Monday, February 5, 2024

A Disagreement With A Prospective Client

An Ad Hoc District of Columbia Hearing Committee recommended a 30-day suspension with fitness for violation of New York RPC 1.18(b)

Respondent...is charged with violating Rules 1.6(a) (disclosing client confidences and  secrets)1.18(b) (disclosing information learned in consultation with prospective client), and 8.4(d) (serious interference with or conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice) of the District of Columbia and/or New York Rules of Professional Conduct (the “Rules”), arising from a dispute with a former prospective client, Karim Annabi, who had consulted with Respondent by Zoom video conference and email about filing a civil lawsuit against New York University (“NYU”) in the New York federal courts. As a threshold issue, the Hearing Committee has determined that the New York Rules apply to this matter, but because the facts of this case are unusual, the Hearing Committee analyzes Respondent’s conduct here under both the D.C. and New York Rules.

The proposed representation involved a client who had a claim against the New York University Stern School of Business.

They met by zoom but failed to achieve an agreement; the potential client had paid a $200 consultation fee through PayPal

Mr. Annabi accused Respondent of engaging in a “deceptive . . . bait and switch” by offering a contingency agreement but then presenting him with the hybrid fee arrangement. DCX 14 at 1. A heated exchange of emails followed. DCX 14. Mr. Annabi asked Respondent to refund the consultation fee, but Respondent declined to do so, saying he had earned it. Id. at 2; see DCX 13. Mr. Annabi then threatened to seek a refund from PayPal or from the New York small claims court. DCX 14. Respondent suggested, “Let’s resolve our dispute like two noble Africans who believe in Allah/Hashem. We don’t need a Christian small claims court or PayPal for us to resolve this dispute between us.” Id. at 7. Respondent offered Mr. Annabi different financial terms, but Mr. Annabi rejected these as well. Id.; Tr. 100-02 (Annabi).

Ultimately Respondent and Mr. Annabi could not agree on the terms of the representation, and Mr. Annabi never signed the agreement.

Mr. Annabi acting pro se sued NYU in federal court and Respondent in state court for $1,000

Approximately two hours after receiving Mr. Annabi’s email notifying Respondent of the filed complaint, Respondent replied to Mr. Annabi. DCX 16 at 2. Mr. Annabi responded by email, referring to Respondent’s “garbage legal opinion” and advising him to “[f]ocus on [his] own defense.” Id. Respondent replied in an additional email, to which he added Mr. DiPalma – the attorney representing NYU – on the cc line. Id. at 1-2. Respondent labelled this response as a “Rule 404(b)  Letter – Other Wrongs.” Id. at 1.12 In that email, Respondent criticized Mr. Annabi’s lawsuit against NYU and described his own legal advice to Mr. Annabi. First, he stated: “Your lawsuit against NYU, referenced above, has fundamental flaws in law and fact – and I brought that to your attention when I conferenced with you via zoom.” Id. (emphasis added). Respondent stated further: “[A]s I stated during our consult, your legal assertions are mostly frivolous and not based on any established or existing law.” Id. at 2 (emphasis added). He also said: “There are many inconsistencies with your claim against NYU.” Id. at 1. Respondent indicated that he would tell the court in the NYU case about his views of the case and the advice he had given Mr. Annabi, stating: “I will be forced to bring this issue to the federal judge handling this case as it speaks to your credibility in this lawsuit.” Id.

Mr. Annabi did not authorize Respondent to make these disclosures.

Then

Respondent filed a request to be added as an “Interested Party” in the NYU case. DCX 21. In his request, Respondent told the court that Mr. Annabi was “unsatisfied with [Respondent’s] legal advise [sic] – that essentially his legal assertions of ‘deceptive advertising etc’ [sic] are unfounded in law and frivolous.” Id. at 2. He claimed that the NYU lawsuit and his “dispute with Mr. Annabi, share the same nexus of facts and call to question the frivolous nature of Mr. Annabi’s lawsuit and current legal assertions.” Id. at 3 (emphasis in original). Respondent also endorsed NYU’s motion to dismiss filed against Mr. Annabi, describing it as “well-written,” and stating that it “echoes and sums up my concerns
and the warnings I shared with Mr. Annabi during our consultation.” Id. In the last two substantive paragraphs of this document, Respondent advised the court to question “Mr. Annabi’s legal residency,” noting that Mr. Annabi had “filed a lawsuit against me in Jamaica, Queens, New York and yet he is using a United Kingdom address in this aforementioned matter – as an assertion of diversity citizenship.” Id. at 4. Respondent was neither a party nor a representative of a party in the case.

There ensued a series of heated emails between Respondent and Mr. Annabi

On November 19, 2022, Respondent sent Mr. Annabi an email, copying Mr. DiPalma and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, informing Mr. Annabi that because of Mr. Annabi’s “threats and insults,” he intended to file a motion with Judge Liman “to defend [himself]” and was attaching a “Rule 11.c Notice” before doing so.

Respondent continued to communicate with the New York federal court

Respondent concedes that he violated Judge Liman’s August 3, 2022, order that he not file any documents in the federal case. R. Post-Hearing Br. at 24; Tr. 428 (Respondent). He asserts that his filing was “triggered by” Mr. Annabi seeking to docket what he considered to be “a frivolous sanctions motion against him.”

In the bar hearing

Throughout the hearing and after, Respondent asserted that Disciplinary Counsel and the Chair of the Hearing Committee were “rude” or unfair to him.

And

Throughout the hearing and after, Respondent asserted that Disciplinary Counsel, the Chair of the Hearing Committee, and the disciplinary system are racist.

After finding Rule violations, the committee opined

Respondent’s ultimate position is that he did nothing wrong and that any flaw in his conduct should be excused because of Mr. Annabi’s conduct. The Hearing Committee finds that Respondent’s lack of understanding of his obligations as a lawyer, his quickness to take offense when challenged, and his mistaken beliefs about his abilities are likely to lead Respondent to engage in similar misconduct in the future, with the strong potential to harm clients. Taken together, these considerations establish by clear and convincing evidence a serious doubt about Respondent’s continuing ability to practice law in compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct.

(Mike Frisch)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legal_profession/2024/02/an-ad-hoc-district-of-columbia-hearing-committee-respondent-dr-kissinger-sibanda-is-charged-with-violating-rules-16a.html

Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink

Comments

Post a comment