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Illinois Hearing Board recommends 3 year suspension for lawyer who allegedly made false statements in blog posts on probate matters

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Illinois Hearing Board Report and Recommendation which recommended a 3 year suspension for a lawyer who allegedly made false statements on a blog concerning the integrity of the judges, knowing they were false or with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity, and engaged in dishonest conduct and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. The disciplinary opinion is In re JoAnne Marie Denison, Commission No. 2013PR00001 (11/21/14). The opinion here:

The lawyer was licensed to practice law in Illinois 1986 and has no prior discipline. According to the Report, a one count Complaint was filed against the lawyer on January 8, 2013 charging her with misconduct based on statements she made on a blog regarding judges, lawyers and other persons involved in an adult guardianship proceeding (Sykes). Beginning in November 2011, the lawyer wrote and was responsible for an Internet blog (or blogs).

Some of the lawyer’s blogs alleged that there was corruption in the probate court in general and in the Sykes case in particular. The lawyer testified she produced the blog as a private person and not as a lawyer although her knowledge and skill as an attorney was required to post and author the blogs. She stated that she published the blog primarily from a legal standpoint and her blog had an audience of about 40,000 at the time of the hearing.

The Report further states: “The blog includes allegations of wrongdoing by specific individuals involved in the Sykes case. These allegations are summarized in a “Table of Torts.” While those persons are referenced by initials, the Table identifies the persons to whom the initials refer. (The lawyer) prepared the Table of Torts. Because (the lawyer) periodically added material to the Table of Torts, more than one version is in evidence. (The lawyer) acknowledged the exhibits fairly represent snapshots of the Table of Torts.” (citations omitted).

“On the blog, (the lawyer) described the Table of Torts as ‘TEN PAGES of questionable behavior, corruption, misfeasance, malfeasance, perpetration of misdemeanors and felonies,’ occurring in the Sykes case, and as a ‘Summary of the Case! – 90%+ of the wrongful conduct all in one convenient place.’” (citations omitted). “While (the lawyer) acted with reckless disregard for the truth of her accusations, based on our impressions of (the lawyer), we do not believe she was acting out of a deliberate purpose of harming the judges and attorneys involved. (The lawyer) genuinely, though unreasonably, believed something was wrong with the proceedings in the Sykes case. (The lawyer) knew Mary and Gloria before the guardianship.”

“While (the lawyer) used decidedly misguided means, we believe she was acting out of a sincere desire to help Mary. We were also convinced (the lawyer) truly believes there are abuses in the probate system and the system needs to be changed, to protect persons who are the subject of adult guardianship proceedings. From our perspective, it appears (the lawyer) has genuine concern for senior citizens and perceives the senior population as vulnerable, especially to financial exploitation. This concern, as a general matter, is a legitimate one, even though (the lawyer) had no reasonable basis for believing the judges or attorneys in Mary’s case were corrupt. We do not believe (the lawyer) acted with a self-serving motive. The evidence did not support a theory that (the lawyer) was reaping a significant financial benefit from her activities including operation of the blog.”

The (Bar) Administrator argued for disbarment and the lawyer argued that no discipline should be imposed. The Report found that the lawyer made had false statements concerning the integrity of the judges, knowing they were false or with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity, and engaged in dishonest conduct and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. The Report also found that there was no clear and convincing evidence that the lawyer presented or threatened to present criminal charges, in order to obtain an advantage in a civil matter.

According to the Report, “(the lawyer) engaged in serious misconduct. On an internet blog which she published, (the lawyer) made numerous posts, over time, in which she impugned the integrity of judges and other attorneys, falsely and without any reasonable basis for believing her statements were true. Such misconduct is quite serious, given the potential it carries to damage the public’s perception of the court system.” After considering mitigation and aggravation as well as prior Illinois Supreme Court cases, the Report recommended a 3 year suspension which will require the lawyer to apply to the Court for reinstatement.

Bottom line: This case involves important issues related to the interplay between the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and alleged lawyer misconduct/discipline. The lawyer allegedly engaged in misconduct in blog posts alleging corruption in the Illinois court system. Although the Report found that the lawyer was “acting out of a sincere desire to help (Sykes)”, she did not act with a “a self-serving motive”, and she did not receive a “a significant financial benefit”, the Board recommended a very significant 3 year suspension requiring reinstatement. It will be interesting to see what the Illinois Supreme Court decides…stay tuned.

Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
[email protected]

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