Friday, January 9, 2009

Suspension Imposed Rather Than Reprimand

A justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court imposed a 30 day suspension with a requirement that the attorney take and pass a professional responsibility examination within 18 months in a case that involved misconduct committed while under extraordinarily stressful circumstances:

Bar counsel filed a petition for discipline alleging that Stella B. Angwafo, the respondent, intentionally misrepresented the amount of her assets on her personal financial statement filed in the Probate and Family Court, and that she intentionally misrepresented her marital status in a motion for child support and continued health insurance coverage for her child and herself. After an evidentiary hearing, a special hearing officer found that the respondent made intentional misrepresentations to the Probate and Family Court by (1) misrepresenting on her financial statement that she had no bank accounts when in fact she did; and (2) misrepresenting in a motion for child support and continued health insurance coverage that she was married when in fact she was not. The special hearing officer found, in mitigation, that at the time the respondent misrepresented her assets she experienced fear and stress as a result of domestic abuse. He recommended that she be suspended from the practice of law for two months.

The respondent appealed to the Board of Bar Overseers (board). The board adopted the special hearing officer's findings of fact and conclusions of law, but concluded the special hearing officer had "vastly understate[d]" the type of stress experienced by the respondent at the time she completed the financial statement in question. The special hearing officer had compared it to the stress of practicing law. The board noted that the stress associated with the practice of law is "typical," and entitled to little weight in the determination of a sanction, see Matter of Alter, 389 Mass. 153, 156-157 (1983), but concluded that there was nothing "typical" about the fear and stress felt by the respondent. When she filled out her financial statement the respondent was sitting beside the man who was the father of her three year old son and who recently had driven his Toyota Land Cruiser into the driver's side of her Toyota Camry sedan while she and her son were inside. The board assessed her fear as "understandable terror," "transcend[ing] 'typical' mitigation," and recommended a public reprimand.

The court imposed a suspension because, in its view:

The mitigating circumstances here are very powerful. The respondent had been subject to what the special hearing officer and the board found was a "frightening and grave incident of abuse" on July 13, 2001, following nearly six years of physical and emotional abuse. At the time the respondent prepared her financial statement of July 27, a family service officer of the Probate and Family Court directed the respondent and Taboh to the same area. This should not have happened. We find this particularly disturbing, and agree with both the special hearing officer and the board that she was under considerable stress and fear while preparing the financial statement, placed about five feet away from her abuser by the very court from whom she sought protection.

Nevertheless, we cannot overlook the fact that the respondent had enough presence of mind to itemize her school loans and provide a total of liabilities, while providing utterly no information as to her bank accounts. She was aware of the existence of her accounts and she at least could have mentioned the names of the banks, and perhaps placed a question mark after each name. Instead, she omitted all reference to them. Although the respondent was, in effect, exposed to her abuser at precisely the time she was preparing her financial statement, she provided all the requested information except that which she seemingly thought was the weakest link in her case for child support: her bank accounts. The special hearing officer wrestled with this. In the final analysis he recommended a two-month suspension because he found that the respondent's financial statement was more the product of her intentionality than it was carelessness, fear, or stress. We accept this finding.


The case is Matter of Angwafo, decided today. (Mike Frisch)

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