Wednesday, May 9, 2007
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reduced a one-year suspension imposed by a single justice in a disciplinary case where the accused lawyer had represented a client in 1994 who was alleged to have posed as a lawyer and converted entrusted funds. The client was exposed as having misrepresented his academic credentials and legal bona fides at a deposition attended by the accused lawyer.
Several years passed and the accused had "joined a large [but unidentified] Boston law firm as a partner." The former client, who had kept in touch, advised him that he had resolved his bar status in California and was doing legal work at a Boston bank, which the accused attorney confirmed. The former client then applied for a position with "the [accused lawyer's law] firm's technology consulting affiliate as a banking and technology specialist." The accused gave him a positive reference, which was his only involvement in the hiring process.
The firm believed that the former client was admitted in California and was eligible for admission in Massachusetts. The accused wrote a letter of recommendation for the former client's admission in Massachusetts that noted "in the face of adversity, I have found his conduct to be honest, honorable and professional. I am confident he will uphold the highest standards of the bar." The unspecified "adversity" was apparently a reference to the former client's family life.
The firm then discovered that the former client had never been admitted in California. While he was fired, "his significant practice at the firm remained a serious matter" that the accused lawyer was assigned to deal with. The accused was personally named in a malpractice suit arising from the former client's work. He filed an affidavit in connection with a motion to dismiss denying any involvement in the hiring process.
The court held that the meaning of the affidavit was a question of law and rejected the finding of dishonesty made by the special hearing officer. The court found it "eminently believable" that the accused lawyer had been duped into believing his former client had been admitted in California. However, the letter of reference to the Board of Bar Examiners was found to be misleading, warranting a two-month suspension, which the accused had already been serving prior to the full court's decision.
Why have a special hearing officer if the crucial credibility finding with respect to the affidavit can be overturned by calling it a question of law? If you have a problem with the link, the case is Matter of Slavitt, decided May 2, 2007. (Mike Frisch)