Thursday, February 27, 2020
An attorney whose practice involves the rights of animals was given a stayed suspension by a Colorado Hearing Board for, among other things, posts on social media relating to her representation of owners of pits bulls named Bandit and Diamond.
As a newly minted lawyer, Respondent clerked for a judge in Colorado’s Eighth Judicial District and then worked for a series of insurance defense firms. During that period she read an article about animal law, which intrigued her. As she recounted, "I’ve always loved animals. When I was a kid, my pets were my friends . . . I was kind of lonely, but they were always there." She set a goal of becoming an animal law practitioner.
The People claim that Respondent violated this rule repeatedly in both Bandit’s and Diamond’s cases when she posted client information on social media. Specifically, the People contend that in Bandit’s case Respondent impermissibly disclosed S.T.’s status as an Armenian immigrant who speaks little English; the details and funding of Bandit’s case; notice of her termination from Bandit’s case; and her post-termination ruminations about Bandit’s case and her former clients. The People also contend that Respondent violated this rule in the Diamond representation by posting information about B.D.’s free consult and his decision to hire her; the full names of both clients; M.H.’s diagnoses, his status with the Social Security Administration, his desire to have Diamond licensed as a service animal, and the existence and timing of his appointments with mental health providers; the details and funding of Diamond’s case; and her post-termination ruminations about Diamond’s case and her former clients.
The panel disagreed and cited provisions in the retainer agreements
Using Respondent’s broader definition of the term "public record" as it appears in her engagement agreement, we examine that public record. It reveals that in both cases, Respondent carefully timed most of her social media posts to keep one step behind development of the public record...
We also find that Respondent’s disclosures during the cases, including the sums raised and the funds needed to continue the representations, were in furtherance of her crowdfunding efforts and impliedly authorized by her clients to accomplish their goals. She apprised her clients in her engagement agreement and in follow-up discussions that she would be posting to social media about their need for funding, just as they had agreed that she would do.
But some posts went too far
Equally serious are Respondent’s post-termination disclosures about her clients. In Bandit’s matter, Respondent posted on April 24 that she had just been terminated. She made public her attorney-client communications, including O.J.’s instructions to her to cease work on the matter, her discussions with Bandit’s family about the termination, and the terms of their engagement agreement. Even more grievous, she speculated darkly about their motives: "I think they are trying to get the money that was paid for my fees through the fundraiser." In responding to comments to her post, she seemed compelled to justify her inactivity on the case and the fees that she had billed. On April 26 she posted again. She updated her followers that the clients had expressed concern about costs and that her work had been funded by donations. And she accused Bandit’s family of "bamboozl[ing]" her and "screw[ing her] out of $2500." Much later, on September 8, she posted about the status of the case, reminding her followers that she had been fired and TALC had been hired in April.
Respondent made similar postings about Diamond’s case. On May 19, she announced that she had withdrawn from the representation and was no longer at liberty to disclose details about the case. But then she added, "I will say that I’m owed almost $3500 for all my work." And she implied that Diamond’s family had begged her to take the case and then failed to pay her. About a week later, she commented on B.D.’s GoFundMe page, contesting B.D.’s assertions that her "math didn’t add up." She also accused B.D. of withholding from her funds that she had earned, revealed that he had failed to appear in court as expected, and blamed him for letting Diamond run away again.
These five posts, all made after Respondent’s attorney-client relationships ended, disclosed information that she had learned about or from her clients in the course of representing them.
Respondent violated Rule 4.4(a) but not 3.6.
Lawyers are no less bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct when using social media platforms than they are while engaging in personal interactions. In the cases underlying this disciplinary matter, Respondent overstepped those ethical bounds when she posted to social media, abandoning her duties to her clients and to the profession. But because we believe Respondent can serve as an effective lawyer with the proper guidance and restrictions, we impose probationary conditions on a fully stayed suspension of six months.