On Order to Show Cause why respondent should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.
For suspension -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Garibaldi. Opposed -- None.
[95 NJ Page 148] These disciplinary proceedings generate disquieting echoes of In re Ackerman, 63 N.J. 242 (1973), in which this same respondent was publicly reprimanded on a charge that he "did not disclose to his client that the complaint had been dismissed or that a default had been entered as to the counterclaim, and further that, after the dismissal and the default, respondent affirmatively assured his client that the litigation was 'proceeding normally.'" So here, the local District Ethics Committee (Committee) filed with the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) two presentments accusing Ackerman of violating DR 6-101(A)(2) for much the same conduct. The Committee discerned a "pattern of neglect * * * in [respondent's] representation of various matrimonial clients", in addition to "other specific disciplinary violations for his improper conduct with regard to particular clients." The DRB concluded that ethical infractions had
been established by clear and convincing evidence and recommended that respondent be suspended from the practice of law for two years.
In its Decision and Recommendation the DRB summarized the Committee's charges of misconduct as follows:
"(1) DRB 81-124 (Losseff Matter)
"Mrs. Doris K. Losseff retained respondent sometime in 1974 to represent her in divorce proceedings. The matter was the subject of a settlement hearing held before the Honorable William A. Dreier in Union County. A misunderstanding occurred between respondent and Mrs. Losseff as to what stocks and bonds were to be considered subject to the settlement, and after the settlement had been placed on the record, both complainant and respondent were able to recognize the fact that the settlement reached was not the settlement intended. Respondent was to file the necessary motions to have the Court reconsider the settlement and the question of which stocks and bonds were to be disposed of under the settlement agreement.
"At the same time, respondent received two checks from the attorney for Mr. Losseff in payment of Mrs. Losseff's share of the equitable distribution. However, the checks did not include any amount for the bonds held by the Lackawanna Bar, a business entity in which the Losseffs were principals. Mrs. Losseff refused to cash them. Instead of returning them to the other attorney, respondent held on to the checks for approximately one year. Finally, after Mrs. Losseff had decided to cash the checks and bring suit against her former husband for a half share of the bonds, respondent obtained new checks from the other attorney, and paid Mrs. Losseff interest out of his own funds on the total amount for the year he had retained the checks.
"Respondent was clearly not diligent in pursuing the correction of the question of stocks and bonds. The motion was
finally filed by respondent in the summer of 1979, and included a request for alimony arrearages in addition to half the value of the bonds. The other portions of the motion were decided by [a Superior Court judge] on August 31, 1979, but [the court] requested a more detailed affidavit with regard to the bonds in the name of the Lackawanna Bar. The affidavit was thereafter filed and the motion was heard before [a different judge] on November 2, 1979. [The court] ruled on the motion a year later.
"Respondent compounded the delay in filing the motion and the delay encountered in awaiting the court's decision by failing to communicate adequately with his client. Respondent failed to return numerous telephone calls from Mrs. Losseff and cancelled a number of appointments with her.
"Hearing on this matter was first scheduled before the Board July 15, 1981, on which date respondent appeared and requested additional time within which to retain counsel. Two months later, on September 16, 1981, respondent, having failed to obtain counsel, appeared pro se and represented that a settlement had been reached with Mrs. Losseff, that a formal agreement would be drafted and executed, and that Mrs. Losseff would be compensated for the financial losses she incurred by reason of his delay and inactions. The Board by letter of September 30, 1981, requested respondent to forward a copy of the agreement prior to its October 21, 1981 meeting, at which time the matter would be given further consideration.
"Respondent failed to produce the agreement as requested. Further, the Board received information that Mrs. Losseff had been apparently waiting for several weeks for the agreement respondent had promised her.
"At the October 21 meeting, absent any reply from respondent, the Board determined to recommend to the Court respondent's immediate temporary suspension from the practice of law. This resulted in the Court's directive of November 17, 1981 that all charges then pending against respondent be broadened to include the conduct complained of in the Board's recommendation
and that respondent be offered an opportunity to be heard prior to final recommendation.
"The matter was then scheduled for December 16, 1981, together with another motion brought by the Division of Ethics and Professional Services, for respondent's temporary suspension based upon his failure to answer a statement of charges stemming from another pending complaint. * * * This matter charged misrepresentation and negligence in the handling of a matrimonial matter.
"Respondent again appeared pro se. As to the Losseff matter, respondent presented copies of a handwritten agreement, providing for a $35,000 payment to Mrs. Losseff, signed by respondent and dated October 22, 1981. Respondent represented that their agreement had been filed with the Court, that $17,500 of the agreed $35,000 had been paid, and that final payment would be made after January 1, 1982. As to the other pending matter, respondent indicated that no answer was filed because he had in fact no defense to the complaint. The Board determined to adjourn the matter to January 20, 1982. By letter dated December 23, 1981, respondent was instructed to provide the following by January 12, 1982:
(a) proof of final payment to Mrs. Losseff;
(b) proof that the October 22, 1981 agreement had been filed; and
(c) an answer to the other pending complaint.
These items were furnished by respondent on January 15, 1981.
"In this matter, the Board concluded that respondent was unethical and unprofessional in his failure to communicate with his client by not returning calls to Mrs. Losseff and for cancelling numerous appointments without sufficient advance notice to the client so as not to cause unnecessary inconvenience. Furthermore, respondent neglected to follow through diligently on the resolution of the divorce settlement and stocks and bonds in violation of DR 6-101(A), due to his unreasonable procrastination.
"Following his appearance before the Board in 1981, it was recommended to the Court that respondent be publicly reprimanded for his actions. In making this recommendation, however, the Board was unaware of four other complaints, alleging similar violations of the Disciplinary Rules, which were pending before the District V Ethics Committee. The Supreme Court determined not to proceed on the Board's recommendation for discipline at that time and directed that the remaining matters be heard prior to any further action.
"Complainant, a member of the New Jersey Bar, is the brother of Phoebe Amsterdam (Amsterdam), a former client of respondent. In August 1979, Amsterdam retained respondent to represent her in divorce proceedings against her husband. She promptly paid him his requested retainer of $3,500. Shortly thereafter, she requested respondent to file for pendente lite support for her and her children. Respondent advised against doing so immediately. Amsterdam waited, but when her financial situation began to deteriorate seriously, she again sought respondent's assistance. However, she experienced enormous difficulty in contacting respondent because of his repeated failure to return her telephone calls. Amsterdam testified that these communication difficulties extended for the duration of their relationship. Finally, in February of 1980, a hearing was held and Amsterdam was awarded temporary support.
"After the February 1980 support hearing, Amsterdam was served interrogatories by her husband. She met with respondent who requested that she supply certain information, which she did. Respondent then promised to prepare the answers to interrogatories for her signature.
"Respondent never prepared the answers to interrogatories. As a direct consequence, Amsterdam's complaint for divorce was dismissed on July 21, 1980. Respondent did not inform Amsterdam of this dismissal. Instead, he repeatedly assured her that
the matter would be proceeding to trial. It was not until November 5, 1982, after Amsterdam had dismissed respondent as her attorney and had retrieved her ...