In the Matter of Anthony J. La Russo An Attorney at Law
Docket Nos. XIV-2017-0475E and XIV-2018-0325E.
A. Brodsky Chief Counsel
C. Frost, Chair Judge.
Honorable Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme
Court of New Jersey.
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 formal ethics complaint charged respondent
with having violated RPC 1.5(a) (unreasonable fee),
RPC 1.5(b) (failure to set forth, in writing, the
basis or rate of the fee), RPC 1.7(a)(2) (concurrent
conflict of interest), RPC 1.15(d) (failure to
comply with the recordkeeping requirements of R. 1:21-6),
RPC 1.16(d) (failure to notify the client, in
writing, of termination of representation), RPC
4.1(a)(1) (false statement of material fact or law to a third
person), RPC 8.1(a) (false statement of material
fact to a disciplinary authority), and RPC 8.4(c)
(conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or
reasons set forth below, we recommend respondent's
disbarment. In our view, respondent is a serial self-dealer
who preys on and exploits the bereaved. Moreover, it is clear
that he is unwilling to learn from prior mistakes and, thus,
refuses to conform his conduct to that required of a member
of the New Jersey bar.
was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1969. At the relevant
times, he maintained an office for the practice of law in
2007, the Court censured respondent for engaging in conflicts
of interest in approximately forty-five matters, from 2000
through 2004. In re La Russo, 190 N.J. 335 (2007)
(La Russo I). As detailed below, the facts in
LaRusso I are nearly identical to the facts of this
2012, the Court censured respondent for gross neglect,
pattern of neglect, lack of diligence, and conflicts of
interest in respect of four real estate loan transactions.
In re La Russo, 212 N.J. 108 (2012) (La Russo
January 10, 2019, the Court temporarily suspended respondent
from the practice of law. In re La Russo, __ N.J.__
(2019). He remains suspended to date.
of process was proper. On August 30, 2018, the OAE sent a
copy of the formal ethics complaint to respondent's
office address, by regular and certified mail, return receipt
requested. On September 7, 2018, the OAE received the return
receipt, which had been signed by L. Leven. The letter sent
by regular mail was not returned.
on September 7, 2018, Larry Leven, Esq., who shared office
space with respondent, told the OAE that he had been taking
respondent's office mail to respondent at his home on a
October 12, 2018, the OAE sent a letter and a copy of the
complaint to respondent at his home and office addresses, by
regular and certified mail, return receipt requested. The OAE
informed respondent that, unless he filed an answer to the
ethics complaint by October 19, 2018, the matter would be
certified directly to us for the imposition of discipline.
October 15, 2018, C. Ruanne accepted delivery of the mail
sent to respondent's home address. The letter sent by
regular mail was not returned.
October 31, 2018, Leven informed the OAE that, for the past
four weeks, respondent had been going to his office one day
per week. By the following day, respondent still had not
filed an answer, and the time within which he was required to
do so had expired. Accordingly, the OAE certified this matter
to us as a default.
ONE: THE FUNERAL HOME MATTERS (XIV-2018-0325E)
case arises from respondent's attempt to continue
engaging in the unethical conduct for which he received a
censure in La Russo I. In short, respondent, who
performed collection work for several New Jersey funeral
homes, perpetrated a scheme whereby the beneficiaries of
deceased members of the State-administered Public
Employees' Retirement System (PERS) paid respondent to
ensure that his funeral home clients received payment for
undertaking the funeral arrangements of the deceased PERS
La Russo I, we found that, from 2000 to 2004,
respondent had been performing collection work for several
New Jersey funeral homes, including the Perry Funeral Home
(Perry) in Newark. In the Matter of Anthony J. La
Russo, DRB 06-343 (March 30, 2007) (slip op. at 2-3).
During that time, the funeral homes - notably Perry -
referred to respondent forty-five beneficiaries of deceased
PERS members. Id. at 3. The referrals were made
while the beneficiaries were at the funeral homes making
final arrangements for their loved ones. Once it became known
that a beneficiary did not have the means to pay for the
arrangements, a funeral home representative called
respondent, who then faxed to the funeral home for the
beneficiary's signature a retainer agreement and a form
letter of representation addressed to the State.
retainer agreement provided that the beneficiary was hiring
respondent to process a claim for life insurance or death
benefits in order to "secure payment of the balance
due" to the funeral home and that, if the benefits were
not promptly paid, the beneficiary would pay the funeral bill
with personal funds. Id., at 4. The agreement
contained an acknowledgement that the beneficiary was
entitled to retain an attorney of his or her choice but that
the beneficiary had chosen respondent to whom the beneficiary
would pay $350 for his services. Id. at 4-5.
letter of representation, which purportedly was written by
the client and notarized by funeral home personnel, stated
that the beneficiary had retained respondent to process and
receive payment of the "life insurance or death
benefits" for the purpose of securing payment of the
funeral bill and that the State was authorized to remit
payment of the benefits to respondent, albeit payable to the
beneficiary. Id. at 4. The letter concluded by
stating that "this arrangement may not be revoked by me
without written consent of my said attorney."
Id. at 4. Respondent admitted that the
"non-revocability clause" was not legally binding
but stated that he had used it "for effect."
found that respondent's representation of the PERS
beneficiaries for the sole purpose of obtaining their
benefits to pay for funeral expenses, while respondent also
served as attorney for the funeral homes, constituted a
conflict of interest under RPC 1.7(a)(2).
Id. at 11. Specifically, his representation of the
PERS beneficiaries was materially limited by his
responsibilities to the funeral homes, as well as by his own
interests - the collection of a legal fee. Ibid.
we found that respondent did not comply with the requirements
of RPC 1.7(b)(1), which permits an attorney to
proceed with a representation proscribed by RPC
1.7(a) if, after full disclosure and consultation, the
attorney obtains informed, written consent from the client.
Id. at 13. In this regard, we found that the
"waiver" language in the retainer agreement was
"wholly insufficient." Ibid.
concluded our decision in La Russo I by cautioning
respondent against engaging in these types of conflicts in
the future. Id. at 15. Rather than heed our warning,
respondent merely modified both the retainer agreement and
letter, and continued the practices that we and the Court had
condemned in La Russo I. We are now called upon to
assess the propriety of his modifications.
respondent replaced the retainer agreement with an
"Authorization and Waiver of Conflict of Interest"
form (waiver form). He replaced the letter of representation
with an "Authorization Letter." Although the
documents varied in some respects, they were nearly identical
to the documents in La Russo I, except that
respondent was no longer identified as the beneficiary's
lawyer; no legal fee was mentioned; and the
"waiver" no longer purported to be irrevocable.
matter now before us, the OAE investigated respondent's
representation of Perry, in addition to the Chapels of Eden
Funeral Home (Eden) and Churchman Funeral Home (Churchman).
According to the formal ethics complaint, for some time,
Prudential Insurance Company (Prudential) had been the life
insurance carrier for the State Division of Pensions and
Benefits (Division). PERS beneficiaries often received their
benefits in the form of a book of Prudential Alliance checks,
which designated the account holder as follows:
[Name of the beneficiary] C/O Anthony J. La Russo, Esquire
175 Fairfield Ave. Unit 5-A West Caldwell, N.J. 07006
interviewed thirteen beneficiaries who had made funeral
arrangements with the Eden, Perry, and Churchman funeral
homes. The complaint details the experiences of six of them.
We now turn to the facts pertaining to each of the three
2014, respondent provided a waiver form to Eden's owner,
Robert Brown. Brown presented the form to PERS beneficiaries
who had contracted with Eden to undertake their
decedents' funeral arrangements. The form stated that the
beneficiary had authorized respondent to process the
beneficiary's claim to the Division in order to secure
payment of the balance owed to Eden for the decedent's
funeral and burial.
waiver form continued:
I agree to cooperate to allow for prompt processing of my
claims. I agree to pay the funeral bill from my personal
funds, if these benefits are not sufficient, or if the
benefits are not promptly paid to me for any reason.
I am aware that Mr. La Russo is attorney for the Chapels of
Eden Funeral Home, LLC, and that he does not represent me. I
agree that I will immediately give written notice to Mr. La
Russo and to the Chapels of Eden Funeral Home, LLC if I wish
to revoke this authorization. I agree that, upon written
demand, with or without cause, Chapels of Eden Funeral Home,
LLC is entitled to immediate payment.
I have had sufficient opportunity to consult an attorney of
my choice, and to make other arrangements for payment of the
bill, or to arrange ...