Thursday, October 30, 2008
The Vermont Professional Responsibility Board declined to disbar an attorney who had been convicted of felony extortion and misdemeanor stalking, noting that "[t]he facts in this case break down into three distinct chapters and each chapter has a significant impact on our decision." The board imposed a one year suspension.
The first chapter was the uneventful rise of a bright young attorney who took a job in a Vermont firm. He became romantically involved with a paralegal, decided to move move with her to California and went alone to join a San Francisco law firm.
The second chapter began when therte was a delay in the start of his new job. An old friend intorduced him to crystal meth and he became hooked. His girlfriend broke up with him as a result and the criminal offense occured in the wake of the rejection. This period began in 2001 and continued through 2006.
The third chapter is described in the board's opinion:
We now come to the third chapter of this story which begins on New Year’s Day 2007. The lawyer who represented Respondent in the drug charge told him that it was either “treatment or jail.” It was then that Respondent realized that he needed to do something, and on New Year’s Day he stopped taking drugs, initially without the help of any drug treatment program. He later ended up spending two months in jail and at that point started to come around. He began attending twelve step meetings and reading the Bible. In June of 2007, he was placed in an intensive court drug diversion program which involved daily twelve step meetings and counseling. He acknowledges that the drug program was very beneficial to him. It allowed him to deal with his denial of the reality of the situation he had created in Vermont. As he testified, in his mind he was “the victim of all that was happening in Vermont.” He learned to become accountable, to admit that he was an addict. He got strength from speaking up at AA meetings, began attending church and a faith based support group.
In November of 2007, Respondent signed up for the Lawyer’s Assistance Program in California. It is a voluntary five year program designed to help lawyers with substance abuse problems. It involves individual and group therapy and random drug testing for the five year period. Respondent testified that both the individual and group counseling have helped him to understand that he made serious mistakes and to develop a new perspective on life. He has found support, friends and a rekindled hope that he might once again practice law. He believes that this program is well designed to help attorneys get their lives back on track; it is serious, intense and closely monitored.
In March of 2007 Respondent married. His wife had refused to marry him until he dealt with the drug problem. She organized a family intervention and has been supportive of his efforts at rehabilitation.
In March of 2008 Respondent completed the drug diversion program in California, and the charges were dismissed.
Respondent has no fear of relapse and has no drug cravings.
Respondent also testified about his radically different view of the break up with Ms. Gaboriault. He now realizes that he took her backing away as rejection and became vindictive. He blamed her, but he now acknowledges that it was fully his fault. He feels ashamed of the things that he did while using drugs and finds it hard now to understand what he was thinking at the time.
As to sanction:
Were we to disbar Respondent, he would no longer have access to the California Lawyer’s Assistance Program, a program which he has clearly embraced as a lifeline to continuing to live drug free and to his possible resumption of the practice of law. This program will be available to him in the case of suspension. Thus, for Respondent, a disbarment has consequences which go beyond the mere question of when and whether he can return to the practice of law, but also affects his ability to access the programs he needs to continue his recovery.
We must also consider the effect of our failure to disbar Respondent for a felony conviction on the public and its confidence in the integrity of the legal system. We hope that this decision will be viewed not as an incidence of leniency to a fellow attorney, but as an indication of the great flexibility built into the law of sanctions. Since punishment is not an appropriate response to misconduct, we hope that those reading this opinion will acknowledge that exceptional leniency is appropriate in exceptional circumstances and that the public’s confidence in the legal system will be enhanced rather than diminished.
It was Respondent’s testimony alone that convinced us that our decision is the correct one. We have no doubt that he now more fully understands the nature of his conduct while on drugs, that he takes full responsibility for his actions, and is committed to turning his life around. We were impressed by the fact that not only has Respondent stopped using drugs, but has actively sought out the support and treatment options open to him, and, it appears, used them to the fullest extent available. He has gained knowledge of himself that he did not have in the past, and he is willing and eager to share his understanding of the nature of drug addiction with others in similar circumstances.
He passed the first hurdle presented to him when he recently completed the drug diversion program which resulted in the dismissal of the California criminal charges. He has also entered into the Lawyer’s Assistance Program for drug users in California, and we are inclined to share his optimism that he will complete it successfully.
The dispostion will require the attorney to petition for reinstatement and establish that he is drug free and on the recovery path. (Mike Frisch)