On an Order to Show Cause why respondent should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.
For suspension -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None.
[115 NJ Page 50] Respondent, Frederic C. Ritger, Jr., is before the Court on charges of ethical improprieties in his handling of a decedent's estate. Specifically, he is charged with having given misinformation to his client, the administratrix of the estate, and with having failed to keep her informed. The District Ethics Committee
(the Committee), having concluded that respondent had misrepresented the status of the estate matter, had failed to keep his client reasonably informed, and had engaged in a pattern of neglect, recommended that respondent be issued a private reprimand. The Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) treated the recommendation as a presentment and determined that the evidence clearly and convincingly established Ritger's unethical conduct. The DRB disagreed, however, with the Committee on the extent of discipline to be imposed. The DRB's recommendation to this Court is for a one-year suspension from the practice of law. We conclude that the appropriate discipline is a six-months suspension.
Complainant, Mary Lee Ward, is the administratrix of the estate of her late brother, James Glover, a/k/a William Johnson. In 1972 Glover and his common-law wife, Janet Johnson, purchased residential property in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At the time the Harrisburg property was purchased, it appeared that Ms. Johnson may still have been married to one Mayfield Thomas, whom she married in 1939 and from whom she became separated in 1954. When complainant's brother, Glover, died in East Orange in 1981, there immediately arose questions about the nature and extent of his interest in the Harrisburg property.
In August 1981, Ms. Ward retained the Newark law form of Franzblau & Falkin as counsel, by way of referral from one Charles Koosman, a New York lawyer, who had long been Ms. Ward's personal attorney. The essential legal issue confronting counsel in the winding-up of the estate was whether, assuming Janet Johnson was not free to marry the decedent on account of her still-surviving marriage, the Harrisburg property was then held by Mr. Glover and Ms. Johnson as tenants in common, and if so, whether Mr. Glover's estate was entitled to one-half interest in the value of the property. It was thus
necessary to determine Ms. Johnson's marital status when the Harrisburg property was acquired and the effect of that status on the property's title. As later developed, Ms. Johnson had not been lawfully divorced from Mr. Thomas as of February 1982.
When the estate matter came to the firm, it was assigned to respondent. It became his opinion, as well as that of other attorneys including Pennsylvania counsel with whom he consulted, that it might be advisable to proceed by way of an action to quiet title in Pennsylvania. Were that course successful, the estate would be declared a tenant in common and its value would be augmented by one-half the value of the Harrisburg property. It was respondent's efforts, or lack thereof, in connection with that property that occasioned the ethics complaint and these proceedings.
Given the facts that are either admitted by respondent or, where not specifically admitted, otherwise established by clear and convincing proof, we need not engage in close analysis of the evidence in order to conclude that respondent's ethical derelictions are painfully apparent. For purposes of this opinion it is sufficient to recite the following events.
Respondent recognized the need for expedition either in starting suit in Pennsylvania to protect the estate's assets or potential assets, or in engaging Pennsylvania counsel to do so. He did neither. Moreover, in letters to Ms. Ward he misrepresented the status ...