On an Order to Show Cause why respondent should not be publicly reprimanded or otherwise disciplined.
For suspension -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None.
This disciplinary proceeding arises out of three presentments filed by the District I Ethics Committee (the Ethics Committee), which concluded that respondent had committed unethical conduct and should be privately reprimanded. The Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) agreed with the Ethics Committee's finding of unethical conduct, but took a graver view of his misconduct toward the Committee in the course of his disciplinary proceedings. We, too, have previously observed firsthand his disrespect for the disciplinary process. On January 11, 1983, respondent failed to appear in answer to an Order to Show Cause why he should not be suspended. On that date, we suspended him, and he remains suspended to the present. At the conclusion of its hearing, the DRB recommended that respondent be suspended for two years retroactive to the date of his temporary suspension. We agree.
The DRB summarized the Ethics Committee's three presentments and recommendation for a private reprimand:
The presentments charge Respondent with failing to cooperate with the Ethics Committee, contrary to DR 1-102(A)(5) and (6) and failing to communicate regarding legal services performed, contrary to DR 1-102(A)(6). The Recommendation for a private reprimand charges Respondent with failing to
properly handle a legal matter entrusted to him, contrary to DR 6-101, and with failing to seek the lawful objectives of a client, contrary to DR 7-101.
The DRB Decision and Recommendation continues:
"Mrs. Nancy Ingle paid Respondent a $250 retainer in January 1978 to file a lawsuit against the property owners of a single family dwelling she was purchasing which was destroyed by fire. She had entered into a contract in September 1976 to buy the dwelling for $22,000. She paid $4,000 down and was to pay $300 monthly. The house was extensively damaged by fire in January 1978. The contract balance as of January 1, 1978 was $16,375.88. Mrs. Ingle told Respondent the fire had been started by an employee of the property owner and she had a witness who saw the employee run out of the house. She later could not locate this witness. Respondent learned from the property owner that Mrs. Ingle had turned the dwelling into a boarding house in violation of the zoning ordinance and a boarder smoking in bed had started the fire. While Mrs. Ingle claimed Respondent told her he would handle the legal action on a contingency basis, Respondent maintained he informed her that an additional retainer was necessary before he would commence any legal action.
"Since Mrs. Ingle was listed among the payees on the insurance check for $17,256.09, the property owners initially offered her $500 to relinquish any rights she might have in the proceeds so the matter could be quickly resolved. She refused this. Several other offers were also rejected before it was increased to $5,750 on May 18, 1978, which she also rejected. Respondent had advised her to accept this but told her the decision had to be hers. Mrs. Ingle believed that the highest offer was only $4,000 and did not think this was sufficient. She had no insurance of her own on the property or its contents. After Mrs. Ingle refused to pay Respondent the additional retainer, he proposed returning the initial $250 retainer. She declined to accept it. In the interim, the municipality had initiated condemnation proceedings to raze the house. On
March 20, 1979, the property owners filed a civil action against Mrs. Ingle to expunge any ownership interest she might have in the property since the insurance proceeds were still not resolved. When Mrs. Ingle informed Respondent of this, he told her she had to file an answer or a default judgment could be entered against her. He informed her that his fee for handling this would be $1,000. A judgment against her was entered on February 1, 1980.
"Mrs. Ingle later filed an ethics complaint against Respondent, claiming he never advised her what action he was pursuing on her behalf and he had made himself unavailable to her when she attempted to contact him. Respondent did not cooperate with the Ethics Committee investigator who attempted to contact him to obtain his reply to the allegations. He cancelled appointments without explanation. A letter dated June 15, 1981 advised Respondent that if he did not contact the Ethics Committee investigator a complaint would be filed against him. There was no response until October 5, 1982 when Respondent's attorney informed the Committee that Respondent was retiring from the practice of law, had closed his office and was either going to graduate school or join the army. An answer was not filed to this complaint until March 9, 1983. At the Ethics Committee hearing, Respondent testified that he intentionally failed to file an answer to the complaint, maintaining that he felt it was unfair for an attorney to have to undergo the expense of responding to spurious complaints. He noted that earlier he had expended large sums of money to answer Ethics complaints which later were dismissed. The ...