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In re Schnippir

Supreme Court of New Jersey

February 27, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF JEFF A. SCHNIPPIR, AN ATTORNEY AT LAW

          Argued: November 16, 2017

          District Docket No. IV-2015-0046E

          Katrina Vitale appeared on behalf of the District IV Ethics Committee.

          Respondent waived appearance for oral argument.

          Ellen A. Brodsky, 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 disciplinary stipulation between the District IV Ethics Committee (DEC) and respondent, who stipulated to having violated RPC 1.6(a) (improperly revealing information relating to the representation of a client), RPC 1.7(a) (concurrent conflict of interest), and RPC 1.9(a) (representing a client in a matter and thereafter representing another client in the same or a substantially related matter in which that clients' interests are materially adverse, without obtaining informed, written consent).

         The DEC recommended the imposition of a censure or lesser discipline. For the reasons set forth below, we determine to impose a reprimand for respondent's conduct.

         Respondent was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1976 and the New York bar in 1977. He maintains a law office in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

         In 1999, respondent was reprimanded for failure to provide a client with a writing setting forth the basis or rate of the fee (RPC 1.15(b)), and for engaging in a conflict of interest (RPC 1.7 and RPC 1.9(a)(1)). In re Schnepper, 158 N.J. 22 (1999). In that case, respondent, who is also an accountant, represented George Anderson as a tax consultant for approximately ten years before Anderson and Joseph Dunn retained him to purchase a boat from a corporation. Anderson and Dunn acquired the boat as shareholders of a small corporation. Respondent did not provide Dunn, whom he had not previously represented, with a writing setting forth the basis or rate of his fee and did not obtain informed written consent to the dual representation. After the purchase took place, a rift developed between Anderson and Dunn. Although their interests became materially adverse, respondent continued to represent Anderson in the matter relating to the transfer of shares of the small corporation and the ultimate sale of the boat.

         The facts of this matter are as follow. On a date not mentioned in the stipulation, Dennis McLoughlin and his then wife, Noeleen McLoughlin, retained respondent for financial, estate, and income tax advice. Prior to 2008, Dennis had also retained respondent to provide such services to his businesses, "The Remedy Group" and, later, "Remedy Group." As the McLoughlins' and the businesses' tax attorney, respondent also provided legal advice. Respondent had an attorney-client relationship with both Dennis and Noeleen. He also provided "services" to the McLoughlins" children. In his capacity as financial, estate, and income tax attorney for Dennis and his companies, respondent was privy to their financial information. Noeleen had signed the retainer agreement on Dennis' behalf and, presumably, on her own behalf. Respondent did not disclose a potential conflict of interest to them and, thus, did not obtain a signed waiver of a conflict of interest.

         Respondent was aware of the subsequent deterioration of Dennis and Noeleen's marriage, leading to their separation in 2009. Most of his contacts with "the McLoughlin Family" were through Noeleen. He recommended that they each retain their own matrimonial attorneys.

         At the request of the McLoughlins, on October 26, 2010, respondent held a meeting at his law office to try to mediate their financial issues. Each was accompanied by independent counsel. Respondent acknowledged that he did not address N.J.S.A. 2A:23C-9 (mediator's disclosure of conflicts of interest).[1] Citing RPC 2.4 (lawyer serving as third-party neutral), the stipulation provided that respondent's role changed from dual representation of the McLoughlins to a divorce-related mediator, without respondent having disclosed the inherent conflict of interest and without reducing to writing or otherwise explaining his new role.[2]

         Respondent's communications during the course of the mediation included the discussion of financial information he had obtained "during his legal represention of [Dennis], Remedy Group and/or The Remedy Group with [Noeleen] and/or her matrimonial attorney." Noeleen had provided respondent with much of the financial information that was addressed during the mediation, which "related substantially" to Dennis' confidential financial information.

         Respondent neither informed Dennis that a conflict of interest had developed, nor asked him to sign a waiver or release for the conflict. Respondent admitted that, through the "divorce-related mediation process, [he] continued to communicate information relating to his prior representation to [Noeleen] and her matrimonial attorney, which information he contends came originally from [Noeleen]."

         Dennis became upset by respondent's recommendations for a divorce settlement, and expressed distrust of the soundness of respondent's prior advice to him. According to respondent, his recommendations were prudent and "allegedly" undisputed, with the exception of his recommendation relating to alimony payments to Noeleen.

         The stipulation added:

Purportedly in response to Dennis McLoughlin's Motion to join [respondent] as a defendant in the matrimonial matter, [respondent] involved himself in the matrimonial action between Dennis McLoughlin and Noeleen McLoughlin, submitting correspondence to the Superior Court of New Jersey, regarding the merits of the matter and Dennis McLoughlin's credibility.

[S4.][3]

         In March 2012, a court-appointed evaluator performed an independent business valuation of Dennis' businesses. The matrimonial attorneys reviewed it and "in large part" Dennis and his attorney agreed with it.

         Noeleen, however, submitted a sworn certification to the court, in the matrimonial action, admitting that her matrimonial attorney had requested an expert opinion from respondent with regard to Dennis' business valuation after she questioned the ...


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