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In re Streit

Supreme Court of New Jersey

December 11, 2018


          Argued: October 19, 2017

          District Docket No. XIV-2010-0656E

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

          Respondent did not appear despite proper notice.

          Ellen A. Brodsky Chief Counsel


          Disciplinary Review Board 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 reciprocal discipline filed by the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE), following respondent's October 25, 2011 disbarment in New York, for his violation of the New York equivalents of New Jersey RPC 1.1(a) (gross neglect); RPC 5.5(a)(1) (practicing while suspended); RPC 8.1(b) (failure to cooperate with disciplinary authorities); and RFC 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice).[1]The OAE seeks a one-year suspension. For the reasons stated below, we determine to impose a one-year suspension.

         Respondent was admitted to the New York bar in 1956 and the New Jersey bar in 1971. He has no history of discipline in New Jersey.

         Respondent has been ineligible to practice law in New Jersey since September 26, 2011, for failure to pay the annual attorney assessment to the New Jersey Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection (the Fund). Thus, on August 28, 2017, respondent's license to practice in New Jersey was revoked, based on his failure to pay his annual registration fee for seven consecutive years.[2]

         On April 23, 2008, the Departmental Disciplinary Committee for the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Judicial Department (DDC) served respondent with a six-count Statement of Charges, alleging that: (1) he failed to cooperate with the DDC's investigation, in violation of DR 1-102(A)(5) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice), resulting in the DDC's filing two motions for respondent's temporary suspension (count one and count three)j (2) he failed to produce his client file for Audrey Holmes-Williams (Holmes-Williams), despite having been served with a subpoena, in violation of DR 1-102(A)(5) (count two); (3) he failed to register with the Office of Court Administration (OCA) for the period 2006-2007, in violation of DR 1-102(A)(5) (count four); (4) he committed gross neglect, in violation of DR 6-101(A)(3) (count five); and (5) he engaged in conduct adversely reflecting on his fitness as a lawyer, in violation of DR 1-102(A)(7), by the conduct in counts one through five (count six).

         Specifically, in January 1992, Holmes-Williams retained respondent in a personal injury matter involving a three-car automobile accident. In 1995, respondent filed her claim against Willie Williams, the driver of the car in which she had been a passenger. Williams brought a third-party action against the other defendants in the main action. After the commencement of the action, Holmes-Williams married Williams, who died on January 14, 1999.

         In 2004, the Civil Court ordered Holmes-Williams to apply for the appointment of a personal representative for Williams and cautioned her that, if she did not do so within 120 days, her suit would be dismissed. Through respondent's inaction, Holmes-Williams failed to have a personal representative appointed for Williams within the time prescribed, and two of the defendants moved to dismiss the case. The day before the March 8, 2005 return date of the motion, respondent requested an adjournment, citing his involvement in a criminal trial, health issues, and his loss of Holmes-Williams' file in the course of moving offices. The court dismissed the case on March 31, 2005.

         In July 2005, respondent filed a notice of appeal, but never perfected it. Then, in November 2007, he filed a motion to vacate the dismissal of the complaint. The return date of that motion was adjourned several times, leading to an October 2009 motion by one of the defendants to dismiss it for failure to prosecute. As of the date of the Appellate Division's per curiam opinion, neither the motion to vacate the dismissal nor the motion to dismiss the motion to vacate were resolved.

         Nonetheless, while these matters were pending, in February 2005, Holmes-Williams filed a "complaint" (presumably, an ethics grievance) against respondent. She complained that she had been in contact with respondent only three times after her suit had been filed in 1992, and that he had not returned any of her phone calls since December 2004. Over the course of the next two years, respondent failed to reply to the DDC's request for documents and information, and failed to appear numerous times for depositions.

         In 2007, respondent finally appeared for a deposition, during which he initially denied having received any of the DDC's communications. He eventually admitted having received the DDC's communications, except for one specific letter sent by way of fax. That letter, however, was merely a memorialization of a telephone conversation the DDC had with respondent. Respondent claimed that he had kept Holmes-Williams aware of the progress of her case by telephone and written communication, except for a period of a few years when she "disappeared down south." He attributed his two-and-one-half-year delay in moving to vacate the dismissal to his heavy criminal caseload. He conceded that he "should have moved faster." Respondent denied any willfulness in his non-responsiveness to the DDC's investigation, and asserted, generally, that other lawyers in his shared office space intercepted his mail.

         On June 13, 2008, the Honorable Lewis L. Douglas, the referee in the New York disciplinary cases, conducted a preliminary hearing. Although respondent's Verified Answer, dated June 30, 2008, denied the six charges of unethical conduct, it did not deny specifically the underlying facts. On July 14, 2008, the referee conducted a hearing on "liability." On September 1, 2008, the referee issued an interim report, finding respondent liable on five of the six charges. The referee dismissed Charge Four, because respondent had since registered and paid his fee to the OCA for the period 2006-2007.

         The referee then held a hearing on the sanction to be imposed. In mitigation, respondent was eighty-one years old, a Navy veteran, and a solo practitioner who handled mostly indigent criminal and immigration cases. Four clients, including two long-term clients, testified as character witnesses on his behalf. Holmes-Williams testified that she had withdrawn her complaint upon respondent's assurance "that he would do better with the case, but nothing changed." At the hearing, Holmes-Williams agreed to accept a $10, 000 payment ...

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