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In re Brent

Supreme Court of New Jersey

June 25, 2019

In the Matter of Adam Luke Brent An Attorney At Law

          Argued: March 21, 2019

          District Docket Nos. XIV-2016-0608E, XIV-2016-0609E, and XIV-2016-0643E

          Steven Zweig appeared on behalf of the Office of Attorney Ethics. Respondent appeared pro se.

          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 recommendation for the imposition of a censure or three-month suspension, filed by the District IV Ethics Committee (DEC). The formal ethics complaint charged respondent with having violated RPC 1.1(a) (gross neglect), RPC 1.3 (lack of diligence), RPC 1.4(b) (failure to communicate with the client), RPC 1.5(b) (failure to set forth, in writing, the basis or rate of the fee), RPC 1.15(b) (failure to promptly deliver to the client any funds or other property that the client is entitled to receive), RPC 1.16(d) (upon termination of a representation, failure to surrender papers to which the client is entitled), 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 reasons set forth below, we determine to impose a three-month suspension on respondent for his violation of all charged RPCs, except RPC 1.15(b) and RPC 8.4(d).

         Respondent was admitted to the New Jersey and Pennsylvania bars in 2003. On March 6, 2019, the Court temporarily suspended respondent from the practice of law for failure to cooperate with the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE). He remains suspended to date.

         On the day of the DEC hearing in this matter, the hearing panel chair called respondent's office because neither respondent nor his counsel appeared for the hearing. A representative told the chair that respondent was not in the office and that he would not be attending the hearing. Respondent, who attended oral argument before us, claimed that his counsel had not informed him of the DEC hearing date.

         COUNT ONE (XIV-2016-0609E - The DeGrace Matter)

         Count one of the complaint charged respondent with having violated RPC 1.1(a), RPC 1.3, RPC 1.4(b), RPC 1.16(d), and RPC 8.4(c) and (d).

         In 2005, Richard DeGrace, his wife Carol, and his parents John and Patricia DeGrace, purchased two residential building lots from the Eagle Rock Resort, Inc. (Eagle Rock) in Hazelton, Pennsylvania. Richard's friend, Jon Gropper, bought a third lot. In 2008, the DeGraces attempted to begin construction on the lots, but could not obtain permits to connect the properties to sewer services.

         In 2010, the DeGraces retained respondent to institute suit against Eagle Rock, based on claims of misrepresentation and breach of contract. At that time, the Pennsylvania statute of limitations already had expired. Accordingly, in October 2010, respondent filed suit in New Jersey, which has a longer statute of limitations. Prior to filing the complaint, respondent had not reviewed the contracts between Eagle Rock and the DeGraces. After Eagle Rock filed its answer, contending that Pennsylvania was the appropriate forum, respondent reviewed the contract, realized that the DeGraces lacked standing in New Jersey, and agreed to dismiss the New Jersey case.

         Respondent never informed the DeGraces that the New Jersey complaint had been dismissed. Instead, for the next five years, he embarked on a course of misrepresentation and deception, leading the DeGraces to believe that the litigation was proceeding and that he was engaged in settlement negotiations with Eagle Rock.

         In respondent's answer to the formal ethics complaint, he admitted that, two years after the DeGraces' complaint had been dismissed, he misrepresented to Richard that the matter was being litigated and that, if Eagle Rock did not make an acceptable settlement offer, the case would go to trial. Respondent also admitted having misrepresented to John that negotiations were ongoing, that a settlement was imminent, and, later, that Eagle Rock had made a $200, 000 settlement offer.

         At oral argument before us, respondent admitted that he had lied to the DeGraces, asserting: "I will absolutely, one hundred percent take responsibility for the DeGrace matter. As I said, that's uncontested."

         The record contains a number of e-mails that demonstrate both respondent's deception and the DeGraces' frustration with respondent's lack of communication. In these e-mails, the clients believed that depositions had been scheduled, that respondent had engaged in "settlement discussions yesterday," and that treble damages could be recovered from Eagle Rock. Also in the e-mails, respondent asked the DeGraces for settlement figures; John stated that he was "still waiting for your report of the meeting you attended last week;" John thanked respondent for his recent "update;" respondent stated they [Eagle Rock] are suppose [sic] to call me tomorrow if we don't reach a settlement tomorrow lets [sic] go to trial as quickly as possible;" and, finally, respondent claimed that he had filed a motion to compel the issuance of deeds, that the judge had imposed sanctions, that deeds had been issued but they were incorrect, and that he was awaiting a settlement check.

         At some point, respondent advised the parties to stop paying taxes on their properties. John followed respondent's advice. Richard, however, continued to pay taxes and monthly mortgage payments on the property, in order to protect his credit. As of Richard's July 24, 2018 testimony, he still was making those payments.

         Respondent sent John a fabricated general release and a fabricated release of the deed. The release stated that the case had settled for $140, 000, but John testified that respondent had never discussed that amount with him. Moreover, the release from Richard did not remove his obligation to continue paying the mortgage on a property that he would no longer own. The release forms required the DeGraces to return the property to Eagle Rock. The DeGraces did not sign the releases because, in their view, the parties had not reached an agreement. John and Richard surmised, correctly, that respondent had fabricated the documents.

         On September 18, 2015, John e-mailed respondent that he would accept a $200, 000 settlement, which respondent had proposed in a telephone call shortly before. Respondent replied: "Understood there is no formal offer of 200k now but I think I can get them there and hopefully very soon." Respondent also stated that he would communicate to Eagle Rock "the urgency in which they must comply."

         Shortly thereafter, respondent stopped communicating with the DeGraces. John later learned from his personal attorney, Robert Altshuler, that no lawsuit had been filed. Between October 19 and December 9, 2015, Altshuler sent three letters to respondent, requesting information about the status of the case, as well as a copy of the file. Respondent ignored the letters and never returned the file.

         Richard, too, consulted with a New Jersey attorney, who also was unsuccessful in his attempts to communicate with respondent or obtain the file from him.

         In October 2016, the DeGraces filed a complaint against respondent in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Camden County, charging him with negligence in the handling of the Eagle Rock lawsuit, in addition to having made misrepresentations to them. The record does not reflect the outcome of the litigation.

         At the DEC hearing, John was not certain of the status of the Eagle Rock property, testifying that, after he and Carol had stopped paying the taxes and fees, the property was foreclosed. According to John, respondent's conduct caused the loss of profits that would have been earned after the properties had been developed and sold, in addition to engineering and surveying costs.

         COUNT TWO (XIV-2016-0643E - The Ramirez-Calixto Matter)

         The second count of the complaint charged respondent with having violated RPC 1.1(a), RPC 1.3, RPC 1.4(b), and RPC 1.5(b). Although respondent denied the ...


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