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.

Texas Ethics Opinion Offers Stellar Example of Why You Ought to Have a Rule About This.

I’ve mentioned in the past the fact that Tennessee has a version of RPC 4.4(b) that directly addresses, and provides what I happen to think is the correct outcome, for what a lawyer is supposed to do about the receipt of someone else’s confidential information either inadvertently or via someone who isn’t authorized to have it in the first place.  Our RPC 4.4(b) goes further than the ABA Model Rule in two respects on this front in that: (1) it doesn’t just require notice as to inadvertently received information but makes clear that the lawyer has to either abide by any instructions as to what to do with the information or has to refrain from doing anything further with it until a court ruling can be obtained; and (2) we apply the same standard to information received unauthorizedly, e.g. a purloined document.  (Of course, I’ve also mentioned … repeatedly I admit … that the ABA Model Rules ought to be construed via Model Rule 1.15 to fill the gap on that second point, but … leading horses… and drinking water… and all that.

Earlier this month the State Bar of Texas Professional Ethics Committee issued Opinion 664 which “addresses” the following two questions:

1. Do lawyers violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct if they fail to notify an opposing party or its counsel that they are in possession of confidential information taken from the opposing party without the opposing party’s knowledge or consent?

2.  Do lawyers violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct if they fail to notify an opposing party or its counsel that they have inadvertently received confidential information of the opposing party?

In a relatively short opinion that discusses almost exclusively the first question, the Texas Committee ultimately says, “hey look, we don’t have a rule on any of this… so you are kind of on your own.”  That’s not really a quote from the opinion, of course.  The real quote from the opinion is longer but the gist is pretty much exactly the same as my fake quote.

The opinion then goes on to hold out the possibility that if you have this fact scenario plus something more than maybe one or more other rules could be violated — like Texas’s equivalents of Model Rule 1.2(d) or or Model Rule 3.3(a) or Model Rule 4.1 or Model Rule 8.4(d).  Quoting the opinion this time for real:

It is possible that under some circumstances the failure to provide notice to opposing counsel, or take other action upon receipt of an opponent’s confidential information, might violate one or more of the Texas Disciplinary Rules requiring lawyers to be truthful and to avoid assisting or condoning criminal or fraudulent acts or denigrating the justice system or subverting the litigation process.

The opinion also reminds readers that the lawyer’s course of conduct in such circumstances must be well thought through because the risk of disqualification still lurks, but in the end the opinion largely concludes with something that is mostly a restatement of the problem for Texas lawyers (and of my general inability to get horses standing so close to water to drink since Texas does have a version of ABA Model Rule 1.15  and confidential information certainly is “property”):

The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct do not prescribe a specific course of conduct a lawyer must follow upon the unauthorized or inadvertent receipt of another party’s confidential information outside the normal course of discovery.

The insistence on referencing discovery and, thus, making it seem like this is solely a problem for litigators rather than all lawyers is also a bit unfortunate.

Dishonesty in settlement negotiations

This is a topic I’ve spoken about on a number of times over the years as it can make for a pretty decent CLE presentation.  Any such presentation almost always involves use of a hypothetical to explore issues that seem (or at least can sound) academic to a large extent.  The usual jumping off point is the language set out in Comment [2] of Model Rule 4.1 that speaks of “generally accepted conventions in negotiation,” and that indicates that “a party’s intentions as to an acceptable settlement of a claim” is a type of statement “ordinarily not taken as statements of material fact.”  From time-to-time there are real world situations that can be used to demonstrate that lawyers can end up paying a real price for making a known, false statement in connection with settlement negotiations, as opposed to things that are just chalked up as being “puffery.”

In my reading stack for a couple of months now has been a situation though that falls into the category of dishonesty in settlement negotiations, but looks like nothing I’ve quite seen before.

In late February 2016, the ABA Journal online had an article about a Seattle judge imposing $32,000 in sanctions against two lawyers who were representing Pierce County, Washington in the defense of a false arrest lawsuit.  The sanctions were imposed for the lawyers’ role in “misleading settlement negotiations,” and not telling opposing counsel that there client had rejected a proposed settlement dollar amount.  Which, at least sounds bad on its face, of course, but at that same time — given the fluidity of settlement negotiations — doesn’t necessarily sound all that far away from what the rules speak of as a generally-accepted convention of negotiations.

Both the ABA piece, and this more expansive article from The News Tribune , elaborate a bit on the details, but that elaboration only makes it seem a bit more remarkable to me that these lawyers were sanctioned.  And, since it is a Friday and to cut to the chase it is for this reason, yes it does look like the client contact for these lawyers did tell the lawyers that he would not agree to a $250,000 settlement payment, and that the lawyers continued the effort to negotiate other important aspects of the proposed deal for about a week without telling opposing counsel that the client was saying it wouldn’t agree to the monetary component, but an important aspect of the context is left out of the ABA Journal story for example:  The client who had said it wouldn’t do $250,000 had actually previously offered to settle the case for $210,000.  In a vacuum, it does not seem beyond the pale that lawyers, knowing that the gap to surmount was just $40,000, would continue to work on getting some non-monetary concessions in hopes that they might have a client that would change its mind when it saw additional bells and whistles.

So, why the sanctions really?  I can only guess, but my guess is that the rest of the context matters probably even more and you will get a feel for that context if you read the two stories already linked and this earlier July 2015 story in The News Tribune.

The false arrest suit involves a woman who has been arrested for child molestation, and the charges against her dismissed, twice; one of the dismissals was specifically premised on a finding of prosecutorial vindictiveness.  There is also a separate federal lawsuit filed by the same plaintiff over things done since the first lawsuit was filed, and the elected prosecutor for Pierce County who hired the lawyers to defend the false arrest suit because of his office’s conflict of interest is also facing ethics charges and whistleblower complaints over various aspects of the efforts to prosecute this plaintiff and, if that weren’t enough, also a recall petition.

Oh yeah, and like a week after the sanctions ruling, the same prosecutor appeared on Nancy Grace in the middle of a murder trial to talk about the murder trial his office was prosecuting, prompting a motion for a mistrial in that case.

With the popularity of the “Making a Murderer” documentary, I’m not sure what this one would be called — perhaps just “Making a Mess,” but it sounds like it would make a good sequel.

Official dishonesty and the consequences for lawyers – 3 of the latest examples

A common theme in many disciplinary proceedings brought against lawyers involves dishonesty.  This should not really be a surprise given that lawyers are human beings and human beings have a tendency toward being dishonest when they can get away with it.  Although there is an ethics rule that, on its face, makes it unethical for a lawyer to engage in any kind of dishonesty at all, lawyers usually only get taken to task for a category I’ll call today official dishonesty.

One such type of official dishonesty involves failure to make full disclosure in connection with an application for admission in some other jurisdiction.  The consequences of this kind of official dishonesty can be severe as is demonstrated by the one year and one day suspension now being imposed on this Pennsylvania lawyer for failing to disclose prior discipline against him when he applied for admission to the federal court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  As luck would have it, the lawyer’s failure to make disclosure involved a 1996 suspension, also of 1 year and 1 day, which was itself brought about by failing to disclose a prior arrest on his original application for admission to practice law in Pennsylvania.

Disciplinary proceedings are not, of course, the only negative outcome that can result from a lawyer engaging in official dishonesty or failure to make full disclosure.  Another kind of negative outcome, discussed before in this post, involves losing out on coverage from your insurer for legal malpractice/professional liability claims.  Law360 has the story of another lawyer who, already faced with defending a legal malpractice lawsuit, is now faced with having no coverage for it as a result of a ruling this month by the Indiana Court of Appeals.

The issue of misrepresentation alleged by the lawyer’s carrier is a common one – a claim, with the benefit of hindsight, that the lawyer was aware he faced a potential claim and should have disclosed such on a 2011 renewal application.  As is also often the story, the claim about which the carrier says the lawyer should have been aware is the same one now being litigated and about which the carrier has refused coverage.  In this instance, the lawyer’s client’s case had been dismissed as a discovery sanction and that dismissal was still on appeal in the Indiana system at the time the 2011 renewal application was completed by the lawyer.  The Law360 piece grabs the salient quote from the court of appeals ruling (which actually reversed a trial court that had sided with the lawyer’s argument that he’d made no material misrepresentation):

“Therefore, because of the severity of the trial court’s remedy – dismissal of the cause – any reasonable attorney in [the lawyer’s] position would realize that his client might pursue a potential legal malpractice claim against him should the Supreme Court affirm the trial court.”

For lawyers, there are quite a few ethics rules that are implicated by acts of dishonesty, RPC 3.3 (false statements to tribunals), RPC 4.1 (false statements to third parties), RPC 7.1 (false statements about the lawyer or their services) but the rule that has the broadest reach, and to which I referred at the beginning of this post, is RPC 8.4(c).

That rule says that “[i]t is professional misconduct for a lawyer to … engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”  Unlike many other ethics rules, the text of RPC 8.4(c) does not limit itself to things done in the course of representing a client.  Figuring out what it does, and does not, actually apply to can be less than an exact science.  For example, I’m confident that I’ve never violated RPC 8.4(c) by telling my kids when they were young that Santa Claus was real nor by bluffing in a friendly game of cards.  But figuring out where the lines are realistically drawn on other issues of dishonesty unrelated to anything the lawyer is doing in the practice of la involves a case-by-case analysis, but if there is an “official” component to the dishonesty, you can count on RPC 8.4(c) finding a way to apply.

A Maryland lawyer learned earlier this month that the price of having been dishonest about something unrelated to his law license was disbarment.  The lawyer in question established an LLC called Carefree Construction Services within a few months after becoming a lawyer and then performed home improvement work through the LLC.  The lawyer, however, was not properly licensed in Maryland as a home improvement contractor and was actually using his brother’s license to do the work without his brother’s permission.

In its opinion, the Maryland court, citing another 2014 decision, expressly addressed the fact that the dishonest conduct had nothing to do with practicing law was of no consequence and that the conduct did violate RPC 8.4(c).  The court also explained that since the conduct involved a misdemeanor (performing the home improvement work without a license) that it considered the lawyer to have committed the kind of criminal conduct that violated RPC 8.4(b) as well.

The opinion also went to some length to explain that, in its totality, the lawyer’s conduct amounted to a violation of RPC 8.4(d) – conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice — and that determination also played a role in ramping up the discipline meted out.  The lawyer had filed a number of lawsuits for non-payment against home improvement customers who had learned of his unlicensed status and, as to one such set of customers, threatening them by email and “attempt[ing] to leverage his position as an attorney to intimidate” the customers into paying him more money.  One example quoted in part in the opinion, involves the lawyer, in an email exchange, with the dissatisfied and fully-informed customer, writing:  “Are you forgetting, I AM A CONSTRUCTION ATTORNEY.  There is nothing about construction law that you can learn on the internet that I am not an expert on.”

Death and disbarment

Returning to the office from the holiday weekend, I noticed these two sad and weird stories of lawyers doing inexcusable things that seem to have common threads of death and disbarment running through them.  Many years ago I wrote a humor column for young lawyers. and you can find some of those columns still floating around the interwebs, like here (starting at p. 12) and here (starting at p. 18).  This blog will not stray from its purpose and attempt to be a humor column.  I promise.  Bleak stories do require some willingness sometimes to attempt to find humor in making serious points.  This is one of those times.

The first story involves a variation on a circumstance that many of us have experienced (or at least strongly suspected we might have experienced but were too kind to ever try to investigate lest we be wrong and come out looking like a horrible human being):  the opposing counsel who claims an illness or death in the family in order to get out from under some missed deadline or hearing we suspect they just aren’t ready to handle.  This now-former attorney has resigned or been disbarred by consent from two states on the basis of having lied in two cases.  One case involved the lawyer lying about having been in the ER diagnosed with “double pneumonia” to get a hearing on a summary judgment motion rescheduled.  In the other case, the lawyer lied about his mother having died as an explanation offered to avoid sanctions based on missed discovery deadlines.  His own billing records showed in the one case that he billed his client for time spent preparing for the hearing on the day of his claimed ER trip.  As to the second matter, while I generally agree with Judge John Hodgman that specificity is the soul of narrative, this lawyer likely didn’t help himself with the specificity he used when lying about his mother, who was quite demonstrably still alive, saying she died “in a violent car accident in the state of Colorado” and that the cause of death was “the fire and smoke inhalation from the resulting conflagration.”

The second story involves a now-former DC lawyer who unsuccessfully argued that the death of his aggrieved client during the disciplinary proceedings should prevent the lawyer from being disbarred.  The key misconduct in the case was that the lawyer had, while on disability inactive status, taken $1,500 from a police officer for legal services never provided and then refused to return the money to the client.  During the many, many years of the proceedings, the lawyer tried to have the charges against him dismissed on five separate occasions.  Many of the arguments put more stress on the “criminal” part of the “quasi-criminal” nature of disciplinary proceedings rather than recognizing the importance of “quasi.”  The DC lawyer unsuccessfully argued that he had a constitutional right to a speedy trial which was violated by the lengthy proceedings; and that his being suspended during the proceedings mooted the case for disbarment.  Most brazen, however, was his argument that the death of the aggrieved client in January 2012 meant that the case against him should be dismissed.  For support of that argument, the lawyer relied on cases in which a criminal defendant died during the prosecution of the case against him.  These arguments were not wieners (a play on words that only makes sense if you’ve visited the link and learned the lawyer’s name) and the lawyer has been disbarred.