On an order to show cause why respondent should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.
For Suspension -- Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None.
[118 NJ Page 239] This disciplinary action is based on eight client complaints charging respondent with gross negligence, neglect, and other unethical conduct. Those complaints resulted in four separate recommendations by the District V-A Ethics Committee. The
Disciplinary Review Board (DRB or Board) consolidated those matters for oral argument and determined that respondent was grossly negligent in the representation of his client in seven of the eight cases reviewed, and that respondent engaged in a pattern of neglect. Moreover, the DRB found that respondent engaged in other unethical conduct, including negotiating settlements without the authorization of clients, advancing sums of money to clients for personal expenses, and violating DR 1-102(A)(6) ("other conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law").
Although the DRB unanimously found that the ethical infractions warranted public discipline, it was divided on the appropriate penalty: the five-member majority concluded that a six-month suspension was proper, while one dissenting member recommended a three-month suspension. Our independent review of the record leads us to conclude that a six-month suspension is the appropriate discipline.
Respondent was admitted to practice law in this state in 1973. Following a judicial clerkship, respondent became a Deputy Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division. Thereafter, he entered private practice, focusing on employment discrimination and related matters.
The DRB reviewed the findings of the ethics committee, which were summarized as follows:
Following the October 4, 1978 death of Sidney Blue, the respondent agreed to handle the administration of the estate. In June of 1980, respondent was advised by the surrogate that a problem existed with decedent's will, since a specific bequest had been lined out. Within the next three months, respondent obtained the affidavits of witnesses confirming that this interlineation preceded the signing of the will. In order to proceed with probate, respondent twice wrote to the grievant in an attempt to obtain her signature on a complaint and her accompanying affidavit. However, following his second communication on September 4, 1981, he took no action on the estate for three years. During this
time, he moved his office twice. Finally, in July of 1984, the grievant contacted the District V Ethics Committee. Subsequently, in November of 1984, the respondent filed the appropriate papers to probate the will of Sidney Blue. One month later, he returned an insurance draft to the insurer to be reissued. The draft had been in his possession, undeposited and not earning interest, since December of 1979.
Respondent admitted that he failed to move expeditiously in this case. He stated that during the years in question, he had problems in reaching the grievant and personal problems, including the dissolution of a law partnership.
The Committee found that respondent was grossly negligent, in violation of DR 6-101, and failed to act with reasonable diligence as required by DR 7-101. Although the committee recommended a private reprimand, the Board determined to hear this case with the additional matters filed against the respondent.
Respondent represented Vivian Braxton in an action filed against the City of Orange Housing Authority. In May of 1980, Mrs. Braxton was a commissioner of that housing authority, and contended, among other things, that she was harassed by her fellow commissioners. Suit was filed on her behalf. Respondent's subsequent failure to answer interrogatories resulted in a motion from his adversary to dismiss the case or compel answers. This motion was adjourned based on respondent's representation that the matter could be settled by a conference between the parties. Discussions between respondent and his adversary occurred during September 1980 and the case was settled on or about October 1. A stipulation of dismissal with prejudice signed by respondent was forwarded to his adversary on October 22, 1980.
Thereafter, a meeting was held between respondent, his client, another commissioner of the housing authority, and the counsel to the housing authority. At the conclusion of that meeting, it was agreed that respondent's client would submit documentation of her grievances to the housing authority's attorney, and he, in turn, would attempt to address the problems. No such documentation was ever submitted. Respondent claimed that his client never provided the documents to him.
Although the grievant was aware from respondent that her case would eventually be settled, she did not learn of the actual settlement until late 1980 when she asked respondent about a trial date. Since the "harassment" she previously complained of was continuing, she told respondent to reopen the matter. Respondent thereafter filed a motion to reopen dated November 24, 1980 and returnable December 22, 1980, followed by a second motion returnable of [sic] May 11, 1981. Both were unsuccessful.
While respondent may have discussed the likelihood of settlement of this matter with his client, the ethics committee concluded that he did not have the client's informed consent to dismissal of her suit with prejudice at the time the stipulation was signed. Nor did he have informed consent when he forwarded the stipulation to the court on October 29, 1980. The committee considered that no writing existed documenting the terms of settlement, and that no discovery
had been undertaken by respondent when the settlement was reached, although a pre-trial conference was imminent.
During the pendency of the litigation, respondent visited the grievant at her home. Ms. Braxton discussed her dissatisfaction with respondent's handling of the case at that time. During that meeting, she noticed that respondent was carrying a gun. She was frightened although she stated later that she did not believe respondent was trying to frighten her. Respondent admitted to carrying the unloaded weapon, but contended that he had the gun on his person because he was either on his way to or returning from the firing range.
The committee concluded that respondent violated DR 7-101 and DR 1-102 in his handling of the Braxton litigation. Further, carrying a pistol during a meeting at a client's home was contrary to DR 1-102, and was ...