(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).
Philip M. Morell was admitted to practice law in New Jersey in 1988 and in New York in 1989. On June 11, 1997, Morell was retained by Marc Fink to file a medical malpractice action. He failed to file suit and for approximately four years thereafter, misrepresented to Fink the status of his case. Morell told Fink that he filed suit, obtained a neurosurgeon and a psychiatrist as expert witnesses, discussed settlement with representatives of an insurance carrier of one of the defendants, rejected an offer of $250,000 to settle the case, and received another offer of $700,000. In March 2001, Morell told Fink he received a settlement offer of $1.1 million. Fink accepted it. Morell continued the charade by having Fink sign a release for the $1.1 million non-existent settlement. After Morell told Fink that he could purchase the car of his dreams, Fink borrowed funds from his father and purchased an expensive automobile. Morell also told the attorney representing Fink in a workers' compensation matter that he had settled the malpractice action for $1.1 million. In July of 2001, Morell informed Fink that he had received the settlement funds and would wire the funds to Fink immediately. Several days later, Morell admitted to Fink's father that he had fabricated the settlement and that no complaint had been filed.
After Fink filed a grievance against Morell, in July of 2003, the ethics committee mailed a copy of the complaint by certified and regular mail to Morell's last known address. Morell submitted an unverified answer. Because the answer was not verified, it was returned with a request for a verified answer. Despite that request, Morell failed to comply. The failure to answer was deemed an admission to the allegations in the complaint. Morell was charged with violating RPC 1.1(a) (gross negligence), RPC 1.3 (lack of diligence), RPC 1.4(a) (failure to communicate with client), and RPC 4.1(a)(1) (false statement of material fact to third person).
On September 6, 2004, the Disciplinary Review Board published a notice advising Morell of its scheduled review of the matter and of the deadline for filing a motion to vacate the default. Again, Morell failed to respond. In October of 2004, the Board found Morell guilty of the charges. In addition, the Board found that although Morell was not charged with a violation of RPC 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation), the complaint contained sufficient facts to establish violations of that rule. The Board recommended the imposition of a two-year suspension to run consecutive to the one-year suspension Morell was already serving for other disciplinary infractions.
A review of the record revealed that notice of the Board's decision was sent to Morell's office address in Tenafly at a time when he was under suspension. A staff attorney of the Supreme Court Clerk's Office telephoned Morell and informed him of the Board's decision. In December of 2004, the staff attorney also sent a letter to Morell informing him that he could file a petition for review urging the imposition of lesser discipline and/or even vacation of default and remand for a plenary hearing. The letter also instructed Morell to consider In re Kantor in deciding whether to file a response to the Board's decision. Morell did nothing in response to this notice.
In April of 2005, this Court ordered Morell to show cause why he should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined, and to file a response. Again, Morell did nothing by way of a response.
HELD: Under these circumstances, Morell's conduct, involving dishonesty, fraud, and deceit, reflects his unfitness to practice law; the Court orders his disbarrment.
1. Our independent review of the record satisfies us by clear and convincing evidence that Morell has engaged in unethical conduct. The elaborate scheme of deception, beginning with Morell's false statement to his client that a complaint had been filed on his behalf through the misrepresentation that the case had been settled, conclusively establishes Morell's professional misconduct. In addition, we consider whether Morell appeared and participated in the disciplinary proceeding. (In re Kantor concludes that an attorney who declines to appear before this Court to explain his unprofessional conduct and who offers no evidence in mitigation of punishment for disciplinary infractions as serious as those in this case openly displays his unfitness to continue to practice law.) (pp. 6-7)
2. The Board believes that a two-year suspension, not disbarrment, is the appropriate sanction. We disagree. The present case is a clear case of dishonesty, fraud, and deceit. The undisputed evidence demonstrates that Morell continually fabricated a story to his client to make it appear that his client's interests were protected and that his client would receive a substantial recovery. Morell's conduct displayed a total disregard for an attorney's responsibility to serve his clients and the administration of justice honorably and responsibly. This is not a case of a new attorney who somehow lost sight of his or her ethical responsibilities. Nor is this Morell's first brush with the disciplinary system. Just as important, Morell presented no evidence in mitigation of his dereliction or in support of his fitness to practice law. In fact, he presented no defense at all. Under these circumstances, Morell's conduct, involving dishonesty, fraud, and deceit, reflects his unfitness to practice law. Disbarrment is the appropriate discipline. (pp. 7-10)
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN, WALLACE and RIVERA-SOTO join in this opinion.
On an Order to show cause why respondent should not be disbarred or ...