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Matter of Willis

Decided: January 13, 1989.

IN THE MATTER OF PETER R. WILLIS, AN ATTORNEY AT LAW


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.

Per Curiam

[114 NJ Page 42] Respondent comes before us in response to an order to show cause issued on the basis of the decision and recommendation

of the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) that he be suspended for one year. Although we agree with the decision that respondent's misconduct calls for a suspension, we conclude that a period of six months is the more appropriate discipline.

Initially the matter was heard by a special master, Julius Feinberg, a retired judge of the Superior Court, whose findings provided the basis for the presentment returned by the District VI (Hudson County) Ethics Committee. Thereafter the DRB found respondent guilty of (1) gross neglect in six separate matters involving clients during the years 1980 to 1984, and of a pattern of neglect in those matters; (2) misrepresentation to one client in 1982 by knowingly issuing a check drawn on insufficient funds; (3) a pattern of overreaching, consisting of charging unreasonable fees in eight separate matters; and (4) of the willful failure to file his 1981 federal income tax return, as evidenced by his conviction for that offense in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.

Our focus is on respondent's conviction for failing to file his income tax return and on his argument that this offense, like the other disciplinary infractions, was the product of his chemical substance abuse, including alcoholism. In this regard, the DRB found that respondent

argued that the disease of alcohol affected every area of his life, especially his judgment, therefore also affecting his professionalism.

Respondent testified before the special master that because of his father's death, which was a direct result of his alcoholism, respondent never drank alcohol until he was 36 years of age in 1978. It was also around this same time that respondent determined to seek a divorce from his first wife, after approximately 10 years of marriage.

Respondent recounted in detail his slide into drug induced and alcoholic stupors. He first visited a physician, who treated him for hypertension and prescribed inderal. Without disclosing this treatment to a second doctor, respondent obtained a prescription for valium. Respondent claimed he ingested the inderal and valium at the same time and in different quantities depending upon his own moods. He concomitantly experimented with illegal drugs like cocaine and marijuana and increased his alcohol intake. He claimed he ultimately consumed one quart of alcohol daily. As a result of this substance abuse, he was vomiting daily, sometimes with blood, was often blacking out or hallucinating and was constantly dizzy, shaking and sweating. He also told of

the many times at the end of 1982 and 1983 when he aimlessly rode trains up and down the East Coast, while he consumed large quantities of alcohol. He related one incident in 1984 when he was in the Baltimore, Maryland, train station. He accosted a man because he was hallucinating. He believed he had killed that man. He even telephoned his children to tell them about it.

Respondent recounted [his version of] incidents with his ex-wife, beginning in 1978. * * * [A] bitter and protracted matrimonial action [lasted] approximately four years.

Respondent also told the special master his practice disintegrated during this period. In December 1982, his partnership was dissolved. Thereafter he rarely went to the office. By 1984 his rent was nine months in arrears. His telephone had been disconnected. All of his employees had left him.

Nonetheless, respondent admitted he could perform in court when required, and even had "periods of brilliance." He also met and in May 1982 married his second wife.

In March 1984, respondent entered Overlook Hospital in Summit, where he remained in the detoxification unit for approximately two weeks. Upon his release, he at first refused to enter a professional rehabilitation hospital. However, on the way home he changed his mind and entered the Center for Addictive Illnesses (Center), a program affiliated with Morristown Memorial Hospital that provides comprehensive care to chemically dependent individuals, ranging from detoxification to follow-up out-patient programs. He remained there for approximately one month, after which he joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He testified he has not ingested alcohol or drugs since he entered the hospital's detoxification unit. He further testified he is currently an active member of AA, has been accepted to lead family recovery groups at the Center and is available at all times to aid other lawyers who are abusing alcohol or drugs.

Several witnesses testified about respondent's behavior both before and after his treatment at the Center. The Director of the Center, who is also a physician; the Speaker of the Assembly of the New Jersey Legislature, who was a personal friend; the senior staff attorney in charge of the legal division with the Prosecutor's Office in Hudson County; respondent's law partner, who also worked first as a law clerk and then as an associate for respondent; the First Assistant Prosecutor of Hudson County; an attorney who worked closely with respondent on civil matters, and a detective with the Jersey City Police Department, who is also an alcoholic ...


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