Ethics Alarms Encore: “Possessed Lawyer Ethics”

The best legal ethics story I have ever heard and probably ever will hear arose in Arizona in 2010. I have regaled CLE seminars with it many times since, and it is ever green. After I mentioned the case again today at a Federal Bar convention program, I found myself wondering if I had ever posted about the weird episode on Ethics Alarms. Indeed I had, but it was way back in September of 2010.Here’s how long ago that was: Instagram didn’t yet exist, the statement that Donald Trump would be the next President might get you committed, and the only commenter on the post was “JJ,” whom I have completely forgotten.

Clearly, it’s time for an encore, so here it is, slightly expanded.

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Is it unethical for a lawyer to claim she is possessed by a client’s dead wife?

This  question has been puzzling professional responsibility experts for decades. Okay, not really. In fact, surprisingly, it just doesn’t happen all that often. But in Arizona, a lawyer is now facing suspension for claiming that she was possessed by the spirit of a client’s dead wife, then lying about it under oath. The dead wife is being accused of illegal immigration.

OK, I made up that part, too.

Sorry.

The ABA Journal reports that the lawyer, Charna Johnson, began representing a client during his divorce proceedings. While the divorce was in process,  the client’s wife, who was fighting many demons even before she got in the possession business, committed suicide. Johnson then represented the husband in probate proceedings, but one day became convinced, according to her sworn testimony and that of two witnesses, that the client’s wife had possessed her, like that real demon, Pazuzu. Continue reading

Down The Slippery Slope To Lawyer Censorship: First Giuliani, And Now This

silence

Rudy Giuliani, as discussed here, was just suspended from the practice of law on the basis of out of courts statements that the New York bar disagrees with, while representing a client they hate (Donald Trump), using a standard that has never been applied to a lawyer before.

Yet what was just done to South Carolina lawyer David Paul Traywick by the state Supreme Court was even worse, and more ominous. The Court ordered his suspension from the practice of law based on social media posts that were pure opinion, and that had no connection to the practice of law at all. Traywick lost his license for six months. He will also have to complete at least one hour of diversity education, undergo an anger management assessment, submit to an evaluation through the South Carolina Bar program Lawyers Helping Lawyers, and comply for one year with any treatment recommended by “re-education” authorities.

The Court felt justified punishing him after the South Carolina Office of Disciplinary Counsel received complaints from 46 people about Traywick’s Facebook posts. The posts were accessible to the public, and his profile identified himself as a lawyer while mentioning his law firm his law firm.

The Court found twelve posts by Traywick “troubling.”I will interject here that an individual’s statement on social media are none of a court’s business, indeed none of its damn business, unless they are libelous or criminal, or evidence in a case before it. None of the posts fit into those categories. Two of the posts nonetheless triggered the suspension:

  • On April 5, 2020, Traywick posted what the Court calls “an offensive comment regarding tattoos,” apparently so offensive the the opinion won’t even enlighten us to what it was. After whatever it was he was saying about tattoos, which could have only been an opinion, he  challenged his readers, “Prove me wrong. Pro tip: you can’t.” In a subsequent post in response to a comment, he wrote, “The general statement has exceptions, such as for bikers, sailors, convicts or infantry. But these college educated, liberal suburbanites. No, the rule was written for these boring mother fuckers. And they are everywhere. Fuck em. Especially these females, Jesus Christ!”
  • On June 3, 2020, at the peak of the George Floyd Freakout, they lawyer posted, also on Facebook,  “Here’s how much that shitstain’s life actually mattered: Stock futures up. Markets moved higher Monday and Tuesday. Fuck you. Unfriend me.

By no stretch of the imagination or the Rules of Professional Conduct do those statements justify suspending a lawyer’s right to practice law. It is protected speech under the First Amendment. It does not involve the practice of law. The comments are profane, but profanity is not grounds for discipline out of a legal context. They are vulgar, but the same hold with those. They may offend readers, but nobody is forcing readers to follow this jerk. The lawyer appears, based on his comments, to be an asshole, but being an asshole is not a disqualification for practicing law. It is often an asset, some might say. He may have been lying, but not in any way that could be linked to his trustworthiness as a lawyer, and lies are also protected speech unless they constitute fraud or perjury.

Yet the Court wrote,

Continue reading

In Texas, A Court Puts Some Teeth In A Much Abused Legal Ethics Rule

Tiger

The American Bar Association’s Rule 3.6, Trial Publicity, states in part, “A lawyer who is participating or has participated in the investigation or litigation of a matter shall not make an extrajudicial statement that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know will be disseminated by means of public communication and will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter.” Although the rule is long-standing and included more or less identically in all state legal ethics rules, it is honored more in the breach than with compliance. One has to look no further than the justice-tainting comments by lawyers and prosecutors in such cases as the deaths of George Floyd, Freddie Gray, and Trayvon Martin, but lawyers shooting off their mouths on TV, social media or in the press is common in many other kinds of litigation. Often they are violating not just Rule 3.6, but 8.4 (Misconduct) as well. Among other things, that rule prohibits lying.

Thus the Texas Supreme Court ruling last week was welcome news. The court held that lawyer statements about a client’s allegations in press releases and social media are not protected by the judicial proceedings privilege or attorney immunity. The judicial proceedings privilege protects statements made in open court, depositions, affidavits and other court papers. Attorney immunity protects lawyers from liability to non-clients when lawyers act on behalf of their clients in a “uniquely lawyerly capacity.” That means when they are clearly and appropriately speaking on behalf of their clients, in their roles as advocates.

Continue reading

Mid-Day Ethics Warm-Up, 1/5/2021: Zombie Lawyers! Imaginary News! Dead Ethics Alarms! Wrong Numbers!

zombie-hand

1. The Florida Bar, protecting us all against unethical zombie lawyers...Last month, the Florida Supreme Court approved that Florida Bar’s decision to disbar Sabrina Starr Spradley, a 41-year-old attorney in private practice in Delray Beach, Florida. She died more than a year ago. The rules do not require another attorney or family member to tell the bar when a lawyer being disciplined has died, so poor Sabrina had to suffer the post mortem indignity of being labeled an unethical lawyer.

“We do have 108,000 lawyers in Florida,” a Florida Bar spokesperson explained. “There are a lot of individuals that we regulate. We rely on people to inform us.”

Why? How hard is it to routinely check the obituaries before wasting the Supreme Court’s time?

2. For the fake news Hall of Fame. Because President Trump is “reportedly” (whatever that means) “considering” flying to Scotland instead of attending Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, the Independent reports that Scotland won’t allow him in, because it wouldn’t be “essential” travel. Can a news headline (“Trump not allowed into Scotland to escape Biden inauguration, Sturgeon warns” ) be built on fewer facts than this?

Incidentally, there’s no law requiring an outgoing President to attend the inauguration of a President, and if Trump declines to do so, he would not be the first. He’d be the fourth, following John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Johnson. A gracious transfer of power is always in the best interest of the nation, and Trump would do himself a favor if he just sucked it up and pretended to be a statesman. I doubt that he will.

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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Morning Ethics Warm-Up: When You Are Tempted To Beat Your Head In With A Claw Hammer As You Read These Items, Think Of Buddy Mercury

GOOD MORNING!

Honestly now, how can anyone get depressed about ethical the state of a world with Buddy Mercury in it?

1. Yes, I know that this is just a has-been ex-child star with an inflated concept of her own wisdom and authority, but it’s significant anyway. Alyssa Milano, 46, late of “Who’s the Boss” and “Charmed,” tried to promote a female sex strike against men to protest recent anti-abortion bills  in several states. This stunningly stupid idea–but classical!—was rightly attacked from both the Left and Right, but it is worthy of note for one reason: it illustrates how progressives are increasingly favoring boycotts, force, intimidation, violence and bullying as the mean of achieving their policy objectives, and abandoning reasoning, elections and law. This attitude suggests a growing hostility to democracy, and that is worrysome.

When the Lysistrata-inspired #SexStrike that she declared would deny men sex “until we get bodily autonomy back” (think about that for a minute) protest fell flat, Milano threw a self-reported tantrum on Twitter and pivoted to an appeal to emotion that omitted the legal and ethical realities. The new object of her outrage was a CBS report about an 11-year-old rape victim who couldn’t get an abortion under Ohio’s yet-to-be-signed fetal heartbeat bill. Milano, like all abortion rights absolutists but especially loudly, appears to be incapable of perceiving or admitting that anti-abortion legislation is not an expression of hostility to women at all.  Right or wrong, it is based on a sincere and ethically defensible (under reciprocity and Kantian ethics) argument that a human life, even a nascent one, must have priority in the utilitarian balancing involved when a pregnancy is unwanted by the mother. Continue reading

Lunch Time Ethics Appetizer, 4/17/2019: Accountability, Conflicts of Interest, Incivility, Hype And Privilege

It’s a real ethics poop-poop platter…

1. Red Sox lousy start ethics. Boston Red Sox starting ace Chris Sale, widely regarded as one of the top two or three pitchers in baseball who signed a rich multi-year extension with the team right before the season began, lost his fourth straight start yesterday to begin the season. He told reporters, “This is flat-out embarrassing. For my family, for our team, for our fans. This is about as bad as it gets. Like I said, I have to pitch better…It sucks. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I just flat-out stink right now.”

2. The Hollywood writers vs agents mess. I haven’t posted on this because I can’t find a copy of the controversial “Code of Conduct” that the agents refuse to sign. I also need to bone up on  the agency laws in New York and California. This article is a good summary of the show-down. Regarding the question of conflicts of interest in the practice of “packaging” and agents going into the production business, , however, it seems clear that the writers have the better arguments. From the article:

Packaging is a decades-old practice under which agencies may team writers with other clients from their stables for a given project. With packaging fees, an agent forgoes the usual 10 percent commission fee paid to them by individual clients; in its place, they are paid directly by the studio….The writers argue that agencies violate their fiduciary obligations to their clients when they make money from studios instead of from the people they are representing. The practice of accepting packaging fees, the writers say, allows the agencies to enrich themselves at the writers’ expense when they should be using their leverage to get more money for writer-clients.

Any time an agent gets paid by the party the agent is supposed to be negotiating with, that’s a textbook conflict. I’m amazed the agents have been getting away with this practice for so long. As for the production deals…

There are agency-affiliated companies that have moved into the production business — and this does not sit well with the writers unions. W.M.E., for instance, has an affiliate company called Endeavor Content. It was formed in 2017 and is a distributor of the show “Killing Eve,” as well as a producer of an epic drama coming from Apple TV Plus called “See.” C.A.A. also has an affiliate: Wiip. It is a producer of “Dickinson,” a comedy series that is also part of the Apple rollout scheduled for the fall. United Talent Agency is also getting in on production, with an affiliate called Civic Center Media. It has teamed up with M.R.C., the producer of “House of Cards,” to make new shows.

The agencies have argued that these affiliates are artist-friendly studios that will help writers, because they add to the number of potential buyers — which means more competition for writers’ services and bigger paychecks. The writers have said that agencies have a conflict of interest when they act as studios. How, they ask, can an agent represent you and also be your boss?

Bingo. The short and easy answer is “They can’t.”

Stay tuned… Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 1/29/19: Sick Room Edition

I hope you’re feeling better than I am.

1. Sick Ethics. Being sick on the job is always an ethical conflict, and riddled with bias. My father’s approach, so characteristic of him as someone who insisted on going into the Battle of the Bulge as an officer with a mangled, recently-repaired foot that was still oozing blood, was to ignore the illness and soldier on. There are two problems with that, however. First, you are working at diminished capacity, and second, you risk infecting others. The problem is a bit easier when you have a home office like I do, but there is still a trade-off issue: if I “soldier on” like my father, do I risk a longer illness and reduced capacity for far longer than if I just took a day or two off to recuperate? In my case, this is always a tough call: I am very vulnerable to bronchitis and pneumonia following chest colds (that’s what I’ve got, big time, starting last night), and when the stuff I cough up starts attacking me through the Kleenex, I’m in big trouble that has sometimes lasted for months. There is also a bias problem when you feel rotten. Right now, I would love to lie down. I can’t think of anything I would like more. I bet I can rationalize air-tight reasons why I should lie down, despite all of the very valid reason not to.

2. And speaking of sick...All 50 states require vaccinations before children to attend school, but 47 of them  (California, Mississippi and West Virginia are the exceptions) allow parents to opt out of vaccines if they have religious beliefs against immunizations. Eighteen states also allow parents to opt out of vaccines if they have personal, moral or philosophical beliefs against immunizations, including beliefs that they can think straight when they are in fact idiots and get their medical advice from Jenny McCarthy and other hysterical anti-vaxxers. Oregon and Washington are among the states that allow for a parent’s personal beliefs to exempt their kids from being immunized, along with Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Vermont.

You know. Morons. Continue reading

The Lawyer Version Of “The Hader Gotcha”

“GOTCHA!”

My legal ethics colleagues have their briefs in a bunch over a case in which an enterprising news media reporter dredged up old, old —but scintillating!—professional discipline on two lawyers taking on the defense of a much-hated defendant in a sensational and heinous crime.

One had been suspended for taking client money, but was eventually reinstated. The other had been reprimanded for having a sexual relationship with a client. The idea, of course, was to make the lawyers look bad. The issue is whether this is a fair use of attorney discipline, especially in the latter case.

The episode is similar to the Hader Gotcha, which we have discussed here several times, in which deep social media divers look for embarrassing youthful social media posts from the past, even from teen years, to use to turn the public against the individual, or at least to force the target to grovel an apology. It is also similar to the Brett Kavanaugh hit from Dr. Blasey-Ford, though I doubt this would occur to my overwhelmingly “woke” legal ethicist friends.

The lawyer raising the issue represents attorneys faced with disciplinary complaints, and asks why this is happening, feels that it is unfair, since the discipline wasn’t recent and had nothing to do with the current case, and thinks it is wrong that the reporter didn’t bother to talk to the bar association or the lawyers themselves to get proper context. He also asks whether anything can be done about it, including, perhaps, not publicizing some varieties of lawyer discipline.

The lawyer also asks,

Do I need to warn my clients that a collateral consequence of discipline is that if they ever take a high-profile case, the press might dredge up old dirt when covering the case?

This is too easy:

  • Welcome to the internet age! No, there is absolutely nothing that can be done about this, except to create a more ethical culture of journ…sorry, I couldn’t get that out without laughing.
  • The legal profession has never been able to explain to the public, and apparently not to journalists either, though they should be less ignorant, that representing accused criminals and guaranteeing even guilty citizens their rights isn’t an adverse reflection on a lawyers’ character. As a result, someone will always think it’s fun, justified and fair to look for dirt in a defense lawyer’s personal or professional past. Thanks to the web, it’s easier than ever.
  • Yes, you need to warn your clients. I’m surprised you weren’t doing so already.
  • And it’s not just legal discipline. Anything potentially embarrassing that can be found on the web, including social media posts [Lawyers: Don’t use Twitter!] can and will be dug up and weaponized.
  • As a result, past discipline, and any other potentially embarrassing information about a lawyer now falls into Rule 1.4 territory, information the client has a right to know and must be informed about in order to participate in his or her own case.
  • No, all lawyer discipline should be reported. The public has a right to know.

Now THIS Is A Frivolous Lawsuit!

Sounds noble in theory, but it doesn’t always work when the one saying “no” is a judge.

Lawyers and the public mean different things when they call a lawsuit “frivolous.” The public and the news media mean that the suit is silly, desperate, based on a crazy theory or unlikely to succeed. Lawyers, however, know that suits that seem  silly, desperate, based on a crazy theory or unlikely to succeed sometimes win. Sometimes, they even change the law for the better. ABA Rule 3.1 explains,

Rule 3.1: Meritorious Claims & Contentions

A lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue therein, unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law….

Comment:The filing of an action or defense or similar action taken for a client is not frivolous merely because the facts have not first been fully substantiated or because the lawyer expects to develop vital evidence only by discovery. What is required of lawyers, however, is that they inform themselves about the facts of their clients’ cases and the applicable law and determine that they can make good faith arguments in support of their clients’ positions. Such action is not frivolous even though the lawyer believes that the client’s position ultimately will not prevail. The action is frivolous, however, if the lawyer is unable either to make a good faith argument on the merits of the action taken or to support the action taken by a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.

The guy currently  suing me for defamation, for example, hasn’t quite crossed the “frivolous” line, though he is arguing that what is clearly opinion is an assertion of fact, contrary to all existing jurisprudence. His appeal, however, while batty, does make an argument that I assume in in good faith, that a Supreme Court case supports his definition of libel. It doesn’t, but he has the right to make an argument in the hope that some judge or appellate panel will agree. Of course, he is also not a lawyer, so he can’t be held responsible for violating legal ethics.

This guy can be, however: Continue reading