This matter concerns the discipline of a New Jersey attorney, Stephen Andrew Gallo, based on his guilty pleas to four separate fourth-degree offenses of criminal sexual contact.
Gallo admitted in the criminal proceeding that in 1999 and 2000 he had committed acts of nonconsensual sexual contact with four women, three of whom were matrimonial clients of his and one of whom was a self-represented litigant seeking a restraining order against one of Gallo's clients. Two of the offenses occurred in Gallo's law office and the others took place in courthouses.
At the plea hearing, Gallo was not required to explain the circumstances or context of his conduct, but merely to admit nonconsensual sexual contact. Gallo admitted placing his hands on the breasts of two of his clients without their consent and to placing the hands of the other client and the self-represented litigant on his groin without their consent.
Gallo was sentenced to four concurrent five-year terms of probation and required to obtain psychological counseling and subject himself to random drug and alcohol testing. He was fined $4,000. Other charges were dismissed.
The Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) filed with the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) a motion for final discipline pursuant to Rule 1:20-13(c)(2) based on Gallo's admissions of guilt in the criminal proceeding. The DRB found that Gallo's guilty pleas established a violation of RPC 8.4(b) (commission of a criminal act that reflects adversely on attorney's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer). The OAE and the Board considered only undisputed facts in the record: respondent's admissions of guilt. The more detailed assertions of Gallo's victims, described by Gallo's counsel as "unproven allegations," were not acknowledged in connection with the motion for final discipline.
The DRB voted to suspend Gallo from the practice of law for a retroactive period of three years. Three members of the DRB voted for a prospective three-year suspension. The Court ordered Gallo to show cause why he should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.
The Supreme Court's review of an attorney disciplinary matter that is based on a guilty plea in a criminal case is not limited to respondent's admissions at the time of his plea. The matter is remanded to the Disciplinary Review Board to have a Special Ethics Master develop a record that will address the claims of the victims as well as respondent's answers. The Master will file findings with the DRB, which in turn will file a decision with the Court for its review and disposition.
1. Because the proceedings to discipline Gallo began pursuant to Rule 1:20-13(c)(2) with a motion for final discipline based on Gallo's guilty pleas, there has been no hearing to test the allegations of the victims or to determine the validity of Gallo's defenses. It would not be fair to discipline Gallo on a record that goes beyond his plea admissions unless he has had the opportunity to confront his accusers and present testimony on his own behalf. (pp. 5-6)
2. There are no restrictions on the scope of disciplinary review in a case of an attorney who was not charged with a crime or who was acquitted of a crime, so there is no commonsense or policy justification for imposing such restrictions on the Court in the exercise of its constitutional responsibility to determine the fitness of a lawyer who has pled guilty to a crime. (pp. 6-7)
3. The purpose of the disciplinary review process is to protect the public from unfit lawyers and to promote public confidence in the legal system. In light of the allegations made by the victims regarding Gallo's conduct, a full record is necessary to determine his fitness to practice law. (pp. 8-9)
4. The sexual abuse of a client is unacceptable and grossly incompatible with the standards of professionalism expected of attorneys. Attorneys who sexually molest their clients will be subject to severe disciplinary sanctions. (pp. 9-11)
The matter is REMANDED to the Disciplinary Review Board for further proceedings consistent with the Court's opinion.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, VERNIERO, ZAZZALI, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. JUSTICE ...