Florida Bar Professional Ethics Committee approves staff opinion addressing lawyer responses to negative online reviews

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the Florida Bar’s Professional Ethics Committee’s recent approval of Florida Bar Staff Opinion 38049, which addresses lawyer responses to negative online reviews.

On June 15, 2018, the Florida Bar’s Professional Ethics Committee unanimously approved Florida Bar Staff Opinion 38049 which states that a lawyer may post a limited response to a negative online review that the lawyer says falsely accuses her of theft; however, the lawyer may not reveal attorney/client confidences.  The Staff Opinion is here:  file:///C:/Users/jcorsmeier/Downloads/PRR_Corsmeier_-_38049_KNS_responding_to_negative_online_review_PEC_approved.pdf.  The Professional Ethics Committee will not issue a separate opinion.

The lawyer stated in her inquiry that she received a negative online review and would like to respond to the former client’s negative review that the lawyer “took her money and ran” by using the language suggested in Texas Ethics Opinion 662 and adding an “objectively verifiable truthful statement” that the Court entered an order authorizing the lawyer to withdraw as counsel for the former client.

The lawyer stated that she believed the added language was “proportional and restrained, consistent with the Texas Ethics Opinion, directly addressed the allegations of the former client, and should be permissible under the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar and the First Amendment.”  The staff opinion found that the post would reveal confidential information without obtaining the former client’s consent and cited the comment to Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6.

According to the staff opinion, “(a) fundamental principle in the client-lawyer relationship is that, in the absence of the client’s informed consent, the lawyer must not reveal information relating to the representation…. The confidentiality rule applies not merely to matters communicated in confidence by the client but also to all information relating to the representation, whatever its source.”

“The inquirer refers to Texas Ethics Opinion 622. That opinion explains that a lawyer may not respond to client’s negative internet review if the response discloses confidential information.  The opinion gives an example of a proportional and restrained response that does not reveal any confidential information:  A lawyer’s duty to keep client confidences has few exceptions and in an abundance of caution I do not feel at liberty to respond in a point by point fashion in this forum. Suffice it to say that I do not believe that the post presents a fair and accurate picture of the events.  The suggested language found in Texas Ethics Opinion 622 would be an acceptable response for the inquirer.”

“An attorney is not ethically barred from responding to an online review by a former client where the former client’s matter has concluded…(h)owever, the duty of confidentiality prevents the attorney from disclosing confidential information about the prior representation absent the client’s informed consent or waiver of confidentiality.”

In 2016, a Colorado lawyer was suspended for six months after he responded to a negative online review and revealed, among other things, that the client had bounced a check and committed unrelated felonies.  There have been other disciplinary cases where a lawyer has been sanctioned for revealing confidences in responding to a negative online review, including: In the Matter of Margrett A. Skinner, Case No. S14Y0661 (Ga. Supreme Court 5/19/14), where a Georgia lawyer received a reprimand for revealing confidences in responding to a negative online review, and In re John P. Mahoney, Bar Docket No. 2015-D141 (2015), where a lawyer received in formal admonishment in 2015.

Bottom line:  As I have blogged and advised in the past, lawyers are prohibited from revealing client confidences unless an exception to the Bar rules applies either requiring or permitting the disclosure.  Permissive exceptions include responding to a Bar complaint, defending a lawsuit filed against the lawyer, and defending against criminal charges involving the representation of a client.  A negative online review is not currently one of those exceptions.

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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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.
This entry was posted in Attorney ethics, Attorney/client confidentiality, Confidential Information, Confidentiality, corsmeier, Florida Bar ethics, Florida Bar ethics opinion lawyer response to negative online review complaint and confidentiality, Florida Bar Rules, joe corsmeier, joseph corsmeier, Lawyer revealing confidential information on internet in response to complaint, Lawyer violation of confidentiality on internet, Lawyer/client confidentiality, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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