Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent informal admonishment of a Washington D.C. lawyer who responded to a client’s negative and critical comments and revealed confidential and specific information about her case, her emotional state, and confidential details about the attorney-client relationship. The disciplinary case is In re John P. Mahoney, Bar Docket No. 2015-D141 and the ODC’s informal admonition letter is here: https://www.dcbar.org/discipline/informal_admonition/20150609Mahoney.pdf.
The D.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) sent the lawyer a letter dated June 9, 2016 stating that the his internet response to a client’s complaint violated D.C. Bar Rule 1.6 since it revealed attorney/client confidential information and there was no exception to the rule allowing the lawyer to reveal the confidences. Further, the lawyer violated D.C. Bar Rule 8.4(c) “when (he) posted a further response on the website concerning Disciplinary Counsel’s investigation of the client’s allegations and Disciplinary Counsel’s statements.” According to the letter, the lawyer’s claim that he had been “cleared” of the charges in the complaint “was, at best, misleading…”.
The ODC letter states:
The client’s principal complaint was that your fees were excessive. She claimed that she had prepared most of the documents you submitted on her behalf and you billed her an inordinate number of hours to proof or edit the documents, but did not advise her that a concise account of the discrimination she suffered would suffice. She further alleged that the expenses you charged were unwarranted and unnecessary. The client also was critical of your representation of her during the mediation, including the settlement demand that you made on her behalf. She claimed that you were verbally abusive, leading to her terminating the relationship.
After the attorney-client relationship ended, the client posted comments about you on a website in which she was highly critical of you and the representation you provided. You responded to her comments and, in doing so, revealed specific information about her case, her emotional state, and what transpired during your attorney-client relationship – although you did not identify the client by name.
The letter found that there was no misconduct found in the lawyer’s underlying representation of the client. Under the D.C. Bar rules, since the lawyer did not submit a written request for a hearing within 14 days of the ODC letter, the informal admonition constitutes final discipline. The lawyer must also complete three hours of CLE related to a lawyer’s confidentiality obligations.
Bottom line: This lawyer responded to what he believed were false allegations by a client on a public website and provided attorney/client confidential information in defending himself. Unfortunately, responding to internet allegations is not one of the exceptions to the Bar confidentiality rules (Rule 4-1.6 in Florida) which permits a lawyer to reveal client confidences.
As I have stated in my earlier blogs on this topic, in our digital/instant communication brave new world, it is much too easy to react quickly and badly to a perceived slight, such as a bad client internet review. Before responding to any internet postings, a lawyer must seriously consider the ethical implications and not act impulsively and reveal confidential information, which may result in a Bar investigation and potential sanctions.
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.
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Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
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Clearwater, Florida 33759
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