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Matter of Costanzo

Decided: June 13, 1989.

IN THE MATTER OF ERNEST R. COSTANZO, AN ATTORNEY AT LAW

Decision and Recommendation of the Disciplinary Review Board

This matter is before the Board based upon a recommendation for a private reprimand filed by the District IV (Camden County) Ethics Committee, which the Board determined to hear as a presentment.

On September 8, 1981, James Manzi was involved in an automobile accident. Approximately one week later, Manzi consulted with respondent about a traffic ticket that Manzi received and about damage to his automobile caused by the accident.

In December 1981, respondent represented Manzi in Bellmawr Municipal Court in connection with the traffic ticket. Manzi was found not guilty of inattentive driving.

On July 28, 1982, Manzi paid respondent $150 to pursue a claim for damages to his automobile. Respondent thereafter told Manzi that he was having difficulty bringing the case to court, but that Manzi would have his "day in court." When Manzi eventually became concerned about the status of his case, he began to telephone respondent's home to determine whether it was proceeding apace. He was unable to reach respondent, despite numerous messages left with respondent's parents.

On September 28, 1983, respondent filed a civil complaint in Camden County District Court, seeking $2,000 in damages resulting from the accident. The complaint, however, was returned to respondent because the address of the out-of-state defendant was insufficient for service. Manzi was never informed of the filing of the complaint or the status of his civil claim. Respondent was in the process of closing his law office when he filed the complaint and admitted that he was not in proper communication with Manzi. Respondent was aware that

Manzi was attempting to reach him, but did not communicate with Manzi after the complaint was returned for insufficient address.

Frustrated with his unsuccessful attempts to learn the status of his claim, in March 1985 Manzi submitted a grievance letter to the ethics committee. Subsequently, the Office of Attorney Ethics discovered that respondent was ineligible to practice law during 1984 and 1985 because of his failure to pay his annual registration fee to the Clients' Security Fund.

On October 18, 1985, an investigator of the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) telephoned respondent, representing himself as a prospective client. The investigator made an appointment with respondent to discuss the preparation of a last will and testament. They met at respondent's residence in Bellmawr, New Jersey. There was no sign identifying the residence as a law office. The investigator was taken to a small basement office, where respondent proceeded to take information regarding the will and to inform the investigator that there would be a $50 fee. The investigator subsequently revealed his identity and indicated that respondent was ineligible to practice law until the required payments to the Client's Security Fund for 1984 and 1985 were made. Respondent told the investigator that he had closed his office on E. Browning Road, Bellmawr, in 1982, and that he had no excuse for not making the required payments. In addition, respondent stated that he had no cases or litigation pending and only assisted friends and relatives. The investigator then told respondent that the matter would be considered a warning and that the Office of Attorney Ethics would take further action if respondent continued to practice law while on the ineligible list. Thereafter, respondent made the required Clients' Security Fund payments and became eligible to practice law in November 1985.

Following a hearing, the committee issued a report concluding that respondent had violated R. 1:28-2, by offering to

prepare a will while ineligible to practice law, RPC 5.5(a),*fn1 by violating a regulation of a jurisdiction within which respondent practiced, and DR 7-101(A)(1) and (2), by his failure to return Manzi's numerous telephone inquiries, failure to communicate with Manzi regarding the status of his lawsuit, and failure to seek the lawful objectives of his client through ...


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