Friday, October 3, 2014

Professionalism & Ethics Committee: Responsiveness Is An Ethical Requirement

By Caroline Johnson Levine

Periodically updating clients regarding the status of their cases or responding to client requests for information appears to be a deceptively simple task, however, some lawyers have difficulty maintaining this necessary routine. Additionally, if a client files a Florida Bar complaint asserting a lawyer’s failure to maintain contact, it can be a critical error for a lawyer to persist in the habit of unresponsiveness. In fact, the Florida Supreme Court recently disbarred an attorney for failure to respond to requests for information in The Florida Bar v. Davis, 2014 WL 2609210 (Fla. 2014).

Kathleen Davis was retained by the guardian and sister of an Alzheimer’s patient to obtain a divorce on the basis of spousal abandonment. The client paid Davis $5,000. Initially, Davis indicated that she would complete the necessary divorce paperwork within one week and submit it to the client for review. However, Davis delayed the divorce petition for several months and subsequently submitted the documents to the client with several errors contained therein. The client corrected the errors and returned the documents to Davis. However, Davis failed to make any corrections and failed to file the documents and initiate the divorce proceedings with the clerk of court.

In the interim, the patient’s husband initiated the divorce and filed the necessary paperwork. The client attempted to contact Davis to draft a response to the divorce petition. However, Davis would not respond to the client, and the client was subsequently required to file a pro se response. The client filed a complaint with The Florida Bar, and Davis failed to respond to Bar inquiries and failed to attend her disciplinary hearing.

Several ethical rules require a lawyer to act with diligence and maintain communication with a client and The Florida Bar. The Supreme Court disbarred Davis because she failed to participate in her disciplinary proceedings, neglected a vulnerable client, and retained client funds to the client’s disadvantage. In the Davis decision, the Supreme Court restated its findings in The Florida Bar v. Bartlett, 509 So. 2d 287, 289 (Fla. 1987), which clarifies that “a lawyer’s willful refusal to participate at all in the disciplinary process when he is accused of misconduct calls into serious question the lawyer’s fitness for the practice of law.”

It is clear that it can be relatively easy for attorneys to make mistakes and find themselves in a disciplinary dilemma. Therefore, it is important to assist attorneys before they travel down the road of unprofessionalism and receive its resulting sanctions. The HCBA Professionalism and Ethics Committee is devoted to elevating the practice of law to its highest aspirations. This committee endeavors to promote professionalism and ethical behavior in the consciousness of all lawyers and members of the public and is invested in publicizing and participating in this circuit’s Local Professionalism Panel, continuing legal education presentations, and assisting the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit’s efforts to develop professionalism programs. Please consider joining this committee and connecting with its efforts to maintain the legal profession’s highest ideals.