Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court Order approving the Report of Referee and permanently disbarring a Florida lawyer for soliciting over the internet and representing clients in states in which she was not admitted, lack of diligence and communication, making false statements, and failing to respond to the allegations. The case is: The Florida Bar v. Alma C. Defillo, Case No. SC15-593 (August 28, 2015). The Order is here: https://www.floridabar.org/DIVADM/ME/MPDisAct.nsf/DISACTVIEW/4C69AF1FB7B03A1285257EB4000922AC/$FILE/_27.PDF.
According to the Report of Referee, which is attached, The Florida Bar filed a 6 count Complaint against the lawyer and a Request for Admissions on March 31, 2015. The lawyer failed to respond and the referee entered a default and “the matters pled in the Bar’s Complaint became the substantive facts in this case by operation of law.”
“(R)espondent, despite being only a member of The Florida Bar, also maintained offices in North and South Carolina given her immigration practice. As a result of respondent’s significant misconduct in South Carolina (detailed below), the South Carolina Supreme Court permanently debarred respondent in that state. In order to protect the interests of respondent’s South Carolina clients, the South Carolina Supreme Court appointed a Receiver. The Florida Bar was able to track down some of respondent’s files and has been cooperating with the Receiver to provide the files of respondent’s South Carolina clients that are in the Bar’s possession.”
The Report states that the lawyer represented various clients who were residents of North Carolina and South Carolina in immigration/INS matters. The clients complained that the lawyer failed to communicate with them, lacked diligence, and did not perform any services on their behalf. In addition, according to the Report:
On November 1, 2013, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (“ODC”) of the Supreme Court of South Carolina charged respondent with violations of their Rules.
Although respondent is not admitted in South Carolina, she maintained a law office, advertised, and offered legal services there.
The ODC charged respondent with writing to state judicial officers regarding her South Carolina clients’ criminal cases in violation of Rules 7.1 and 7.5(a)&(d) South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct (“SCRPC”) and Rule 407 South Carolina Appellate Court Rules (“CSACR”).
Respondent’s letterhead and advertisements also failed to clarify that she was not admitted in South Carolina in violation of Rules 5.5(b)(2), 7.1, and 7.5(a)&(b) SCRPC.
Similarly respondent’s website, available to residents of South Carolina and referencing her office in Greenville, contained misrepresentations and omitted facts necessary to make the contents considered as a whole not materially misleading in violation of Rule 7.1(a) SCRPC by failing to state that she was not admitted in South Carolina.
Additionally, respondent’s website advertised her experience in both criminal and family matters and offered to “analyze the facts of [her prospective client’s] cases by applying current … State Laws” in violation of Rules 5.5(b)(2) and 7.1(a) SCRPC.
Respondent’s website misleadingly referred to “lawyers” and “attorneys” when in fact, respondent was a sole practitioner in violation of Rules 7.1(a) and 7.5(d) SCRPC.
Respondent’s website compared her services to other lawyers in a way that could not be factually substantiated in violation of Rule 7.1(c) SCRPC.
Respondent’s website used “specialist” and “expert” in violation of Rule 7.4(b) SCRPC despite not being certified by the Supreme Court of South Carolina.
Respondent’s business cards and other print advertisements, regarding her Greenville office, failed to disclose that respondent was not admitted in South Carolina in violation of Rules 5.5(b)(2) and 7.1(a) SCRPC.
Respondent’s radio advertisements, disseminated in South Carolina, failed to disclose that respondent was not admitted in South Carolina in violation of Rules 5.5(b)(2) and 7.1(a) SCRPC.
Respondent, despite initially cooperating with the investigation in South Carolina, then failed to respond in violation of Rule 8.1(b) SCRPC.
Based on respondent’s failure to respond, the ODC noticed respondent for an interview. Respondent failed to appear in violation of 8.1(b) SCRPC.
In respondent’s initial response to ODC, she misrepresented that her practice was limited to immigration law and that she had not communicated otherwise in any way in violation of Rule 7(a) Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement (“RLDE”).
By virtue of the foregoing respondent also violated Rules 7(a)(1)&(3) RLDE and Rules 407 & 413 SCACR by violating or attempting to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct and failing to respond to a lawful demand from a disciplinary authority.
On July 29, 2014, based on the charges filed by ODC, the Supreme Court of South Carolina entered its Order permanently debarring respondent from seeking any form of admission to practice in South Carolina and from advertising or soliciting business in South Carolina without first seeking leave of that Court. The Court also ordered that respondent complete the South Carolina Bar’s Legal Ethics and Practice Program Ethics School and Advertising Workshop before asking leave of the Court to practice or advertise.
The Report further states: “Respondent is currently serving a one-year suspension in SC14-1419, TFB File Nos. 2012-00,321(4B) and 2013-00,832(4B). Additionally, Respondent was recently held in contempt for her failure to respond to the two initial grievances herein and was therefore also suspended indefinitely in SC15-293, TFB File No. 2015-00,468(4B).”
After considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances, case law, and the Florida Standards for Lawyer Sanctions, the referee recommended permanent disbarment and payment of the Bar’s costs. The lawyer did not request review of the recommendation and the Supreme Court adopted the Report of Referee and permanently disbarred the lawyer. The Supreme Court approved the Report of Referee and permanently disbarred the lawyer.
The lawyer was also permanently barred from practicing law in South Carolina in 2014 and my blog on that case here: https://jcorsmeier.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/south-carolina-supreme-court-prohibits-another-florida-lawyer-from-practicing-law-who-solicited-over-the-internet-made-misrepresentations-and-represented-clients/
Bottom line: This lawyer was advertising for clients in immigration matters on the internet and made misrepresentations regarding the scope and location of her practice. The lawyer also was negligent, failed to communicate with clients, and failed to perform services. This shows how the internet can be misused by a lawyer to obtain clients in other states in which the lawyer is not admitted to practice.
Let’s be careful out there!
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