For suspension for three months -- Justices Mountain, Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford and Schreiber and Judge Conford. Opposed -- None.
[69 NJ Page 317] After a hearing on various charges preferred by the Union County Ethics Committee, respondent, Calvin J. Hurd, was found by that Committee to have violated DR 1-102(A)(4), prohibiting "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation," and DR 9-101, which
requires an attorney to avoid "even the appearance of impropriety."*fn1 A presentment having been filed with this Court, we issued an Order to Show Cause why respondent should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.
The presentment grows out of respondent's role in a transaction concerning certain residential property in Elizabeth owned by one Ethel Skinner, which resulted in Mrs. Skinner's unwitting and unintended conveyance of her property to Ruth Hurd Minor, respondent's sister, on May 7, 1971. The Committee concluded that inasmuch as the transaction should have involved at most a loan, and not a sale or conveyance, Mrs. Skinner and her daughter, Frieda Skinner Randolph, had been the victims of respondent's fraud and misrepresentation.
Of surpassing importance to an understanding of today's decision is an appreciation of the relationship between respondent and the Skinner family, particularly Ethel Skinner, a lady more than eighty years of age. The Hurds and the Skinners had been close neighbors on Rector Street in Elizabeth. Mrs. Skinner had occupied the same three family
home, which she shared with various relatives, for more than fifty-seven years. She knew all the Hurd children, including respondent and his sister, Ruth Hurd Minor, both of whom had moved from the Rector Street home prior to the events in question. Mrs. Minor furnished significant insight into the bond between the families when she told the Committee "* * * I know my mother was always in sort of an advisory capacity [to the Skinners], and I think this is what they thought of the Hurds, as something like that." While Mrs. Skinner had never consulted respondent in any legal matters, and the Committee quite properly concluded that an attorney-client relationship as such did not exist between them in this transaction, Calvin Hurd was the only lawyer Ethel Skinner knew. She said she "always trusted Calvin, * * * never had any reason not to, * * *" and would "trust him with [her] life."
Frieda Skinner Randolph, who with the children of her deceased daughter also occupied the premises in question, worked as a domestic for Mrs. Minor and cleaned respondent's office during the times pertinent hereto. From time to time she asked respondent for "bits of advice on one subject or another," which he readily furnished. Hence it was natural for the Skinners to turn to respondent for help when confronted with difficulties regarding the Rector Street property, and it is in the context of the existing relationship between the people involved that we appraise Hurd's conduct.
In 1970 Mrs. Skinner was without funds to pay the water charges and real property taxes on her dwelling. Consequently, the City of Elizabeth purchased the property for taxes in September, 1970. The City apparently elected not to take immediate possession as permitted by N.J.S.A. 54:5-53.1; therefore Mrs. Skinner had a right to redeem the property within two years from the date of sale under the then applicable
law, N.J.S.A. 54:5-54, or within such extended period as provided for under N.J.S.A. 54:5-77.
The Skinners sought respondent's assistance in obtaining information on how to prevent the loss of the property.*fn2 Hurd determined the amount ($1701.43 as of February 8, 1971) which would be required to redeem and informed the Skinners thereof early in 1971, whereupon Frieda Skinner Randolph sought on behalf of her mother to borrow the necessary funds from respondent. He told Mrs. Randolph he could not lend Mrs. Skinner the money but, according to his memorandum submitted to the Committee, he "suggested to her that she take every step she could to try to obtain the money from her family or possibly her principal employer (she performed residential domestic services almost daily)."
As we have observed, among those for whom Mrs. Randolph performed such services was respondent's sister, Ruth Hurd Minor. The latter was successfully importuned to loan Mrs. Skinner about $2000 (a sum which Mrs. Minor in turn borrowed from her daughter's trust account), and respondent was informed of the loan shortly before the date of the transaction in question. He also acquired from the Skinners a deed containing a description of the premises. The exact nature of the interest in the premises which Mrs. Minor was to acquire forms the basis of the present dispute.
We pause at this point to make note of another significant circumstance. The Committee found that when respondent was approached by the Skinners with their problem, the "final steps" were being put in motion by the Elizabeth Board of Education to acquire properties on Rector Street, including the Skinner home, as part of the site for a new high school. While there is disagreement about the extent of common
knowledge as to when precisely the properties were to be condemned, everyone involved was aware that at some point the Board was going to take many parcels of land in the area, including 144 Rector Street. Mrs. Minor testified that she and the Skinners were aware before May 7, 1971 that the Board was interested in acquiring the subject property, perhaps even by December of that year. So far had the plans progressed that during April, 1971, just weeks before the transaction which occupies our attention, members of the Skinner household, including Ethel Skinner and Frieda Skinner Randolph, were interviewed by the staff of the local redevelopment agency as part of the Workable Relocation Assistance Program (WRAP) submitted to the Department of Community Affairs. While there is nothing to indicate that respondent learned of this development, nevertheless (as the Committee concluded) he could have come by this most important information with little effort.
On May 7, 1971, Ethel Skinner, Frieda Skinner Randolph, and Ruth Hurd Minor assembled in Calvin Hurd's office. The necessary documents to effect a conveyance of the premises to Mrs. Minor for the amount of taxes and water rent due (a figure which bore no relationship to the property's true value of about $11,500) had either already been prepared or were in the process of preparation, as was the case with a contemporaneous agreement. By paragraph three of this latter instrument Ethel Skinner could compel reconveyance of the premises by repaying Mrs. Minor, within one year from the date of closing, the amount required to discharge the tax and water liens plus "any and all sums of money which purchaser may have expended upon the said premises for its maintenance upkeep and for payment of any and all tax and other obligations against the property," with seven per cent interest. Thereafter appeared the following:
4. That in the event at any time within one year of the date hereof the possession of the premises at 144 Rector Street, Elizabeth, New Jersey shall be taken by eminent domain by any governmental authority or agency of any kind, the provisions of the preceding paragraph shall be null and void and of no force or effect.
This was followed by a provision requiring Mrs. Skinner to pay $100 per month rent, upon default in any payment of which the right to reacquire the property would become "null and void, and of no force or effect."
The Committee's paramount interest was in determining how these provisions -- particularly paragraph four which served at once to destroy Mrs. Skinner's right to compel reconveyance and to deprive her of the fruits of any condemnation within one year -- found their way into the agreement. Respondent's position is that his instructions from his sister, whom he represented, and from Frieda Skinner Randolph contemplated those provisions. As might be expected in an after-the-event reconstruction, the testimony before the Committee was not entirely consistent either with respect to what the parties in fact intended or what they told respondent they intended. In addition, we note that not only Mrs. Minor but, more importantly (if less understandably), Mrs. Skinner and Mrs. Randolph, exhibited not the slightest animosity toward Hurd.
Mrs. Minor was distressingly ambivalent on many significant issues, but she did testify that she viewed the arrangement as constituting simply a loan, the purpose of which was to permit the Skinners to pay what they owed to the City and thus retain the property until the Board of Education took it, and that she so informed respondent.
In some respects Frieda Skinner Randolph likewise vacillated in relating to the Committee her version of what was intended and what respondent was told; but she too denied that a sale of the property was contemplated, as revealed by the following from her testimony:
Q. When you spoke to Mrs. Minor and explained to her that the City was foreclosing the taxes, did you ask her if she would loan the money to your mother?
Q. Did you ever have any conversation about selling the property to her?
Q. Now, when you got down to Mr. Hurd's office on May 7, 1971, when you were all there together, did you realize that your mother was signing a deed to Mrs. Minor?
Q. What did you think she was signing?
A. I figured it was the paper that you have to sign when you make a loan.
Q. Like a mortgage, for example?
Q. Since you believed that Mrs. Minor was lending your mother the money, what did you understand was her relationship to the property of your house, your mother's house, 144 Rector ...