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Matter of Principato

March 31, 1995

IN THE MATTER OF SALVATORE PRINCIPATO, AN ATTORNEY AT LAW.


On consideration of why respondent should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.

Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, Stein, and Coleman join in this opinion.

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

IN THE MATTER OF SALVATORE PRINCIPATO, An Attorney at Law (D-64-94)

Submitted January 18, 1995 -- Decided March 31, 1995

PER CURIAM

Salvatore Principato was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1983. On February 14, 1992, a former client, J.M., filed a complaint against Principato in Haddon Township Municipal Court, charging him with simple assault, a disorderly persons offense. At the time of the assault, Principato and J.M. had been involved in a sexual relationship. Principato was tried in municipal court and found guilty as charged. Prior to his conviction, Principato had an unblemished professional record.

In August of 1992, a representative of Services for Victims of Domestic Violence (SOLACE) informed the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) of Principato's conviction. The OAE reviewed the matter and, thereafter, filed a Motion For Final Discipline Based Upon a Criminal Conviction before the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB), seeking final discipline of Principato. While the OAE review was ongoing, J.M. filed with the District IV Ethics Committee an ethics grievance against Principato, alleging, in addition to the criminal conviction, Principato's impropriety in having represented her in a matrimonial action and in beginning an affair with her during that representation. The OAE did not conduct an investigation of those allegations, instead filing the motion for final discipline based on Principato's conviction of simple assault. Thus, the Court's inquiry is limited to the facts underlying the conviction.

The DRB found that Principato had engaged in unethical conduct and recommended that he be privately reprimanded.

HELD: Salvatore Principato is publicly reprimanded for his criminal conviction of the disorderly persons offense of simple assault.

1. Principato's conviction of simple assault is clear and convincing evidence of his violation of RPC 8.4(b). The sole issue to be determined is the extent of the discipline to be imposed. In making that determination, the Court considers the interests of the public, the bar, and the attorney. (pp. 4-5)

2. Although the assault was not related to Principato's practice, he did assault his client. In dealing with a client, an attorney is bound to the highest degree of fidelity and good faith. A sexual relationship with a client jeopardizes the attorney-client relationship and has the potential of involving the attorney in unethical behavior. Moreover, a bar applicant must possess certain traits that are considered fundamental norms of the profession -- honesty and truthfulness, trustworthiness and reliability, and a professional commitment to the judicial process and the administration of Justice. Acts of domestic violence violate those fundamental norms. (pp. 5-7)

3. The Court agrees with the mitigating factors found by both the municipal court and the DRB. J.M. was not seriously harmed; Principato had no prior history of misconduct; Principato's conduct was aberrational and unlikely to recur; Principato's representation of J.M. was not adversely affected by their personal relationship; there was a significant adverse impact on Principato's career as a result of negative publicity; and Principato had an otherwise unblemished ethics record. (pp. 7-8)

4. New Jersey has a strong public policy against domestic violence. But for the fact that the Court had not previously addressed the appropriate discipline to be imposed on an attorney convicted of an act of domestic violence, and that the offense was an isolated incident and did not present a pattern of abusive conduct, the discipline imposed would have been greater than a public reprimand. However, in the future an attorney convicted of an act of domestic violence will ordinarily be suspended. (pp. 8-9)

CHIEF JUSTICE WILENTZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, STEIN, and COLEMAN ...


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