Friday, February 3, 2023

Sodom And Steam

An Illinois Hearing Board proposes a six-month suspension for client-related and other misconduct

Respondent failed to respond to a motion for summary judgment, did not communicate with his clients about the motion, and did not inform them that a judgment was entered against them. In another matter, Respondent received and held 13 garnishment checks owed to a client but did not deposit them in a client trust account. He did not timely respond to his client’s inquiries about the checks, provide an accounting, or promptly deliver the garnishment funds owed to the client. While representing a client in a domestic relations matter, Respondent made gratuitous comments of a sexual nature to opposing counsel and a paralegal.

The Hearing Panel found that Respondent failed to act with reasonable diligence and promptness; failed to promptly inform the client of a decision or circumstance that required the client’s informed consent; failed to reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives were to be accomplished; failed to keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter; failed to promptly comply with reasonable requests for information; failed to hold property of clients or third persons separate from the lawyer’s own property; failed to promptly notify the client of his receipt of funds in which the client had an interest, deliver funds the client was entitled to receive, and provide a requested accounting; and, in representing a client, used means that had no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person. The Hearing Panel recommended that Respondent be suspended for six months and until he makes restitution or provides proof of a settlement with his former clients and his consistent compliance with such settlement.

Gratuitous comments

In 2021, Respondent and attorney Kristen Fischer represented opposing parties in a domestic relations matter. Fischer’s law office and the office of Rincker Law, where Respondent was employed, were on the same floor of an office building in Champaign. Fischer shared office space with another attorney, Sami Anderson. Stephanie Schnepper worked as a paralegal for both Fischer and Anderson. (Tr. 23, 24).

Schnepper testified that, in August 2021, Respondent entered the Fischer/Anderson office space. Schnepper greeted him and asked, “How are you today?” Respondent replied that “he was great, he had just been naked in his office.” After he said this, Respondent went into Anderson’s office. (Tr. 26). Anderson heard Schnepper’s exchange with Respondent and heard him say “he had been naked on his couch in his office.” (Tr. 59). Both Schnepper and Anderson denied that they misheard Respondent. (Tr. 62). Respondent denied saying he had been naked on his couch in his office and testified that he did not have a couch in his office. (Tr. 78).

According to Anderson, the manner in which Respondent speaks “can come off as crude,” so she did not have a reaction to his comment. (Tr. 59). Anderson acknowledged that she and Respondent had used profanities in conversation in the past and that Respondent did not have a couch in his office. (Tr. 64).

The other statements at issue were made on October 4, 2021. That morning, Fischer and Respondent met in the Rincker Law office to attempt to reach a settlement in a domestic relations matter in which they represented opposing parties. (Tr. 38-40). During this meeting, while discussing that the matter had been difficult and frustrating, Respondent said he thought the solution with respect to his client was to “butt f**k her with sand put on it.” (Tr. 41). Later that day in Fischer’s office, Respondent repeated this statement to Fischer and Schnepper, saying his client “needed to be butt f***ed and for some added torture some sand put on it.” (Tr. 27, 42).

Schnepper testified she was disgusted and taken aback by Respondent’s statement. She felt his language was violent. (Tr. 28). In Fischer’s view, Respondent’s statements negatively impacted the integrity of the settlement process by putting everyone in a difficult position. She felt it was disrespectful for Respondent to speak about his client that way. (Tr. 44).

According to Respondent, his actual words were that “[the client] should be involuntarily sodomized, and just for her I would throw in some sand.” (Ans. at par. 51). Fischer denied that Respondent used the word “sodomized.” (Tr. 49). Respondent testified that his client was the most difficult client he ever had, and he made the statements about her to “blow off steam.” (Tr. 80).

Also on October 4, 2021, while in Fischer’s office discussing the domestic relations matter, Respondent brought up a proposal that Fischer had previously rejected. When Fischer told Respondent she did not want to revisit that issue, Respondent replied, “Would you just let me finish, I promise I won’t get any in your hair.” Fischer, Schnepper, and Anderson heard Respondent make that statement. (Tr. 28-29, 45-46, 60). According to Respondent, he said, “I will get out of your hair.” (Tr. 78-79). Fischer, Schnepper, and Anderson denied that Respondent said, “I will get out of your hair.” (Tr. 33-34, 52, 64).

Schnepper was mortified by Respondent’s remark and went to speak to Respondent’s employer, Cari Rincker, but Rincker was not in her office. (Tr. 29). Schnepper was so upset by Respondent’s disrespect toward Fischer that she cried. (Tr.30).

Fischer was stunned by Respondent’s remark but did not react because she wanted to focus on her client. (Tr. 46). She testified that Respondent’s behavior caused a strain on the working relationship between her office and the Rincker Law office. (Tr. 47). Respondent’s employment at Rincker Law was terminated as a result of his statements to Fischer and Schnepper. (Tr. 76-77).

Proposed sanction

Having carefully considered the proven misconduct, relevant circumstances, applicable case law, and purposes of the disciplinary process, we recommend that Respondent be suspended for six months and until he has made restitution to the Prestons or provides proof that he has entered into and is consistently complying with a settlement agreement with them. This recommendation accounts for Respondent’s neglect of the Preston and Unique Homes matters as well as his vulgar remarks to Fischer and Schnepper. We determine that this sanction is necessary to make the Prestons whole, protect the public and the profession, and impress upon Respondent and other attorneys the importance of protecting client interests and conducting oneself in a respectful and ethical manner.

(Mike Frisch)

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