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In re Harris

Supreme Court of New Jersey

February 8, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF JACQUELINE ROCHELLE HARRIS AN ATTORNEY AT LAW

          Ellen A. Brbdsky Chief Counsel

          DECISION

          Bonnie C. Frost, Chair

         To the Honorable Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

         This matter was before us on a certification of default, filed by the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) pursuant to R. 1:20-4(f). The complaint charged respondent with violations of RPC 1.15(a) (knowing misappropriation of client funds) and the principles of In re Wilson, 81 N.J. 451 (1979); RPC 1.15(d) and R. 1:21-6(c)(1)(H)(2)[1] (record keeping violations); RPC 5.5(a) (practicing law while suspended); RPC 8.1(b) (failure to cooperate with disciplinary authorities); and RPC 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation). For the reasons expressed below, we recommend that respondent be disbarred.

         Respondent was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1990. At the relevant time, she maintained a law office in Orange, New Jersey.

         In 2001, respondent was admonished for practicing law while ineligible for failure to pay the annual assessment to the New Jersey Lawyers' Fund for. Client Protection. In the Matter of Jacqueline R. Harris, DRB 01-137 (June 29, 2001).

         In 2009, respondent received a censure for failure to promptly notify a third-party lienholder of her client's receipt of settlement funds and failure to safeguard those funds by disbursing them to her client. She also failed to cooperate with the district ethics committee, by failing to turn over information it requested during the course of its investigation. In re Harris, 213 N.J. 540 (2009). We found, as aggravating factors, respondent's belligerent behavior toward the hearing panel and her failure to recognize or acknowledge her wrongdoing. In the Matter of Jacqueline R. Harris, DRB 09-038 (August 25, 2009) (slip op. at 15). In addition to the censure, the Court ordered that respondent complete six hours of courses in professional responsibility and that the OAE audit her attorney accounts in respect of that client matter.

         Respondent was temporarily suspended, effective May 3, 2013, for failure to pay costs assessed in connection with her disciplinary matter. In re Harris, 213 N.J. 540 (2013). She was again temporarily suspended on May 31, 2017 for failure to cooperate with the O&E's investigation. In re Harris, 229 N.J. 219 (2017). Respondent remains suspended to date.

         Service of process was proper in this matter. On June 21, 2017, the O&E sent a copy of the ethics complaint by regular and certified mail to respondent's last known home address listed in the attorney registration records. On July 13, 2017, the certified mail was returned marked "Attempted not known, unable to forward." The regular mail also was returned with a similar notation.

         Respondent did not file an answer to the complaint. Therefore, on July 21, 2017, the OAE sent letters to the same address and to respondent's office address by regular and certified mail. The letter notified respondent that, if she did not file an answer within five days of the date of the letter, the allegations of the complaint would be deemed admitted, the record would be certified to us for the imposition of discipline, and the complaint would be deemed amended to include a willful violation of RPC 8.1(b). The letter sent to respondent's office address included a copy of the complaint.

          The certified letter sent to respondent's home address was returned marked "return to sender, vacant, unable to forward." The regular mail sent to respondent's home address was returned marked "return to sender, undeliverable as addressed, unable to forward." A handwritten note on the envelope indicated that respondent did not reside at the address. The certified mail sent to respondent's office address was returned marked "refused" and unable to forward. The regular mail sent to the office address was not returned.

         Thereafter, on August 7, 2017, notice of the complaint was published in both the New Jersey Law Journal and the Star Ledger, As of the date of the certification of the record, August 30, 2017, respondent had neither contacted the OAE, nor filed an answer to the ethics complaint.

         The allegations of the complaint are as follows. In 1998, respondent began representing Valerie Cobb in a personal injury matter. In May 2003, Cobb entered into an agreement with New Amsterdam Capital Partners, LLC (NACP) for an advance on anticipated settlement proceeds. Respondent and Cobb signed an acknowledgement and assignment with NACP, which, in part, obligated respondent to notify NACP when Cobb's case settled and to disburse the settlement proceeds and a fee to NACP, in full, on the date the proceeds were recovered. Respondent indicated in the agreement that there were medical liens of $14, 000 on the settlement proceeds.

         On April 13, 2005, respondent received Cobb's settlement funds, totaling $28, 000, which she deposited in her trust account, in Cobb's subaccount. Between April 14 and December 13, 2005, respondent made seven disbursements to herself and Cobb, totaling $16, 787.77, leaving a balance of $11, 212.23 in ...


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