On an Order to show cause why respondent should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.
(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).
This is an attorney disciplinary case.
Respondent, Richard J. Zeitler, was admitted to practice in New Jersey in 1966. He has been the subject of discipline on six occasions between 1976 and 2000 for misconduct that has included dishonesty, misrepresentation, and lack of diligence, among other things. He has been required to practice under the supervision of an Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE)-approved proctor since 2000.
Respondent was charged with misconduct in three separate client matters, all of which were tried before a special master. In the first matter, respondent was retained by George Morffiz in 1998 to appeal a workers' compensation award. Although respondent filed a notice of appeal in his client's behalf, he took no further action, resulting in dismissal of the case in January 1999. Respondent then repeatedly failed to answer Morffiz' requests for updates on his appeal. Ultimately, Morffiz traveled from his Florida home to attempt to meet with respondent. When he returned a week later, respondent told him that he was awaiting a court date. But by that point, the appeal already had been dismissed. Over two years later, respondent filed a motion to reinstate the appeal, but that motion was denied.
In the second matter, respondent was retained by Jose Lavin in 1991 and again in 1992 to file workers' compensation claims for two separate workplace accidents. Although respondent filed both state and federal claims in 1993, all of those claims were dismissed because respondent essentially abandoned them by allowing several years to lapse with no action, during which time respondent failed to keep his client informed of the status of his case. Consequently, Lavin never received any compensation based on any efforts by respondent.
In the third matter, respondent was retained by Leonard Cipolla in 1997 to represent him for serious injuries he had sustained to his hand while operating a power saw in a high school shop class. Respondent filed a complaint in 1998, but it was dismissed in March 1999 for failure to prosecute. Although it was reinstated, the complaint was subsequently dismissed on two subsequent occasions, the last one with prejudice, as a result of respondent's failure to appear at twelve trial calls. Both of respondent's subsequent motions for reconsideration were denied. Respondent then filed a late notice of appeal, which the Appellate Division dismissed for failure to prosecute. Throughout, respondent never kept Cipolla informed of the true status of his claim. Moreover, he repeatedly lied to courts in order to obtain adjournments and in his verified answer to the ethics complaint about having filed an appeal in the matter.
In the Morffiz matter, the special master found that respondent violated RPC 1.1(a) (gross neglect), RPC 1.1(b) (pattern of neglect), and RPC 1.3 (lack of reasonable diligence). In the Lavin matter, the special master found that respondent violated RPC 1.4(a) (failure to communicate with client), and RPC 1.4(b)(failure to keep client reasonably informed about status of matter and promptly comply with reasonable request for information). Finally, in the Cipolla matter, the special master found that respondent violated RPC 1.1(b), RPC 1.3, RPC 1.4(a), RPC 3.2 (failure to make reasonable efforts to expedite litigation), and RPC 3.3 (lack of candor toward tribunal). Although the presenter recommended disbarrment, the special master recommended that respondent be suspended for three years and that on reinstatement, he be required to practice under the direct supervision of a proctor.
On de novo review, the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) made some modifications to the special master's findings, essentially adding RPC violations on the basis of the misconduct found. That notwithstanding, a six-member majority of D-162-03 In the Matter of Richard J. Zeitler, An Attorney at Law the DRB agreed with the special master that a three-year suspension was the appropriate sanction for respondent's misconduct. However, two of the DRB's public members, appalled by respondent's lengthy disciplinary history and his continued disregard of the rules of professional responsibility, voted for disbarrment, noting that "respondent [had] spent thirty [years] neglecting clients, lying to them about their cases, and concocting phony stories for courts and others about his behavior."
The Supreme Court granted the OAE's petition for review, in which it sought respondent's disbarrment.
HELD: Respondent's ethics derelictions in these matters, consisting of multiple instances of neglect, lack of diligence, failure to communicate and misrepresentation, coupled with his extensive ethics history, warrant his disbarrment.
1. The record supports, by clear and convincing evidence, the DRB's findings of ethics violations against respondent in all three client matters. (pp. 10-11)
2. Although cases involving unethical conduct and a disciplinary history usually have resulted in suspensions, respondent's thirty-year history of client disservice, combined with the violations in the these three client matters, mandate his forfeiture of the privilege to practice law. (pp. 11-12)
3. Despite having received numerous opportunities over the years to reform himself, respondent has continued to display his disregard for the disciplinary rules and the ethics system. Even the supervision of a proctor did not keep respondent from committing some of his worst misconduct. Disbarrment is the only appropriate sanction when the Court is unable to conclude that an attorney will improve his conduct. (pp. 12-14)
4. The ultimate goal of attorney discipline is to preserve the confidence that the public has in the trustworthiness of attorneys, and to protect the public from attorneys who, either through incompetence or neglect, mishandle legal matters entrusted to them to the detriment of their clients. In view of the many opportunities that respondent had to redeem himself, and considering his abject failure to do so, respondent does not deserve, and the public cannot risk, another chance, and respondent is disbarred. (pp. 14-15)
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, and RIVERA-SOTO join in JUSTICE ZAZZALI's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Zazzali
In this matter, a Special Master held hearings to address allegations of unethical conduct set forth in three complaints filed by the District VIII Ethics Committee against respondent, Richard J. Zeitler. The Special Master ultimately recommended a three-year suspension. Although a majority of the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) agreed with the Special Master's recommendation, two members urged respondent's disbarrment in a vigorous dissent. Consistent with that dissent, the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) now asks this Court to disbar respondent.
Twenty-five years ago, we noted that respondent had made misrepresentations to his clients as to the status of their cases, was "cavalier," and had a "deplorable disciplinary history." In re Zeitler, 85 N.J. 21, 25 (1980). The passage of time, and the three matters now before us, confirm those findings. Respondent's reprehensible conduct in this appeal, considered alone, would warrant imposition of a suspension. When we review his extensive history of ethics violations, however, we conclude that respondent is unfit to practice law and, therefore, must be disbarred.
Respondent was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1966. His ethical misdeeds began in 1976 when we suspended him from the practice of law for one year because of his misconduct involving ...