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In re Bhatia

Supreme Court of New Jersey

June 22, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF NEIL S. BHATIA AN ATTORNEY AT LAW

          Argued: March 15, 2018

          Hillary K. Horton appeared on behalf of the Office of Attorney Ethics.

          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 motion for final discipline filed by the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE), pursuant to R. 1:20-13, following respondent's guilty plea in the Superior Court of California, to having violated California Penal Code § 242, misdemeanor battery. The OAE recommends either a censure or a three-month suspension. For the reasons stated below, we determined to impose a six-month suspension.

         Respondent was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 2003 and the New York bar in 2004. He has no history of discipline.

         Respondent has been, ineligible to practice law since August 28, 2017, due to nonpayment of the annual attorney assessment to the New Jersey Lawyers* Fund for Client Protection (the Fund). He is also ineligible due to non-compliance with continuing legal education requirements.

         On August 23, 2016, respondent pleaded no contest in the Superior Court of California, before the Honorable Philip J. Moscone, to a violation of California Penal Code § 242, misdemeanor battery. His attorney, Maximilian John Mizono, waived respondent's appearance and entered the plea of no contest on respondent's behalf. Judge Moscone confirmed that Mizono had explained to respondent that a plea of no contest was the functional equivalent of a guilty plea, and that a "finding of guilt" would be rendered.

         Mizono stipulated to the facts as articulated in Police Report Number 160-208-744.1. Judge Moscone determined that the police report contained a sufficient factual basis for him to accept respondent's plea, and found that respondent had been properly advised of his rights, voluntarily and intelligently waived his rights, and assented to permitting Mizono to enter his guilty plea in absentia.

         The police report filed in the incident, which was included in the record before us, served as the sole source of the factual basis for respondent's plea. The report itself, however, is deemed confidential by virtue of California Government Code Section 6254. Indeed, even the sentencing court made no specific reference to the facts contained therein. Although we have relied on those facts to reach our determination, we have similarly refrained from any such specific reference. We note only that, as set forth in the OAE's brief, and as indicated by the caption of the criminal complaint filed against respondent by the San Francisco District Attorney, respondent's conviction was based on an incident of domestic violence.[1]

         On the same day as his plea, the court sentenced respondent to three years of "informal probation" with fifty-two weeks of assigned anger management to be monitored by the pretrial division. Respondent was also required, as a condition of probation, to serve one day in the county jail, and to pay both a $40 operation fee and a $30 criminal conviction assessment. A "no harass" order was served on respondent through counsel.

         The OAE argues that the instant matter is similar to In re Margrabia, 150 N.J. 190 (1997), both in respect of the act of domestic violence that formed the basis of the conviction and the sentence imposed. Margrabia assaulted his wife by striking her in the face with a half-loaf of bread and then punching her in the arm. Margrabia pleaded guilty to simple assault and was sentenced to thirty days in jail, suspended, and a two-year term ...


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