On an order to show cause why respondent should not be certified for admission to the bar.
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Stein. For reversal -- Justices Clifford and Garibaldi. Clifford, J., Dissenting. Justice Garibaldi joins in this Dissent.
This matter arises from a Report of the Committee on Character that Roger Peterman be certified for admission to the bar of this state. One member of the committee panel that heard the matter Dissented. That member believed that Peterman's admission to the bar was precluded by this Court's decision in In re Wilson, 81 N.J. 451, 409 A.2d 1153 (1979). As a young lawyer in Pennsylvania, Peterman had misappropriated the proceeds of all or part of three insurance checks intended as medical reimbursement payments for a physician who had treated, at Peterman's request, a client in a personal-injury case.
In re Wilson was decided on December 19, 1979. In that case the Court held that a knowing misappropriation of clients' funds will almost invariably warrant disbarment of the attorney. Some months before that decision, on August 9, 1979, the Keystone Insurance Company of Pennsylvania mailed a check to Mr. Peterman in the amount of $479.31, payable to Ernest McCain, Peterman's
client in the personal injury case. McCain endorsed the check and went with Peterman to a bank where the check was cashed. Peterman either deposited these proceeds into an account over which he had signature authority or retained them as cash.
After the Wilson decision, on March 21, 1980, Keystone issued a second check in the amount of $149.64, again payable to McCain. McCain endorsed the check and Peterman deposited it in an account that he held jointly with his wife. Finally, on May 21, 1980, Keystone issued a third check in the amount of $996.97, jointly to Ernest McCain and Dr. Richard Kaplan, the physician who had treated McCain at Peterman's request. McCain endorsed the check. Peterman then signed Dr. Kaplan's name to it and deposited it in the joint account, retaining some cash.
In his testimony before the Committee on Character, Peterman described the harrowing circumstances under which his final wrong occurred. He said:
Yes, I even remember that day. In this case, I specifically remember the day. It was a terrible day. I had -- my car was no longer running and I received the check and I walked to my office, which is about -- I didn't have money for the bus and I walked about two miles into Center City Philadelphia and had already called Mr. McCain and arranged to meet him there to obtain his endorsement. I remember that I was barely able to make it. Physically I was so drained and debilitated that I was -- had a hard time getting there to the site where I met Mr. McCain.
He described his conversation with Mr. McCain about the status of the personal injury case and how, after that meeting, he went from the office and walked into an area of North Philadelphia frequented by drug users and drug dealers. He stopped at an automatic-teller machine where he deposited the check by signing Dr. Kaplan's name and putting the check into the machine, from which he was able to withdraw $200 in cash. He said that he could not "say exactly what I was thinking about. I was probably thinking that I was excruciatingly ill and I hate to be unnecessarily graphic." He described his feeling of disgust and his loss of control of his bowels, testifying that he
just remember[ed] being so humiliated completely, completely destroyed emotionally. You know, looking back on it and I don't want to sound too absurd, but I
mean, looking back on it I'm convinced now that I believed at the time that I was authorized -- that I believed in my demented thinking with my addictive process at work, that I believed that I was authorized to sign his name because I was going to pay him in any case, and that I had an account with him. I had an independent contractual obligation to pay him.
While the Disciplinary Review Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania did not credit Peterman's testimony that he believed that he was authorized to sign Dr. Kaplan's name, the fact remains that Peterman had arranged for the medical treatment and had, according to his testimony, guaranteed the payment of Dr. Kaplan's bills.
Despite what he claims was his intention, he never made the payments to Dr. Kaplan, who complained to the Philadelphia Prosecutor's Office, which brought criminal proceedings against Peterman. A jury convicted Peterman of two misdemeanor counts of failure to make required Disposition of funds received, but acquitted him of forgery. On July 13, 1984, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court suspended him from practice as a result of the criminal conviction. He was disbarred in Pennsylvania on September 23, 1985.
Peterman was reinstated to practice in Pennsylvania on August 21, 1991. He passed the February 1992 administrations of both the New Jersey and New York Bar Examinations. On June 23, 1992, he was admitted to the bar of the State of New York.
The New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Character held hearings and subsequently issued a Report and Recommendation certifying Peterman's fitness to practice law. We entered an Order to Show Cause why he ...