Friday, May 17, 2019
The Vermont Supreme Court held that a dissatisfied complainant lacks standing to appeal a dismissed bar complaint
Petitioner filed a petition for extraordinary relief, asking this Court to order Bar Counsel to refer for investigation a complaint he made against an attorney. Bar Counsel moves to dismiss the petition. We grant his request. We agree with “every jurisdiction that has ever confronted” this issue and conclude that petitioner fails to “allege an injury sufficient to confer standing.” Boyce v. N.C. State Bar, 814 S.E.2d 127, 134 (N.C. Ct. App. 2018) (recognizing that many individuals have “taken issue with a state bar’s failure to act on a disciplinary grievance and then sought relief from the courts,” and “every jurisdiction that has ever confronted [this issue] has concluded that the complainant has not alleged an injury sufficient to confer standing” (citing cases))
Before turning to the merits, we address petitioner’s request, made almost two months after filing his petition, to add his client as a “co-petitioner” because she was “subjected to the conduct complained of.” We deny his request. The subject of this petition for extraordinary relief is the complaint that petitioner filed with the Professional Responsibility Program; his client filed no such complaint. Even if we were to grant petitioner’s request to add a co-petitioner, we would reach the same result. Neither petitioner nor his client has standing to pursue this case.
The complaint's disposition
Petitioner here filed a complaint with the Professional Responsibility Program in August 2018. Bar Counsel reviewed the complaint and dismissed it, explaining to petitioner the reasons for his decision. Upon petitioner’s request, the Chair of the Professional Responsibility Board reviewed the matter and upheld Bar Counsel’s decision. Petitioner then tried to appeal the Chair’s decision to this Court. We dismissed the case, finding that petitioner had no right to appeal.
And no right to "extraordinary relief."
The court surveyed other jurisdictions
Like the states above, our attorney-discipline system serves “to protect the public from persons unfit to serve as attorneys and to maintain public confidence in the bar, as well as to deter other attorneys from engaging in misconduct.” Robinson, 2019 VT 8, ¶ 73 (quotation omitted). To this end, the rules allow for the imposition of various sanctions against attorneys for misconduct. See A.O. 9, Rule 8 (identifying possible sanctions). The attorney-discipline process does not provide “a means of redress for one claiming to have been personally wronged by an attorney.” Cotton v. Steele, 587 N.W.2d 693, 699 (Neb. 1999). Petitioner cannot show any “threat of actual injury to a protected legal interest” from Bar Counsel’s dismissal of his ethics complaint, Turner, 2017 VT 2, ¶ 11, because the only individual “who stands to suffer direct injury in a disciplinary proceeding is the lawyer involved,” Lath, 154 A.3d at 1245. To conclude otherwise would “shift the focus of the disciplinary process from the public interest” to a grievant’s “private interests,” thereby contravening “the essential purpose of the attorney discipline system—to protect the public.” Lath, 154 A.3d at 1245.