Social Media Is Eyeball To Eyeball With Legal Ethics, And Guess Who Blinked First?

Online consumer complaints about lawyers on sites like Avvo and Yelp have been driving lawyers crazy. The ethics rules on client confidentiality prohibit a lawyer from defending him (her) self online, because that requires revealing details of the representation. Two years ago, the Colorado Bar suspended a lawyer’s license d for six months after he responded to a negative online review and revealed that the complaining client had bounced a check and committed unrelated felonies. Lawyers are also generally prohibited from suing their clients for false statements about them in disciplinary complaints, but there have been exceptions. In Blake v. Giustibelli, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld a $350,000 libel judgement for a lawyer  against a divorcing couple who posted an online review that falsely accused the attorney of inflating fees and falsifying a contract.

Now Florida, one of the strictest jurisdiction regarding attorney ethics, has allowed a tiny crack in the wall. The Florida Bar Ethics Committee voted 18-0 to approve a Florida Bar Staff Opinion that “permits an inquiring attorney to post a limited response to a negative online review that the attorney says falsely accuses her of theft.” The Florida Bar says that  the increasing frequency of negative online reviews mandate some loosening of the rules. “An attorney is not ethically barred from responding to an online review by a former client where the former client’s matter has concluded,” the opinion states. “However, 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.”

You can read more about the Bar Committee’s findings on the Florida Bar website here.

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.

Afternoon Ethics Jolt, 8/3/2018: A Lawyer Finds A New Way To Be Unethical, Verizon Makes Our Kids Obnoxious And Ignorant, And The Times Decides To Show Its Colors…

 

Good…afternoon.

Yes, I couldn’t get this up before noon again. Mornings have been crazy lately. And no, I’m not at the beach…I just WISH I was at the beach.

1. A legal ethics “Kaboom! From the New York Times account of the litigation surrounding New York Yankee great Thurmon Munson’s death when his private plane crashed in 1979:

James Wiles, one of FlightSafety International’s lawyers at the time, still contends there was no culpability in Munson’s death on the part of either company. But a trial, he said, was just too risky…. Wiles, who was present for all the depositions…said that when Yogi Berra testified, he put a box of 24 baseballs in front of him and requested he sign them. Berra, who was a Yankees coach when Munson died, grudgingly obliged, but at one point asked if Wiles was authorized to make such a demand.

“It’s my deposition,” Wiles said he told Berra.

My head exploded after reading that. There is no rule I can find that declares such a blatant professional abuse unethical, unless it is the deceitful “It’s my deposition” response, which is literally true but falsely implies that the lawyer has the power to force a witness in a deposition to do something completely unrelated to the case for the lawyer’s personal benefit. Rule or no rule, this was incredibly unethical, and a perfect example of how lawyers will come up with ways to be unethical that they can’t be sanctioned for.

2. More on the New York Times’ new editor: Yesterday, I covered the astounding—but maybe not so astounding—appointment of far-left journalist Sarah Jeong as its technology editor despite a huge archive of explicitly racist and sexist tweets. The Times’ defiant explanation, a rationalization, really, stated:

“We hired Sarah Jeong because of the exceptional work she has done … her journalism and the fact that she is a young Asian woman have made her a subject of frequent online harassment. For a period of time she responded to that harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers. She regrets it, and The Times does not condone it.”

Jeong’s statement was simply dishonest:

“I engaged in what I thought of at the time as counter-trolling. While it was intended as satire, I deeply regret that I mimicked the language of my harassers. These comments were not aimed at a general audience, because general audiences do not engage in harassment campaigns. I can understand how hurtful these posts are out of context, and would not do it again.”

The issue is not whether she will “do it again”—presumably even the Times wouldn’t stand for that, but whether her many racist outbursts online do not raise the rebuttable presumption that she is, in fact, a racist. Nothing in her statement tells us that she doesn’t believe such things as “white men are fucking bullshit,” only that she didn’t aim these comments at the general public.

I find it hard to believe that the even Times is so stupid and arrogant that it will dig in its metaphorical heels and refuse to admit its gross mistake. As Glenn Reynolds writes today, Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 7/19/2018: The All-Denial Edition

Good Morning!

On this day in ethics, 1918: Washington catcher Eddie Ainsmith claimed that he should be deferred from the draft because he was a major league baseball player. Uh, nice try, Eddie, but no,  Secretary of War Newton D Baker ruled, as he tried to suppress uncontrollable eye-rolling..

1. “California, here I come!…here I come!…here I come!…” Oh. Never mind. The California Supreme Court took a measure off the ballot that would have allowed Californians to vote on whether the state should be divided into three smaller states, like this:

In its opinion, the Court argued that the changes demanded by the ballot measure exceeded California voters’ broad authority to enact laws by initiative, established in 1911. If enacted, the measure would have in effect abolished the state Constitution and all existing laws, which would have to be replaced by lawmakers  in the three new states. The measure would also alter the laws that define California’s boundaries, amending the state Constitution. That cannot be done by initiative, but instead requires approval by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature to be placed on the ballot.

I know that the splitting up of California was a transparent effort to hijack the Senate by adding four more guaranteed Democrats. It was also doomed, since this plot would need to pass Congress and not be vetoed by the President. Still, wouldn’t something as obvious as violating the state Constitution arise before the wacko measure was placed on the ballot? How incompetent can you get? How much more incompetent can California get?

2. THIS will end well… Facebook claims that it will be removing false information from its pages when it threatens to cause violence, before it will cause violence. Sure, we all trust Facebook as an objective, trustworthy arbiter of speech, don’t we? Don’t we? Especially since they use the ever-reliable Snopes to check. During an interview with ReCode’s Kara Swisher, Mark Zuckerberg cited Holocaust denials as the kind of misinformation Facebook would allow to remain on the platform.  “At the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong,” Zuckerberg told Swisher. “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”

He doesn’t? I’m not sure Holocaust denial is automatically eligible for Hanlon’s Razor; on the other hand, there are good faith idiots. Speaking of idiots, Zuckerman was surprised when his ignorant shrug sparked angry attacks like that of Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, who said, “Holocaust denial is a willful, deliberate and longstanding deception tactic by anti-Semites that is incontrovertibly hateful, hurtful, and threatening to Jews.Facebook has a moral and ethical obligation not to allow its dissemination.”  Continue reading

No, This Isn’t A Frivolous Lawsuit, Just A Really Dumb One That Makes People Hate Lawyers Even More Than They Already Do

In fact, it makes me hate lawyers, and just about everyone I know is a lawyer, including me. I am drowning in self-loathing.

Now pay attention. A class-action lawsuit filed in Fort Lauderdale federal court this month is based on the claims of Cynthia Kissne, and Leonard Werner that they shouldn’t have to pay for the cheese on their McDonald Quarter Pounders if the cheese is removed at their request. The lawsuit, filed by Andrew Lavin of the Miami-based Lavin Law Group, asks for 5 million dollars in damages for this injustice. The logic of the suit is that McDonald’s used to distinguish between the Quarter Pounder and the Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and charged a bit more for the latter. Now, however, the only version sold in the stores is the cheese version, but it is just called a Quarter Pounder. If you don’t want cheese, you say, “no cheese,” but you still pay the same price. The Horror. This is not an unusual practice in the industry, for obvious reasons. Burger King advertised that you could customize your Whopper, but removing stuff didn’t mean you paid less. Oddly, nobody sued. Continue reading

Instagram Busts A Lawyer’s Lie

New York-based lawyer Lina Franco had missed a November 23, 2016 filing deadline for a motion for class certification in a wage-and-hour law suit. Missing deadlines is a lawyer n0-no, and can get you sanctioned, sued, fired, or worse.  Luckily, Franco had an excuse, or so she thought.  She filed for an extension 16 days past the deadline, claiming that she had been forced to leave the country for the family emergency. She even submitted a flight itinerary showing she had flown from New York City to Mexico City on Thursday, November 21, and had remained there until December 8.

Let’s call this particular social media gaffe Ferris Bueller’s Mistake.  For Instagram photos from Franco’s public account indicated that she was in New York City and later Miami during that period. You know, like when Ferris turned up on TV at a ball game when he was supposedly sick in bed? Like that.  There was another teeny problem: November 21, 2016 was a Monday, not a Thursday, as the judge sanctioning Franco $10,000 pointed out in his ruling.

Franco now admits that she had gone to Mexico City earlier in November than she said, but that her mother’s medical diagnosis sent her “into a tailspin” causing her to miss the deadline and to submit the  false itinerary.

Now watch Instagram posts show up from Franco’s mother, with photos of her winning a seniors kickboxing tournament. Continue reading

The Paid Expert Witness Problem [UPDATED And CORRECTED]

“Check enclosed…”

When a lawyer’s expert witness testifies in a trial, the opposing counsel will always ask, “You’re being paid for your appearance today, isn’t the true?” The one time I was asked that question, I answered, “I’m being paid for my time, not my opinion.” Of course, many experts—yes, even ethics experts—are accepting payment for their opinion. The case of a Houston lawyer’s recent conduct, however, is the worst example of this reality crossing the ethics lines, hard.

Lawyer Mark Lanier had presented father-and-son orthopedic surgeons to the court and the jury as unpaid experts, emphasizing that they were testifying pro bono while the defendants’ experts had been bought. Naturally, this made them seem more credible to the jury. After the trial, however, and after the jury had awarded Lanier’s client  a handsome verdict and damages of $151 million, it was discovered that Lanier made a $10,000 charitable donation to the father’s favorite charity before trial, and sent “thank-you” checks totaling $65,000 to the surgeons after the trial, accompanied by notes of gratitude.

But they weren’t being paid for their testimony—at least, not when they were asked about it. Continue reading