Monday, February 26, 2018

New Jersey Reprimands Former PD For Sex With Vulnerable Assigned Client

The New Jersey Supreme Court has reprimanded a former public defender for sex with his client.

The Disciplinary Review Board report describes the misconduct

In October 2015, in the normal course of his employment at the Office of the Public Defender (OPD), respondent was appointed to defend L.S. against allegations that she had abused her minor son. The Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) alleged that L.S., an alcoholic, had gotten drunk and passed out while caring for him. Due to L.S.’s struggles with alcoholism, her son was placed in the custody of his maternal grandmother. The DCPP sought to curtail L.S.’s parenting time and implement supervised visitation.

On October 30, 2015, after representing L.S. at an Order to Show Cause in family court, represent offered to drive her home; the weather was inclement due to Hurricane Patricia. L.S. declined respondent’s offer, but, shortly thereafter, she and respondent began texting each other, including messages that were sexual in nature. On the day before Thanksgiving, respondent and L.S. consummated a sexual relationship,

Respondent admits that, after their first sexual encounter, he began to question L.S.’s mental state, due to her texting and calling him "at all hours of the night and morning hours after Thanksgiving." Despite commencing the sexual relationship with L.S., and having concerns regarding her mental health, respondent failed to withdraw as her assigned counsel, and continued representing her in connection with the family court proceedings. He also continued the sexual relationship with her.

In January 2016, L.S. disclosed her sexual relationship with respondent to a friend, who reported the inappropriate relationship to the OPD. The OPD investigated the matter, and, during an interview, L.S. "alleged that respondent had brought a bottle of vodka to her home upon their first meeting, after which they got drunk and had sex." L.S. also stated that "she was afraid of respondent, did not want to lose custody of her son, and wanted another attorney to represent her." As a result of its investigation, the OPD terminated respondent’s employment, effective February 3, 2016, assigned a new attorney to represent L.S., and reported respondent’s misconduct to the OAE.

Respondent admitted to the OAE his inappropriate sexual relationship with L.S., but denied providing her with alcohol or coercing her in any manner. Respondent maintained that "L.S. could have terminated their personal relationship at any time without affecting his representation as he always fought for her best interest." The stipulation further states, however, that, due to her status as an assigned client and her alcoholism, L.S. "lacked the capacity to freely consent to a sexual relationship with respondent."

Respondent stipulated that he violated (i) RPC 1.7(a)(2) by representing L.S. because there was a significant risk that the representation would be materially limited by the personal interest of the lawyer; and (2) RPC 8.4(d) by engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

A very lenient sanction for this misconduct. (Mike Frisch)

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