On an Order to Show Cause why respondent should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.
For suspension -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None.
This matter arises from a report of the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) recommending a three-year suspension of respondent. The recommendation is based on its finding that respondent repeatedly misrepresented the status of pending adoption proceedings to his client, and prepared two false court orders to stall the client's discovery of his deficiencies. Based upon our independent review of the record, we are clearly convinced that respondent engaged in the described conduct and that it warrants the recommended suspension.
Respondent was admitted to the Bar in 1974 but did not enter private practice until 1980. After a brief period of practice on his own, he became associated, in February 1981, with a firm of twenty lawyers with an office in Newark and satellite offices in Caldwell and Pompton Plains. He was assigned to the office in Pompton Plains. The firm was taking over the practice of an attorney in that area who was entering retirement. In March 1981, respondent was given the responsibility of representing a client of that retiring attorney in adoption proceedings.
The proceedings were straightforward. The client, who had been represented in an earlier matrimonial action by the retiring attorney, sought to adopt the children of his second wife. It was expected to be uncontested. Her former husband was to consent to the adoption. Respondent told the client at the initial interview that it would not be a difficult task to put through the adoption of the two girls. (Respondent contends that only the husband was his client. Because of the identity of their interests we shall refer to husband and wife as clients.)
For reasons that we shall discuss later, respondent did essentially nothing to advance the client's case, despite repeated inquiries from the client and his wife. For almost a year the file was dormant. (Respondent did obtain the consent in writing of the natural father and did say that he prepared a draft complaint.) Then in April 1982, the firm closed the Pompton
Plains office. Respondent declined to work at its Newark or Caldwell offices.
When he left, he continued to handle ten cases of the firm. This adoption case was one of them. Respondent eventually opened his own office in Pompton Plains. He still failed to advance the case and began to cover up his neglect. The District Ethics Committee's report details the misrepresentations. First, he told the clients that things were "in the works." In the summer of 1982, he told them that he had good news -- the adoption had gone through. Later he told them that the judge had signed the adoption papers, and finally he told the wife that he would mail them copies of the final order.
In fact, he had done nothing. Although, as he put it, it was a tough gamble opening up on his own, he claims he was not under intense pressure and the practice was not out of hand. Still, having first deceived his client, he was drawn by the tangled net into the final act of deception. Faced with repeated requests for evidence that the matter had been favorably concluded, respondent drew up a fictitious order to deliver to his client's wife on Friday, October 29, 1982. He typed two orders for adoption (one for each child) and superimposed the signatures of a sitting judge of the vicinage on the orders. He gave the orders to his client's wife shortly after noon on Friday, the 29th of October.
Respondent testified to the District Ethics Committee that he had no plan to deceive the clients. He rationalized that nothing could be done with the orders. They had no docket numbers. He said he was stalling for time so that he could enlist another attorney to salvage the matter. The client's wife, suspecting that something was amiss, called the judge. Within hours, the scheme unraveled. The judge called the Passaic County Prosecutor into the matter. The respondent was called down to the prosecutor's office on that Friday afternoon and admitted the entire matter. On Monday, respondent obtained the counsel
that he should have sought months earlier. The adoption matter was turned ...