Speaking of bad facts making bad law…

I’ve seen a number of short pieces around the Internet about the 70-year old Missouri lawyer who has gotten himself suspended for at least six months over a number of acts of misconduct, including (the thing most prominently mentioned) using information that his client improperly obtained by guessing someone else”s password.

There is no question that the facts, as laid out, in the Missouri Supreme Court opinion, justify a suspension and involve a violation of a number of ethics rules.  Specifically, there is no question that the use of the purloined information — payroll records and opposing counsel’s work product — was a violation of Missouri’s Rule 4.4(a) which prohibits the use of a method of obtaining evidence that violates a third party’s legal rights.  In addition, to the extent the tribunal concluded that that the lawyer had essentially threatened a disciplinary complaint against opposing counsel as leverage, it is a fair result to say that there was a violation of Missouri RPC 8.4(d), conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, even though Missouri – unlike Tennessee- does not have an RPC 4.4(a) that specifically prohibits such threats.

But the rest of the ethics charges — all of which take issue with the lawyer not disclosing to the other side that his client had improperly obtained the confidential materials — is, at best, a lazy outcome and, at worst, just wrong, hence the “bad facts making bad law” title.

Unlike Tennessee, Missouri’s RPC 4.4 does not have any application to receipt of documents purposefully sent but by someone not authorized to have them in the first place.  It only addresses inadvertently produced documents.  As the opinion lays out the story, there was nothing inadvertent about this situation.  The lawyer’s client purposefully and intentionally provided the materials to the lawyer.  Nowhere in the opinion does the Missouri court cite to actual ethics rule language that would explain why the lawyer would be required to tell the other side about his client’s improper access to the spouse’s computer.  The closest it gets is when it misquotes language from a comment to its Rule 4.4.  Specifically, the court wrote:

The comment accompanying Rule 4-4.4(a) recognizes that lawyers “sometimes receive documents that were mistakenly sent or procured by opposing parties or lawyers.”  However, when a lawyer knows that he or she has improperly received information, “Rule 4-4.4 requires the lawyer to promptly notify the sender in order to permit that person to take protective measures.”  In this case, Rule 4-4.4 required [the lawyer] to promptly disclose his receipt of the information to Ms. Jones so that appropriate protective measures could be undertaken.

Except, Missouri’s Rule 4.4 most certainly does not require prompt notification to the sender unless the materials were inadvertently produced.  Importantly, the “sent or procured” quote by the court of its Rule 4.4 is just flat wrong.  The actual language of the Missouri rule is “sent or produced.”  The use of “procured” is a particularly unfortunate error because it makes it seem like the rule must contemplate purloined document issues when everything about Missouri’s actual Rule 4.4 is tied to inadvertence.

If Missouri had Tennessee’s version of RPC 4.4 – which requires notification for both inadvertent disclosure and unauthorized disclosure, then Missouri could look to RPC 4.4 and claim notification was required.  Given that the lawyer’s client’s improper access to the spouse’s computer could, for example, expose that client to criminal liability under federal law as a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or the Stored Communications Act (or both), this is not merely an academic quibble.  It is one thing for a lawyer in such a situation to know better than to try to make use of the wrongfully obtained documents; it is another thing to flog the lawyer for failing to blow the whistle on their client’s wrongful conduct — potentially criminal wrongful conduct — by writing an opinion that makes it seem a matter-of-fact conclusion that a lawyer reading RPC 4.4 in Missouri would know they have to do that as well.

Because Missouri has a version of Rule 1.15 that is patterned after the ABA Model Rules, it does have an ethics rule on which it could have hung its justification for saying the lawyer was obligated to notify the opposing counsel about having the purloined materials.  Specifically, it could have pointed to RPC 1.15(d) and (e) as giving guidance:

(d) Upon receiving funds or other property in which a client or third person has an interest, a lawyer shall promptly notify the client or third person. . .

(e) When in the course of representation a lawyer is in possession of property in which two or more persons (one of whom may be the lawyer) claim interests, the lawyer shall keep the property separate until the dispute is resolved. The lawyer shall promptly distribute all portions of the property as to which the interests are not in dispute. Lawyers shall cooperate as necessary to enable distribution of funds that are not in dispute.

Of course, doing that would have required that court to embrace the rationale that Doug Richmond and I have explained in a separate article written quite a few years ago.  Instead, Missouri now adds itself onto the list (along with Nevada) of courts that would rather disregard the plain language of their own Rule 4.4, than admit we’ve got a point.

 

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