On an order to show cause why respondent should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.
For disbarment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None.
In this matter, we consider ten complaints filed against respondent, David LaRosee, in two separate proceedings. In the first proceeding, concerning one complaint (the Sultan matter), the District Ethics Committee found that respondent had engaged in misconduct in the course of representing a client before the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) concluded that the District Ethics Committee's findings of unethical conduct were "fully supported by clear and convincing evidence," and recommended a three-year suspension from the practice of law for those ethical violations.
In the second proceeding concerning the nine other complaints, a Special Ethics Master recommended that five be dismissed. In the four remaining matters -- Petitt, DuFour, Bertles, and Sebasto -- the Special Ethics Master found ethical violations. In the Petitt matter, the Master determined that respondent had failed to advise his clients that he had turned over their file to another attorney when he moved to Massachusetts and ceased to practice law in New Jersey. In the DuFour matter, the Master found that respondent had violated recordkeeping requirements by failing to maintain client ledger cards, and when audited had failed to comply with the auditor's
numerous requests for information. In the Bertles matter, the Master determined that respondent had attempted to suborn perjury. In the Sebasto matter, the Special Ethics Master found the second count, alleging misappropriation of clients' trust funds, to have been established, but dismissed the first count, which alleged a conflict of interest.*fn1
The DRB concurred with the Special Ethics Master that the allegations of unethical conduct in the Petitt, DuFour, Bertles, and Sebasto matters were "fully supported by clear and convincing evidence." The DRB also agreed that the five other complaints and the first count in the Sebasto matter should be dismissed. The DRB recommended that respondent's unethical conduct in the Bertles and Sebasto matters warranted disbarment.
On June 7, 1988, this Court temporarily suspended respondent based on the DRB report and recommendation in the Sultan matter.
The DRB found the following facts:
In or about June 1980, respondent was retained by Asif Sultan (Sultan) to incorporate the Sultan family business, Salatin, Inc. Some months later, in or about October 1980, respondent was asked by Sultan to file applications with the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (I.N.S.) for a change in immigration status for his son, Iqbal Sultan (Iqbal), himself and their respective families.
On or about October 14, 1980, respondent met with Asif Sultan at Salatin's offices in the World Trade Center. At that time, he provided Sultan with two blank forms and asked him to sign one, have Iqbal sign the other, and return both to him. No written retainer agreement was executed. However, respondent submitted a bill, dated October 14, 1980, charging Sultan $2,500 for his professional services. According to Sultan, respondent's fee was to be $1,000
per application for a total of $2,000, payable upon completion. Sultan was also to pay all out-of-pocket expenses and did in fact provide respondent with an initial check for $200. Respondent, however, avers that his fee was $1,000 per adult person for a total of $4,000, plus all fees and expenses. According to respondent, one-half of his fee was payable in advance, with the balance due upon completion. Hence the bill for $2,500 included $500 for expenses. No other bills or invoice letters were ever prepared or submitted to Sultan. Sultan made no further payment.
After returning the signed forms to respondent, Sultan inquired numerous times regarding the status of the applications without receiving a reply. Approximately seven months later, Sultan received a letter dated May 20, 1981, from respondent. In this letter, respondent indicated that he had been informally advised that Iqbal's application had been forwarded to the District Director's Office for favorable determination but that he had been unable to trace Asif Sultan's application.
Upon receiving this letter, Sultan contacted the I.N.S. office in New York City and learned that said office had no record of his application having been filed. Subsequent requests to respondent for either a copy of the application that had supposedly been filed or a satisfactory explanation went unheeded. Consequently, on or about June 26, 1981, Sultan testified that he "literally, physically pulled [respondent] by the arm and took him to the immigration office in New York and had [his] application filed."
Given his experiences with respondent up to this point, Sultan sent respondent a series of letters via certified mail requesting copies of and information concerning the application supposedly filed on Iqbal's behalf. These letters, dated July 8, July 22, August 8, August 10 and November 3, 1981, did not secure a single written response. In fact, respondent "sometimes didn't even open the letters. . . ." Follow-up telephone calls to respondent also failed to elicit a satisfactory response. Respondent acknowledged that he "wasn't anxious at all to do anything for Mr. Sultan in any way, shape or form."
Ultimately, around November 24, 1981, respondent provided Sultan with a document from the I.N.S. purportedly granting the Iqbal Sultan family's application for an adjustment of status to that of permanent resident. Iqbal had requested nonimmigrant Inter-Company Transferee status.
The document sent to Sultan was not genuine. Respondent originally received it in connection with an application filed on behalf of another client, Robert Newsham. According to the testimony of the I.N.S. officer who had prepared the papers, the document granting permanent resident status to the Newsham family was altered by deleting the name Newsham and inserting the name Sultan in its place. The remainder, including the five docket or file numbers representing the five members of the Newsham family, was not altered. [At all times relevant hereto, the Iqbal Sultan family unit consisted of but three individuals, to wit: Iqbal, his wife Rukshana and daughter Mariam.]
Sultan questioned the genuineness of this document upon receipt but was assured by respondent that it was indeed authentic. Subsequent requests that respondent verify the authenticity and correctness of the document went unheeded. Sultan did not receive any further communication from respondent
until July 6, 1983, after the initial complaint giving rise to these proceedings had been filed by Sultan. In this letter, respondent indicated that he had consulted an I.N.S. representative and determined it would be necessary to appear at the district office in person and refile Iqbal's application.
The DRB found that respondent had been grossly negligent and deceitful in his communications with his client, having materially altered a document from the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. The DRB concluded that respondent had violated DR 2-110(A)(2), 6-101(A)(1), 1-102(A)(4), and 1-102(A)(5), and recommended public discipline for those violations.
As found by the DRB, the facts are as follows:
In December 1985, Richard and Barbara Petitt retained respondent to represent them in an action for negligence and fraud against the builder of their house and other co-defendants. After respondent instituted suit, he ceased practicing law in New Jersey and moved to Massachusetts in April 1986, without giving notice to his clients.
After the receipt of a trial notice, one of the co-defendants offered $1,500 in settlement of the Petitts' claim. Respondent testified that he communicated the settlement offer to Mrs. Petitt by telephone on that same day, October 2, 1986, and that she accepted the offer for herself and her husband. Respondent did not inform Mrs. Petitt of the upcoming trial date. Mrs. Petitt, in turn, testified that she did not accept the offer; rather, she told respondent that she would discuss the offer with her husband and then advise respondent of their decision.
After the October 2, 1986 conversation with Mrs. Petitt, respondent accepted the settlement offer in the Petitts' behalf. No settlement documents were ever prepared, however. It was respondent's belief that the documents would be drafted by another attorney to whom respondent had entrusted the file before he left for Massachusetts. A substitution of attorney was never signed, however, and respondent did not consult with his clients before turning the file over to the attorney.
Approximately one week after respondent's conversation with Mrs. Petitt, Mr. Petitt unsuccessfully attempted to contact respondent by telephone. He was informed that the telephone had been disconnected and that no further information was available. Thereafter, Mr. Petitt drove by respondent's house, which displayed a "For Sale" sign. He rang the bell, but there was no answer. The house appeared to be vacant.
One month later, after he talked to a painter who was working on respondent's house, Mr. Petitt discovered that respondent had moved to Massachusetts. Mr. Petitt then contacted respondent in Massachusetts and advised him
that the $1,500 sum was not acceptable to him. Thereafter, respondent made no efforts to vacate the settlement and ...