Violence should never be the answer.

Back almost twenty years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court warned New Jersey lawyers that “any act of violence committed by an attorney will not be tolerated” and to expect that the likely consequence for engaging in violent behavior would be “[n]othing less than a suspension.”  They issued that warning in a case, In re Viggiano, where a lawyer responded to a minor traffic accident by getting out of his car, approaching the other vehicle involved, and proceeding to punch the female driver who was still sitting in the other car.  That lawyer received a three-month suspension.

Now, I was a mere law student in Tennessee back then, and I didn’t know anything about that decision before today.  I know about it now, thanks at first to a Law360 email newsletter blast, because of two decisions from the New Jersey Supreme Court that were issued simultaneously this week (and coincidentally were also both decided on the same day, more than 9 months ago on December 15, 2015, by the N.J. Disciplinary Review Board).

The outcomes in those cases – and all of the other precedent they describe — make me think that New Jersey lawyers still have a real problem with violence and that the New Jersey Supreme Court wants to make sure that warning, 20 years later, is renewed, repeated,and maybe more effective this time.

The first In re Collins affirms the Disciplinary Review Board’s decision to impose a three-month suspension on a N.J. lawyer for another “road rage” incident.  This time it involved a bat, but fortunately for the people in the other car, the lawyer took the bat only to their car – though they were inside of it at the time:

Respondent admitted that, while on a public street in Jersey City, during a “road rage” incident, he got out of his car, retrieved a baseball bat from the trunk and struck another person’s vehicle multiple times, breaking the windshield and side view mirror.

In the December opinion of the Disciplinary Review Board, the Board referenced the fact that it was issuing decisions at the same time in two other cases, mentioned that they were recommending imposition of censures on those attorneys, and attempted to explain why this one was more serious than those.

As of this afternoon, I can only find one of those other two on the Court’s website, the In re Buckley one.  I’d be interested to know what the other one involved and I’d be curious to see if it ends up in the same place as Buckley does because the NJ Supreme Court order on Buckley rejected the Board’s recommendation of only a censure and increased the punishment to the same three-month suspension imposed in Collins.

The acts of violence in Buckley as described by the Board opinion read like so:

On the night of the assault, Balde, a taxi driver, was hailed by respondent on the West Side Highway in New York City.  He agreed to drive respondent to Jersey City for a $63 fare.  Upon arriving in Jersey City, at approximately 10:30 p.m., respondent informed Balde that he had only $9 and asked Balde to drive him to his apartment so that he could obtain additional money.  Balde refused to do so and locked the doors in the taxi to prevent respondent from exiting.  Respondent, who is approximately 6′ 5″ tall and 280 pounds, began to kick at a door and window of the vehicle.

Balde then unlocked the doors and respondent exited the taxi and began walking away, pursued by Balde.  Respondent grabbed Balde’s face and then struck him in the face with a closed fist…. As a result of respondent’s assault, Balde sustained lacerations to his forehead and upper lip, his glasses were broken, he had blood on his shirt, and he reported pain in his nose and mouth.

Now, you give me the choice between a guy with a bat attacking my car and getting punched in the face by a 6’5″ 280 pound man, and I know what I would choose … I’d choose to stop playing “would you rather” with you and play Words With Friends with someone else instead.

The Board tried to explain its distinction in December on the basis of the different levels of violent conduct but the only thing the Board said that truly resonated was the fact that the lawyer who attacked the cabbie was not working as a lawyer at all but as a compliance officer for a national bank and so there was less need for a body such as the Board to protect the public from the lawyer as lawyer.  Nevertheless, on the New Jersey Supreme Court’s own terms dating back to Viggiano, the punishment in the second case suggested by the Board likely didn’t look like much of a “violence won’t be tolerated” message.

But, the Board did look like it was truly trying to apply post-Viggiano precedent and the New Jersey Supreme Court hadn’t quite always taken its own warning to heart.  The Collins opinion from the Board takes the reader on a tour of a few other cases including a bar fight and assault on a police officer that resulted in a one-year suspension (In re Gibson in 2005), an attorney who only received a censure for following another vehicle for roughly 10 miles while brandishing a knife at its occupants (In re Milita in 2014), a lawyer who was suspended for six-months for attacking a physician (choked the doctor and smashed his head against a plexiglass window?) who tried to help the lawyer after the lawyer fell backwards on some stairs (In re Bornstein in 2006), and a lawyer who only received a censure for assaulting special federal agents during an investigation (In re Nealy in 2011).

So, it seems like the New Jersey Supreme Court might well be trying to put some more teeth into that warning, but again I’d be curious to know anything more I can find about that other case mentioned in the December Board ruling – In re Rausch.  In the meantime, I guess it is fair to say:  “Beware violent New Jersey lawyers!”  But, maybe even more so, “Beware of violent New Jersey lawyers!”

Oh, and on what I am sure is a completely unrelated note, here’s a handy link to a report entitled Drug and Alcohol Abuse & Addiction in the Legal Profession that you can read at your leisure.

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