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U.S. Third Circuit appeals court rejects New Jersey’s prohibition of lawyer’s website posts of excerpts of judicial opinions praising his legal work

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion which reversed a federal district court opinion upholding a New Jersey guideline prohibiting a lawyer from posting judicial opinion excerpts praising his legal work. The opinion is Andrew Dwyer et al v. Cynthia A. Cappell et al, No. 13-3235 (U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeal August 11, 2014) and the opinion is here:
According to the opinion, the lawyer had posted multiple excerpts of unpublished and public judicial opinions related to fee applications in employment discrimination cases brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination on his law firm website. One quote stated: ““The inescapable conclusion is . . . that plaintiffs achieved a spectacular result when the file was in the hands of Mr. Dwyer. . . . Mr. Dwyer was a fierce, if sometimes not disinterested advocate for his clients, and through an offensive and defensive motion practice and through other discovery methods molded the case to the point where it could be successfully resolved.”

A judge whose opinion quotes were posted on the lawyer’s website wrote to the lawyer in April 2008 and asked that the quotes be removed because he did not want his comments to be misconstrued as a blanket endorsement of the lawyer. The lawyer refused to remove any quotes and the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Committee on Attorney Advertising began examining the issue. The Committee and the New Jersey Bar Association ultimately produced Guideline 3, which was approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2012. Guideline 3 stated that an attorney “may not include, on a website or other advertisement, a quotation or excerpt from a court decision (oral or written) about the attorney’s abilities or legal services.” The guideline did permit a lawyer to post the entire text of a judicial opinion on the website or in an advertisement.

The U.S. District Court upheld Guideline 3 in June 2013; however, before the Guideline was to become effective, the lawyer filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that Guideline 3 violated his First Amendment rights to engage in truthful commercial speech. The district court found against the lawyer and found that the Guideline was a mere disclosure requirement and not a direct restriction on the lawyer’s speech. In making its ruling, the district court relied on the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel (1985), which stated that “an advertiser’s rights are adequately protected as long as disclosure requirements are reasonably related to the state’s interest in preventing deception of consumers.”

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the district court’s opinion. The opinion confirmed that disclosure requirements receive less scrutiny than actual restrictions on speech and that the New Jersey Guideline had characteristics of both a disclosure requirement and a restriction on speech. The opinion did not address whether the Guideline was a restriction or a prohibition; however, it stated that even under the less restrictive standard of review for disclosure requirements, the Guideline was constitutionally flawed.

The appellate opinion stated that “Guideline 3 does not require disclosing anything that could reasonably remedy conceivable consumer deception stemming from (the lawyer’s) advertisement.” The opinion also listed an example of a disclosure that would be sufficient: “This is an excerpt of a judicial opinion from a specific legal dispute. It is not an endorsement of my abilities.” Since Guideline 3 required a lawyer to post entire judicial opinions, it “effectively precludes advertising with accurate excerpts from judicial opinions on (the lawyer’s) website, it is unduly burdensome.”

“Guideline 3 as applied to (the lawyer’s) accurate quotes from judicial opinions thus violates his First Amendment right to advertise his commercial services. Requiring (the lawyer) to reprint in full on his firm’s website the opinions noted above is not reasonably related to preventing consumer deception. To the extent the excerpts of these opinions could possibly mislead the public, that potential deception is not clarified by Guideline 3. In any event, what is required by the Guideline overly burdens (the lawyer’s) right to advertise. We thus reverse the order of the District Court and remand the case.

Bottom line: This is a significant First Amendment decision related to lawyer advertising which found that New Jersey Guideline 3, which prohibited a lawyer from publishing excerpts of judicial opinions on his website, was an unconstitutional restriction on the lawyer’s commercial speech. The opinion did approve of the use of a disclosure/disclaimer to prevent any consumer confusion related to the opinion excerpts.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer: this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship 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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