Friday, October 7, 2016
Helping a friend with a couple of phone calls and letters was sanctionable as unauthorized practice of law for an attorney whose New Jersey license had been administratively suspended.
Respondent was admitted to the New Jersey and New York bars in 1991. She is currently engaged in the practice of law, as inhouse counsel to KPMG, in New York City. She has no disciplinary history in New Jersey.
In 1991, respondent was admitted to the New York and New Jersey bars and began her legal career as an associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP (Cahill), in New York City. In 1993 or 1994, respondent left Cahill for an in-house counsel position at Scholastic, Inc., also in New York City (Scholastic). In 1997, respondent left Scholastic for her current position, in-house counsel to KPMG, again, in New York City. Respondent does not maintain a private practice.
While employed by Cahill, respondent was unaware of the required annual assessment to the New Jersey Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection (CPF). In 1993, respondent became ineligible to practice law for failure to pay the annual assessment to the CPF. Respondent claimed that, upon leaving Cahill for Scholastic, she received no information from either Cahill or the CPF regarding her annual assessment obligations. Respondent also asserted that, during her employment with Scholastic and KPMG, she received neither correspondence from the CPF nor information from her employers’ human resources departments about the annual assessment. She explained that, as a result, she remained unaware of her CPF obligation.
She was administratively suspended in 2005.
More than eight years later, on October 28, 2013, on behalf of her friend, who owned Esperanza Salon (Esperanza) in Summit, New Jersey, respondent drafted and sent a letter to Tara Galatt, the owner of a competitor salon "down the street" from Esperanza. The letter demanded that Galatt cease and desist from employing Stephanie Wright, a former employee of Esperanza, who, prior to her termination, had executed an employment contract that contained a one-year non-compete clause with an eight-mile radius. The letter stated that Galatt’s failure to end Wright’s employment "shall result in Esperanza Salon seeking a restraining order against Ms. Wright and your organization for breach of contract and seeking monetary damages."
Galatt's counsel discovered the problem
Upon learning that her license had been revoked, respondent contacted the owner of Esperanza and informed her that she could no longer assist her with her legal troubles. Respondent admitted that she had drafted and sent the two letters and had the two telephone conversations with Matthews, all on behalf of Esperanza. She filed no pleadings, made no court appearances, and charged no fee for her services.
In this case, the DEC found credible respondent’s testimony that she had no knowledge of the revocation of her license. Upon a review of the record, and in light of the panel’s opportunity to observe and question respondent during the hearing, we accept the DEC’s credibility determination on this issue. As set forth above, the DEC found multiple mitigating factors and determined that, under the reasoning of Torellas, a censure was the proper sanction to impose.
Although we accept the DEC’s credibility assessment, as well as its findings in mitigation, we are troubled that respondent made no effort, for over fourteen years, to ensure her compliance with CPF obligations, and no effort, for over twenty years, to verify her status as a New Jersey attorney. Nevertheless, respondent’s misconduct was limited to two letters and two telephone calls, and was motivated by her desire to help a friend. Moreover, respondent genuinely believed she was still a member of the New Jersey bar, as evidenced by her efforts to satisfy her CLE obligations. When respondent learned that her New Jersey law license had been administratively revoked, she immediately ceased her improper representation of Esperanz.
The court barred the attorney from future pro hac vice admission until further court order. (Mike Frisch)