The Disciplinary Review Board having filed a report with the Supreme Court recommending that HARRY L. CORNISH of PATERSON be suspended from the practice of law for a period of five years, retroactive to January 4, 1980, the date of his continued temporary suspension, and good cause appearing;
It is ORDERED that the report of the Disciplinary Review Board is hereby adopted and that HARRY L. CORNISH is suspended from the practice of law for a period of five years and until further order of this Court, retroactive to January 4, 1980; and it is further
Ordered that respondent is restrained and enjoined from practicing law during the period of his suspension and is further directed to continue his compliance with Administrative Guideline No. 23 of the Office of Attorney Ethics dealing with suspended, disbarred or resigned attorneys.
Decision and Recommendation of the Disciplinary Review Board
This matter is before the Board based upon a presentment filed by the District XI (Passaic County) Ethics Committee.
Respondent is charged in two complaints with misappropriation of funds belonging to clients, contrary to DR 9-102, and with failing to cooperate with the District Ethics Committee investigation, contrary to DR 1-102.
The charges are summarized as follows:
On May 30, 1979, Respondent represented Nathaniel and Joyce McKnight concerning the purchase of property at 172 East 32nd Street, Paterson. It was alleged that Respondent retained funds in his trust account to discharge various liens, but instead applied all or parts of the money to other uses.
On July 7, 1978, Respondent represented Connie Ewing regarding the purchase of property at 548-550 East 22nd Street, Paterson, and retained money at the closing in his trust account to discharge a mortgage held by the Howard Savings Bank, but instead applied all or part of the money to other purposes.
Respondent admitted that he committed the acts of misconduct charged in these complaints against him. He offered in mitigation the fact that he was in a "depressed and disorganized state" of mind and misused clients' money in his attempt to dissolve his sole practice of law.
The factual context of Respondent's derelictions was extensively developed at the Ethics Committee hearing. The Ethics Committee hearing focused upon Respondent's misappropriation of trust funds in the Ewing and McKnight matters. In Ewing, Respondent represented Connie Ewing as the purchaser in a real estate closing held on July 7, 1978. He received a total of $30,699.22 in escrow, which was to be disbursed on behalf of Ms. Ewing. On July 7, 1978, Respondent issued trust checks in the amount of $10,444.58 related to this closing. He failed, however, to remit payment of $18,797.89 to Howard Savings
Bank (Howard) to pay off the seller's mortgage. His failure was attributable to the fact that shortly after the closing, he realized that he had a shortage of approximately $3,000 in his trust account. His bank statement as of July 31, 1978 reflected a balance of $16,757.27. Respondent, apparently, was not pressed by Howard for payment. On November 27, 1979, counsel for Howard reported the failure to pay this mortgage to the District Ethics Committee. As of October 31, 1979, Respondent's trust account reflected a balance of $256.30. Respondent testified that when he initially realized that there was a shortage in his trust account, he assumed that he had at least two weeks to cover the shortage. It took much longer and he, then, mistakenly assumed that he had paid it off. Respondent did not keep individual trust ledgers and would periodically deposit his personal monies into his trust account. He therefore was uncertain as to the extent to which this money had been invaded.
In the McKnight matter, Respondent represented the purchasers in a real estate closing that took place on May 30, 1979. Respondent received a total of $49,350.00 to be disbursed. At the time of the deposit, his trust account was overdrawn by $709.95. During June 1979, Respondent disbursed $12,597.45 relative to this closing. On July 27, 1979, he paid $27,595.14 to the Essex Union Mortgage Company to satisfy the sellers' first mortgage. During August 1979, Respondent's trust account check for $8,780.67 to the First National State Bank in satisfaction of the sellers' second mortgage was twice returned for insufficient funds. After a deposit of $2,400 on August 29, 1979, the check cleared on September 4, 1979. The trust account at that time had a balance of $256.30. There was no further activity in that account.
Respondent was graduated from Howard University, Washington, D.C., in 1967 with a Bachelor's degree in political
science and later from its law school. He was in the top one-third of both classes. On December 24, 1970, he married his wife who also was a student at Howard University and later its law school. Respondent returned to his home town of Paterson, New Jersey, and was employed by the Passaic County Legal Aid Society. He was admitted to the Bar in 1971. In the following year, he and another attorney, the only black attorneys in Paterson, decided to form a partnership. At age 27, Respondent entered private practice imbued with the University's philosophy that a graduate had an obligation to return to the community and help other blacks. Most of the clients that this new partnership attracted were in lower income brackets. The partnership was described as a poverty type practice.
The law partnership was very active. People would come to the Cornish home or would call at all hours of the day, seven days a week. The Cornishes could not walk out of their home or drive anywhere without someone stopping Respondent and asking for his ...