On an Order to show cause 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 STEVEN M. SCHAFFER, AN ATTORNEY AT LAW (D-11-94)
Argued January 4, 1995 -- Decided May 12, 1995
Steven M. Schaffer, an attorney at law from Fort Lee, New Jersey, was arrested on August 5, 1991, and charged with the unlawful possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia, as well as being under the influence of cocaine. In March of 1992, Schaffer was accepted into the Pre-Trial Intervention Program (PTI). After Schaffer satisfied the terms and conditions of the PTI program, the complaints against him were dismissed.
Schaffer waived the filing of a formal ethics complaint against him. He admitted that his conduct constituted a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct and that it reflected adversely on his fitness to practice law. The ethics proceedings went before the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) on stipulated facts.
The DRB noted that Schaffer had been admitted to outpatient treatment for his drug use within twelve days of his arrest. Between August 18, 1991, and January 1, 1993, Schaffer attended group treatment twice a week, as well as individual sessions in Regent Hospital's substance abuse treatment program. He also attended AA meetings during the same period. At the request of the DRB, Schaffer certified that he had maintained a drug-free state from August 18, 1991, to date.
The Office of Attorney Ethics recommended that Schaffer be suspended from the practice of law for three months. The DRB concluded that Schaffer should receive a suspended three-month suspension. Among the mitigating factors found by the DRB were Schaffer's sincere expression of deep regret for his actions, his prompt and extensive remedial action after his arrest, and his ability to turn around his life in the three years since his arrest.
HELD: In the future, an addicted attorney who is guilty of a possessory drug offense may seek to serve an appropriate period of suspension on an accelerated basis while undertaking rehabilitation.
1. Offenses attributable to drug addiction may warrant strong disciplinary measures. Drug addiction that gives rise to criminal and ethics offenses should not be considered mitigation. (pp. 7-8)
2. The Court adheres to the view that a "suspended suspension" is an exceptional form of discipline. It is appropriate only under very specific circumstances that are not present in matters that are based on the possession and use of illegal drugs. (pp. 9-10)
3. An attorney who breaks the criminal laws relating to the possession of drugs commits ethical infractions that demonstrate a disrespect for the law, denigrate the entire legal profession, and destroy public confidence in the practicing bar. (p. 10)
4. The Court notes, however, that there is a special hardship that befalls an attorney who is suspended several years after the occurrence of the criminal offenses and after the attorney has confronted an addiction and achieved recovery. A suspension from the practice of law after rehabilitation has been achieved may itself jeopardize the recovery, undermine rehabilitation, and incite relapse. (p. 11)
5. An attorney whose drug addiction has contributed to his or her commission of a possessory drug offense, but who has conscientiously, promptly, and successfully achieved rehabilitation, can be fairly accommodated by a process that permits the service of an appropriate suspension on an accelerated basis. To the extent possible, the suspension would coincide with any rehabilitation and recovery efforts undertaken by the attorney. This form of discipline is not authorized for drug cases that involve egregious and aggravating circumstances. (pp. 11-12)
6. Attorneys who otherwise qualify for an accelerated suspension must initiate the process by applying to the Office of Attorney Ethics for an immediate suspension pending Disposition of a Motion for Final Discipline by Consent. If the DRB denies the motion for discipline by ...