, but the dismissal motions were unsuccessful.  Nimmer also tried a number of other procedural “Hail Marys,” including trying to have his trust account records barred from evidence because he was only actually required to keep records going back 5 years.

You can read the 31-page opinion here (N00006179PUB) and the array of transactions that were involved and that Nimmer admitted happened.  But, I’ll end with a quick elaboration on that “ignorance of the law” defense, paired as it was with an attempt to argue that he was acting at all times in good faith.

Essentially, the record was undeniably clear that Nimmer used his trust account like a personal checking account — he repeatedly wrote checks to pay the power company, his internet service provider, to pay for his daughter’s camps and health insurance, to pay for his cell phone service, and even one to pay his Nebraska State Bar dues out of his trust account.

Nimmer attempted to argue that “maybe” he was actually using earned fees he had deposited into the trust account to make these payments but he didn’t exactly offer documentation to support the possibility.  He also argued that the commingling rules were less than clear so he didn’t understand that he couldn’t, for example: receive a loan from his mother for $10,000, deposit that into his trust account, and then use that $10,000 to pay a whole series of personal debts.

Nebraska grabbed language from our nation’s capital to quickly dispatch of such an argument in this situation:

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals explained it well: “If a failure to understand
the most central Rules of Professional Conduct could be an acceptable defense for a charged violation, even in cases of good faith mistake, the public’s confidence in the bar and, more importantly, the public’s protection against lawyer overreaching
would diminish considerably.”  In re Smith, 817 A.2d 196, 202 (D.C. 2003).

Can’t stop, won’t stop. Now … full stop.

I’m really, truly not trying to fall into the habit of only managing one post a week.  As proof, here’s a post about a Tennessee lawyer who couldn’t/wouldn’t follow the rules.

It is a fascinating case study for at least two reasons.  One is that discipline for conflicts of interest is, all things considered, relatively rare and, yet, this lawyer’s failure to recognize and avoid a conflict of interest has now led to disbarment.  Second is that it really wasn’t the conflict of interest that got punished with disbarment it was the lawyer’s violation of another rule I’ve mentioned before: The First Rule of Holes.  “When you are in one, stop digging.”

When you violate that rule, you end up in a hole from which you cannot climb out.  That is the end of the story for Homer Cody.

Cody has now been disbarred by the Tennessee Supreme Court in an opinion released earlier this week.  How did he get there?  Well, here’s the short version: he took on a representation that created a conflict from day one and then, despite the imposition of escalating discipline, refused to comply with court orders saying that he had to withdraw from the representation and then kept representing the clients involved even while suspended.

The slightly longer version?  Well, here goes:

A lawsuit was filed all the way back in 2002 that sought judicial dissolution of a childcare entity and its executive director over alleged self-dealing transactions between the executive director and the entity.  In 2003, that executive director was indicted by a grand jury, and then pled guilty to, two counts of theft from the childcare entity.  Near the end of 2004, Cody entered an appearance in the civil lawsuit as an attorney representing both the childcare entity and its executive director.  Joint clients with an obvious conflict between their interests.  That case ended in a ruling that the executive director had failed in her fiduciary duties to the childcare entity and a judgment entered against her in favor of the receiver  – overseeing the entity now in dissolution – for almost $300,000.  Cody filed a notice of appeal from that ruling again as an attorney for both the entity and the executive director.  Who continued to be two clients with glaringly obvious conflicts between them.

In 2007, counsel for the receiver moved to disqualify Cody and, ultimately, in 2008, our state’s Court of Appeals, ruled that Cody was disqualified from representing either of the clients.  Cody, however, continued to undertake actions representing both clients, a contempt action was pursued, and another Court of Appeals ruling was issued emphasizing that Cody had a conflict and was to refrain from representing the entity or the executive director and sent its ruling to our Board of Professional Responsibility.  The BPR filed a petition for discipline in 2011 and that proceeding ended in a public censure being issued against Cody in March 2012.

Despite that fact, Cody (shovel in hand) continued to file pleadings in court as an attorney for both clients.  This resulted in a second disciplinary petition.  In response to that second disciplinary petition, Cody filed a RICO case in federal court, as attorney for the same two clients, claiming that pretty much everyone involved in the court proceedings against his clients were using the Tennessee judicial system “to steal, embezzle, defraud, and to carry out other illegal activities.”  The pending disciplinary case was amended to bring more charges over the representation in the new federal court case.  That disciplinary case resulted in the imposition of an 180-day suspension of Cody’s license in 2015.

I’m guessing at this point, Dear Reader, you can guess what happens next (if for no other reason than that I sort of told you a few paragraphs up in the short version).  During his 180-day suspension, Cody drafted appellate briefs for the same clients, after their RICO case had been dismissed, and had them sign and file them as if he was not involved.  That resulted in a new disciplinary proceeding and culminated in a new one-year suspension in 2016.  Thereafter, Cody prepared three more appellate briefs for those clients — including a petition for cert with the U.S. Supreme Court (!) during his one-year suspension and, in 2017, was hit with a new two-year suspension.  During the one-year suspension but before the two-year suspension began, Cody went back to the state level trial court where it all started and filed an “Open Refusal to Obey Judicial Orders,” along with one or two other filings (including a challenge to the receiver’s fees and expenses), and then, during the two-year suspension period, he filed a “Motion for Determination of Proper Venue.”

Those acts resulted in Cody being found in criminal contempt and actually sentenced to 30 days in jail earlier this year.  Those acts also brought about yet another disciplinary proceeding against him, which he defended by denying the legitimacy of the orders of the Court suspending him, and that resulted in August 2018 in an order disbarring him from the practice of law.

All in all, his saga is a remarkable story that demonstrates at least three things:

(1) you can dig a pretty deep hole over the course of 14 years;

(2) there has to have been something else going on to explain the public meltdown that this lawyer managed to have after apparently practicing for more than 25 years without receiving any public discipline; and

(3) the BPR can truly be dedicated to the concept of incremental discipline when it wants to be as it is almost as hard to believe that Cody was given 180, 1-year, and then 2-year suspensions in these circumstances before ever being disbarred as it is to believe that he kept going out and getting new shovels.

Making it up as you go (but for a good cause): Texas State Bar Op. 673

There has been something of a trend of late in terms of ethics opinions focusing on variations on the breadth of the duty of client confidentiality and the inconvenience it creates for lawyers who have bought in to the modern trend of sharing and oversharing when online.  There was this opinion from the ABA and then this opinion from the ABA, for example.

The latest opinion in this vein is Professional Ethics Committee for the State Bar of Texas Op. 673.  Except, it is only partially in this vein because, while it starts out heading down the path of explaining how the duty of client confidentiality might prohibit lawyers from being able to do something useful, it swerves away from what would be the likely conclusion in most jurisdictions.

Of course, it does so essentially by making up a justification nearly out of whole cloth but, if you’ve ever participated in, and benefited from, access to any kind of online forum or listserv frequented by lawyers, it reaches a conclusion for which Texas lawyers should be grateful.

The questions addressed in Op. 673 are:

  1.  Does a lawyer violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by seeking advice for the benefit of the lawyer’s client from other lawyers in an online discussion group?
  2. Does a lawyer violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by seeking advice for the benefit of the lawyer’s client through informal, direct consultation with another lawyer in a different firm?

The opinion then goes on to describe arrangements that will be familiar to anyone who has spent anytime on any sort of lawyer listserv or other social media group setting or online forum but also makes the point that lawyers reaching out to pick someone’s brain about an issue or perform “lazy person’s research” can also happen in the “meat space,” offline when one lawyer seeks out another lawyer’s input in a version of informal mentoring.

The Texas opinion squarely flags that the biggest concern for the asking lawyer in such scenarios is protecting the confidentiality of client information.  (Importantly, the opinion also does a nice job of flagging for the answering lawyer the most significant risks for her – potentially creating duties to the asking lawyer’s client or wittingly or unwittingly violating duties to her own other clients by helping the lawyer.)

Nevertheless, the opinion explains that the asking lawyer can proceed even if providing some background information that is likely to identify the client or situation is necessary in order to get the advice without violating the ethics rules as to the disclosure of confidential information.

It is the opinion of the Committee that Rules 1.05(d)(1) and (d)(2) allow a lawyer to reveal a limited amount of unprivileged confidential information to lawyers outside the inquiring lawyer’s law firm, without the client’s express consent, when the inquiring lawyer reasonably believes that the revelation will further the representation by obtaining the responding lawyers’ experience or expertise for the benefit of the client, and when it is not reasonably foreseeable that revelation will prejudice the client.

This is where the Texas opinion is able to rely on two things.  One is a “creative” interpretation of the “implied authorization” aspect of the rule on client confidentiality that most jurisdictions also have.  (Texas Rule 1.05(d)(1)).  The other is a nuance in Texas’s rule that jurisdictions tracking the Model Rule don’t have at their disposal to justify this kind of lawyer-friendly (and not exactly consumer unfriendly) outcome.  (Texas Rule 1.05(d)(2)).

Starting with the second is the easy approach because it really is the most important thing to know to explain the outcome – Texas’s version of RPC 1.6 (which they have numbered as Rule 1.05) contains an exception (d)(2) that allows a lawyer to reveal information that is “confidential” but “unprivileged” when “the lawyer has reason to believe it is necessary to do so in order to ‘carry out the representation effectively.'”

For context, here is the entirety of Texas 1.05(d):

(d) A lawyer also may reveal unprivileged client information:

(1) When impliedly authorized to do so in order to carry out the representation.
(2) When the lawyer has reason to believe it is necessary to do so in order to:
(i) carry out the representation effectively;
(ii) defend the lawyer or the lawyer’s employees or associates against a claim of wrongful conduct;
(iii) respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client; or
(iv) prove the services rendered to a client, or the reasonable value thereof, or both, in an action against another person or organization responsible for the payment of the fee for services rendered to the client.

Now, I could quibble with that word “necessary” and how seeking out assistance from an online discussion forum could ever be “necessary,” but I can admit to being a fan of outcome-determinative analysis when I’m a fan of the outcome.  (To be clear, I have always tried very hard when making use of any kind of online forum to not let any cats out of any bags in terms of actual whos, whats, and wheres.)

The fact that the Texas opinion still involves a “making-it-up-as-you-go” approach though comes through loud and clear by the fact that the opinion has to provide a set of numbered considerations spanning more than a full page to guide lawyers in deciding whether and how much confidential but unprivileged information could be disclosed.  If you want to work through those factors, you can do so at pages 2-4 of the actual opinion itself here.

In any jurisdiction that does not have something like Texas’s Rule 1.05(d)(2) though, getting to this kind of result is a lot more difficult since it involves having to try to push the envelope on the “implied authorization” aspect of Model Rule 1.6(a).

Yet, again, this kind of conduct is likely not anything that a client would complain about and often results in driving down the cost of the representation by gathering the wisdom of a crowd before spending hours on research so… as good a time as any to bring back up again my thoughts on how Model Rule 1.6 ought to be revised.