Friday, January 31, 2014

Suspend Professionalism And Suspend Your License!

By Caroline Johnson Levine

Incivility in the legal community can be a constant source of frustration for attorneys who seek to honor and hold the legal profession in high regard. Some practitioners may unwittingly assume that nothing can be done to cure this issue. However, the Florida Supreme Court is working to remedy what some practitioners believe is an increasing problem of unprofessionalism in The Florida Bar.

In The Florida Bar v. Norkin, —So. 3d—, 2013 WL 5878901 (Fla. 2013), the Supreme Court recently overruled a referee recommendation that Jeffrey Alan Norkin should only be suspended from the practice of law for 90 days and serve 18 months of probation for unprofessionalism. In its place, the court imposed a two-year suspension of his Bar license.

Norkin was litigating a civil case in Miami when he “improperly threatened the filing of a legal action against [his opponent] personally and, without supporting facts, asserted that [his opponent] was involved in a conspiracy.” Id. at 3. Subsequently, Norkin filed a motion to recuse the presiding judge and wrote disparaging and unprofessional remarks about his opponent and the judge, to include assertions that the court’s rulings allowed the opposing party “in [a] fraudulent and criminal manner, [to] use this Court as an instrument of destruction.” Id. Further, Norkin asserted that the court “acted at the ‘beck and call’ of the plaintiff, and that there was an improper and illegal relationship between the judge” and Norkin’s opponent. Id.

Norkin routinely raised his voice and was confrontational in the courtroom until the judge finally granted Norkin’s motion for recusal. A second judge also found that Norkin was antagonistic, and eventually that judge “was forced to terminate [the] proceedings and refer” them to a general magistrate. Id. at 6. The Supreme Court found that Norkin’s “lack of professionalism and inappropriate courtroom demeanor made it impossible for the judges to conduct hearings.” Id.

Additional evidence of Norkin’s unprofessionalism became apparent in his emails, where he wrote statements such as “when is your unprofessional, ludicrous, downright unintelligent conduct going to stop? Before or after you are directed to pay my bills?” Id. at 7. Norkin’s subsequent outbursts included publicly screaming about his opponent, stating that “[he] is a liar. He’s lying” and that he “is underhanded and a scumbag.” Id. at 8.

The Supreme Court found that “the record amply demonstrates that Norkin knowingly, or through callous indifference, was incessantly disparaging and humiliating” toward his opposing counsel. Id. Further, the court found Norkin guilty of violating Rules 4-3.5(c), 4-8.2(a), and 4-8.4(a) and (d).  

Members of the public and the legal profession may assume that antagonistic lawyers are simply fulfilling a bona fide responsibility to be a zealous advocate. However, the Florida Supreme Court imposed a severe sanction upon Norkin, making it clear that incivility and unprofessionalism will not and cannot be tolerated in the practice of law.