Monday, April 6, 2015

Professionalism & Ethics Committee: Retention of Client Funds and Forgery Require Sanctions

By Caroline Johnson Levine

The Florida Supreme Court has been vested with the exclusive jurisdiction to discipline members of The Florida Bar. See Article V, § 15, Fla. Const. The Rules of Ethics provide the disciplinary guidelines used by the court to determine whether an attorney can be disciplined. When the Supreme Court determines the appropriate discipline for an attorney, it issues an opinion establishing its jurisdiction, the applicable rules, and its factual findings for sanctioning an attorney.    

In Florida Bar v. Ross, 140 So. 3d 518 (Fla. 2014), the Supreme Court considered whether Ross committed ethical violations. Count 1 charged that Ross “was paid a $10,000 retainer from which [Ross] would be paid based upon billing at an hourly rate.” Id. at 519. Subsequently, the client terminated Ross and made numerous requests for an accounting and final bill. After three years, Ross returned $5,000 to the client without a final accounting. Count 2 charged that Ross forged the signature of a California attorney in order to file an action on behalf of himself and four relatives against a conservator and trustees who were managing a trust for his aunt. 

The Florida Bar began a disciplinary action against Ross for violating Rules 4-1.4, 4-1.16, 4-3.3, and 4-8.4. The referee recommended that Ross should be suspended from the practice of law for six months. However, the Supreme Court entered an order suspending Ross for three years, finding that Ross “engaged in serious misconduct” for refusing to return client funds and “knowingly fil[ing] a fraudulent document in court.” Ross, 140 So. 3d at 521; see also Fla. Bar v. Kickliter, 559 So. 2d 1123 (Fla. 1990). 

The Supreme Court declared that “[m]isrepresentations and dishonesty warrant severe discipline.” Ross, 140 So. 3d at 522; see also Fla. Bar v. Hall, 49 So. 3d 1254 (Fla. 2010) (entering an order of disbarment for an attorney who recorded a forged document with the clerk of court). Further, “[d]ishonest conduct demonstrates the utmost disrespect for the court and is destructive to the legal system as a whole.” See Fla. Bar v. Head, 27 So. 3d 1, 8 (Fla. 2010). Additionally, the court affirmed that a “lawyer is required to promptly deliver to a client any funds that a client is entitled to receive.” Ross, 140 So. 3d at 523; see also Fla. Bar v. Grosso, 760 So. 2d 940 (Fla. 2000).

The Supreme Court may impose austere sanctions in disciplinary actions because the “discipline [imposed] must protect the public from unethical conduct, must be fair to a respondent yet sufficient to sanction the misconduct and encourage reformation and rehabilitation, and must be severe enough to deter others who might be prone or tempted to become involved in like violations.” Ross, 140 So. 3d at 523 (emphasis in original); see also Fla. Bar v. Jasperson, 625 So. 2d 459 (Fla. 1993). Accordingly, an attorney’s easily avoidable conduct in one or two matters can result in substantial consequences, including losing the ability to practice law.