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Matter of Weston

Decided: April 12, 1990.

IN THE MATTER OF STEVEN J. WESTON, 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

[118 NJ Page 478] This case arises from a report and recommendation of the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) that respondent be suspended from the practice of law for a period of two years. The recommendation is based on the findings of the Monmouth County District Ethics Committee that respondent had engaged in fraudulent misconduct in that he signed a deed and affidavit of title in the name of a client without authorization and misrepresented to the purchaser's attorney that the documents were in fact genuine. Respondent does not contest the DRB's conclusions that his conduct was unethical and in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct. Respondent contends that this Court should not follow the Board's recommendation that he be suspended from the practice of law for the two-year period.

I

This case illustrates "what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive." Sir Walter Scott, "Marmion," Canto VI, stanza 17 (1808). It results from the attorney's refusal to face the inevitable unraveling of a tangled series of condominium transactions that dodged legal requirements that would have called in a first mortgage.

To his credit, respondent, through his attorney, does not deny the essential facts. As the attorney put it in response to a question on whether he would indicate how he disagreed with the findings of the District Ethics Committee:

I don't think that I necessarily disagree with the findings that they made. In fact, I don't disagree with the findings that they made in terms of the Rule violations. It happened.

Respondent's father, Robert Weston, had acted as financial counsellor to several people who acquired interests in a Belmar, New Jersey condominium unit. These persons acquired the unit as investment property. When the original buyer became dissatisfied with the investment, respondent's father arranged to sell the equity in the unit to another investor, but withheld the conveyance from record to avoid calling in the first mortgage. Unfortunately, Investor Number One (the investors were sometimes husband and wife but we shall refer to them in the singular) was never told this. When Investor Number Two tired of the deal, his interest passed to Investor Number Three, again without a record conveyance. Finally, when Investor Number Three wanted out, the equity was acquired by the respondent's father, who had created the chain of interests.

The father put the condominium unit on the market. A buyer appeared who happened to be a legal secretary employed by a Monmouth County law firm. Initially a standard realtor's contract was prepared listing Robert Weston as seller. Respondent, however, personally notified the buyer's attorney that the original owners, who were still residents of Massachusetts, were the title owners and the contract would have to be amended to properly reflect them as the sellers.

Time appeared to be essential to the buyer, and according to the respondent, at the urging of the buyer's attorney he agreed to sign the contract as a representative of the sellers. He did so in the buyer's presence.

After the closing, the purchaser noticed that the signature on the deed appeared to be the same as that on the contract, which she knew that the respondent-attorney had signed. She asked her employer attorney to request that respondent produce a power of attorney for this signature on the deed.

Here the web could have been disentangled had respondent been more forthright. Rather than admit that he had accommodated the various parties in interest, including his father, respondent insisted that Investor Number One had in fact signed the deed. The troubled buyer engaged a handwriting expert, who soon confirmed the obvious. Respondent had falsely signed the deed, the affidavit of title, and the discharge of the contract between Investors Numbers One and Two. In addition, the name of Investor Number One had been falsely affixed to the check for the closing proceeds that went through respondent's trust account for eventual disbursement to the investors in the ...


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