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In re Greenman

Supreme Court of New Jersey

January 15, 2019

In The Matter Of Sal Greenman An Attorney At Law

          Argued: October 18, 2018

          District Docket Nos. XIV-2015-0398E, XIV-2015-0399E, XIV-2015-0474E, XIV-2015-0542E


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

         This matter was before us on a recommendation for disbarment by a special master. The five-count complaint charged respondent with the following violations: three counts of RPC 1.1(a) (gross neglect); RPC 1.1(b) (pattern of neglect); three counts of RPC 1.3 (lack of diligence); three counts of RJPC 1.4(b) (failure to communicate with the client); two counts of RPC 5.5(a)(1) (practicing while suspended); two counts of RPC 8.4(b) (committing a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer); and four counts of RPC 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation). We determine to recommend respondent's disbarment.

         Respondent was admitted to both the New Jersey and Pennsylvania bars in 1993. On February 20, 2015, the Court temporarily suspended him for failing to comply with a random audit conducted by the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE). In re Greenman, 220 N.J. 489 (2015). That Order remains in effect.

         Subsequently, on May 19, 2016, the Court censured respondent in a default matter for his failure to cooperate with an ethics investigation, in violation of RPC 8.1(b). In re Greenman, 225 N.J. 10 (2016). The Court further mandated that respondent remain temporarily suspended until further Order.

         On May 30, 2018, the Court suspended respondent for violating RPC 1.1(a), RPC 1.3, RPC 1.4(b), RPC 8.1(b), and RPC 8.4(c) in a single client matter. In re Greenman, 233 N.J. 351 (2018). In that case, respondent undertook a representation and did virtually nothing for four years, allowing the matter to be dismissed for lack of prosecution. Meanwhile, over the course of those four years (2008-2012), respondent continued to assure his client that the matter was proceeding. In the Matter of Sal Greenman, DRB 17-140 (October 26, 2017) (slip op. at 23). He remains suspended to date.

         We now turn to the facts of this matter.

         Count One - The Murray Grievance

         Richard A. Murray, Esq. represented Vadim Kaplan in a $250, 000 claim against Israel and Lusic Reingewirc. Respondent previously had represented the Reingewircs in several matters, the most recent of which was a bankruptcy matter. On March 31, 2015, Murray sent to the Reingewircs a letter regarding the dispute with Kaplan. Soon thereafter, respondent telephoned Murray, asking for a meeting to discuss the case and potential settlement. Murray was willing to meet, but first wanted a letter of representation from respondent.

         On April 24, 2015, Murray filed a complaint on behalf of his clients, which was met once again with a call from respondent requesting a meeting. Murray again asked for a letter of representation. This time, Murray memorialized his conversation in a letter to respondent, dated May 6, 2015. Murray later learned of respondent's suspension through a New Jersey Law Journal article and a call from his own client. According to Murray, all communication with respondent occurred after February 20, 2015, the date of respondent's temporary suspension. Nonetheless, according to Murray, during both telephone conversations, respondent claimed to represent the Reingewircs.

         Although respondent did not dispute having contacted Murray on behalf of the Reingewircs, after he was temporarily suspended, he claimed that he met with the Reingewircs while he was cleaning out his building after a flood. Simply put, he asserted that, because he was cleaning a building that he owns, he was not technically in his law office when he met with former clients to return their file. Respondent also admitted that he had initiated the meeting with the Reingewircs, and that he was returning only a partial file, because a flood had destroyed most of it. The documents that respondent submitted, however, establish that the flood actually occurred in March 2016 - a year after the Murray incident. Respondent acknowledged this discrepancy when it was called to his attention, but testified that his version of events, including the effect of the flood on his office a year earlier, was "truthful the way I said I believe it was in 2015."

         Moreover, respondent denied having made more than one telephone call, even after being confronted with his written response to the grievance in which he admitted making "calls." He claims that his response to the Murray grievance, which his son Jonathan drafted, contained a "misprint."[1] In any event, respondent denied meeting with the Reingewircs regarding the civil dispute with Kaplan, despite having asked Murray for a copy of the complaint. In respondent's view, he was serving merely as a messenger. He added later in his testimony, however, that, when he called Murray, the Reingewircs were present to discuss the legal fees they owed him for a prior case. Respondent contended that he was allowed to collect unpaid fees, despite his suspension. When unable to cite a rule in support of this contention, respondent said he imagined that this was public policy.

         Respondent presented the Reingewircs as witnesses in his defense to the ethics charges. Both testified that they were called to respondent's office, in 2015, to receive papers concerning a bankruptcy case, because he could no longer represent them, and to pay the money they owed. At that meeting, Israel asked respondent to call Murray about the letter that Murray had sent concerning Kaplan's claim. Israel described the call as a favor so respondent could talk to Murray "lawyer to lawyer." Neither client recalled the substance of the call with Murray, although they were in the room with respondent.

         The complaint charged respondent with violations of RPC 5.5(a)(1), RPC 8.4(b), and RPC 8.4(c).

         Count Two - The Oldfield Grievance

         In May 2014, respondent's firm settled a personal injury claim for $8, 500 on behalf of its client, Dimitry Slobodenyuk. The claim stemmed from an automobile accident. Richard Oldfield, Esq. represented Allstate, the insurance carrier responsible for paying the settlement funds. It appears that Jonathan Greenman, respondent's son, was the attorney handling the matter for the firm.

         Oldfield testified that, because he received neither a stipulation of dismissal nor a release from respondent's firm to close the matter, a check was never sent. He began receiving phone calls about the money in early 2015 from both respondent and Jonathan. In March 2015, Jonathan finally provided the settlement papers. Allstate issued the check in April 2015.

         Oldfield testified that his communications with respondent were in March 2015, after the date of his suspension, but that respondent never informed him that he was suspended and that the settlement papers he received were sent from "Law Office of Sal Greenman" by fax, on March 19, 2015 - one month after the effective date of respondent's temporary suspension.

         Respondent admitted that he called Oldfield from his office following the date of his suspension. He argued, however, that he was allowed to collect money, but could not cite a rule in support of his position. When confronted with R. l:20-20(b)(13), which places various qualifications on the allowance to collect fees already earned, respondent replied that he was mistaken in his interpretation of the Rule. However, he steadfastly maintained that he was permitted to call an attorney to pursue a settlement check because the settlement had occurred a year prior to his suspension. He further denied that cleaning up files and any outstanding issues constituted legal work. Respondent admitted that his law firm office sign remained in place for more than a year after he was suspended.

         On April 9, 2015, Allstate issued a settlement check, for the full amount owed, payable to "Dimitry Slobodenyuk and Sal Greenman Esquire." Respondent admitted that, at the time he received this check, he and his son were suspended and were not permitted to maintain attorney trust or business accounts. He further admitted that Jonathan endorsed the check from Allstate.

         The complaint charged respondent with violations of RPC 5.5(a)(1), RPC 8.4(b), and RPC 8.4(c).

         Count Three - The Fedotov Grievance

         In June 2011, Alexsandr Fedotov retained respondent to represent him concerning a bankruptcy matter. Fedotov paid respondent a $1, 500 retainer. Fedotov went to respondent's office from time to time to drop off documents and records. According to Fedotov, whenever he inquired about the status of his matter, respondent replied that it had been filed and that he was working on it. Respondent, however, denied telling Fedotov that his petition had been filed, claiming that he would not have done so because he did not handle the matter and has never filed a bankruptcy petition.

         After a significant amount of time had passed, Fedotov became concerned when he continued to receive claims from his credit card companies, and could no longer contact respondent. Fedotov asked his daughter Marina to look into the matter for him. According to Marina, in late 2014 and early 2015, she asked respondent on at least two occasions why the petition had not been filed. On both occasions, respondent assured her that he would file the petition soon.

         In turn, respondent denied having had any contact with Marina. The presenter then confronted respondent with an undated letter to respondent from Marina in which she complained that (1) her father had retained respondent in June 2011, and that it was 2015, and nothing had been done on the matter; that she had spoken with respondent "a few months ago" and that he told her that the case would get resolved, and that he would return her call, but he failed to do so; and that, despite several e-mails and phone calls from both Marina and Fedotov, respondent has never replied. Marina's letter concluded with notice that, after four years, she wants more than just the return of the fees.

         Respondent, nevertheless, denied that he had spoken with Marina and speculated that she may have spoken to Jonathan, because respondent did not handle bankruptcy matters. He also denied having seen Marina's letter to him.

         In respect of Fedotov's bankruptcy petition, respondent repeatedly asserted, during the investigation, that Fedotov requested the filing delay for personal reasons. Specifically, respondent claimed that Fedotov traveled to Russia and never returned. At the hearing, however, respondent implied that he did not recall making those statements. Nonetheless, both Fedotov and his daughter testified that Fedotov did not travel to Russia and had not done so since 2006.

         Respondent admitted that he never told Fedotov or his daughter that he was suspended; that he took money from Fedotov, and never returned it; and that he is guilty of gross neglect. He denied, however, that he failed to communicate with his client. He was unaware whether a bankruptcy petition was ever filed on Fedotov's behalf because he did not handle the matter.

         The complaint charged respondent with violations of RPC 1.1(a), RPC 1.3, RPC 1.4(b), and RPC 8.4(c).

         Count Four - The Drakeford Grievance

         On March 26, 2013, Jesse Drakeford retained respondent to help recover his car. Respondent asserted that, after the initial meeting, he sent Drakeford into Jonathan's office to "finish up" and that his son "typed it all up. He signs them up." Jonathan signed the retainer agreement, providing for a $500 fee, on behalf of respondent's firm. In his grievance, Drakeford indicated that he initially paid respondent $250, but later testified that he had made two payments of $250.

         Drakeford left his car at M&F Auto Shop (M&F) in Paterson, New Jersey, and the car went missing. After agreeing to represent Drakeford, respondent sent a letter to M&S Auto Repair in Passaic, New Jersey, not to M&F in Paterson. Respondent denied that he made an error, claiming that Drakeford had given him the address for M&S.

         Respondent further claimed that, in Drakeford's behalf, "we" sent some letters, and that he called M&F. He learned eventually, however, that M&F went out of business, and that a car wash had opened at that location. According to respondent, after he conveyed this information to his client, Drakeford provided the information about M&S. Respondent claimed that, thereafter, "we" sent a letter and "I" spoke to a man named Raul on the phone. Respondent testified that he asked Raul whether his business was M&F, and was told "no, bankrupt, no, no."

         Drakeford asserted that respondent repeatedly assured him that his matter was going well, an assertion that respondent denied. Respondent also denied Drakeford's allegation that respondent failed to return his calls, claiming that he spoke with Drakeford and always treated him with respect.

         Respondent denied that he lacked diligence or neglected Drakeford's matter. He claimed that Jonathan had explained to Drakeford that the firm could no longer continue to represent him for the $250 already paid, and that Drakeford replied that he would try to find his car on his own until he had more money, and then would return to the firm. Jonathan then discontinued communications with Drakeford. Because this conversation occurred before his suspension, respondent never notified Drakeford of the discipline.

         The complaint charged respondent with violations of RPC 1.1(a), RPC 1.3, and RPC 1.4(b).

         Count Five - The Stobinski Grievance

         On November 4, 2013, Sylvia Stobinski retained respondent to defend her in a lawsuit filed by Douglas S. Rabin, M.D., for a disputed medical bill of $10, 000. Stobinski paid respondent's $1, 000 retainer by check made payable to "Sal Greenman." The agreement called for a second payment of $1, 000 to be paid at a later date. Stobinski provided respondent with necessary documents, including medical statements from her insurance company, a bill from Dr. Rabin, and copies of her e-mails with Dr. Rabin's billing service.

         In May 2014, Jonathan became involved with Stobinski's case. Respondent claimed that he met with Stobinski initially because it was his understanding that she spoke only Polish. Respondent also testified that he did not recall whether he spoke English with her, or whether she speaks English at all. Stobinski eventually testified, in English, without issue.

         By letter dated June 2, 2014, Jonathan asked Stobinski to contact the office to discuss her case in further detail. According to Stobinski, at a July 10, 2014 meeting, respondent told Stobinski that her matter was going well and that he was still negotiating with Dr. Rabin's attorney. Stobinski also claimed that, at this meeting, respondent requested the remaining $1, 000 payment. By way of check payable to "Sal Greenman" and dated July 21, 2014, Stobinski paid respondent the remaining $1, 000. Respondent denied that this meeting took place or that he negotiated with Dr. Rabin's attorney.

         On July 28, 2014, Stobinski learned that, on May 29, 2014, a judgment had been entered against her for $11, 708.03. Stobinski immediately sent an e-mail to Jonathan, complaining that, at a meeting with respondent during the second week of July 2014, he had assured that her matter was going well, and that, pursuant to Sal's request, she recently sent her second $1, 000 payment, yet a judgment had been entered against her. At a meeting ...

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