N.J. Supreme Court reverses reprimand and dismisses complaint against lawyer who posted allegedly confidential information on his website

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court opinion reversing a Disciplinary Review Board’s reprimand recommendation and dismissing a complaint against lawyer who was alleged to have posted client confidential information on his website.  The disciplinary case is In the Matter of Jay J. Chatarpaul, Docket No. 15-134 (July 15, 2016).  The opinion is here:http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1073877 and the Review Board’s Decision is here:http://drblookupportal.judiciary.state.nj.us/DocumentHandler.ashx?document_id=1068061

According to the Decision, the disciplinary complaint originated from a discrimination lawsuit filed by the lawyer against Rite Aid on behalf of his client Rameena Khan, which was ultimately settled. The settlement agreement stated:

Plaintiff’s Attorney agrees that as of the execution of this Agreement, it [sic] has removed: (a) any and all articles, blogs, or other writings that have been authored, posted, publicized or controlled by it [sic], which disparage or discuss the Lawsuit, Complaint, Federal Action, Amended Complaint, the Trial or the Appeal in any manner whatsoever, from the Internet and elsewhere, including but not limited to the articles attached hereto as Exhibit A; and (b) all hyperlinks and references to said articles from the Internet. In addition, [respondent] agrees not to write any further articles or blogs, or make any nonprivileged statements, regarding or referencing the Lawsuit, the Complaint, the Amended Complaint, the Federal Action, the Trial or the Appeal.

The lawyer had previously published an article on his website discussing, inter alia, the facts of the case and alleged errors made by the Superior Court Judge who presided over the case:

At trial, the case was assigned to Judge Christine Farrington. Judge Farrington was recently appointed as a judge of the Superior Court and took the bench in June 2010. Prior to being appointed judge, Judge Farrington spent 10 years as deputy counsel for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and worked in claims administration, risk management and environmental matters.  During the trial, Judge Farrington made various prejudicial comments suggesting lack of impartiality, improperly excluding [sic] evidence and testimonies, etc., which are the subject of a pending appeal. Judge Farrington excluded various documents and testimonies, including documents and witnesses relating to the unemployment appeals hearing, documents and witnesses relating to Ms. Lazzaro [sic] termination and replacement, and other matters that are the subject of an appeal. The plaintiff’s position is that the jury’s verdict in favor of Rite Aid was the product of many errors of the trial judge, including various comments suggesting favoritism towards the position of Rite Aid. The plaintiff is confident that the appellate courts would [sic] grant a new trial based on these perceived errors.

The lawyer testified that although “in retrospect, he should not have made such statements about the judge and her rulings, respondent did not believe they were unethical. Still, he would not publish such an article again because he did not want to be the subject of another ethics investigation.”

The New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics advised the lawyer to remove the article from his website because it allegedly contained client confidential information.  The lawyer removed the article from his website; however, it was still visible through a Google search.  The lawyer also argued that the information was public record and prohibiting him from publishing it would violate the First Amendment.

According to the Decision, “In respondent’s view, after the hyperlink had been removed from the law firm’s website, the article remained within the internet archives, but he did not know how to ‘get rid of that.’”  The Special Master found that the lawyer’s representations that he had removed the article constituted “gross negligence” since the article was still accessible on the internet, that the article violated the New Jersey lawyer advertising rules, and that the failure to remove the article was prejudicial to the administration of justice since the lawyer “failed to take reasonable and necessary steps to make sure the Kahn [sic] Article was completely removed from the Internet (especially after Respondent received the OAE’s April 8, 2013 letter), and that his failure to do so has unnecessarily consumed resources of the State.”

In the New Jersey Disciplinary Review Board Decision, four members recommended a reprimand, one member voted for an admonition, and another member voted to dismiss the disciplinary matter.  The majority found that the article violated client confidentiality and that the lawyer failed to preserve his website pages for 3 years under N.J. Bar Rule 7.2(b) (b) (A copy or recording of an advertisement or communication shall be kept for three years after its last dissemination along with a record of when and where it was used.”  The Decision acknowledged that there was no precedent for applying the requirement to website pages.

The New Jersey Supreme rejected the Disciplinary Review Board’s reprimand recommendation and dismissed the complaint.  The opinion found that “the respondent’s conduct in revealing information that was a matter of public record under the circumstances here did not violate (the client confidentiality rule)” and “there is a lack of precedent for applying RPC 7.2(b) to impose discipline on an attorney for failure to retain webpages of the attorney’s or a law firm’s website.”  The opinion also recommended that the New Jersey advisory committee on professional ethics consider amending the rules to require lawyers to retain their webpages for a minimum period of time.

Bottom line:  The factual and procedural circumstances underlying this opinion are convoluted; however, the lawyer argued that the article that he posted on his website contained public record and prohibiting him from publishing the information would be a violation First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The opinion found that revealing information that is a matter of public record does not violate the New Jersey client confidentiality rules.

Be careful out there.

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

Please note:  Effective June 27, 2016, my new office address is:

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150, Clearwater, Florida 33761

E-mail addresses and telephone numbers below will remain the same. 

My main office number, (727) 799-1688, is temporarily unavailable due to a telephone company issue.  Please call (727) 286-6625 (my rollover number) if you need to contact me immediately.   Thank you. 

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

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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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