A tale of two signature issues.

There are certain things that ought to be ingrained in lawyers that they know they cannot do. Maybe we could reach agreement on all of what should be on that list of things, but that task is far too ambitious for any Friday, much less this Friday.

I would hope we could agree that an item on that list though is not to sign someone else’s name to something and claim that they were the one who actually signed it. In a lot of circumstances, this is called… and I’m going to use the technical term here, “forgery.” (Fun fact: this is also something that people who are not lawyers really shouldn’t do as well. This includes if you were [hypothetically-speaking] an 18-year old filling out a permission form that they think their parents would likely have signed.)

Now, admittedly, lawyers in collegial litigation practice settings certainly will, on many occasions during their professional career, end up signing opposing counsel’s name to an order for entry with the Court. But, the key of course in doing so is that the lawyer (a) always indicates that it is being done with the other lawyer’s permission; and (b) doesn’t try to make the signature look at all like that lawyer’s actual signature.

Earlier this week, a lawyer in Kansas has been visited with a weighty suspension from practice, in part, for signing names of folks for whom she should not have been doing that. Unfortunately, examples involved falsifying the signature of a judge on a court filing as well as a separate instance of a court clerk’s signature. Although it was the aspect that garnered the media attention, forging signatures was just really the tip of the iceberg regarding the findings of misconduct against that lawyer. Many others involving misrepresentations to other lawyers and clients and neglect of several different matters. A full read of the order imposing a two-year suspension also reveals that, as is often true of lawyers who make very bad decisions, the lawyer suffered from severe depression and anxiety.

But, also recently and in my own backyard, there was an instance of what turned out to be a much grayer area of a lawyer’s ability to sign someone else’s name to something that resulted, after prolonged disciplinary proceedings, in a determination that the lawyer did not commit any professional misconduct. If you are not at all familiar with the concept of a “conformed signature,” then reading the case will provide you with a bit of an education on that front.

But, the short version to walk away from that case though I think is still that the lawyer really should have gone about things in a markedly different fashion. Perhaps it is only true with hindsight, but I tend to think that even in real time, a lawyer would think that doing something more to clearly denote when placing a “/s [someone else’s name]” onto a document to then be used in litigation exactly what the lawyer is doing. For that particular lawyer, doing it the way they did certainly did not ultimately result in actual discipline, but it certainly ended up costing an awful lot of time and money to have to get all the way through the process to the Tennessee Supreme Court before being fully exonerated.

(P.S. Tomorrow is the 5th anniversary of this blog. In celebration, go treat yourself to something nice. It’s on you.)

PDA: If you’re going to get disbarred in TN, get it done before July 1, 2020.

Because if you can get it finalized by June 30, then you might still have the chance to be reinstated starting July 1, 2025. In this instance, PDA is short for “public disservice announcement,” not “public display of affection.” You might remember back last year I wrote about a proposed revision to the rules of disciplinary enforcement in Tennessee and my reasons for thinking it was not a necessary change.

On Friday, the Court entered an order adopting the revisions as proposed. The order mentions that in addition to comments filed by the Tennessee Bar Association, the Board of Professional Responsibility, and the Knoxville Bar Association, there were comments filed by two individual lawyers. It should probably come as no surprise to anyone reading this that all of the comments, except for the BPR’s comment, voiced opposition to the proposed changes. You can read all of the comments that were submitted here.

The Court’s order offers no explanation for why the Court thought the revision to be necessary in the first place, nor does it undertake any explanation of why it disagreed with the majority of the comments or what about the Board’s position it found persuasive, if anything. (The most effort that the Board put into its response was actually to talk at length about the Hughes case that already demonstrates that the Court had the power and willingness under the current system to refuse to reinstate a disbarred lawyer who it doesn’t feel should be reinstated.) So … disbarment in Tennessee is about to become a “forever” punishment, putting Tennessee into a very small group of states that embrace such an approach, and we still don’t know “why” the Court thought the change was needed.

Thus, on the present record, there seem to be only two possible conclusions to draw: (1) the Court simply thinks that disbarment under the current system is not sufficiently severe in terms of a penalty because it provides for a second-chance; or (2) the Court thinks that disbarment should truly be reserved only for the worst-of-the-worst offenses and that most lawyers who get disbarred should actually be hit instead with a suspension of somewhere between 6 and 10 years in length.

Which one is it? Only time will tell I guess.

Shimkonicity (shim-ko-nis-a-tee)

When I first read some reporting about this decision from Ohio involving the indefinite suspension of a lawyer, I expected it to come across very much as an obvious case of a lawyer’s third strike leading to a steep punishment. But, the coming together of so many things with respect to this lawyer’s situation actually offers quite a story from which a lot of lawyers can learn a few things (or at least be reminded of some things they already knew). Thus, showing my age again, I’ve gone with The Police album rip-off title for this post.

So, yes, at the straightforward level, if you read this opinion, you will digest the story of a lawyer getting hit with his third strike. About nine years ago, Mr. Shimko engaged in some financial chicanery with some clients leading to a public censure in Ohio that was imposed as reciprocal discipline after Arizona had first done the same. Three years or so after that, he received a one-year suspension (but it was all stayed so he continued to practice) for disparaging a judge. Now, he’s received an indefinite suspension after he appealed a recommended two-year suspension for charging an excessive fee to a client and then unnecessarily disclosing confidential information about the client in connection with suing the client for the excessive fee amount (along with a bit of unsavory threatening to disclose the information in order to try to get the client to settle).

Most of his story is routine stuff that all lawyers know (or should know) they should not do. The last seven-or-so-pages of the opinion also offer a tangible example of why trying to throw every potential appellate argument into a mix — particularly in a disciplinary case — is not a very good strategy. But along the way, there are two real teachable nuggets here of things that a surprising number of lawyers sometimes don’t know, and there is also one big topic that the Court simply fails to mention which also is pretty important (and which it could have used to further skewer the lawyer’s scattershot allegations of error on appeal.)

Much the way my son tackles fast food; first we will tackle the nuggets:

Nugget #1: You just can’t bill your clients for time you spend drafting what amounts to your engagement letter. If it is a good engagement letter, you are substantially creating it for your own benefit and protection. At most, it is documentation that is partially being created for the client’s benefit. Don’t try to charge the client for that time.

Nugget #2: There is a second-level of consideration when a lawyer is proceeding under a self-defense exception to restrictions on the disclosure of confidential information. Not only do you have to be able to demonstrate that one of the specific exceptions under RPC 1.6(b) can be satisfied, which you can do if you are trying to pursue payment from the client as an example. But you also have to remember that the disclosures you make need to be no more than is reasonably necessary AND in a lot of circumstances you still have to make efforts to try to limit the number of people to whom the disclosure is made. The comments to RPC 1.6 lay out guidance about this in most jurisdictions in a very clear and helpful fashion. If you are litigating a fee dispute with a client, even though you can disclose confidential information to the Court in order to prevail on your claim or defeat the claim of your client/former client, you may very well have to also seek the entry of a protective order to try to prevent the information you are disclosing from becoming fully available to the public.

And the thing that was missing? Any discussion by the Court of why this Ohio lawyer’s arguments about how he was entitled to do what he did because the client was committing insurance fraud using his services are very hard to reconcile with one or two other ethics rules in Ohio (and elsewhere) – RPC 3.3 and RPC 4.1.

If the lawyer’s version of events regarding what the client had told him in advance of the examination under oath was to be believed, then under RPC 4.1 what the lawyer was required to do, at minimum, was to withdraw from the representation so as not to assist with the fraud. If representing someone in a pending insurance dispute during an examination under oath is somehow treated as a representation to a tribunal under Ohio law (which I would suspect is not the case), then RPC 3.3 in Ohio — patterned after the Model Rule — would have required the lawyer to speak up during the EUO about what was happening not after the fact.

The Court likely didn’t address those issues because it did not need to since the earlier rulings had found the lawyer’s assertions not to be credible, but even a footnote highlighting this issue for lawyers might have been a worthwhile piece of dicta.

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.”

Neither a stalker nor a burglar be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Traps for the Unwary – Married lawyers edition.

Within the last week, there was an interesting Law.com article (subscription required) on a topic that has been something of a pet . . . well not really “peeve” of mine, and not really a pet project of mine, but a topic that I feel like is somewhat uniquely overlooked by the people to whom it should be most relevant — spouses/significant others who are both lawyers but who work different places.

The article discusses an Ohio disciplinary case that is ongoing and that involves something that – based on anecdotal evidence over the course of my career — is an extremely frequent occurrence:  the sharing of information about cases and matters between spouses and significant others who both are lawyers but who aren’t both representing the client in question.

Although (as indicated above – unless you are particularly wily about how you use the Internet and various search engines ability to “cache” content — you need a subscription to read the article, here’s a snippet to give you a flavor of the fact pattern involved.

The Ohio high court is set to review a proposed disciplinary sanction against two education law attorneys, ThomasHolmes and Ashleigh Kerr, who are engaged to one another and admitted to exchanging emails that included work product and confidential client information.

Although Holmes and Kerr focus on similar types of law—namely the representation of public school districts—they have never shared clients and they worked at different firm. Holmes practiced most recently at [a firm] in …Ohio, and Kerr practiced at [a different firm] in … Ohio.

In a disciplinary complaint lodged in December against the couple, the Ohio Supreme Court’s board of professional conduct said the two have lived together since October 2015 and became engaged in November of that year. From January 2015 to November 2016, the disciplinary complaint alleged, the two exchanged information related to their client representations on more than a dozen occasions.

“Generally,” the board alleged, “Kerr forwarded Holmes an email exchange with her client in which her client requested a legal document (i.e. a contract, waiver or opinion). In response, Holmes forwarded Kerr an email exchange with his client which attached a similar legal document that he had drafted for his client. More often than not, Holmes ultimately completed Kerr’s work relative to her particular client.”

If you want more of the detail, you can access the disciplinary complaint here.  And you can go read the pending recommendation of the Ohio board as to the discipline — which has been agreed to by each of the lawyers here.

The proposed, agreed discipline is a six-month suspension from the practice of law for each lawyer (but with the suspension fully stayed/probated.)

I suspect the outcome of that matter – and perhaps even the fact of disciplinary proceedings at all — will come as a huge surprise to many lawyers.  But the simple fact is that the underlying practice — sharing information about cases in order to try to get your spouse or significant other to help you — despite how much it may seem consistent with human nature is almost always going to be undeniably a violation of the ethics rules.  It is possible that one of the lawyers could get the client to consent to the arrangement, but beyond that approach there are very few ways to avoid the simple fact that RPC 1.6 in almost any jurisdiction won’t permit doing this.

I also strongly believe that most lawyers who do this kind of thing — if they think about it from an ethics standpoint – believe that the risk is quite low of ever being found out because of the marital privilege.  But not only because of some of the inherent limits on how far that may take you, but also because of the increasing frequency in which we all do everything digitally… this case demonstrates that there are a number of ways that the communications can surface into the light without anyone ever having a spouse voluntarily provide information any marital privilege notwithstanding.

Far too often anger begets violence both by, and against, lawyers.

I failed again as a blogger last week and do not have anything resembling a good excuse.  There is a lot going on in the world that is troubling and last week was simply a week where it felt like writing anything that was not about how our country has become okay with putting children in cages seemed frivolous.  That topic was not one that had any legal ethics component, however, so …

I’m still very angry about what my government is doing, but beyond the 50 or so words that precede this one, I’m not writing about that today.

There are two short stories sitting in my idea pile that have anger as their common thread so I’m threading them together today to simply talk about how easily anger can get the better of people if not channeled to something productive.  One story involves a lawyer being properly disciplined for failing to manage his own anger.  The other involves a tragic end of life for a lawyer who was slain by someone else who let anger take over.

A lawyer in Maryland, who already had a track record of disciplinary problems, now finds himself suspended from the practice of law for 30 days as a result of engaging in “road rage.”  Dana Paul’s suspension, premised upon violations of RPC 8.4(a), (b) and (d) is not only yet another in a long list of incidents where angry lawyers do inexcusable things but also a reminder that RPC 8.4 is the kind of disciplinary rule that applies to lawyers even when they aren’t engaged in the practice of law.

The Maryland opinion describes the three different versions (Paul’s, the other driver’s, and a third-party witness to some of the incidents) of the events presented in evidence in the case which involved sustained interactions between Paul and another driver spanning over two counties in Maryland.  Paul’s own testimony minimized his conduct but he ultimately did plead guilty to two counts – negligent driving and failure to return to/remain at the scene of an accident.  Paul claimed that things started when the other car slowed down in front of him and he observed the driver of the other car on her cell phone.  Paul says he passed her and beeped at her – claiming that he always beeps at people on their phones “as a way of telling drivers to not use their phones while operating a vehicle.”  Paul then claimed that the vehicle passed him and cut him off and then would intentionally slam on her brakes.  Then at a red light, Paul left his vehicle to question the driver.

The other driver testified to a different version of events at Paul’s criminal trial.  A third-party witness who saw both the altercation at the traffic light and the moment when Paul’s car and the other car impacted each other offered testimony that the court found persuasive:

At the traffic light, [witness] asserted that Paul exited his vehicle, displayed both of his middle fingers towards [other driver,] and reentered his vehicle and drove of.  Approximately eight miles later, [witness] was driving in the right lane while [other drive] drove next to [witness] in the left lane.  [Witness] witnessed Paul’s car drive in between [witness] and [other driver’s] cars, causing [witness] to move to the right shoulder.  [Witness] attempted to alert Paul that he could drive in front of her in order to avoid injury to any party  Thereafter, [witness] observed Paul’s vehicle make contact with [other driver’s] vehicle.  After the cars hit, [witness] stated that Paul moved behind [other driver] and took a picture of [other driver’s] license plate.  Once [other driver] then pulled off onto the shoulder, [witness] did the same and gave [other driver] her name and address.  [Witness] later drove to Easton at the request of the police to identify Paul as the person who struck [other driver’s] vehicle.

Paul’s conduct on the road did himself no favors, but Paul’s own statements to law enforcement were damaging as well as he was confronted by a state trooper after he had stopped at a restaurant to use the restroom and asked what had happened to his vehicle.  After Paul said nothing happened, and after the state trooper pointed to paint on the side of Paul’s car, Paul then denied the allegation that he had hit the other driver’s car.

Ultimately, the Maryland court concluded that it had been proven by clear and convincing evidence that Paul’s “road rage” conduct was both criminal and of a nature that reflected adversely on his “fitness as an attorney” to be a violation of RPC 8.4(b) and also that because his conduct “involved dangerous, harmful, and threatening behavior stretching across two counties,” it was sufficiently prejudicial to the administration of justice to be a violation of RPC 8.4(d).

Of course, lawyers can be victims of unhealthy anger as well.  Last week the ABA Journal online posted a story of a Georgia lawyer (just three years younger than I am) who was found dead in his law office after having apparently been gunned down by the husband of one of the Georgia lawyer’s divorce clients.  The husband was also found dead in his former wife’s bed from an apparently self-inflicted gun shot.  The police knew to go to the law office only after the husband had called his former wife and confessed to killing her lawyer.  Although I was just a baby lawyer when it happened, I remember well when something not too different than this happened in Memphis back in 2002 when Robert Friedman was ambushed in his parking garage by the husband of one of Friedman’s divorce clients.

It is a difficult time to begrudge anyone the right to be angry, and you can count me on the side of those who don’t take kindly in the political arena to slavish calls for “civility” that really only amount to trying to prevent relatively powerless people from sending a message to powerful people, but if you are reading this and you get violent when you get angry, seek out ways to learn how to manage your anger.

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.