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In re Harris

March 16, 2005

IN THE MATTER OF E. LORRAINE HARRIS, AN ATTORNEY AT LAW


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

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(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, E. Lorraine Harris, was admitted to practice in New Jersey in 1994. Since that time, she has amassed an extensive ethics history, consisting of two temporary suspensions, an admonition, a reprimand, and two term suspensions for misconduct that has included potential misappropriation; misrepresentation; false statements of material facts to a tribunal; failure to cooperate with disciplinary authorities; lack of diligence; gross neglect; failure to safeguard client property; and charging an unreasonable fee, among other things. Although her most recent suspension expired in March 2002, she has not sought reinstatement to practice and remains suspended to date.

The current matters before the Court comprise five separate Disciplinary Review Board (DRB or Board) decisions, arising from respondent's derelictions in representing eleven clients and from her failure to comply with the obligations placed on suspended attorneys pursuant to R. 1:20-20. In the first decision, the Board determined that respondent should be suspended for one year for her violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs) arising out of five separate client matters. Respondent's conduct in those matters consisted of multiple instances of gross neglect; misrepresentation; failure to communicate; lack of diligence; and gross neglect, among other things. In two instances, respondent's derelictions led to the issuance of warrants for her clients' arrest. Her conduct in these matters further led to a finding of a pattern of neglect.

In the second decision, the Board determined that respondent should be suspended for six months for her misconduct in two client matters. In one of those matters, respondent solicited and accepted from her client an unearned fee that she was prohibited by statute from taking without court approval. She later refused to return that fee, even when ordered to do so by a fee arbitration committee. In the other matter, despite multiple warnings and opportunities to correct her own deficiencies, respondent's derelictions resulted in the dismissal of her client's municipal court appeal on two separate occasions.

In the third decision, the DRB determined that respondent should be suspended for three months for her violation of multiple RPCs in two other client matters. Those matters were brought before the Board on a certification of default filed by the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE), based on respondent's failure to file an answer to the OAE's complaint. Thus, the allegations of the complaint were deemed admitted under R. 1:20-4(f). The Complaint alleged that respondent had failed to return to her client an unearned retainer, despite having been ordered to do so by a fee arbitration committee, and that she had failed to comply with the requirements of R. 1:20-20 (Future Activities of Attorney Who Has Been Disciplined... ) in several respects following her 2001 suspensions.

In the fourth decision, the DRB determined that respondent should be reprimanded for filing a frivolous lawsuit.

In the fifth and final decision, four members of the DRB recommended that respondent be suspended for one year for her misconduct in one client matter. One other member favored an indeterminate suspension, while the three public members of the Board voted for respondent's disbarrment. In that client matter, the Board found that respondent did not act diligently in her representation of her client. The Board further found that respondent forged her client's name to a certification that she then filed with the court, and later lied to ethics authorities about signing the document.

The Supreme Court issued an Order to Show Cause why Harris should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.

HELD: The pattern of respondent's conduct over a course of years makes clear that she does not possess the essential qualifications to practice law in this State, and her persistent and multiple violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct do not allow a finding that she is professionally salvageable; protection of the public and preservation of the integrity of the legal profession require her disbarrment.

1. The Supreme Court is charged with the responsibility of determining whether lawyers are fit to practice law in this State, whether an attorney has violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, and if so, the proper measure of discipline. The purpose of discipline is to protect the public from unfit lawyers and promote public confidence in our legal system. The proper measure of discipline will depend on several factors, including the nature and number of professional transgressions, the harm caused by those transgressions, the attorney's ethics history, and whether the attorney is capable of meeting the standards that must guide all members of the profession. (pp. 16-18)

2. Although misconduct, such as knowing misappropriation of client funds, that breaches a fundamental and solemn trust is itself sufficient to trigger automatic disbarrment, a string of lesser, yet serious, professional improprieties within a fixed time period compounded by a long, unrepentant ethical history will also demand severe discipline. (pp. 18-19)

3. Respondent has crossed a line. Nothing in the record inspires confidence that if respondent were to return to practice her conduct would improve. Her tenure as an attorney has been marked by incompetence, deceit, and disloyalty to clients, a number of whom have been victimized. The record does not allow a finding that respondent is professionally salvageable. Protection of the public and preservation of the integrity of the legal profession require her disbarrment. (pp. 19-21)

So Ordered.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, and RIVERA-SOTO join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. JUSTICE WALLACE did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

Argued November 9, 2004

Respondent is a persistent violator of the Rules of Professional Conduct. Since becoming a lawyer, the number and nature of her transgressions have struck at the core values that define a lawyer's responsibility to clients, the court, and the profession. Basic honesty and a minimal level of competence are indispensable qualifications to practice law in this State. The pattern of respondent's conduct over a course of years makes clear that she does not possess those essential qualifications.

When a lawyer's derelictions are so many and so grave, our paramount concern must be to protect the public and maintain the public's confidence in the integrity of the profession. Based on the record before us, we are constrained to enter an Order disbarring respondent.

I.

Respondent E. Lorraine Harris was admitted to the New Jersey Bar in 1994. Since that time, she has amassed an extensive ethics record. In 1999, she received a temporary suspension lasting one month for potential misappropriation of escrow monies. In re Harris, 162 N.J. 2, 2 (1999). In 2000, she received a temporary suspension lasting nine days for failing to comply with a fee arbitration determination. In re Harris, 162 N.J. 189, 190 (2000). That same year, in an unpublished order respondent was admonished and in a published order reprimanded for failing to provide clients with a written basis for her fee and failing to provide a written contingency fee agreement. In re Harris, 165 N.J. 471, 472 (2000).

In 2001, with respect to respondent's representation of three separate clients, we suspended respondent for six months for lack of diligence, gross neglect, failure to safeguard client property, charging an unreasonable fee, failure to promptly deliver funds to a third party, record-keeping violations, false statements of material fact to a tribunal, failure to cooperate with disciplinary authorities, and misrepresentation. In re Harris, 167 N.J. 284, 284 (2001).

That same year, in an unpublished order, we suspended respondent for an additional three months for lack of diligence, failure to expedite litigation, knowingly making a false statement of material fact to a tribunal, failure to cooperate with disciplinary authorities, and misrepresentation. In that last matter, respondent asked for and obtained several last-minute adjournments of a municipal court case. After failing to appear in court on the scheduled trial date, respondent then faxed a letter to the municipal court thanking it for granting her adjournment request when, in truth, she had neither requested nor received another adjournment. The manipulative dishonesty exhibited in that case is a leitmotif running through the current matters before this Court. Since this last suspension, which expired on March 4, 2002, respondent has not applied for reinstatement.

II.

The current disciplinary violations before this Court arise out of respondent's derelictions in representing numerous clients and her failure to comply with the obligations placed on suspended attorneys pursuant to Rule 1:20-20. We are satisfied that the record supports by clear and convincing evidence the de novo factual findings of the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) in ...


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