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.

Preparing for disbarment.

The panel I was fortunate enough to participate in at the meeting of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers in Vancover earlier this month has received a very good write up appearing in a Bloomberg Law publication.  You can go read it here.  We talked about a number of things other than the looming GDPR deadline, but that is what is the focus of the article.  (I do promise to write more about GDPR issues before that May 2018 deadline rolls around, but not today.)

One of the very good panel presentations I had the chance to observe at the APRL mid-year meeting involved representing lawyers in disbarment cases and how difficult it can be to manage your client when you know what’s coming – they are going to be disbarred – but they do not yet realize that’s the future (or they are still struggling mightily to convince themselves it will play out differently.)  There are certainly lawyers who deserve to be disbarred, but even those lawyers, if they’ve hired a lawyer for their matter, deserve the best advice and guidance their own lawyer can provide them about their situation.  It was a very good panel discussion and offered some good insight about the kind of skill sets lawyers who handle such matters need to possess.

Last week was a pretty big week in Tennessee for removing lawyers from the rolls as the Tennessee Supreme Court issued two opinions disbarring two lawyers in largely different scenarios.  The two prominent things they have in common are: (1) as with lots of disbarment scenarios there were conversions of client funds from trust in the mix of problematic conduct; and (2) they both involved what should have been viewed as quite obviously doomed arguments to try to have an order of disbarment be made retroactive to a much earlier date.

One of the things that lawyers representing lawyers ought to recognize – and that was at least something of an implicit theme in parts of the panel discussion – is that, sometimes, the best representation you can provide involves helping your client get disbarred as quickly as possible.  In jurisdicitons where disbarment is permanent, that isn’t necessarily true at all.  But, in jurisdictions like Tennessee, where a lawyer can apply for reinstatement even after being disbarred, but cannot do so until at least five years has passed, getting to disbarment quickly can be incredibly important.  (And, to be clear, I have no insight into the handling of this particular case.  The lawyer for the lawyer might have been trying to do everything possible in that regard and might have even made it perfectly clear to the lawyer client that the price of continued appeal was that the disbarment clock was not going to start for many years.)

One of the two opinions – likely quite rightly – describes the conduct of that lawyer as seeming to be “more bungling than nefarious” so this post will focus instead on the case that pretty clearly drips with nefariousness.  You can, of course, go read the full opinion here, but here’s a very quick and dirty, bullet point version of the wrongdoing:

  • The lawyer convinced someone to give him more than $5 million for a financial venture, promised the funds would be held in escrow and not moved without the person’s permission, and promised payouts to the person from the venture to begin within 30 days.
  • The lawyer did not keep the funds in the manner promised, made no payouts, only returned $1 million of the deposited funds, never provided an accounting to the person of what happened to the money, pulled those funds out for a variety of purposes, and then falsified accounting records filed with a court to show the money was still in trust when it wasn’t.
  • The lawyer defied a court order requiring transfer of whatever funds were still in the trust account to the Clerk of Court for holding and instead directed the bank to transfer those funds to a bank account of an employee of his law firm.
  • At around the same time, the lawyer took a $1,500 retainer from a client. wrote one letter, and then stopped communicating with the client, and didn’t refund the money.
  • A year before those situations, the lawyer separately got a payment of $5,000 from a client, did very little work, and then stopped communicating with the client altogether and ignored counsel for the opposing party, and did not refund the client’s money.
  • Later, after a temporary suspension had been entered and while on disability inactive status (NB: the only apparent claimed defense for any of the above hinged on a claim to have suffered a head injury in an attack involving being hit on the head with a metal pipe.), the lawyer worked as an assistant for another attorney (NB: back at a time when in TN we did not have the “can’t sweep the floor” rule I wrote about here.) and scammed $10,000 out of one of that attorney’s clients based on false statements that the attorney wanted the payments.

I mean, if you have a decent amount of experience with the disciplinary system, you know the end of this story once you’ve gotten up to speed with the facts:  That’s the tale of a lawyer who will be disbarred.

It’s also the tale of a lawyer who will have a very, very hard time ever being able to be reinstated to the practice of law in the future and whose best hope of reinstatement ever coming to fruition likely turns as much on what they do during the disbarment proceedings as what they do to rehabilitate themselves and become a different person over the following five years.

This is also the story of a lawyer who needed someone to remind him that there are things you can do on hills besides die on them.

If that kind of reminder was given in the form of legal advice, it certainly wasn’t followed.  Instead, a really big hill was located.

The primary argument pursued on the appeal of the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court was that the date of disbarment should have been made retroactive back some 6 to 7 years earlier.  Setting aside just the pure legal flaws associated with trying to argue that the concept of disbarment (rather than suspension) can be made retroactive to a period of ongoing temporary suspension, the act of pushing this argument in this case required someone to stand in front of the Court and ask it to enter an order of disbarment for the above conduct but agree that the lawyer could immediately turn around and apply for reinstatement.

Hope may spring eternal and all that, but that’s such an obviously untenable position that I would have hoped no lawyer would build an entire appeal around it.

In the end, as indicated above, this is the story of a lawyer that likely has no realistic chance at ever being reinstated, but, by persisting on appeal long after the ghost should have been given up (and while having been sidelined from practice for the last 7+ years), any effort at reinstatement cannot be pursued until 2023.

 

 

Husband can’t control his wife, gets disciplined.

Sometimes titles for posts are tough to come up with, sometimes they are far too easy.  This is one of the latter and is offered both with a spirit of tongue-in-cheek silliness and because it is a truly perfect seven-word summary of a recent disciplinary case of note.

It is, of note, at least for discussion purposes, because it appears to be: (1) the right outcome; and (2) a quintessential example of the harm that my state, Tennessee, seeks to prevent through the existence of a very specific, black-letter rule.  Despite that, I’d still like to explain why I happen to think that the Tennessee rule, in particular, is still too harsh and the wrong public policy approach.

The case comes out of Illinois and involves a public censure handed down earlier this month.  The ABA Journal online wrote an article about it a couple of days ago but here’s the pithier description of events published by the Illinois disciplinary authorities:

Mr. Niew, who was licensed in 1972, was censured. His wife, Kathleen Niew, an Illinois lawyer, was disbarred in 2013 for misappropriating $2.34 million belonging to a client who she represented in a real estate matter. After her disbarment, Mr. Niew failed to ensure that his wife no longer maintained a presence in their law office and he also failed to supervise his associate, to prevent that associate from aiding Ms. Niew in the unauthorized practice of law.

The ABA Journal piece points out a bit more detail, explaining that the wife was disbarred in November 2013 but kept coming into the law offfice she had shared with her husband multiple days a week until June 2014.  You can get the highly unfortunate details of the wife’s wrongdoing at the ABA Journal piece.  (Spoiler:  financial wrongdoing.)

The reason that the husband’s role in the wife continuing to come into the office was, itself, a disciplinary problem is that Illinois has a Supreme Court Rule, Rule 764b, that bars a lawyer who has been disbarred or suspended from the practice of law for at least six months from maintaining a presence in any office where law is practiced.  That Illinois rule also imposes a direct duty on other lawyers affiliated with the disbarred or suspended lawyer to stake steps to insure that the rule is complied with.

This kind of rule, which we also have in our ethics rules in Tennessee, is one that I and other Tennessee lawyers have described to people as a rule that means, if you’ve been disbarred or suspended, you can’t even push a broom in a law office as a way of trying to make a living.

In Tennessee, over the objections of the Tennessee Bar Association, our Supreme Court put such a prohibition housed in our rules as RPC 5.5(h).  It acts similarly to the Illinois rule by completely barring involvement in anything surrounding the practice of law for disbarred or suspended lawyers, but it is solely focused on the other lawyers involved and is actually even more harsh than the Illinois rule in two respects.

The Tennessee rule reads:

(h) A lawyer or law firm shall not employ or continue the employment of a disbarred or suspended lawyer as an attorney, legal consultant, law clerk, paralegel or in any other position of a quasi legal nature.

It is harsher than its Illinois counterpart, first, because it applies (on its face) with respect to a lawyer suspended for any period of time not just for six months or more.  Arguably even where a lawyer has been suspended for only 30 days or, possibly, even when they are subject to merely an administrative suspension.  Second, it is harsher because it is not just limited to a prohibition on being physically present in a law office but applies to any employment of such a person by a lawyer or law firm.

In Illinois, for example, the public policy objections I have to such a harsh rule might be less pointed beccause the ability to work from home or otherwise remotely be employed to perform certain tasks could be a saving grace against the otherwise absolute barrier to opportunities for lawyer rehabilitation.  But not so in Tennessee.

While the Niew Illinois case that has gotten some attention certainly appears to demonstrate the right outcome for its circumstances, I still think rules like Tennessee’s are far too harsh.  Problems posed by the classic scenarios that such rules seek to prohibit can otherwise be addressed through provisions in RPC 5.5 that make it unethical for a lawyer to assist someone else in the unauthorized practice of law.

It seems that there ought to be exceptions to such an absolute prohibition; exceptions that it would be hard for reasonable people to argue against.  One could readily construct a hypothetical involving a lawyer who gets herself suspended because of problems associated with the handling of client funds or other deficiencies in their ability to handle the business aspects of the practice of law, but who might be an incredibly gifted researcher and writer.  Seems unduly harsh to foreclose that person’s ability to continue to contribute and benefit clients of other lawyers through performing such work for other lawyers with no access to client funds or even to the clients in question while rehabilitating themselves on their deficiencies.

At present, there simply is not.  The only potential route to rehabilitiation that could be available in Tennessee, apropos if for no other reason than our being called “the Volunteer state,” is that it does look like a disbarred or suspended lawyer could take on such assignments for free.

I Dowd that very much.

Last week was a pretty eventful week in the area where politics and the law overlaps, and an initially bizarre turn of events that was made more bizarre by subsequent claims injected some questions of legal ethics into events on the national stage again.

What I’m talking about is all stuff you’ve likely already read about.  In short story form, it goes like this: the news of the guilty plea of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI, followed shortly thereafter by an incredibly-unwise-seeming Tweet by the current occupant of The White House that was quickly discussed by others on-line as amount to direct incriminating evidence of obstruction of justice by that current occupant, followed then by claims that the current occupant of The White House didn’t actually write that Tweet and that, instead, the Tweet was drafted by one the current occupant of The White House’s personal lawyers, John Dowd.

Now, what do I believe in my heart of hearts happened.  That’s easy.  I’m a staunch believer in Occam’s Razor, so I believe that the same old man who has consistently, inappropriately used his Twitter account to say stupid things, spew vitriol, and retweet white supremacists and Islamiphobes tweeted something without thinking it through, and did so either without consulting with his counsel or simply with disregard for legal advice he was given about Tweeting about such things.  After that, I believe that one of his lawyers, fully recognizing just how problematic the contents of the Tweet were for his client, has decided to try to reduce the impact of the client’s admission by claiming that he was actually the author because that has, in turn, allowed him to claim to have been mistaken about what his client knew at various points in time.

I’m not writing this to claim to be the end-all-be-all on this line of reasoning actualy, but to address two things that I have seen others write about this situation that have bugged me.  Those sentiments are: (1) that it couldn’t have been written by the lawyer, Dowd, because the lawyer wouldn’t incorrectly say “pled” instead of “pleaded,” and (2) that if Dowd is lying about having been the one who wrote the Tweet then he ought to be disbarred.

I think both of those sentiments amount to hogwash.

As to the first one, I’m a lawyer – and I like to think I’m a fairly decent one – and I prefer to use “pled.”  I’ve seen people point to the AP Stylebook on “pleaded” versus “pled,” and I’m also well aware that Bryan Garner insists that “pleaded” is the proper usage.  Nevertheless, I fall into the camp of lawyers like the King & Spalding lawyer quoted back in this ABA Journal piece on its usage, who believe it is the better term to use to indicate the past tense verb form, and would certainly use it even in real-life writing.  It is not unfathomable that Dowd might fall into that camp as well.  Further, it is damn sure the better term to use on Twitter where character limits matter greatly.

As to the second one, there would definitely be an ethics violation or two (or three) for which Dowd could be charged with violating if he is lying about being the author of the Tweet in question in order to protect his client.  Nevertheless, to jump to the notion that the appropriate discipline for that would be disbarment is a bit silly.

A lawyer who would lie about the authorship of a client’s Tweet that could otherwise be an admission of a crime would run afoul of a couple of obvious rules, such as RPC 8.4(c) and RPC 4.1(a).  The ABA version of those rules respectively provide as follows:

Rule 8.4:  Misconduct

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

(c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

Rule 4.1: Truthfulness in Statements to Others

In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall not knowingly:

(a) make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person.

The lawyer could also be subject to a charge of violationg RPC 7.1 which people often forget does not only apply to advertisements.  The ABA version of that rule provides:

Rule 7.1: Communications Concerning A Lawyer’s Services

A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.

In this sort of context, an interesting question could be raised about whether the lawyer would also have violated RPC 3.4(a).  The ABA version of that rule provides:

Rule 3.4: Fairness to Opposing Part and Counsel

A lawyer shall not:

(a) unlawfully . . . alter . . . a document or other material having potential evidentiary value.

But, the idea that such an offense or offenses by Dowd would be punishable by disbarment is a bit silly.  A quick review online of publicly-available information shows that Dowd has never previously been the subject of any public discipline.  He’s been practicing for 50 years without even receiving a public censure.  Unless he managed to hire a lawyer to represent him who has been as sloppy as the lawyers folks associated with the current administration have hired to defend them, then I can’t imagine that outcome coming about if any disciplinary case were ever brought against him.

And, on that subject, given Dowd’s other missteps along the way in this high-profile setting, it weirdly is a bit more difficult to rule out the possibility that he actually was the one who exercised the poor judgment of creating the content of, and presumably even sending, that Tweet for his client.

What’s in a name?

For example, the folks behind the popular Radiolab podcast also launched a spin-off podcast last year about the U.S. Supreme Court called “More Perfect.”  The reason for naming it that, of course, is that it almost assuredly a reference to the famous line in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

But today it seems a funny/ironic name because the U.S. Supreme Court managed to make a pretty bad mistake that is being reported on now and that likely added some real stress into the life of a lawyer whose only crime was having almost the same name as another lawyer.

You can read about the story itself, and find links to other outlets reporting on the story, at the ABA Journal online, but the short version is that the U.S. Supreme Court intending to suspend and potentially disbar a Christopher P. Sullivan of Vermont instead suspended and issued show cause why disbarment should not occur to a Christopher P. Sullivan of Boston, Massachusetts.  The Vermont Sullivan’s middle name was Paul and he had already been disbarred in Vermont after being involved in a fatal automobile accident and pleading guilty to a DUI.  The Massachusetts Sullivan’s middle name is Patrick.

If you do the math, you will find that the Sullivan who was wrongfully sullied ended up with 15 days passing between being suspended and the U.S. Supreme Court fixing its mistake and reinstating him.  Presuming he was aware of and dealing with fixing the Court’s mistake, I imagine that was a long 2 weeks for that gentleman.

But, in terms of a larger lesson to be learned, I think the lesson is that we all need to be more deliberate rather than more perfect in what we do.  I can’t help but think that a more deliberate review of information on the Court’s part would have avoided the “mistaken identity” error in the first place.

I like to think that most errors I make are ones that, upon reflection, I could have avoided had I been more deliberate in the first place.  I reckon you might say the same about yourself, so …

It doesn’t all even out in the Walsh.

Selecting just the right item to write about is not easy.  This is not going to be an instance of accomplishing it.  This is going to be an instance of writing something just because I truly find the outcome astounding (or at least I found the outcome astounding when I first read a blurb about the situation, but now having read the full Court opinion I’m less astounded).

A little less than a week ago, the Wisconsin Supreme Court released an opinion in which it accepted a lawyer’s effort at consenting to the revocation of his law license.  An outcome that is, as I understand Wisconsin procedure, technically not a disbarment, but also not quite the same thing as the surrender of a law license that we have here in Tennessee.

The headlines/blurbs I encountered as a first way of hearing about the story were of the Law360 variety — Atty’s Scanty Records Preclude Client Repayment, Court Says.   The disheartening takeaway one gets from reading that story reporting on the opinion is that a lawyer got away with trust account malfeasance by failing to keep the records that would be necessary to prove up the wrongdoing.  Knowing how tough disciplinary authorities can be on trust accounting violations, this was one where I had to find the time to read the actual opinion.

You can do so right here.  If you want to do so right now, I’ll wait until you get back.

Ok.  So now that you’ve read it too, what about the one client and his $1,500?  The second part of the complaint/investigation?

Attorney Walsh agreed to represent O.B. in attempting to have his felony convictions expunged or to seek a pardon for those convictions.  According to his fee agreement with O.B., Attorney Walsh accepted an advanced flat fee of $1,500 at or near the time of entering into the representation and deposited the advanced fee into his law firm’s business account.  Attorney Walsh claimed to the [Office of Lawyer Regulation] that he had done work on O.B.’s behalf and was able to describe some of that work.  According to the OLR’s summary Attorney Walsh promised O.B. in July 2015 that he would be following up on a lead that required research, but warned that O.B. would likely be out of luck if the research did not yield favorable results.  Attorney Walsh, however, failed to communicate the results of his research to O.B.  He then failed to provide O.B. with any of the notices that were required when an attorney placed an advanced fee into the attorney’s business account and utilized the alternative advanced fee procedure outlined in [a particular Wisconsin rule].  Indeed, Attorney Walsh failed to provide O.B. with a final accounting that showed how he had earned the $1,500 flat fee.

For a while I thought I could manage to work through the giant, headline-grabbing angle given that none of the clients associated with any of the things involving fluctuations in the bank records contend they are out money and since there weren’t sufficient records available to truly prove what was what, the Wisconsin disciplinary counsel opted not to seek restitution.  so while not quite “no harm, no foul,” but “definitely a foul, and he’s offering to give up his license without a fight so we’ll just take it and be done with it.”  Though it does appear that the lawyer first tried an approach that would be more like Tennessee’s law license surrender approach by first filing a petition for the voluntary resignation of his license.  Like surrender here, the existence of a pending disciplinary investigation can thwart that in Wisconsin so he tacked to filing a petition for consensual revocation.

But, there was at least that one client standing right there in these proceedings saying that they were out $1,500 as a result of this character.  How could the Wisconsin disciplinary counsel not pursue getting that person their money back?  And how could the Wisconsin Supreme Court manage to shrug its shoulders at that outcome?

Similarly, given the lack of billing records, the [Office of Lawyer Regulation] cannot determine with any reasonable certainty that [the client] should receive a refund of any particular amount of his advanced fee from Attorney Walsh.

Talk about the opposite of a “tie goes to the runner,” kind of ruling.

Which leads me back full circle to being astounded at that outcome up Wisconsin-way.  It’s an outcome that sends a really clear – but unfortunate – message to Wisconsin attorneys that are truly willing to just disregard obligations — make sure you don’t keep records as well.

That’s not a Rule 8.4(c) violation. THAT’s a Rule 8.4(c) violation.

In February 2017, more than a dozen law professors filed an ethics complaint against Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, alleging that she violated the attorney ethics rules applicable in D.C. through several false public statement she made — most notably, her repetitive statements about a terrorist incident that never actually occurred – the “Bowling Green Massacre.”  Now, many people were not aware of the fact that Ms. Conway is an attorney — she doesn’t work as an attorney in the present administration.  (In fact, her D.C. law license is already administratively suspended.)  The core rule that the professors contend Ms. Conway violated is Rule 8.4(c) which makes it a violation for a lawyer to “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”

Unlike many other ethics rules, Rule 8.4 does not contain language limiting its scope to when “representing a client.”  While I am not a fan of Ms. Conway, I very much disagree with the notion that her public statements in her political role are the kind of conduct to which Rule 8.4(c) should be applied.  A reporter with The Blaze was kind of enough to let me comment in an article about the ethics complaint against Conway where I elaborate more fully on why I disagreed.  You can read the article with, including my extensive comments, here.

Now, I feel compelled in fairness, instead of just knocking something down the opinion of others, to try to offer a good example of lawyer conduct that I think would fit as a Rule 8.4(c) violation but that doesn’t involve representing a client.

So, let me try a scenario.

Say you are a lawyer, and you are undergoing a job interview.  If you lie in response to questions that are important to whether or not you get the job, that would be fodder for a Rule 8.4(c) violation.  Or, maybe to make the violation even more palpable (if not clearer), let’s say you are seeking a public job.  Perhaps, a really high-profile one, involving the government.  And you lie during your job interview or on the application you have to submit for the position as part of a background check.  That would definitely trigger Rule 8.4(c) in my view.

Heck, while I am just freewheeling on this whole scenario, let’s really ramp up the stakes.  Let’s go with an attorney position in the federal government where your appointment has to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.  And, let’s say you lie in response to written questions posed to you by a Senator or you give a false and misleading response to a Senator’s question during a confirmation hearing or, gosh, maybe you do even both of those things.  That would definitely be a Rule 8.4(c) violation.  And, given that there would be also be lying under oath involved and lying to Congress involved, Rule 8.4(b) would actually come into play as well.  That’s the rule that prohibits a lawyer from “commit[ting] a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.”

So, yes, that would to me be a very solid foundation for multiple Rule 8.4 violations.  And, in my scenario, the lawyer engaged in dishonesty, deceit, and misrepresentations would not even have to have been undergoing the job interview to be the Attorney General of the United States, but if it helps to put flesh on the bones of the hypothetical to think I was talking the whole time about the current U.S. Attorney General then, well, have at it.

[And, as to the title of this post, you’re going to have to read that title in a Paul Hogan as “Crocodile Dundee” Australian accent.  And if you aren’t familiar with him or that movie, it was a lot more popular back in 1999 when Mr. Sessions said this to explain his vote to impeach a different President of the United States.]

Lying about everything is an awful way to go about life.

No, stop, this is not a post about politics.  Not sure why you’d think that just from the title…

It’s Groundhog Day here in the United States.  As a person of a certain age, Groundhog Day makes me think of the Bill Murray movie more than the actual parlor trick with a rodent that happens in Pennsylvania, so mining a situation that happens over and over again (unfortunately) in the world of ethics feels like low-hanging fruit.  That situation:  Lawyers losing their license over the willingness to lie.

But, today’s entry involves a lawyer on his way to being disbarred from practicing law in Michigan for conduct of an extent that (fortunately) you don’t see every day.  The conduct is level of mendacity that is difficult to imagine explainable as anything other than an actual psychological condition — someone who comes across as a pathological liar or a sufferer of narcissistic personality disorder.  Again, stop, why do you keep trying to think about politics in this post.  You should stop being so weird about this.

The lawyer in question is a gentleman named Ali Zaidi.

Now, before grabbing snippets of the Opinion issued by the State of Michigan Attorney Disciplinary Board that details the lengths and breadths of Mr. Zaidi’s false statements that cost him his license, the subject matter of some of the falsehoods gives an opportunity for a brief reminder about an aspect of the ethics rules not always spoken about or focused upon.

Michigan, like most jurisdictions, has a version of Rule 7.1 that makes it unethical for lawyers to make false statements about themselves or their services.  Lots of lawyers think of that rule – Rule 7.1 —  as applying only to advertising – because it is housed in the 7s – but it actually applies to any communications by lawyers.  An example I’ve used from time-to-time at seminars is to make the point that a lawyer who sends inflated bills to a client wouldn’t only violate RPC 1.5 but also would run afoul of RPC 7.1 because the contents of the billing statement would be a false and misleading communication about the lawyer’s services – specifically about the amount of time the lawyer spent providing those services.

With that more academic pursuit behind us, here are the snippets from the order that show the scope of the falsehoods this to-be-disbarred Michigan attorney used in bringing about his own downfall:

failing to correct his resume during his employment with one firm; submission of fraudulent resumes to a potential associate, a staffing consultant to fill a position with another attorney, and the Bank of Montreal; repeated failure to provide his correct address to the State Bar; misrepresentations in and related to respondent’s website for Great Lakes Legal Group; and misrepresentations in his answer to the Request for Investigation.

The order lays out in pretty significant the extent of the falsehoods in the various resumes which included claims to be licensed in two states where he wasn’t, claims to have worked as a summer associate at three firms where he never worked, claims to have earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard which he didn’t, and claims to have competed in an Olympics for a U.S. Field Hockey Squad of which he was never a member.  Beyond his resume claims, the lawyer also practiced law under the name of a law firm, Great Lakes Law Group, which he later admitted wasn’t really so much an actual law firm as an “idea that is still in progress.”  The panel also even threw shade on parts of the lawyer’s resume not proven in the proceedings to be false in a footnote that lists other claims in terms of education and work history about which the panel is clearly quite skeptical.

This lawyer also did his cause no favors by representing himself and parts of the order focus on things that were said during the defense of the case that were also false like his reason for not showing up for hearings.  But, he may have even done himself more damage when he was present and involved in the hearings:

[PANEL MEMBER 1]: Where do you live now?

MR. ZAIDI: I currently-my-to establish clarity on that, this has been a source of some issues and concerns, I will be in Texas. My whole goal after my tenure ended in Michigan is

[PANEL MEMBER 1]: See, it’s not a trick question. Where do you live now?

MR. ZAIDI: I have a place. It’s not a simple answer. I’m trying to explain to you and give you that answer as well. Texas was a goal, which is why I always put Texas. She mentioned my current address is in New York. And even when I called [the State Bar of Michigan] and I updated my- I let her know that Texas – that address in Addison, Texas is still the best address for me.

[PANEL MEMBER 1]: Who lives there?

MR. ZAIDI: It’s my family business. And the reason – and part of the reason – let me explain to you why­

[PANEL MEMBER 1]: So it’s not even a home? It’s a business address?

MR. ZAIDI: Yes, it’s a business address.

[PANEL MEMBER 2]: What is your family business.

MR. ZAIDI: My Dad owns some restaurants.

[PANEL MEMBER 2: So you gave the address of the restaurant in Texas?

MR. ZAIDI: No, it’s not a restaurant. It’s basically his office where he operates and there are other offices there. It’s just basically a big office building. And that’s where ­

[PANEL MEMBER 1]: When did you come to Michigan for this hearing?

MR. ZAIDI: I came this morning.

[PANEL MEMBER 1]: Where did you fly from?

MR. ZAIDI: I didn’t fly. I drove.

[PANEL MEMBER 1]: Where did you drive from?

MR. ZAIDI: I drove from Toronto.

[PANEL MEMBER 1]: What are you doing in Toronto?

MR. ZAIDI: Well, my wife lives in Toronto. And I live in Toronto for the most part, but I travel routinely to Lewiston where I’m trying to establish some business there.

[PANEL MEMBER 1]: Where’s Lewiston?

MR. ZAIDI: It’s in New York.

Not to say that having a lawyer represent him during the proceedings would have let this lawyer be spared disbarment, but not representing himself was clearly the only possible way that outcome might have been avoided.