Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Reason To Discharge

In an appeal of a decision in litigation between a matrimonial client and her former counsel, the New York Appellate Division for the Second Judicial Department held that the Supreme Court had committed error in several respects. One aspect of the case involves claims that much of the work had been performed by a disbarred lawyer:

...the plaintiff alleged that the disbarred attorney was closely involved in her case, and reassured her that he was working on her appeal from the matrimonial order. The plaintiff alleged that the disbarred attorney not only had contact with her, but also dealt with the husband's attorney and with the attorney for the children who had been appointed by the court. She claimed that the defendant seemed unfamiliar with her case, consulted with the disbarred attorney, and sought advice from the disbarred attorney when it was necessary to appear in court. The time records which the plaintiff submitted on her cross motion indicated that the defendant intended to bill her for conferring or meeting with the disbarred attorney on several occasions, that the disbarred attorney drafted memos and notes and that, on one occasion, the disbarred attorney accompanied the defendant to court. The plaintiff alleged in her affidavit that, while in court, the disbarred attorney consulted with her and the defendant "on how to handle whatever was in front of the court at that time."

Based upon the plaintiff's allegations, it appears that the disbarred attorney was engaged in the practice of law. A disbarred attorney may not engage in the practice of law, and an attorney may be guilty of professional misconduct where he intentionally aids a disbarred attorney to continue to practice law. Further, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant knew that this individual was disbarred, yet intentionally failed to reveal this information. Moreover, the orders related to this individual's suspension and disbarment involve sustained charges of lying to clients and neglecting their cases. By entrusting the plaintiff's case to this individual to the extent alleged by the plaintiff, the defendant failed diligently to handle her case. Thus, the plaintiff met her burden of establishing, as a matter of law, that she would have been justified in discharging the defendant for cause.

In response to these allegations, the defendant merely asserted that the disbarred attorney's involvement in the plaintiff's case had no bearing on the issue of counsel fees since the plaintiff received a "phenomenal result," and that the Grievance Committee for the Tenth Judicial District "took no action with respect to [these allegations]." The defendant, however, never attempted to raise a triable issue of fact as to the level of this individual's involvement in the plaintiff's case, and never claimed that he was unaware of this person's status as a disbarred attorney. Although, on this appeal, the defendant raises a number of allegations in this regard, including that the disbarred attorney was only minimally involved in the plaintiff's case, these allegations are dehors the record. Accordingly, in response to the plaintiff's prima facie showing with respect to the defendant's lack of entitlement to retain counsel fees that she already paid, the defendant failed to raise a triable issue of fact.(citations omitted)

The court dismissed the appeal of the defendant attorney but declined to award sanctions to the plaintiff. The underlying matrimonial case had resulted in a settlement. (Mike Frisch)

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