A companion piece.

As I inch ever closer to my 400th blogpost here, today’s offering is something of a companion piece to a post I wrote almost exactly 13 months ago that demonstrates what should be an obvious point, what is a very important point in the world of disciplinary defense but much less obvious, and at least one highly curious one.

This post involves, Sherri Jefferson, a Georgia lawyer who has now been disbarred over what was largely the same sort of conduct that got the Pennsylvania lawyer in trouble who was the subject of that earlier post.

I’ll let the headline from The ABA Journal online article – which is what first caught my eye – explain: “Lawyer disbarred after she’s accused of having romantic involvement with client and hiring detective to spy on him.”

It’s a pretty good headline but it omits, as headlines sometimes must for space reasons, the important thing that happened between romance and spying – the client stopped being a client and started dating another woman. This paragraph of the disbarment order gives the expanded details but still in a pretty succinct fashion:

Jefferson represented an individual from 2008 to 2010 in a custody modification action; during the representation, Jefferson and that individual were romantically involved. This relationship led to the filing of a disciplinary matter against Jefferson, but the matter was subsequently dismissed by this Court in 2014. During the pendency of that disciplinary matter, Jefferson’s former client began dating another woman and, following the dismissal of that matter, Jefferson hired a private investigator to conduct an investigation including surreptitious surveillance of the former client, his son, and the other woman. Additionally, Jefferson falsely disparaged the other woman to the woman’s employer, including making false and misleading statements about the custody proceeding.

The important, and obvious, point here being that bad ethical conduct from lawyers driven by jealousy is not exclusively the province of male lawyers. Jefferson also did not make matters any better for herself thereafter by making a number of provably false statements during criminal proceedings that arose after criminal warrants for stalking and defamation were filed against her.

Jefferson also made a strategic decision in the defense of her disciplinary case that tees up discussion of the other important, but less obvious, point, she pled the Fifth.

Now, sometimes that truly is the best (if not the only) option when the conduct is also potentially criminal conduct, but it almost always has damning consequences on the disciplinary side. The order of disbarment discusses in a couple of footnotes how taking the Fifth justified an adverse inference that the disciplinary allegations were essentially true. (These were relegated to footnotes because, by being uncooperative in certain aspects of the proceedings, Jefferson also was the subject of a sanctions order that essentially acted as a default judgment against her.)

Although much ink has been spilled in the past about what it means for disciplinary cases to be “quasi-criminal” in nature when it comes to Fifth Amendment rights, as a practical matter the “quasi” always does more work in that description than “criminal” does and lawyers who sit in judgment of other lawyers tend not to hesitate to draw negative conclusions about a lawyer who invokes the Fifth Amendment in proceedings about lawyer discipline.

And the final point, injected into the mix purely for the curiosity factor is that she apparently has also attempted to draw parallels to how she has been treated to events occurring on the national stage in a way that, I’m just guessing, probably will not carry the kind of weight she thinks.

That same ABA Journal article concludes with a quote from her – that apparently is made in a filing Jefferson has made to seek to stay and vacate the order of disbarment — “Akin to the Russian probe, this case is marred by abuse of prosecutorial misconduct, abuse of discretion and acts of complete denial of due process.”

Akin to the Russian probe … sigh.

But why though?

This past week the Tennessee Supreme Court proposed revisions to the rules of disciplinary enforcement that would transform disbarment into an irrevocable form of discipline in Tennessee and that would extend the potential length of a suspension from 5 years maximum to 10 years maximum.

Which leads me to the highly-technical title of this post: But why though?

Under Tennessee’s current approach, the maximum length of suspension is 5 years, and the only harsher punishment is disbarment. At present, in Tennessee, if you are disbarred it is not a “death penalty” as to your license because you can apply for reinstatement after 5 years has passed.

What is going on that would make anyone think this was a needed change in Tennessee?

I assume that if this change were enacted what it would mean is that some percentage of lawyers who are presently finding themselves disbarred might now instead just end up receiving suspensions in the 6-10 year range and some other percentage of lawyers who are already going to end up disbarred will still be disbarred but will have it be a new “disbarment is forever” standard.

But … why? I admittedly do not have access to all information about what is going on in the world of discipline in Tennessee, but I have some decent insight, and I’m simply not attuned to what the problem is that this seeks to fix.

Lawyers who get disbarred do not just get automatically reinstated after spending 5 years disbarred. They have to apply for reinstatement. They have the burden of proving that being permitted to return to the practice of law will not be detrimental to the public and the profession. Disciplinary counsel has the opportunity to zealously advocate against the requested reinstatement and marshal whatever evidence they can get their hands on to demonstrate why the person involved has not changed sufficiently to be given the privilege to practice law once again.

By the way, that is also how it works if you get a 5-year suspension (or a 3-year suspension or a 1-year suspension). You have to apply to be reinstated; you have to prove the required elements to demonstrate why you should be reinstated. If you can’t, you stay suspended for 6 or 7 or 8 or even 10 years until you can prove you should be able to practice law again. Based on other revisions to the rules not too long ago, that is also how it works even if you only get suspended for 30 days. You still have to get yourself reinstated by way of a petition.

Why doesn’t that work? Why does Tennessee need to add itself to the list of a handful or so other states to have permanent, irrevocable disbarment? Why does Tennessee need to double the length of available periods of suspension up to 10 years?

It has now been more than 10 years since our Court issued its decision in Hughes v. BPR but it certainly knows that it already has the precedent to deny a lawyer reinstatement if it thinks it should not happen even in the face of significant evidence of rehabilitation.

The statistics that are easily accessible also do not seem to indicate anything is horribly awry with the current approach. If you look at the most recent annual report from the TBPR, there were 21 lawyers disbarred, 18 lawyers receiving disciplinary suspensions (which would be anywhere between the 30-day minimum and the 5-year maximum), and 7 lawyers reinstated. If you look at the report for the year before that, there were 23 lawyers disbarred, 28 lawyers receiving suspensions, and 14 lawyers reinstated. The year before that, 23 disbarments, 18 suspensions, and only 5 lawyers managed to get reinstated.

And, also, while I think that what I’ve discussed above is the big and truly weighty question at play here, even if one decided there should be a change, why in the world would it ever make sense to pick a future date when disbarments would become permanent and not indicate that it is for disbarments arising from disciplinary proceedings commenced on or after that date?

The proposed revision would change Section 30.2 of Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9 to read as follows:

30.2. Individuals disbarred on or after July 1, 2020, are not eligible for reinstatement. Individuals disbarred under Rule 9 prior to July 1, 2020, may not apply for reinstatement until the expiration of at least five years from the effective date of the disbarment.

Why inject a questionable level of due process deficiency into this situation by proposing to revise the rule so that people who already have cases in the system would have a different meaning for the outcome of disbarment depending on whether it was complete by June 30, 2020? Lawyers on their way to disbarment are admittedly not sympathetic characters, but if they have begun being investigated and prosecuted under one set of rules, there seems no really good reason to change those rules on them in the middle of the process.

Tales of typos and punctuation problems.

I’ve written once or twice in the past about how questions of punctuation and typographical error can be unimportant when the issue amounts only to pedantry. Of course, punctuation can be very important. The stage phenomenon Hamilton has a good line or two about this involving “My dearest Angelica. With a comma after dearest, you’ve written … My dearest, Angelica” with this particular Schuyler sister noting how it changed the meeting and inquiring whether Alexander intended it.

There are more mundane, less lyrical examples that can be encountered in situations every day. For example, just playing around with punctuation can change entirely the meaning of two paragraphs that only differ by their punctuation:

  • Somehow I managed not to write anything for almost two weeks. I’m sick it happened. I’ll try to do better starting now.
  • Somehow, I managed. Not to write anything. For almost two weeks I’m sick. It happened. Ill! Try to do better. Starting now.

Today’s post hits two topics with nearly nothing in common other than the role that punctuation (or asserted typographical errors) plays in each one.

The ABA Journal directs all of our collective attention to this story of a Florida lawyer who has now been disbarred for breaking into his former law firm and stealing items. The headline of the article reads: “Lawyer disbarred after breaking into former law firm; blamed punctuation problem.” Now, setting aside the fact that the ABA managed not to properly use that semicolon there in that headline, the headline is one that seems like it is designed just to make you click through to see how in the world a punctuation problem could be a defense to breaking and entering.

Go ahead and click if you want, but [SPOILER ALERT] it’s not even close to a viable defense. I’d call the role of punctuation in that case mere pedantry but I think that might be insulting even to pedants. You can read more of the details in the order disbarring the lawyer here, but the flimsy reed to support some of his conduct apparently was that because his former law firm had incorporated its professional name – Barak Law Group, PA – without putting periods after the “P” and the “A,” then he could incorporate his own entity by the same name but with “P.A.” That, apparently, would give him ownership and domain over the assets of his former law firm.

He proceeded to hold himself out in public as the owner of the firm and to file hundreds of notices of liens as well as some other public record or court documents to try to cause money to be diverted in his direction.

Of course, the lawyer in question also must have come to realize that his magical argument about the missing periods wasn’t as powerful as he hoped. One of the pieces of misconduct spelled out against him in the proceedings involved surveillance video driving home the point that his punctuation arguments weren’t opening doors for him as he had hoped:

The video allegedly showed Brady and his brother backing a truck up to the Barak firm, tying a rope from the truck to the front door and using the car to rip the door open. The video showed Brady and his brother removing a safe and the computer server, Barak testified.

In the end, he got what Florida characterizes as permanent disbarment, and the article explains that a big factor in that was a complete lack of remorse for the misconduct. Or, more lyrically as the article spells out, he “clings to his justification for his actions with a ferocity that is quite disturbing.”

Shifting gears from playing with punctuation to quickly admitting and fixing a mistake in the form of a typographical error, the Tennessee Supreme Court put out an order yesterday that adopted a new revision to what was already a pretty brand new rule approving the concept of collaborative law practice.

The rule is Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 53. The fix had to be made to Section 16 of that rule and it involves replacing the word “record” with the word “agreement.” Now, strictly speaking, that isn’t exactly what I think of when I think of a typographical error. Having the rule say “agerment” or “egreement” would be a typographical error. Going with “record” when you meant to use “agreement” seems much more like just an error. But quibbling about that would truly be pedantry.

Without poring over the entirety of Rule 53, it is difficult to see what sort of difference it makes to have referenced a “record” rather than an agreement in the provision, but, I’ll paste it below so you can guess for yourself if you’d like:

Section 16. Confidentiality of Collaborative Family Law Communication. A collaborative family law communication is confidential to the extent agreed to by the parties in a signed record agreement. Evidence of conduct or statements made in the course of a collaborative family law proceeding shall be inadmissible to the same extent as conduct or statements are inadmissible under Tennessee Rule of Evidence 408.

I’m really only including reference to it because I wrote a little bit about this rule when it was adopted back in April 2019, and I don’t believe i raised one thought that I had about it at that time.

The concept of collaborative lawyering – which at least under the Tennessee rule is now embraced exclusively in the context of domestic relations law – is in some ways antithetical to a number of recognized aspects of the practice of law and in other ways is just something of an expansion of the lawyer as intermediary rule that we still have in Tennessee (RPC 2.2).

Now, the ABA long ago jettisoned Model Rule 2.2 but Tennessee is one of two U.S. jurisdictions to still have it. If the reference isn’t striking any bells for you, it is the rule that applies:

when the lawyer provides impartial legal advice and assistance to two or more clients who are engaged in a candid and non adversarial effort to accomplish a common objective with respect to the formation, conduct, modification, or termination of a consensual legal relation between them.

Thus, aspects of the role that lawyers play in a collaborative lawyering arena can be thought of a bit like if two different lawyers were engaged in a joint venture for the purpose of serving two clients as intermediaries. But, admittedly, that analogy is imperfect at best.

[P.S. I’m fully invoking Muphry’s Law here in advance of any errors anyone spots in this post.]

Nearly four years later… and I’m making that James Bond reference this time.

So, if any of you are still around these parts after I’ve gone some 12 days without writing any content, then you are in for me dredging someone up that I previously wrote about on June 30, 2015. An attorney named Rodger Moore.

Rodger Moore. And he was suspended for the practice of law for conduct that involved stealing adult beverages (wine) and also stealing the oil of olives. You know… olives… the garnish that goes in a martini.

I guess back in the halcyon days of this venture I considered myself above making a James Bond reference? Well, I’m four years older now and don’t consider myself above much of anything I guess. So…here goes.

Rodger Moore is no longer licensed to bill.

Also, Roger Moore was not the best Bond, but this Rodger Moore was not the best lawyer.

The need for just a bit of “dry” humor for today’s post is in order because nothing else about the story is humorous. And, in fact, while not doing so in a fashion that is at all effective for his case, Mr. Moore raises a topic in the press that is not deserving of being milked for humor of any sort — the problem of depression in our profession.

You (like me) may have seen the story in The ABA Journal about the fact that after previously being suspended for failure to disclose certain pieces of his criminal past, Mr. Moore has now been disbarred for trying to charge over $10,000 to a client he had promised to represent for free. If you’d care to read the full Ohio opinion disbarring him from practice, you can get it here.

In short-form version, a woman who qualified for legal aid representation going through a divorce agreed to switch lawyers to Moore, after Moore sent an email saying he would represent her for free. Shortly thereafter, he sent her an invoice for $9,500 but then told her she didn’t have to pay that but that he was going to seek to have the court award his fee against her husband. He never did that but did send her an $11,000 promissory note and seek to have her sign that. Eventually, he had to bow out of her case because of his suspension from practice (but not until first trying to appear in court for her the day after he was suspended). He then got an attorney he shared office space with to take over the representation. That lawyer confirmed to her that he was providing the services for free but, ultimately, filed a lawsuit against her, representing Mr. Moore’s firm, seeking to force her to pay pursuant to the promissory note.

Based on his past history, his failure to appear on his own behalf in the disciplinary case, and the fact that he tried at the eleventh-hour to proffer up his license to retire or resign from practice rather than being disciplined, the Ohio Supreme Court decided to permanently disbar him.

In a real plot twist, Mr. Moore has communicated extensively with The ABA Journal as their article reveals and shared with them a draft letter that he was thinking about sending to the Ohio Supreme Court to complain about how he was treated.

Now, I’m fortunate enough that I do not suffer from depression. As I’ve revealed before anxiety is my issue. There is no question that problems with depression are rampant in our profession and little doubt that mental health issues continue to be stigmatized, hidden, and not treated effectively when it comes to lawyers.

I don’t have the necessary clinical training to know the first thing about whether Mr. Moore’s narrative could be explained by depression but I do know that the opinion reveals that he continued to practice while suspended for a pretty significant period of time, represented himself, and that both of those facts likely played a role in his ultimate disbarment. Both of those facts are the kind of things that are also not inconsistent with side effects of depression.

Mr. Moore may not be a very good messenger for the underlying message of the continued need to preach about the awareness of mental health issues, and his claimed beef that the disciplinary process should take depression into account as a mitigating factor misses the mark because nearly all states do – through application of the ABA Standards for Lawyer Misconduct – take mental health issues into account.

But he is, albeit maybe just inadvertently, a good messenger for making an important, and hard, point. Those kinds of proceedings can only take such things into account if the lawyer is able to disclose them so that they can be considered. Mr. Moore pretty clearly didn’t disclose any issues with depression at the time of the proceedings themselves but, because of the nature of such things and, if he was representing himself, if he really was suffering from untreated depression he might not have been able to bring himself to do so.

Any lawyer interested in reading up on issues of attorney wellness can now find a variety of good resources online. Perhaps the most recent report issued by a state bar comes out of Virginia and you can read that one here if you are so inclined.

Discipline for entities? Not the answer to any relevant future questions.

It appears somehow that life and practice left me with nothing to post for more than a week now. If I have any readers left, today’s post will be a relatively quick one.

I managed to write a couple ofposts now about one topic that was covered at the APRL mid-year meeting in Las Vegas earlier this year. In keeping with the spirit of not having things that happen in Vegas stay in Vegas this time around, Jayne Reardon a Chicago lawyer who participated in a different panel discussion has put out a new post about the topic of law firm (or entity) regulation over at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism blog, 2Civility. You can read it here.

Now, I do not disagree that aspects of the trend of entity regulation that is taking place with respect to law firms in other countries may have some utility here in the states IF we were to remove barriers to how lawyers and people without law licenses could work together to practice law. Until that happens, it simply isn’t something that is helpful to addressing actual issues. And particularly not if the focus is on discipline.

As the article does acknowledge, the disciplinary rules already provide a means for having members of management and partners in law firms on the hook for discipline in certain circumstances through RPC 5.1. I consider that tool to be more than enough regulation from the disciplinary side of things for many of the examples that Jayne offers in her article to be addressed.

That being said, I absolutely agree that if we could start to see movement toward a more proactive system — like the PMBR course that Jayne discusses that is being implemented in Illinois – then I’d be all for exploring how to move toward a regulatory framework that looks more toward regulation of the entities in which many lawyers practice than merely targeting individual attorneys for discipline.

But, we don’t. We live in a world in which individual attorneys get targeted for discipline. So, today, I’d suggest we all take some time to listen to what this recently disbarred attorney has to say today.

Friday Follow Up: Despite “Full Stop,” lawyer still might not stop.

Last year, I wrote about the curious case of a Tennessee lawyer who demonstrated that while it is difficult to get disbarred over a conflict, it is not impossible. You do have to try really, really hard though.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the lawyer’s Quixotic continuing violation of the First Rule of Holes had at least one more wrinkle to it as the Tennessee Court of Appeals revealed in an opinion issued yesterday.

In addition to the all of the various activities that the lawyer in question continued to pursue, despite having been suspended from the practice of law, mentioned in the order of disbarment entered last year, there was one other pretty remarkable one that didn’t get discussed in that order.

In November 2017, the lawyer filed a petition for contempt against the receiver and a number of attorneys back in the original 2002 case at the trial court purporting to act as a pro se party. As disciplinary counsel across the country will gladly tell you, one frustrating fact of life even after disbarring a lawyer is that the lawyer can still file lawsuits representing themselves – and they often do against those that they believe wronged them in the disciplinary process. The problem for this lawyer though was that he wasn’t actually a party to the litigation, just prior counsel of record, and he didn’t undertake any sort of filing to seek to intervene and be made a party in the underlying litigation.

The relatively short appellate opinion issued yesterday details that the trial court astutely figured out that this was a problem and that the lawyer’s conduct was “subterfuge to circumvent his suspension from the practice of law.” It also succinctly addresses and rejects the “somewhat perplexing” arguments the lawyer continued to make on appeal to justify his conduct. Perhaps tellingly in trying to determine whether this will be the last of the efforts, the lawyer attempted in the appeal of that matter to argue that the orders of the Tennessee Supreme Court suspending him from practice were not valid.

The saddest part of that whole story still seems to be that, prior to this more than 15-year period of losing the plot over this one piece of litigation, the attorney had no prior disciplinary problems.

Tennessee, of course, is not alone in having these kinds of stories. In fact, you can go read about a very remarkable new one out of Pennsylvania here if you so desire.

That lawyer is a former state legislator with a clean prior disciplinary record over many years who has now been suspended from practice for 2 years over what the ABA Journal highlights was an inability “to take no for answer.” As the 46-page report that originally recommended a 5-year suspension explains pretty exhaustively, the underlying case that this lawyer refused to let die involved a client seeking less than $4,000 in damages who apparently was willing to ratify the litigiousness as a matter of “principle” but has now had to file bankruptcy.

There are many lessons that can be learned from the things that lawyer did wrong. While the most fundamentally important lesson might well be the need to have a sense of proportionality, I’d say (with all due apologies to Memphis’s own Justin Timberlake), that the story could be made more catchy if set to music and called “Can’t Stop Appealing.”

Not all who wear capes are heroes.

This really is just too absurd not to write about.  The absurd story commanding my fingers to tap these keys today involves a lawyer who managed to blow some significant aspects of the fundamentals of being an ethical lawyer.  You may have seen the ABA Journal online story about the now-disbarred lawyer whose absurd story is commanding my fingers to type entitled: “Former lawyer who portrayed Excuseman pleads guilty to client theft.”  If not, you can take a quick look at it (and even watch the bizarre montage video of his cosplay/hacky stand-up/performance art in a really, really bad costume) at that link immediately above.

(*Adult subject matter warning, some of the “comedy” in the video is pretty blue, but it’s the stuff that is weirdly done by some other person who is included in the video for no obviously discernible reason and she seems to be reading from printed pages?)

What the ABA Journal article doesn’t exactly do for you is make absolutely plain the timing of the events.  Several years before this gentleman ended up getting disbarred, he was doing . . . whatever this thing was . . . some combination of bad stand-up comedy or bad performance art . . . that involved portraying this, “Excuseman,” character who …. I give up.  I watched the video at the link and I can’t make heads or tails of the point.  I mean it was obviously a cry for help, but I can’t figure out what he thought the point of doing it was.  He did spend some real money on pursuing his cosplay dreams and, as it turns out, given the timing of the events it is quite likely he funded the folly with some of the money that he stole from clients. 

After first being temporarily suspended, he was disbarred in Illinois in 2015 as a result of his conduct in settling cases of his clients without their consent and pocketing the settlement proceeds.  He is back in the news now because he has pled guilty to felony theft arising out of that same conduct.

And, yet, remarkably, the thing about the current version of the story that hits me hardest in terms of dramatic, nigh poetic, irony is it now feels like the person who truly needs to offer a good excuse for their conduct is the prosecutor who ended up agreeing to the plea deal this guy obtained: 

As a Chicago Tribune article linked in the ABA Journal story explains:

Margolis was initially charged with 36 felony counts of theft, theft by deception, misappropriation of financial institution property, continuing a financial crimes enterprise and forgery.  But in a plea agreement with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to a single theft count.
He faces up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of $25,000 at his sentencing next June.

Apparently, the total amount swindled from clients was as much as $1.1 million.  The various articles also indicate that, in the disciplinary proceedings, he was hit with a large restitution order and was separately hit with a large judgment in a legal malpractice case, but the existence of those judgments and awards doesn’t necessarily translate to those dollars ever making it into the hands of those wronged clients.

The articles also indicate that the disbarred lawyer now lives in California and is pursuing a career as a screenwriter.  Somehow I don’t imagine Excuseman will be showing up as a character in the fourth Avengers film….so I’m guessing that if those judgments haven’t already been satisfied, they won’t be getting paid in full any time soon.

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.

That escalated … but not all that quickly.

You’ve likely already read something this week about the Florida lawyer who was disbarred last month as the culmination of his “cumulative and escalating misconduct,” so I don’t know that I have anything truly unique to offer about the situation.

But because I so clearly remember talking about the first event in his series of bad behavior in seminars I did about 8 years ago, I feel compelled to write about his disbarment.

Back in 2010, an opinion came out that suspended Robert Ratiner for 60 days over an incident involving a highly aggressive and inappropriate reaction to another lawyer putting a sticker onto his laptop during a deposition.

That case garnered some substantial legal media attention because the Florida Supreme Court described Ratiner’s conduct as something that ought to be viewed in professionalism courses to teach lawyers how not to behave.  In that incident which happened in 2007, Ratiner responded to the other lawyer’s placement of the exhibit sticker by first trying to physically run around the table to where the lawyer was and then, instead, forcefully leaned over the table, angrily yelled at the other lawyer, and through the wadded up sticker at him.

Between that incident and the latest, Ratiner received a three-year suspension in 2015 flowing from more litigation behavior evidencing problems both with inter-personal skills and with recognizing and respecting physical boundaries.  In that case, Ratiner first called opposing counsel a “dominatrix” during a document review session and, on the following day, tried to grab a document away from her which prompted the involvement of a security guard.  That event happened in October 2009.

The February 2018 order of disbarment (which you can read here), unlike the prior two incidents, involved conduct inside the courtroom.  Ratiner was accused of loudly kicking the table of other counsel during a hearing, saying “lie, lie, lie” during the cross-examination of one of his law partners, and wrinkling and throwing documents in court.

The ethics rule Ratiner ran afoul of is Florida’s slight variation on the traditional Model Rule 8.4(d) about not engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.  That rule in Florida reads:  “A lawyer shall not engage in conduct in connection with the practice of law that is prejudicial to the administration of justice, including to knowingly, or through callous indifference, disparage, humiliate, or discriminate against litigants, jurors, witnesses, court personnel, or other lawyers.”

Perhaps remarkably, the initial proposed discipline for this event was another 3 year suspension rather than disbarment.  The Florida Supreme Court decided, however, that disbarment was required.

As the Florida Supreme Court explained:

Ratiner has denied the existence of such objectionable, disrespectful conduct over the years, even in the face of videotaped evidence and witness testimony. His argument or belief that said conduct constitutes the zealous representation of his clients is completely unacceptable.

[snip]

In cases where lawyers have previously been disciplined for engaging in misconduct of a similar nature, the Court has generally taken an incremental approach in imposing discipline, increasing the severity of discipline in each instance.

[snip]

Ratiner’s intentional and egregious misconduct continues to demonstrate an attitude that is wholly inconsistent with professional standards, and there is no indication that he is willing to follow the professional ethics of the legal profession.

Other than what is set out in the various opinions, I do not know anything more about this lawyer’s situation.  Although none of the opinions include anything to clearly signal underlying, treatable problems plaguing this lawyer,  this certainly feels like a sad story that has issues of lawyer wellness at its heart.

It also involved a pattern of conduct spread out over a fairly long time (though not as long as it feels at first when you have 10 years elapsing between the sticker-throwing incident that prompted the first, short suspension and the disbarment) when you think about it in terms of “escalation.” Ratiner practiced law for 28 years before being disbarred.  Almost 4 years passed between the deposition sticker row and the table-kicking courtroom incident.

Nevertheless, it’s as good a reason as any to remind people in our profession to add this report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well Being to your reading pile and to actually read it.  Particularly, when news in the world of lawyering brings developments like this shooting — a situation which I would say truly involves quick and very scary escalation — and the notion that this odious lawyer is out there representing our profession to the public.