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In re Perdue

Supreme Court of New Jersey

March 29, 2019

In The Matter Of M. Blake Perdue An Attorney At Law

          District Docket Nos. XA-2016-0018E; XA-2016-0025E; XA-2016-0029E

          DECISION

          Bonnie C. Frost, Chair

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

         These matters were before us on three certifications of the record filed by the District XA Ethics Committee (DEC), pursuant to R, l:20-4(f). The complaints charged respondent with violations of RPC 1.1(a) (gross neglect), RPC 1.3 (lack of diligence), RPC 1.4(b) and (c) (failure to communicate with the client), RPC 1.16(b) (failure to properly withdraw from the representation), RPC 1.16(d) (failure to protect the client's interests and to return the file upon termination of the representation), RPC 3.2 (failure to expedite litigation), RPC 4.4(b) (failure to promptly notify the sender of attorney/client privileged information), RPC 8.1(b) (failure to cooperate with an ethics investigation), RPC 8.4(a) (attempt to violate the RPCs), RPC 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation), and RPC 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice).

         For the totality of respondent's misconduct in the matters, we determine to impose a six-month suspension.

         Respondent was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 2014. He has no prior discipline. He was declared ineligible to practice law on August 28, 2017 for failure to pay the annual assessment to the New Jersey Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection, and remains ineligible to date.

         The PP Matter - Docket No. DRB 18-319

         Service of process was proper in this matter. On December 4, 2016, during the ethics investigation of DRB 18-320 (the ML matter), the DEC received an e-mail from respondent indicating that he had closed his law office and that all future correspondence should be sent to him at his home address, which he provided.

         On October 24, 2017, the DEC sent the complaint by certified and regular mail to the address that respondent provided. The certified mail was unclaimed and returned by the United States Postal Service (USPS), marked with a new address. The regular mail was not returned.

         On November 28, 2017, the DEC sent a "five-day" letter by certified and regular mail to respondent at the home address that respondent had provided on December 4, 2016, not to the new address received from the USPS. The letter informed respondent that, if he did not answer the complaint within five days of the date of the letter, the allegations of the complaint would be deemed admitted, the record would be certified to us for imposition of discipline, and the complaint would be amended to charge a violation of RPC 8.1(b). The certified mail and the regular mail were not returned.

         On June 24, 2018, in connection with a different disciplinary matter, the DEC received an envelope returned by the USPS, post-marked June 14, 2018, and identifying respondent's new home address in New York. On June 28, 2018, the DEC mailed a copy of the "five-day" letter to respondent at the New York address. The certified mail was received, having been signed for on July 3, 2018 by "R. Delgado." The regular mail was not returned.

         The time within which respondent may file an answer has expired. No answer was filed as of July 16, 2018, the date of the certification of the record.

         We now turn to the facts of the complaint. On September 4, 2015, PP retained respondent to represent her in respect of pending domestic violence and divorce proceedings. On October 14, 2015, respondent told PP that he would receive the decision of her final restraining order (FRO) the next day. PP repeatedly inquired into the status of her FRO, but respondent failed to reply. In early November 2015, PP mailed her signed divorce complaint to respondent. Again, she contacted respondent regarding the status of her application for permanent restraints and of the divorce, but respondent failed to reply. In late January 2016, PP contacted respondent's wife, which prompted a reply from respondent.

         Thereafter, however, respondent ignored PP's numerous telephonic, e-mail, and text message requests for updates about the status of her matter. On July 1, 2016, respondent finally sent an e-mail, stating that he had mailed a letter to PP "some time ago" about his decision to leave the practice of law, and claiming to have returned the remainder of her retainer. PP denied receipt of that letter. The complaint is otherwise silent about the return of the retainer. Throughout the representation, respondent never informed PP that he had not filed her divorce complaint.

         According to the complaint, respondent's failure, over the course of the ten-month representation, to file PP's complaint for divorce constituted gross neglect, lack of diligence, and failure to expedite litigation, in violation of RPC 1.1(a), RPC 1.3, and RPC 3.2. Moreover, for respondent's failure to reply to PP's requests for information about the status of her matter, he was charged with violating RPC 1.4(b) and (c).

         Further, during the representation, respondent sent communications to PP that misled her to believe that he was diligently pursuing both her domestic violence and divorce claims. Specifically, on October 26, 2015, respondent sent PP an e-mail stating, "I apologize, I believe I texted you on the 15th right after the judge read the decisions. The final restraining order was denied then. If you did not get it then, I am sorry." In January 2016, respondent assured PP that he had filed her divorce complaint. The following month, on February 16, 2016, he informed her that he had not yet received a date for "the default hearing," despite the fact that he had not filed a complaint for divorce. In March 2016, respondent again misled PP by stating that "default proceedings can unfortunately be slow," and that he had not had any contact from her estranged husband or his attorney. When PP independently investigated the status of her matter, she learned that no divorce complaint had been filed. Thus, respondent could not have made application for the entry of default. Respondent's dishonest conduct and misrepresentations were alleged to have violated RPC 8.4(c).

         Finally, according to the complaint, respondent failed to reply to the investigator's written and telephonic requests for information about the grievance, in violation of RPC 8.1(b), RPC 8.4(a), and RPC 8.4(d).

         The ML Matter - Docket No. DRB 18-320

         Service of process was proper in this matter. As mentioned above, on December 4, 2016, during this ethics investigation, respondent provided to the DEC a home address for service of process.

         On November 20, 2017, the DEC sent the complaint to respondent at that home address, in accordance with R. 1: 20-4(d) and R.1: 20-7(h). The certified mail was returned to the DEC unsigned. The regular mail was not returned.

         On June 14, 2018, the DEC sent respondent a "five-day" letter at the same home address, informing him that, unless he filed a verified answer within five days of the date of the letter, the allegations of the complaint would be deemed admitted, the record would be certified directly to us for imposition of discipline, and the complaint would be amended to include a violation of RPC 8.1(b).

         The certified mail receipt was signed by "J. Brown" on June 19, 2018. The regular mail was returned by the USPS, indicating a forwarding address in New York. On June 28, 2018, the DEC sent respondent another "five-day" letter, to the New York address, by certified and regular mail. The certified mail return receipt was signed by "R. Delgado" indicating delivery on July 3, 2018. The regular mail was not returned.

         The time within which respondent may answer the complaint has expired. As of the date of the certification of the record, respondent had not filed an answer.

         The complaint alleged that the grievant, ML, retained respondent to represent his interests in respect of temporary restraining orders, divorce proceedings, and a matter before the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P).

         According to the complaint:

2. On April 29, 2016, Grievant's then-wife returned a cell phone to ML she had improperly purchased through ...

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