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In re Nicholson

Supreme Court of New Jersey

July 30, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF CHRISTIE-LYNN NICHOLSON AN ATTORNEY AT LAW

          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 certification of the record filed by the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE), pursuant to R. 1:20-4(f). The sixteen-count formal ethics complaint charged respondent with nine violations of RPC 1.1(a) (gross neglect), seven violations RPC 1.1(b) (pattern of neglect), nine violations of RPC 1.3 (lack of diligence), nine violations of RPC 1.4(b) (failure to communicate with a client), one violation of RPC 1.4(c) (failure to explain a matter to a client to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation), one violation of RPC 1.5(a) (unreasonable fee), one violation of RPC 1.5(b) (failure to set forth in writing the basis or rate of a fee), one violation of RPC 1.8(a) (impermissible business transaction with a client), six violations of RPC 1.15(d) (recordkeeping), one violation of RPC 3.4(g) (presenting, participating in presenting, or threatening to present criminal charges to obtain an improper advantage in a civil matter), thirteen violations of RPC 8.4(b) (commission of criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects), fourteen violations of RPC 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation), one violation of RPC 8.1(b) (failure to cooperate with disciplinary authorities), one violation of RPC 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, for failure to comply with the requirements of R. 1:20-20 governing suspended attorneys), and twelve violations of the principles of In re Siegel, 133 N.J. 162 (1993) (knowing misappropriation of law firm funds).

         For the reasons set forth below, we determine that respondent knowingly misappropriated law firm funds, and recommend her disbarment to the Court.

         Respondent earned admission to the Pennsylvania bar in 1998 and the New Jersey bar in 2000. During the majority of the relevant time frame, she was employed as an associate at The Law Offices of Dawn J. Leeds in Paulsboro, New Jersey (the "law firm" or "the firm").

         On May 3, 2017, respondent was temporarily suspended for failure to cooperate with the ethics investigation underlying this complaint, In re Nicholson, 228 N.J. 524 (2017). She remains suspended to date.

         Service of process was proper in this matter. On December 7, 2017, the OAE sent a copy of the formal ethics complaint, by certified and regular mail, to respondent's last known home address. The certified mail receipt for the complaint sent to respondent was returned, reflecting delivery and bearing an illegible signature; the regular mail sent to her home address was not returned.

         On January 8, 2018, the OAE sent a second letter to respondent's home address, by certified and regular mail, informing her that the deadline to file a conforming answer had passed and that, unless she filed a verified answer to the complaint within five days, 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 violation of RPC 8.1(b). Although the certification of the record filed by the OAE is silent regarding the outcome of this mailing, respondent, as set forth below, acknowledged that the correspondence was mailed to her home address.

         Respondent failed to file a verified answer to the complaint. Accordingly, on January 26, 2018, the OAE certified the record to us as a default.

         We now turn to the allegations of the complaint.

         From early 2015 through October 14, 2016, respondent worked as the sole associate at the law firm. She did not maintain her own attorney business account or attorney trust account. In early 2015, Leeds hired respondent as a part-time associate of the firm. On September 14, 2015, respondent signed a contract to become a full-time, at-will associate of the firm. Respondent's scope of work included performing legal research, drafting documents, representing clients at court proceedings, and, if Leeds were unavailable, completing client intake interviews. Respondent was not entitled to retain any legal fees paid by clients of the firm.

         In early 2 016, at respondent's suggestion, Leeds allowed respondent to assist in collecting outstanding legal fees that clients owed to the firm. During the same time frame, respondent asked to borrow money from Leeds, who had received a garnishment order in respect of respondent's wages.

         Per respondent's instructions, twelve law firm clients directly paid her a total of $19, 161, toward outstanding legal fees, which respondent deposited into her personal bank account at Wells Fargo. These client payments represented both legal fees owed to the firm for completed legal services, and legal fees advanced for future legal services. Respondent did not remit those client payments to the firm, despite the fact that she was neither authorized to settle outstanding fees, nor entitled to retain any legal fees paid by to the firm.

         To conceal her misconduct, respondent removed pages from the law firm's receipts book; intercepted monthly billing invoices, so that clients would not learn that their payments to respondent were not properly credited to their outstanding balances? and maintained secret notes concerning potential new clients. Some new clients retained respondent to perform work outside of her scope of employment with the firm. Although respondent collected fees from those clients, she never performed the legal services. On October 14, 2016, after discovering respondent's misappropriation of law firm funds, Leeds terminated her employment with the firm.

         Moreover, on October 21, 2016, Leeds filed criminal complaints against respondent, charging her with multiple counts of indictable-level theft. Probable cause for those crimes was found at the municipal level, and the matters were forwarded to the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office for prosecution. As previously noted, on May 2, 2017, respondent was temporarily suspended for failure to cooperate with the ethics investigation underlying this matter. On July 13, 2017, she was admitted into the Gloucester County Pre-Trial Intervention Program (PTI) in connection with her criminal charges, and agreed to pay $27, 550 in restitution to Leeds, the principal of the firm and one of the victims of her crimes.

         Count One - The John Wagner Matter

         In May 2006, respondent, on behalf of the firm, met with John Wagner to discuss his representation in a divorce action. After the meeting, respondent lied to Leeds, claiming that Wagner was not interested in retaining the firm. On June 7, 2016, however, Wagner signed a retainer agreement with respondent, on the firm's letterhead, and paid her a $3, 450 cash retainer. Respondent neither remitted the retainer to the firm nor commenced the legal services. Wagner made numerous attempts to determine the status of his divorce action, but, by November 2016, respondent had ceased communicating with him. Ultimately, Wagner retained Leeds to represent him, and was credited the $3, 450 he had paid to respondent for the firm's services.

         The complaint charged respondent with violations of RPC 1.1(a); RPC 1.3; RPC 1.4(b); RPC 8.4(b); RPC 8.4(c); and the principles of In re Siegel.

         Count Two - The Alexander Emore Matter

         Alexander Emore, an existing client of the firm, owed more than $9, 000 in legal fees toward his representation in a divorce matter. At some point, respondent directed Emore to make payments toward his balance directly to her. Between March and September 2016, Emore paid $3, 401 in cash to respondent, usually after business hours, at the firm's office. Respondent provided Emore with receipts, but did not remit Emore" s payments to the firm, and, thus, his outstanding balance was never credited the payments of $3, 401.

         To conceal her misconduct, respondent intercepted monthly invoices to be mailed to Emore, so that he would not know that his outstanding balance was not being credited for the payments to respondent. After respondent's termination from the firm, Leeds credited Emore for all of the cash payments he had made to respondent.

         The complaint charged respondent with violations of RPC 8.4(b); RPC 8.4(c); and the principles of In re Siegel.

         Count Three - The Bernadette Gribbin Matter

         On a date not set forth in the record, respondent, on behalf of the firm, met with Bernadette Gribbin to discuss her representation in a divorce action. After the meeting, respondent lied to Leeds, claiming that Gribbin was not interested in retaining the firm. Yet, on May 16, 2016, Gribbin signed a retainer agreement with respondent, on the firm's letterhead, and paid her a $3, 150 cash retainer. Respondent neither remitted the retainer to the firm nor filed the divorce complaint she had drafted. Ultimately, Gribbin retained Leeds to represent her, and was credited the $3, 150 she had paid to respondent for the firm's services.

         The complaint charged respondent with violations of RPC 1.1(a); RPC 1.3; RPC 1, 4(b); RPC 8.4(b); RPC 8.4(c); and the principles of In re Siegel.

         Count Four - The Patrick Gravenese Matter

         Patrick Gravenese, an existing client of the firm, owed legal fees toward his prior representation in a family law matter. At some point, respondent directed Gravenese to make payments toward his outstanding balance directly to her. Gravenese paid a total of $2, 100 to respondent, but she neither remitted those funds to the firm nor provided receipts to him. Gravenese also paid respondent an additional $500, via a deposit directly into her account with Wells Fargo, to "ghost write" a motion for child custody and support, outside of the scope of her employment with the firm. Respondent never completed the motion.

         To cover her misconduct, respondent intercepted monthly invoices to be mailed to Gravenese, so that he would not discover that his outstanding balance was not being credited for his payments to respondent. Subsequent to respondent•s termination from the firm, Leeds credited Gravenese for the $2, 100 he had paid to respondent, but not for the $500 he had paid for the additional legal services outside of respondent's scope of employment with the firm. Leeds also found a receipt that respondent had prepared, in respondent's desk drawer at the firm's office, reflecting a $1, 000 payment that Gravenese had made directly to respondent.

         The complaint charged respondent with violations of RPC 1.1(a); RPC 1.1(b); RPC 1.3; RPC 1.4(b); RPC 1.15(d); RPC 8.4(b); RPC 8.4(c); and the principles of In re Siegel.

         Count Five - The ...


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