Wisconsin Supreme Court agrees with referee and rejects disciplinary charges related to alleged improper reimbursement of ABA expenses

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court opinion approving a referee’s report rejecting the imposition of discipline on a lawyer who allegedly sent “compound” (duplicate) reimbursement requests to the ABA.  The case is In the Matter of Disciplinary Proceedings Against Richard J. Podell, Attorney at Law: Office of Lawyer Regulation v.  Richard J. Podell, 2012AP371-D (March 22, 2013).  The opinion is attached and is at: http://www.wicourts.gov/sc/opinion/DisplayDocument.html?content=html&seqNo=94426.

The opinion states that the lawyer was admitted to practice law in Wisconsin in 1969 and had never previously been disciplined.  He was also a “longtime active member of the ABA, serving on numerous committees and holding numerous office positions.  He was a member of the House of Delegates, was past-Chair of the Family Law Section, was Chair of the Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section, and also served as budget officer of the Senior Lawyers Division.  The lawyer also frequently attended ABA section meetings and ABA House of Delegates meetings and submitted requests for financial reimbursement to different ABA sections.”

According to the disciplinary complaint, the lawyer personally submitted three expense reimbursement claims to the ABA requesting a total of $2,371.50 following the 2010 ABA midyear meeting in Orlando, Florida.  The lawyer subsequently received a letter from the ABA advising him he had sent “compound” (duplicate) reimbursement requests and the ABA conducted an audit of his ABA reimbursement requests for the years 2007, 2008, and 2009.  The audit showed that the lawyer submitted duplicate requests for expense reimbursement to various ABA departments for those years and that the total overpayment by the ABA was $1,155.80.  The ABA reimbursement was resolved to the satisfaction of the ABA; however, a Tennessee attorney conducted his own review and pursued the charges with the Wisconsin Bar authorities.

The disciplinary matter was referred to a referee who recommended that the lawyer be found not guilty of the all charges.  The referee’s report stated:  “(w)atching (the Tennessee lawyer) testify and considering the number of people within the ABA who now were aware of this matter; considering (the Tennessee lawyer’s) rush to judgment that (the lawyer) was guilty of dishonesty from the very outset; considering (the Tennessee lawyer’s) obsession that (the lawyer) should self-report this to OLR despite advice from others; considering that phone conversations with his so-called ‘friend’ were silently being listened to by a notekeeper or ABA staff; this referee is reminded of the old adage that with friends like this, who needs enemies.”

According to the opinion, the lawyer “admitted that he did not send the reimbursement requests to the ABA in an appropriate manner.  He expressed embarrassment and regret, repaid the ABA the amounts calculated as owed, claimed that he often failed to request reimbursement for ABA-related expenses and, had he done so, the ABA would have had to pay him considerable sums of money, and that he would not submit any further requests for ABA reimbursement.  He immediately sought to rectify his mistake.”  The opinion also noted that the ABA’s reimbursement policies were confusing, that the lawyer had a reputation for honesty, that he had no prior discipline, and that he paid restitution when the matter was brought to his attention.  The opinion agreed with the referee and found the lawyer not guilty.

Bottom line:  This is a somewhat bizarre lawyer discipline case.  First, it involved alleged false requests for reimbursement of expenses to a private entity (ABA) which were resolved with that entity, second, it involved a lawyer who was very involved with the ABA, including membership in the House of Delegates, and third, the Bar disciplinary matter was pursued by lawyer from Tennessee who had no official affiliation with the ABA who had apparently an “obsession that (the lawyer) should self-report” the conduct.

Be careful out there (and be especially careful with your expense reimbursement requests)!

Disclaimer: this e-mail does not contain any legal advice 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.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

About jcorsmeier

Joseph A. Corsmeier is an “AV” rated attorney practicing in Clearwater, Florida. He concentrates his practice primarily in the areas of defense of attorney disciplinary matters before The Florida Bar, attorney admission matters before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, and professional license and disciplinary matters before the Boards of the State of Florida. He provides expert analysis and opinion on conflict of interest and other attorney disqualification and legal malpractice issues and he testified as an expert in the Florida courts. He served as an Assistant State Attorney in the Sixth Judicial Circuit from 1986 to 1990 where he prosecuted felonies exclusively from June 1987, and as Bar Counsel for The Florida Bar’s Department of Lawyer Regulation from 1990 to 1998. He also practices in the areas of estate planning and Medicaid qualification, workers’ compensation, and labor law. Mr. Corsmeier is the author of numerous articles for various bar publications, has spoken at numerous local and statewide seminars on various topics, including ethics and professionalism, and was an instructor of legal ethics for paralegals at Rollins College until the Tampa campus closed. He received his undergraduate degree from Florida State University and his J.D. from Mercer University. He is admitted to practice in all Florida Courts, the Supreme Court of the United States, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and the Middle District of Florida. He is a member of The Florida Bar, American Bar Association, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, and the Clearwater and St. Petersburg Bar Associations.
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