Florida Supreme Court stays lower court case where judge found that Facebook “friendship” with lawyer was not disqualifying

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert update which will discuss the recent (12/7/17) Order of the Florida Supreme Court granting the Herssein law firm’s Motion to Stay the lower court proceeding wherein Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge denied a motion to disqualify a lawyer who was a “friend” on the judge on Facebook.  The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. d/b/a Herssein Law Group and Reuven T. Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Supreme Court Case No. SC17-1848).  The Herssein law firm’s Motion for Stay is here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2017/1848/2017-1848_motion_114995_motion2dstay2028proceedings20below29.pdf and the December 7, 2017 Florida Supreme Court Order is here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2017/1848/2017-1848_order_224307_o03bo.pdf.

As I previously blogged, the Third DCA upheld the decision of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko that she was not required to recuse herself from a case in which she was a Facebook “friend” of the lawyer for one of the witnesses/potential parties.  The lawyer was also a former judge with whom she worked before he resigned as a circuit judge.  This decision departs from a previous 4th DCA opinion and an opinion of the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (JEAC).

The Third DCA opinion states:

“A random name drawn from a list of Facebook ‘friends’ probably belongs to casual friend, an acquaintance, an old classmate, a person with whom the member shares a common hobby, a ‘friend of a friend’ or even a local celebrity like a coach.  An assumption that all Facebook ‘friends’ rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking.”

The Herssein law firm had moved to disqualify the judge from presiding over a contract dispute against their client, the United States Automobile Association (USAA) in which an attorney named Reyes represented a non-party USAA employee in the matter, who was identified as a potential witness/party.  The law firm argued that the judge could not be impartial in the case and cited JEAC Op. 2009-20 (Nov.17, 2009).  That opinion states: “Listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as ‘friends’ on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge.”  In 2012, the 4th DCA relied on the JEAC opinion in disqualifying a judge from a case for being Facebook friends with the criminal prosecutor. Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).

The Third DCA opinion states that Facebook friendships could represent a close relationship that would require disqualification, however, many do not.  The opinion concluded:

“In fairness to the Fourth District’s decision in Domville and the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee’s 2009 opinion, electronic social media is evolving at an exponential rate. Acceptance as a Facebook “friend” may well once have given the impression of close friendship and affiliation. Currently, however, the degree of intimacy among Facebook “friends” varies greatly. The designation of a person as a “friend” on Facebook does not differentiate between a close friend and a distant acquaintance. Because a “friend” on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word, we hold that the mere fact that a judge is a Facebook “friend” with a lawyer for a potential party or witness, without more, does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook “friend.” On this point we respectfully acknowledge we are in conflict with the opinion of our sister court in Domville.”

The Herssein law firm filed a Notice asking the Florida Supreme Court to invoke its discretionary jurisdiction to review the decision under Article V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const., and Rule 9.030(a)(2)(A)(iii) and (iv). In support of the request, the Notice states:  “The decision expressly and directly affects a class of constitutional or state officers; all V judges in Florida, and the decision expressly and directly conflicts with the decision of another district court of appeal on the same question of law.”

Bottom line:  As I said in my previous blogs, the lower court’s order and the 3rd DCA opinion is contrary to the 2009 JEAC opinion and the 2012 4th  DCA opinion and acknowledges that it is in conflict with that opinion; however, it does provide the rationale that each case should be decided by examining the facts and the relationship.  This would seem to create potential confusion and potential disqualification motions would then have to be decided on a case by case basis.  The Florida Supreme Court has now stayed the lower court matter while it presumably looks at the issue and decides whether to invoke its discretionary jurisdiction.

Again, it would seem to be prudent for judges and lawyers who may appear before them not to be “friends” or otherwise connect on social media and professional networking sites or, if they are already connected and a case is assigned, to immediately remove the connection, disclose it to all parties, and (the judge may) possibly provide an option to recuse if the party believes that it could be potentially prejudiced.

Stay tuned…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Posted in Judge disqualification Facebook friends with lawyer, judge disqualification Facebook friends with lawyer Florida Supreme Court, Judicial Ethics Facebook and LinkedIn, Lawyer ethics Facebook, Lawyer improper access to opposing party Facebook, Motion to Disqualify Facebook friends, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Startup app TIKD sues Florida Bar for alleged antitrust violations; Florida Bar moves to disqualify former president from case

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent lawsuit filed by Startup app TIKD Services against The Florida Bar and the Ticket Clinic law firm for, inter alia, antitrust violations and the Bar’s Motion to Disqualify its former president, Ramón A. Abadin from representing TIKD, claiming that he was privy to privileged and confidential communications and information related to the matter.  The case is TIKD Services LLC, v. The Florida Bar, et al., Case No. 1:17-cv-24103-MGC (U.S. District Court Southern District of Florida-Miami Division).

The owner of the company, Chris Riley, says he got the idea for TIKD after he received a speeding ticket in Miami and had to pay a lawyer and was assessed fines and costs.  He then came up with an app to help motorists challenge their tickets without having to go to court.  The app permits the ticketed person to upload a photo of the ticket and pay a fixed amount.  TIKD then retains an attorney to represent that person and, if he or she is ultimately is assessed with points against his or her license, TIKD refunds the payment and also pays the cost of the ticket.  The TIKD business model is based on the fact that contested traffic tickets are often dismissed or a lower fine is assessed and, since TIKD deals in volume, it can charge a lower price than a lawyer who is separately retained by an individual.

The Florida Bar issued a staff opinion finding that lawyers who work with TIKD and similar programs could be in violation of various Florida Bar ethics rules, including fee splitting and interference with the lawyer’s independent professional judgment.  TIKD states that its services fully comply with Florida Bar ethics rules and that lawyers who represent the individuals receive a flat fee and are independent practitioners “over whom TIKD does not exercise any direction or control.”

TIKD subsequently filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging conspiracy, restraint of trade, tortious interference with business relationships, and antitrust violations.  The lawyers representing TIKD include Ramón A. Abadin, a recent former President of the Florida Bar.  The defendants include, among others, The Florida Bar and attorney Mark S. Good, who founded The Ticket Clinic; which has offices in Florida, Georgia and California.

According to the federal lawsuit, The Florida Bar advised TIKD that it was opening an unlicensed practice of law investigation into the company’s activities after the company was featured in a Miami Herald story.  A few months later, attorneys with The Ticket Clinic, a Miami law firm that handles traffic tickets, threatened to report two of TIKD’s lawyers to the Bar if they continued to work with TIKD.  Litigation was later filed and the parties reached a settlement last August; however, TIKD alleges that the Bar and the Miami lawyer firm continued a “concerted effort” to put it out of business and that Ticket Clinic lawyers continued filing “baseless ethics complaints” against attorneys represent TIKD customers.

On December 1, 2017, The Florida Bar filed a Motion to Disqualify Ramón A. Abadin alleging that, during his 2015-16 term as president, he “was provided attorney-client and attorney work-product communications and advice about and involving the specific antitrust issues and allegations asserted in this action”, including an amicus brief that was filed in the U.S. Supreme Court case of North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission, 135 S. Ct. 1101 (2015).  In that opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the N.C. dental board did not have state action immunity because its decisions were final and not subject to review. The Florida Bar joined in an amicus brief in that case arguing state action immunity should apply.

Bottom line:  This appears to be the one of the first cases filed in Florida which directly alleges that The Florida Bar’s procedures violate the Sherman Antitrust Act based upon the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission.  As an added element of intrigue, the Bar’s very recent former president was among the lawyers filing the complaint and the Bar has filed a motion to disqualify him from the matter.

Stay tuned…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

Posted in Attorney ethics, Bar antitrust, Florida Bar discipline, Florida Bar ethics, Florida Bar TIKD antitrust lawsuit, joe corsmeier, joseph corsmeier, Lawyer Ethics, Uncategorized, UPL North Carolina antitrust, UPL, unauthorized practice of law, unlicensed practice of law, U.S. Constitution professional speech, USSC North Carolina dental antitrust case | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Wisconsin lawyer suspended for, inter alia, smuggling heavy toothbrushes and red pepper into prison for client

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court opinion which suspended a Wisconsin lawyer for four months for, inter alia, bringing heavy toothbrushes to client in prison and failing to adequately communicate with a drunken driving client.  The case is In the Matter of Steven Cohen, Case No.: 2015AP1350-D and the opinion is here: https://www.wicourts.gov/sc/opinion/DisplayDocument.pdf?content=pdf&seqNo=202686

According to the opinion, the lawyer was admitted to practice law in Wisconsin in 1996. He received a private reprimand in 2007 after his conviction for one count of misdemeanor disorderly conduct which resulted from an dispute involving the lawyer and his wife.

One count of the disciplinary complaint alleged that, in 2013, the lawyer smuggled two heavy toothbrushes and red pepper to a client who was in prison after being convicted on homicide charges.  Prison authorities found the items in a search of the client after discovering a discarded white pastry bag containing a doughnut and an empty toothbrush package.  The authorities also said that the toothbrushes were heavier than the toothbrushes given to inmates and could be made into shanks (sharpened weapons), and that the crushed red pepper could be made into pepper spray.

The opinion states that: “(w)hen correctional officers interviewed Attorney Cohen about the items, he denied knowing anything about them.  Following additional investigation, Attorney Cohen was arrested for delivering contraband into the Columbia Correctional Institution. In February of 2014, the Columbia County district attorney filed a complaint charging Attorney Cohen with one felony count of delivering illegal articles to an inmate and one misdemeanor count of resisting or obstructing an officer.”

In November 2014, the lawyer pled no contest and was found guilty of a felony count of delivering illegal articles to an inmate, along with two misdemeanors.  Judgment on the felony charge was deferred.  The lawyer said that he brought the items to the prison after his client requested a toothbrush and some food and that his only motive was “from concern for the care of the inmate, and desire to serve.”

The second, third, and forth counts of the complaint alleged that the lawyer accepted a $2,500.00 fee from a DUI client without a written fee agreement and then failed to adequately communicate with the client.  When the client demanded a refund, the lawyer returned half of the fee. He denied that he failed to communicate with the client, but did not provide any documentation to support the denial.  The lawyer also claimed that he had e-mailed the client; however, the client said he did not have an e-mail address.

According to the opinion, the lawyer testified that he did not respond to the client’s telephone calls because he was not ready to speak with the client, which was “a normal trial tactic.”  He also said he did not respond since he tells his clients to call him on his cell telephone rather than his land line, and the client called on his land line. He also claimed his secretary does not take messages on the land line.

The lawyer was suspended for 4 months effective December 29, 2017 and required to pay $8,608.20 in disciplinary costs.

Bottom line:  This lawyer appears to have been attempting to provide an imprisoned client with the tools to injure other inmates, whether in self defense or otherwise.  Obviously, this was improper and the lawyer was suspended for 4 months for those actions, as well as his failure to communicate with another client and charging an improper fee.

Be careful out there.     

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

Posted in Attorney ethics, deceit, dishonesty, joe corsmeier, joseph corsmeier, Lawyer conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, Lawyer conduct that adversely reflects on fitness to practice, Lawyer discipline criminal misconduct, Lawyer Ethics, Lawyer false statements, Lawyer misconduct false statements, Lawyer misconduct smuggling contraband into prison for client, Lawyer sanctions, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

California law requires California Bar to split into mandatory regulatory and voluntary trade association entities

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent California law that requires the California Bar to split into separate regulatory and trade association entities, which appears to be in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s North Carolina dental antitrust case in 2015.  The State Bar of California’s press release announcing the “historic” law is here: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/About-Us/News-Events/News-Releases/ArtMID/10234/ArticleID/525/State-Bar-prepares-to-implement-historic-reforms-followingGov-Brown-signature-on-the-agency%E2%80%99s-annual-fee-bill

According to the State Bar press release: “Today (October 2, 2017) Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 36 into law, the fee bill for the State Bar of California. In addition to setting the annual licensing fee for lawyers, SB 36 includes historic reforms for the public protection agency.”

Under the law, effective in 2019, the California Bar will act only as the disciplinary and regulatory agency and membership will be mandatory for all of the state’s lawyers.  The current 19-member Bar board will transition into a group of 13 individuals serving four-year terms.  Six of the 13 members must be members of the public.  All board members will be appointed by the California Supreme Court, the state legislature, and the governor and will no longer be elected.

A separate nonprofit entity will be created for trade association activities and will include all Bar sections.  Membership in that entity will be voluntary and will include an annual membership fee.

The California Bar must also comply with a California Supreme Court policy to identify and address any proposed decision of the board of trustees which raises antitrust concerns.  This requirement is clearly an attempt to avoid allegations of antitrust violations which were found by the U.S. Supreme Court in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission, No. 13–534. (USSC February 25, 2015).

In that 2015 case, the USSC found that the North Carolina dental regulatory board, which was made up of primarily dentists, did not have state-action antitrust immunity in its attempts to prohibit non-dentists from providing teeth-whitening services to the public.

The regulation of lawyers (and other licensed professionals) in Florida and other states is implemented through boards, commissions, committees, or other similar entities which investigate and make findings.  In Florida, there is no separate trade association; however, findings by Bar Counsel, grievance committees, and the Bar Board of Governors are subject to review by the Florida Supreme Court.

I previously blogged about North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission and its aftermath in my Ethics Alerts here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/u-s-supreme-court-opinion-finds-that-there-is-no-automatic-antitrust-immunity-for-state-professional-licensing-boards/, here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2015/06/24/legalzoom-files-federal-antitrust-lawsuit-against-the-north-carolina-state-bar-citing-2015-ussc-dental-board-case/, and here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2015/10/28/legalzoom-settles-multi-million-dollar-antitrust-suit-against-the-north-carolina-state-bar-with-agreement-to-continue-operating/

In some states, these antitrust issues are most likely not in play.   For example, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission oversees the registration and discipline of attorneys and all Illinois lawyers are required to pay dues to that entity.  All final disciplinary orders are also issued by the Illinois Supreme Court.  The Illinois State Bar Association is a separate voluntary association which engages in trade association activities.

Bottom line: This California law is clearly in response to (and an attempt to overcome) the antitrust issues identified by the U.S. Supreme Court in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission.  Will other states follow?  Stay tuned…

…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

Posted in California law requires split of lawyer regulation and trade association activities, lawyer antitrust, Uncategorized, UPL North Carolina antitrust, USSC North Carolina dental antitrust case | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Indiana criminal prosecutor suspended for 4 years for twice eavesdropping on confidential attorney/client conversations

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Indiana Supreme Court opinion suspending a lawyer for 4 years for eavesdropping on confidential attorney/client conversations with no automatic reinstatement.  The case is In the Matter of Robert Neary, No. 46S00-1512-DI-705 (Ind. SC), and the November 6, 2017 disciplinary opinion is here: http://www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/11061701per.pdf

The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission filed a two-count disciplinary complaint against the lawyer on December 17, 2015, and later amended the complaint.  The amended complaint charged the lawyer with “professional misconduct in connection with his actions in two criminal cases while serving as the chief deputy prosecutor in LaPorte County (Michigan).”

The first count of the complaint alleged that the prosecutor had surreptitiously watched video feeds of an attorney/client confidential conversation in March 2014 at the Michigan City Police Department.  A defense lawyer had flipped a switch that was supposed to prevent the conversation from being recorded; however, the police controlled the live video and audio.

The lawyer and police detectives watched the conversation from the police station’s “war room.”  During the conversation, the defendant (Taylor) told his lawyer where a gun could be found.  The lawyer advised the police detectives not to recover the weapon; however, they ignored his advice and recovered the weapon.

The chief of police later learned of the recording and told the lawyer that he should provide the information the defendant’s counsel.  The lawyer subsequently provided the information to the defendant’s lawyer and also reported his misconduct to the Indiana Bar authorities.

The second count alleged that the lawyer listened to an attorney/client confidential conversation that was recorded in December 2012 at the Long Beach (Michigan) Police Department.  The defendant (Larkin) had agreed to speak with police with his lawyer present, in exchange for being charged with voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.

During an 11-minute break in the questioning, the defendant discussed defense strategy and other confidential matters with his lawyer; however, the recording system was not turned off.  The lawyer viewed the recorded interview that included the attorney/client confidential discussion during the break about a month later.

According to the opinion, “Respondent first viewed the DVD of the interview, including the break discussion, about one month later. Respondent watched the entire break discussion even though the privileged status of that discussion either was, or should have been, immediately apparent to Respondent.  Respondent provided a copy of the DVD, including the break discussion, to Larkin’s counsel but did not mention to counsel that the break discussion had been recorded.”

The Larkin’s lawyer later filed a motion to dismiss the voluntary manslaughter charge alleging prosecutorial misconduct because of the recording of the discussion.  The lawyer’s response, which was sealed, provided the contents of the break discussion and included the written transcript and a DVD.  A judge later unsealed sealed the information.

The opinion noted that both of the cases had led to appeals and stated that the lawyer’s conduct had “fundamentally infringed on privileged attorney-client communications and, at an absolute minimum, has caused significant delays and evidentiary hurdles in the prosecutions of Taylor and Larkin, even assuming they still can be prosecuted at all.”  The court had reviewed the Taylor matter on appeal and described the eavesdropping as “egregious,” “flagrant,” “unconscionable,” “shameful,” “abhorrent” and “reprehensible.”

After a hearing, the hearing officer found that the lawyer had committed the Bar rule violations charged in the amended complaint and recommended a sanction ranging from a four-year suspension to disbarment.  The Indiana Bar Commission recommended disbarment.

According to the opinion: “(i)n many respects, these proceedings have painted an even more alarming picture of Respondent, in that they show Respondent gradually has retreated from his initial self-report to the Commission and has given evasive and inconsistent explanations and statements regarding the war room eavesdropping.  As aptly found by the hearing officer, ‘Respondent’s ever evolving narrative points to a lack of honesty.’”

The opinion further states: “(t)he severity of the misconduct and Respondent’s repeated transgressions certainly lend support to the notion that he should be disbarred. On the other hand, Respondent has no prior discipline, he self-reported his conduct to the Commission, and several persons testified to his good reputation in the community (although, as noted by the hearing officer, these persons did not appear to have been particularly well informed of the circumstances giving rise to these disciplinary proceedings). At the end of the day, these considerations persuade us that the door should not permanently be closed on Respondent’s legal career and that he should be afforded an opportunity at an appropriate juncture to prove by clear and convincing evidence his professional rehabilitation and fitness to resume practicing law.”

Bottom line: This prosecutor was involved in two separate serious violations of attorney/client confidentiality by viewing and listening to surreptitious recordings and clearly should have known better.  In my opinion, the lawyer was extremely fortunate that he avoided disbarment for his misconduct.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

Posted in Attorney ethics, attorney-client privilege, Attorney/client confidentiality, Attorney/client privilege, Confidential Information, Confidentiality, corsmeier, deceit, dishonesty, joe corsmeier, joseph corsmeier, Lawyer Ethics, Lawyer false statements, Lawyer sanctions, Prosecutor misconduct, Prosecutorial misconduct disciplinary sanctions, Prosecutorial misconduct eavesdropping on attorney client conversations, Prosecutorial misconduct lawyer ethics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Proposed Virginia Bar ethics opinion finds that AVVO and similar lawyer matching services are unethical

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent approval of a Virginia ethics opinion which finds that AVVO and similar matching services unethical.  Proposed Legal Ethics Opinion 1885 is here: http://www.vsb.org/site/regulation/leo_1885

On October 27, 2017, the Virginia State Bar voted to approve a draft ethics opinion regarding online attorney-client “matching services”, such as AVVO, which are called “attorney-client matching services” (ACMS),. The opinion finds that a lawyer’s participation in the matching services would violate the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct.

The opinion does not name any specific services; however, the description of the is similar to the business model of Avvo Legal Services, which allows consumers to purchase legal services for a flat fee.  The opinion describes a business model that it calls an “attorney-client matching service” (ACMS), which it describes as a for-profit entity that provides an online platform for matching attorneys and clients.  An ACMS gives a client a limited scope fee agreement, and the client pays the full fee to the ACMS.

The lawyer does not negotiate the scope of services or the fee or receive any of the client’s money until the services have been performed. Under ACMS’s terms, the lawyer agrees to provide flat fee legal services.  When the matter is completed, the attorney receives the full amount of the legal fee paid by the client.  ACMS then debits the attorney’s account for a “marketing fee” which varies depending upon the amount of the legal fee received.

The opinion identifies five problems with the ACMS business model:

  1. The lawyer is not properly handling the client’s advanced fee because it is allowing a third party to hold the funds. Thus, the funds are not being held in an IOLTA account as required.
  2. Since the lawyer has no access to the client’s money until he is paid in full by the platform, he is unable to fulfill his obligation to refund any unearned fees at the conclusion of the matter.
  3. Without being in control of the definition of the scope of legal services or negotiation of the fee, the lawyer may well be undertaking representation which violates any number of ethics rules. The services may not be appropriate to the client. The fee may not be commensurate with the value of the services provided. The services may be inadequate for the client’s needs. And so on.
  4. The payment of the marketing fee to ACMS constitutes the sharing of legal fees with a non-lawyer.
  5. The payment of the marketing fee constitutes payment for recommending the lawyer’s services.

The opinion criticizes the fact that Avvo holds the fee between the time that the prospective client pays for the services until the lawyer completes the services and states that “the ACMS collects advanced legal fees from a prospective client before the prospective client has had any contact with the lawyer whom she might engage” and that this is a violation of the Bar rules which require that advance fees be held in an the lawyer’s trust account until services are completed.

Under lawyer trust account rules, unearned fees are to remain in trust. As an ACMS is not a law firm, it cannot have an IOTA trust account or hold client fees in trust. Since the fees are not paid to the lawyer, the lawyer is unable hold the funds in trust if same is required under the Bar rules. In addition, under the Bar rules, a lawyer has an to refund any unearned fees at the end of the representation.

The opinion also discusses some potential solutions to the problems with the current model.  Regarding the issue of the lawyer not having control over the fee and the scope of the representation, the opinion did not flatly state that lawyers are prohibited from participating in the ACMS model. It concluded that a lawyer could participate if the lawyer consults with the client and is satisfied that the services can be performed competently and in compliance with the ethical rules before accepting a matter.  The lawyer would also have to exercise independent professional judgment to insure that the fee is not unreasonable or excessive.

The opinion held that the arrangement results in unethical fee sharing with the matching service and “(t)he fact that the ACMS executes a separate electronic debit from the lawyer’s bank account for its ‘marketing fee’ following the firm’s electronic deposit of the full legal fee to the lawyer’s bank account does not change the ethically impermissible fee-sharing character of the transaction.”  The opinion left the possibility that fee splitting might be avoided if the lawyer’s fee was based upon the number of clients received through the platform or the number of inquiries or clicks on their profile.

Bottom line: If this opinion is approved by the Virginia Supreme Court, Virginia will join five other states, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, in disapproving or criticizing the AVVO business model. The New York and New Jersey opinions, which were issued this year, determined that the “marketing fee” taken from the lawyer’s account involves improper fee splitting.

Be careful out there…and stay tuned.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Posted in Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics sharing fees, corsmeier, joe corsmeier, Joint New Jersey ethics opinion- AVVO legal services are improper fee sharing and referral fees, Lawyer ethics AVVO and matching services- fee splitting and sharing, Lawyer ethics- AVVO lawyer independent professional judgment, lawyer referral fees, New York ethics opinion- AVVO legal services improper fee sharing, referral fees, and recommendations, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Federal prosecutor suspended after disclosure of intimate relationship with FBI agent who testified in her cases

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Louisiana Supreme Court disciplinary opinion which imposed a one year and one day suspension with 6 months deferred on a federal prosecutor for having an intimate relationship with an FBI agent who was an investigator and witness in her cases and lying about it.  The disciplinary case is In Re: C. Mignonne Griffing, Case No. 2017-B-0874 and the October 18, 2017 disciplinary opinion is here: file:///C:/Users/jcorsmeier/Downloads/17B0874.OPN.pdf

The relationship was revealed during the trial of two Monroe, Louisiana city councilmen and the Ouachita Parish sheriff. “After the sheriff’s counsel raised the possibility of the relationship, (the lawyer) was questioned by the United States Attorney and was not immediately and fully forthcoming.”

The lawyer initially denied the relationship with the (married) FBI agent at that time but it was later confirmed.  The disciplinary opinion adopted the findings of the disciplinary board that the misconduct “led to the government’s decision to relitigate the case against Councilmen Stevens and Gilmore, caused harm in the form of the additional expenditure of resources to retry the case, and adversely impacted the government’s tendered plea bargain offered to Sheriff Toney. The potential for harm also exists, as it is possible that the issue of the relationship may be raised in other cases prosecuted by respondent in which the FBI agent testified. Furthermore, her actions are the type that cause unfavorable opinion by the public towards the legal system and especially, the United States Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Louisiana.”

The lawyer denied that the relationship created a conflict of interest and defended the formal.  She was ultimately found guilty of multiple violations of the Louisiana Bar Rules, including conflict of interest and making false statements in denying the conduct.

According to the opinion, “(b)ecause the relationship with the FBI agent could reasonably give rise to a basis for questioning the interest and/or credibility of the witness by the defense, the existence of the relationship should have been disclosed to the defendants, but (the lawyer) failed to do so.”  “In addition, the disciplinary board found (the lawyer) made assurances to the sheriff’s counsel relative to his client’s indictment and arrest. This conduct, and her phone call threatening the sheriff’s public arrest, were clearly improper.” “(The lawyer’s) actions are the type that cause unfavorable opinion by the public towards the legal system and especially, the United States Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Louisiana.”

The opinion increased the deferred six-month suspension recommended by the disciplinary board.  “When taken cumulatively, including the multiple violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct and specifically considering respondent’s dishonesty and misrepresentation to which she has stipulated, we find that the fully deferred suspension recommended by the board is not appropriate and that respondent must serve an actual period of suspension. We will impose a one year and one day suspension, deferring all but six months of the suspension in light of the substantial mitigating circumstances present.”  The lawyer also served a 19 day suspension from her job as a prosecutor without pay for the misconduct.

Bottom line:  This lawyer was found to have engaged in a relationship with a law enforcement agent who was an investigator and witness in many of the cases that she was prosecuting for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and failed to disclose it (for obvious reasons).  The lawyer paid the price for this misconduct with a suspension of her license and a serious hit to her reputation.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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