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 Per Curiam 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 Robert H. Obringer, An Attorney at Law (D-67-97)
Argued October 6, 1997 -- Decided November 21, 1997
Robert H. Obringer was admitted to the bar of New Jersey in 1982. At the time of the alleged offenses leading to this disciplinary matter, Obringer practiced in Marlton, New Jersey and specialized in bankruptcy law. His name was on a list used by the United States Trustee for the District of New Jersey to appoint trustees in bankruptcy proceedings.
Obringer had been appointed trustee in a case in which the debtor was Gaskill Construction, Inc. (Gaskill). Serving in that capacity, Obringer, on November 20, 1995 filed with the Bankruptcy Court the appropriate notice informing the Court that as trustee, he had disbursed all of the funds in the trustee's account, with the exception of $20,733.93, representing 1) a claim for $8,902.62 filed by LCW Leasing, Co. c/o Ronnie Schwartz, Esq. and 2) a claim for $11,831.31 filed by Equileasing. Attached to the notice was a check for $20,733.93 payable to the Registry of the Court. Obringer deposited those funds in court because he was unable to locate the two creditors. In December 1995, Obringer filed the appropriate certification asserting that he had completed all requisite duties as trustee and requesting that he be discharged.
Two months later, on February 21, 1996, Obringer opened a post office box in Audubon, New Jersey. He then created a letterhead for a law firm, Ciob & Associates (C&A), showing a New Jersey office address at the post office box in Audubon. On February 27, Obringer sent a letter to Sharon Newman, Financial Deputy of the United Sates Bankruptcy Court. The letter was purportedly signed by Ronnie Schwartz of C&A, wherein he declared that he represented the two creditors and sought payment of the funds due them. Attached to the letter were two documents: a letter dated January 18, 1996 purporting to be from Obringer to Ronnie Schwartz, and a release, purportedly signed by Equileasing personnel, authorizing Schwartz to collect the funds due from Gaskill. Based on this letter, the Bankruptcy Court released the funds held in escrow in the form of two checks sent to C&A at the Audubon post office box. Obringer forged endorsements and deposited the monies in a checking account he had opened in his name. Obringer wrote three checks against these funds: one for over $10,000 to the IRS; one for $5,600 payable to himself to cover outstanding debts; and one for just over $4000 to pay his American Express charge account bill.
In May, 1996, Obringer was diagnosed with cancer of the mouth. He underwent surgery and treatment, requiring a lengthy absence from the office. His firm members monitored his mail and, in so doing, discovered Obringer's scheme and theft. The firm reported the incident to the local district ethics committee and repaid the Bankruptcy Court. Obringer pleaded guilty to mail fraud in federal court for his theft of the $20,733.93 from the Bankruptcy Court registry. He was sentenced to a term of probation.
The Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) filed a complaint charging Obringer with knowingly misappropriating escrow funds in violation of RPC 1.15; knowingly making a false statement to a tribunal in violation of RPC 3.3 (a)(1); and engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation in violation of RPC 8.4 (c). A Special Master conducted a hearing on behalf of the local district ethics committee. At the Conclusion of the hearing, the Special Master found that Obringer had violated Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC s) 3.3 (a)(1), 8.4 (b) and and recommended a two-year suspension.
Obringer provided evidence in mitigation of discipline, including the following: the decline and final end to his marriage between late 1995 and early 1996; his problems handling the departure of a former partner from the law firm; and the stroke and other serious illness of Obringer's father that resulted in the father's death in August 1996. Obringer also proffered the reports of two mental health professionals, a psychologist and psychiatrist, who both agreed that Obringer suffered from a personality disorder with self-defeating features and features of anxiety and guilt that caused him to suffer from a significantly reduced mental capacity at the time which contributed to his unethical conduct. The conduct was considered both mental health professionals to be a result of Obringer's guilt over leaving his wife for another woman. Both reports suggested that Obringer's conduct was aberrational and was unlikely to recur.
The Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) agreed with the Special Master that Obringer committed the following ethical infractions: making false statements to a tribunal, RPC 3.3 (a)(1); stealing funds from a tribunal that reflects adversely on a lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness and fitness to be a lawyer, RPC 8.4 (b); and engaging in conduct involving, fraud, deceit, dishonesty or misrepresentation, RPC 8.4 (c). The DRB unanimously recommended disbarment. Based on that recommendation, the Supreme Court ordered Obringer to show cause why he should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.
Robert H. Obringer's conduct so impugned the integrity of the legal system that disbarment is required.
1. The record establishes by clear and convincing evidence that Obringer committed the three ethical violations found by the DRB. He filed fictitious documents with the Bankruptcy Court registry to induce court staff to transmit to him funds that did not belong to him. That misconduct, in violation of RPC 3.3 (a)(1), coupled with renting the post office box, opening a checking account, and forging endorsements on the two checks sent by the bankruptcy court clearly violated RPC 8.4 (c). The elaborate scheme designed to commit the theft of funds is a clear violation of RPC 8.4 (b). (pp. 13-14)
2. Although this case does not involve either a knowing misappropriation of client funds from an attorneys trust account as occurred in In re Wilson or a theft by an attorney from his or her partners as occurred in In re Siegel, the totality of the circumstances makes this theft just as egregious. The circumstances of this case demonstrate that Obringer's theft was not an impulsive act, it was premeditated. (pp. 14-15)
3. Obringer's reliance on In re Hoerst is misplaced. (pp. 15-16)
4. As the DRB found, the factors alleged in mitigation do not overcome the egregiousness of this elaborate scheme to steal money for no reason other than greed. The record clearly and convincingly establishes that Obringer poisoned the well of Justice to carry out his well planned theft. He chose to engage in serious breaches of the RPC's in order to prevent his wife from discovering his "double life." Because of ...