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Matter of Toronto

July 11, 1997


On an Order to show cause why respondent should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.

Chief Justice Poritz 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 Philip V. Toronto, an Attorney at Law (D-95-96)

Argued April 28, 1997 -- Decided July 11, 1997


This attorney disciplinary proceeding arises from Philip V. Toronto's guilty plea to simple assault on his wife. The majority of the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) voted to reprimand respondent because he had committed the underlying acts before the Court rendered its decisions in In re Magid, 139 N.J. 449, 655 A.2d 916 (1995), and In re Principato, 139 N.J. 456, 655 A.2d 920 (1995). Those decisions state that attorneys who are convicted of domestic violence ordinarily will be subject to suspension.

Toronto was admitted to the bar in 1982. On May 13, 1994, Toronto allegedly attempted to strangle his ex-wife with a telephone cord. A Bergen County Grand Jury issued a four-count indictment, charging Toronto with second degree aggravated assault, among other charges. On July 20, 1995, Toronto pleaded guilty to simple assault. When entering his plea, Toronto admitted that he pushed his ex-wife away from him during an argument. Toronto was sentenced to one-year probation, community service, and domestic violence counseling.

On September 16, 1996, the DRB recommended a reprimand. It reasoned that because Magid and Principato were decided ten months after Toronto's assault, he was not on notice that he could be subject to suspension. The DRB also noted Toronto's longstanding reputation, void of any prior ethics or criminal history.

While the present action was pending before the DRB, however, the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) was investigating another complaint against Toronto involving a young woman with whom Toronto had developed a romantic relationship. She alleged that Toronto had sexually abused her and infected her with a sexually transmitted disease. She also alleged that Toronto violated tax laws by paying her cash for part-time secretarial services in his law practice. During questioning by ethics investigators, Toronto initially denied engaging in sexual relations with the woman or having employed her. The District Ethics Committee found the woman more credible than Toronto. On November 18, 1996, the DRB found that Toronto had violated RPC 8.4(c), which states that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to "engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation," based on Toronto's misrepresentations about his relationship with the woman.

HELD: Toronto's criminal conviction for assaulting his wife, along with his unethical conduct in making misrepresentations to ethics investigators in another matter, warrant a three-month suspension from the practice of law.

1. Generally, a criminal conviction is conclusive evidence of guilt in a disciplinary proceeding. Under Magid and Principato, a conviction for simple assault of one's spouse establishes a violation of RPC 8.4(b). Pursuant to RPC 8.4(b), it is professional misconduct for an attorney to "commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on his honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer." Hence, the sole issue here is the extent of the discipline to be imposed. (p. 4).

2. The primary purpose of discipline is not to punish the attorney but to preserve the confidence of the public in the bar. The Court reprimanded two attorneys for acts of domestic violence in Magid and Principato. Although the Court limited the discipline of these attorneys to a reprimand, it admonished that in the future, an attorney convicted of domestic violence will usually be suspended. (pp. 4-6).

3. Here, the domestic violence occurred before the Court's decisions in Magid and Principato. Were it not for Toronto's other unethical behavior, a reprimand might be appropriate. While the present disciplinary action was pending, however, Toronto made misrepresentations to ethics investigators in another matter. That disregard for the standards governing the professional conduct of lawyers cannot be ignored. ...

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