Ethics Alarms Encore: “The Unethical Fine Print Game”

The following  post from 2017 became relevant today when I prepared to comment on  a story last week on Politico: 

Passengers and their survivors won a $265 million court settlement with Amtrak after a 2015 derailment in Philadelphia killed eight people and injured hundreds more. But if such a crash happened today, the victims would not be able to sue. That’s because of a clause the passenger rail line quietly added to its ticket purchases in January, which forces disputes into arbitration with no right to go before a judge or jury.

The change is bringing objections from consumer advocates, who note that it covers scenarios ranging from ordinary ticketing complaints up to wrongful death, and even includes minors who had the tickets purchased for them. And it could soon get Congress’ attention. The language has flown under the radar so far, but may burst into view when the House Transportation Committee holds a hearing on Amtrak next week.

“It is one of the most anti-consumer and passenger clauses I’ve ever seen,” said Julia Duncan, senior director for government affairs at the American Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers.

I realized that the post I was preparing to write was already written. Here it is, with a addition. [Some other posts on the topic of fine print—yes, it’s a perpetual source of annoyance for me— can be found here.] Continue reading

Animal Treatment Ethics, Stowaway Raccoon Division: Should A Lawyer Face Professional Sanctions For This?

Controversial Cruelty to Animals Day at Ethics Alarms continues (I don’t plan these things) with this legal ethics story out of Florida. The video above is at the center of it.

Florida disciplinary authorities have opened an investigation into the professional fitness of a lawyer who forced a stowaway  racoon off of his boat a long way from shore,  and thought it was all amusing enough to post a video of the incident on Facebook. The bar’s assumption is that the animal drowned.  The lawyer is now subject to prosecution for a violation of Florida’s wildlife laws.

In Florida, as in every other U.S. jurisdiction, one of the kinds of unethical conduct that can result in bar discipline is committing “a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects,”  as stated by  Rule 8.4 (b) of the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct . Should the nautical lawyer’s conduct  qualify?

You may recall a far more egregious case of animal cruelty by a lawyer discussed here, where I questioned if a psychopath lawyer’s fatal attack on his girlfriend’s dog Snoopy really tells us anything about his trustworthiness as a lawyer. I wrote then,

Emotionally, I have no problem with seeing an animal abuser kicked out of my profession, but I don’t understand what values are being applied. Is it the commission of a crime? Most lawyer crimes don’t result in disbarment, if they don’t involve lying, cheating or stealing. …There is no basis on which to conclude that [Snoppy’s killer]  isn’t competent, zealous and trustworthy—just keep him away from pets.

Now, you may well ask, “Isn’t this at least “moral turpitude?” That’s the character flaw that will keep applicants for bar membership from getting a license due to character deficiency. There are two points related to that. First, moral turpitude might keep you out of the law at the outset, but it is not one of the official no-nos that will get you kicked out of it one you are a practicing lawyer.  The legal  definition of moral turpitude is an act or behavior that gravely violates the sentiment or accepted standard of the community. Brutalizing an animal would certainly qualify. The ABA, however, greatly narrowed the definition as it was applicable to legal discipline:

The 1983 Model Code (periodically amended by the ABA House of Delegates over the last 32 years) rejected the prohibition against “illegal conduct involving moral turpitude.” The ABA’s reason, which it included in a Comment to its Rule 8.4, was quite simple: “Moral turpitude,” the ABA advised, is a “concept can be construed to include offenses concerning some matters of personal morality, such as adultery and comparable offenses, that have no specific connection to fitness for the practice of law. Although a lawyer is personally answerable to the entire criminal law, a lawyer should be professionally answerable only for offenses that indicate lack of those characteristics relevant to law practice.” The American Law Institute’s Restatement of the Law Governing Lawyers § 5 (Third) (ALI 2000), agreed. It also concluded that “moral turpitude” is vague and may lead to discriminatory or otherwise inappropriate applications.”

This looks like an Ick Factor case to me. The abuse of poor Snoopy is so viscerally repulsive that the bar and the courts can’t keep their ethical priorities in order. It is also, as particularly ugly discipline cases often are, a matter of public relations and self-preservation for the legal profession. The bar association knows that not banning a lawyer like Pastor—one hopes there aren’t many–signals to the public that the bar welcomes brilliant advocates who may be monsters in their spare time. That is a dark and dangerous road the profession would rather avoid.

The lawyer in the Florida video also has some defenses the poodle-stomper did not.  Raccoons are wild animals, and cute as the are, they also bite. I wouldn’t want to be trapped on a boat in middle of the ocean with one, though I wouldn’t throw the critter overboard either, unless it was me or him. (My father had a home movie of me jumping out of a canoe and swimming to a lake’s shore when I saw a large spider in the vessel. Of course, I was only 15. All right, I was 26….) The raccoon may have also been a better swimmer than everyone assumes: unlike in the case of poor Snoopy, the lawyer wasn’t trying to kill the animal, just get it off the boat.

I do not, however, second the opinion of Law professor Dane Ciolino, writing on his Louisiana Legal Ethics blog, who says in discussing the case, “A Maryland lawyer was suspended for microwaving a cat. But a racoon? I think not.”

Wait—is the professor really saying that microwaving a live raccoon would not justify bar sanctions, but a cooking a cat does? That’s animal bigotry, but it is consistent with what I detected in the Snoopy case. If that lawyer had stomped to death a raccoon that wandered into the apartment, I doubt that he would have been disciplined.

Yet animal cruelty is animal cruelty. If gratuitously killing a dog or a cat shows that a lawyer is unfit to practice, so does unnecessarily killing a raccoon.


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Ethics Dunce: District Attorney Craig Northcutt

How long will it take our communities to exile social Neanderthals like Craig Northcutt to jobs where their bigotry and un-American values can only harm the people foolish enough to voluntarily associate with them?

Northcutt is the Coffee County (Tennessee) District Attorney, and a 2018 videotape reveals him saying such things as,

  • Regarding the Supreme Court decision declaring it unconstitutional to prevent gay couples from marrying: “Five people in black dresses rule us — it just takes five votes, it doesn’t take all nine.”

That statement is per se moronic, as well as irresponsible.. A ruling by any judicial panel is just as binding and has exactly as much force in law regardless of the vote. Northcutt is encouraging defiance of the law.

  • “DAs have what’s called prosecutorial discretion. Y’all need to know who your DA is. Y’all give us a lot of authority whether you know it or not, We can choose to prosecute anything, we can choose not to prosecute anything, up to and including murder. It’s our choice, unfettered. So, to deal with that, you elect a good Christian man as DA, and you’ll make sure at least [Christians] don’t get prosecuted criminally.”

Translation: “I’m biased, prejudiced, conflicted, and incapable of enforcing the law fairly and objectively., and don’t even want to, or know why I should” Continue reading

Ignore The Spin: It Was Unethical For Michael Cohen To Secretly Record His Client, Donald Trump

This morning the Washington Post tries to spin the clear ethics violation by Michael Cohen when he surreptitiously recorded his client, Donald Trump, when his client didn’t know or have any reason to suspect that such a recording was taking place. It was unethical. I have never spoken to a lawyer or ethics authority who didn’t believe such a recording would be unethical, at least until such an ethics breach was made against this particular betrayed client. Now, since the legal profession is one of many that have abandoned integrity and professional standards in the fever of anti-Trump madness, I’m sure several, maybe many, will change their tune. You know: they don’t want their friends to be angry with them.

Yes, Cohen’s taping was legal, because it occurred in New York, where only one party to a conversation has to know it is being taped. That is irrelevant to the ethics breach at issue. For a lawyer to tape a client secretly is always unethical. That’s my position, and I know of no persuasive argument against it. The Post article says that the matter isn’t clear cut. Oh yes it is.

Until 2001, there was little dispute that a lawyer was violating Rule 8.4, which pronounces it misconduct for a lawyer to engage in misrepresentation, dishonesty, fraud or deceit. Taping anyone secretly is misrepresentation. Does anyone want to dispute that? Try. If I am talking to you privately, and you do not tell me that I am being recorded, then you are representing to me that I am NOT being recorded, unless our previous conversations were recorded and I knew that. A few states just ducked the issue, and held that a lawyer could do what any other citizen could do in a state that made one party recordings legal. The American Bar Association, however, right through the 20th Century, held that it was per se unethical for a lawyer to surreptitiously tape anyone.

The absolutist position was an Ethics Incompleteness Principle accident just waiting to happen. In other words, there had to be exceptions, and since almost all states allowed District Attorneys to surreptitiously record suspected criminals without the threat of ethics sanctions, exceptions were already recognized. Thus, in 2001, the ABA revised its position with equivocal, muddled, Formal Opinion 01-422, “Electronic Recordings by Lawyers Without the Knowledge of All Participants,” which the ABA summarized this way:

A lawyer who electronically records a conversation without the knowledge of the other party or parties to the conversation does not necessarily violate the Model Rules. Formal Opinion 337 (1974) accordingly is withdrawn. A lawyer may not, however, record conversations in violation of the law in a jurisdiction that forbids such conduct without the consent of all parties, nor falsely represent that a conversation is not being recorded. The Committee is divided as to whether a lawyer may record a client-lawyer conversation without the knowledge of the client, but agrees that it is inadvisable to do so.

It does not “necessarily” violate the ethics rules because, the opinion explains (as various state opinions have as well), sometimes recording a third party serves the interests of justice, as when, for example, a client is trying to show domestic abuse, or when there is an allegation of illegal loan or housing discrimination. 01-422 wanders into Clintonesque rhetoric, however, when it states, Continue reading

About That “Secret Tape”…[UPDATED]

From CNN:

“The FBI is in possession of a recording between President Donald Trump and his former personal attorney Michael Cohen in which the two men prior to the election discuss a payment to a former Playboy model who has alleged an affair with Trump, Rudy Giuliani and a source familiar with the matter told CNN Friday.

Cohen has other recordings of the President in his records that were seized by the FBI, said both a source with knowledge of Cohen’s tapes and Giuliani, who described the other recordings as mundane discussions. Another source with knowledge of the tape, however, said the conversation is not as Giuliani described and is not good for the President, though the source would not elaborate.”

Now here are some ethics matters that the news media would be obligated to tell you, if journalists were, you know, competent, objective, and fair:

  • It is equivocally unethical for a lawyer to surreptitiously record a client without the client’s knowledge or consent. Always, no exceptions. It is usually unethical for a lawyer to surreptitiously record anyone without their knowledge or consent, even in states that permit non-lawyers to do it.

Such conduct is a direct violation of the universal legal ethics rule that prohibits a lawyer from engaging ” in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

  • This fact is crucial to the story, and should be prominent in any discussion of it. I have not seen or heard this mentioned in any news reports.

Let me know if you do, please.

  • The recording is also privileged, which means that it was information that a client provided to his lawyer in the course of seeking legal services or advice. As such, it cannot be used as evidence, unless the client, in this case, President Trump, consents. The client owns the privilege, not the lawyer who received the information, and not other lawyers the client may have.

I haven’t seen this critical information explained in any of the news reports either. Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, “Happy Birthday George Washington!” Edition

Good Morning!

1 The Indispensable Man...This is George Washington’s birthday, and every American alive and dead owes him an unmatched debt of gratitude. A useful assessment of why this is true can be found here.

Not only was Washington indispensable as the military leader who won the Revolution, he was also, it seems likely, the only human being who could have navigated the impossibly difficult job of being the first President of a new nation attempting an unprecedented experiment in democracy. The precedents he set by his remarkable judgment, presence, wisdom, character and restraint continue to be a force today. Washington was also perhaps the most ethical man who has ever been President. The principles that guided him from his youth and that resulted in his being the only man trusted by the brilliant but often ruthless Founders who chose him to lead their new country can be reviewed here, but two of them tell us what we need to know about Washington’s ideals…the first,

Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.

…and the last,

 Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Revoltingly, the average American is largely ignorant regarding the great man whose face adorns the one dollar bill. For example,  a recent YouGov survey asked respondents who was the best President in U.S. history. 16% of Americans selected Ronald Reagan, and 16% selected Barack Obama. Abraham Lincoln took third place with 15%. Washington finished fourth,but only 10% of those surveyed named him as the best President,  14 percent of Republicans, and only six percent of Democrats. I assume that Reagan, and I hope even Obama, would find these results ridiculous. They tell us that citizens can not distinguish politics from virtue. They tell us that the schools teach neither history nor critical thought effectively. They tell us that Democrats regard the fact that Washington was a slaveholder more notable than the fact that he made the United States possible. They tell us that the nation is losing a connection to its origins, heroes and values. It tells us that most of the public is ignorant of things that competent citizens must know.

It tells me that when an advocate cites a poll that says, “Americans want this,” the proper response is “Why should anyone trust their judgment? They think Regan and Obama were better Presidents than George Washington.”

2. Children’s Crusade update: Both CNN and HLN are flogging the high school student protests virtually to the exclusion of any thing else. The total commitment to aggressive and emotional advocacy on the part of the mainstream news media was disgraceful after the Sandy Hook school shooting, but this is worse; just when I think our journalism has hit the bottom, it finds a way to go lower.

This morning on HLN, I was greeted by an extremely articulate Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivor who said,  confidently and radiating certitude, “These episodes are completely preventable.” Putting such nonsense on the air, even when spoken by an attractive, sympathetic, youthful idealist who perhaps cannot be blamed for not knowing what the hell she’s talking about,is irresponsible and incompetent. It is no different from saying “The Holocaust never happened,” Barack Obama was born in Kenya” or “The world is ruled by the Illuminati.” “These episodes are completely preventable” is, from the mouth of anyone qualified to be on television talking about gun policy, a lie, and from someone like this young woman, as naive as professing a belief in Santa Claus. Such statements should not be presented in a news forum as a substantive or serious position. A news organization has an ethical obligation either to correct the misinformation, or not to broadcast it without context, like “Here is the kind of arguments these child activists are making, making serious and coherent debate impossible.”

When the crawl across the bottom of my screen added another argument from one of the activist students—has there ever been a time when the policy analysis of people lacking high school diplomas has ever been given so much media attention and credibility?—that read, “Student protester: “People are buying guns who don’t need them,” I switched to the Cartoon Network

Right, kid, let’s pass laws that prohibit citizens from buying what the government decides they don’t need.

Continue reading

From The Ethics Alarms “Deceit Is Lying, And Stop Saying It’s Not!” Files: Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred Is An Ethics Dunce, So Is Craig Calcaterra, And Since They Are Both Lawyers, They Should Know Better

My goals are modest. Before I die, I would like to be able to say that my cyber-output on ethics accomplished a few basic things. One of them is a greater public understanding that deceitful statements—you know, like “I did not have sex with that woman,” or my recent favorite, knife-murderer O.J. Simpson saying  at his parole hearing, “I’m in no danger to pull a gun on anybody. I’ve never been accused of it. Nobody has ever accused me of pulling any weapon on them”—are lies. Not “technically true,” not “lawyerly phrasing,” but lies. Yesterday one lawyer who should know better incorrectly told his readers than another lawyer who engaged in deceit wasn’t lying. I’m sick of this.

I’m sure most of you don’t know or care, but the sad Miami Marlins, the National League baseball team recently taken over by a group headed by former Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, has been selling and trading off its best players to pare expenses to the bone. This is a long-term strategy called “tanking,” in which a team rebuilds by playing horribly and getting high draft choices for a few years, eventually building up a young, cheap talent base of a winning team. A team’s fans tend to despise this approach, and Marlins fans more than most, since this is the third mass sell-off in the team’s short and ugly history.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred appeared on Dan LeBatard’s ESPN radio show yesterday to discuss the most recent recent Miami fire sale.  LeBatard asked Manfred directly if he was “aware of Jeter’s plan to trade players and slash payroll.” Manfred ducked and weaved, and said, “We do not approve operating decisions by ownership, new ownership, current owners or not, and as a result the answer to that question is no.”

LeBatard called  this a lie, responding, “You can’t tell me you’re not aware of this…were you aware of this?”  Manfred then said, “No, we did not have player-specific plans from the Miami Marlins or any other team . . .” He also said that the league did not see a payroll plan from the Marlins “until two days ago.”

Yet  the Miami Herald reported after the interview:

A source directly involved in the Marlins sales process, after hearing the Le Batard interview, said, via text: “Commissioner said was not aware of [Jeter] plan to slash payroll. Absolutely not true. They request and receive the operating plan from all bidders. Project Wolverine [the name for Jeter’s plan] called on his group to reduce payroll to $85 million. This was vetted and approved by MLB prior to approval by MLB. Every [Jeter] investor and non investor has the Wolverine financial plan of slashing payroll to $85 million. Widely circulated.”

Here NBC baseball blogger Craig Calcaterra, formerly a practicing attorney, and thus accorded some credibility on such topics, wrote, Continue reading