On an Order to Show Cause why respondent should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.
For disbarment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None.
[104 NJ Page 306] This matter arises from a report of the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) recommending that respondent, Joseph T. Romano, be disbarred. The matter came before the Board upon a presentment filed by the District VI Ethics Committee, as a result of complaints filed by four former clients charging respondent with misappropriation of clients' funds. Respondent
admitted the misappropriations and recognizes that the normal consequence of such conduct is disbarment. In re Wilson, 81 N.J. 451 (1979). He offers as mitigating circumstances, however, that he was a cocaine addict and that his addiction was a mental or physical disability that caused him to engage in inappropriate behavior.
The DRB summarized the relevant facts as follows:
Respondent had been retained by Sandra Moriggia to represent her in a civil action for injuries she suffered in a motor vehicle accident in 1981. Respondent filed the lawsuit in January 1983 and negotiated a settlement for $55,000, the maximum obtainable under existing insurance policies. Although Mrs. Moriggia had signed a release, she and her family later became unhappy with that amount. Respondent was successful in a motion to declare the release null and void. Soon thereafter he negotiated a settlement for another $15,000 which brought the total to $70,000. Respondent remitted $40,000 to Mrs. Moriggia and retained the balance to cover legal fees, costs and medical expenses.
Respondent, however, did not use the entrusted funds to pay medical expenses. Instead, he used the trust account checks to pay for his drug addiction. He maintained that his drug habit had accelerated over the years to the point where he was over $30,000 in debt to pushers. Respondent claimed he rejected a suggestion by a drug pusher/client that he use clients' money to fund his habit. He did, however, accede to a request that he give these clients' checks to third parties who would endorse and cash them and give respondent credit toward his drug debt.
In July 1984 Mrs. Moriggia notified the district ethics committee that respondent had not paid all of her medical bills as promised. Respondent had retained $11,316 to pay these expenses. After being contacted by the ethics committee, respondent agreed to pay some of the medical bills.
At the ethics committee hearing, respondent generally admitted that he diverted the Moriggia funds. He also admitted similar treatment of $945 which was entrusted to him by a client named McGill, $600 entrusted to him by a client named Sanborg and $277 by a client named Cortez, totalling $1,822. The checks involved in the Moriggia, McGill, Sanborg and Cortez matters were converted during the period of February 1 through March 19, 1984. In mitigation, respondent claimed he was a drug addict. He stated he became involved with controlled dangerous substances in 1978 and his habit increased in use and cost by 1983 to several thousand dollars a week. Respondent produced testimony by an attorney as to his good character and work habits. Dr. George T. Pierson, medical director of a rehabilitation center, testified that respondent underwent in-patient treatment between May 30 and July 11, 1985. While Dr. Pierson believed respondent was aware of what he was doing, he felt the pressures of respondent's drug abuse caused him to divert the client funds.
The district ethics committee found that respondent violated DR 1-102 by engaging in illegal conduct that adversely reflected on his fitness to practice
law, that respondent engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. The committee concluded that respondent had engaged in a course of 'extreme drug abuse which severely affected his abilities to function as an attorney.' It further concluded that respondent's use of cocaine and alcohol produced a medical condition which resulted in his physical and mental disability at the time of the diversion of the funds. The committee also found that respondent's assertion of mental and physical disability had been established and was causally related to the offense charged. Noting respondent was presently employed by another attorney without access to trust funds, the committee concluded that this procedure offered reasonable safeguards to the public that respondent would not be in a position to misappropriate trust funds again.
Upon a review of the full record, the DRB concluded that there was clear and convincing evidence of respondent's unethical conduct. We have independently reviewed ...