By Gary Blankenship
Supreme Court orders suspending and disbarring lawyers will be posted more quickly on member pages of the Bar’s website, but the Board of Governors wants more time to mull a recommendation about posting disciplinary information online before final court action.
The board received two proposals from the Citizens Forum and the Communications Committee at its July 26 meeting. Since last year, the forum and committee have been looking at the Bar’s practices about making disciplinary information available online.
“They [forum members] were concerned that a member profile would reflect that a member is in good standing regardless of that member being involved in the grievance process at different levels,” said Michelle Suskauer, Communications Committee chair. “What we’re talking about is the grievance process after there is probable cause found by a grievance committee.”
She said forum members were concerned that the Bar’s website continues to show suspended and disbarred lawyers as members in good standing during the 30-day period they have to close down their practices after the court issues its final order.
The citizens’ panel recommended that when the Bar receives the court order, the member websites be changed to say “Member in Good Standing/Suspension or Disbarment Pending,” with a link to the public documents of the grievance.
The board unanimously approved that recommendation.
But board members had reservations about the second proposal, which Suskauer said would change Bar member profiles to “Member in Good Standing/Disciplinary Action Pending” after a referee makes a finding of guilt or a consent judgment has been signed. A link would also be provided to the public record documentation.
Public board member Anthony Holloway, chair of the Citizens Forum, said members were sensitive to concerns about posting information before final court action, but noted information about a grievance case is publicly available long before the court’s final action. He said the committee looked at posting information after a grievance committee finds probable cause, after the referee’s report, after the board reviews the case, and after the court acts.
“We don’t want to put your name out there until it reaches a certain point…. We know the harm that can be done. We want to wait until it goes through some type of due process,” he said. “We thought that was the best place, after the referee [issues findings].”
Board member Jay Cohen said he was concerned about potential damage to an attorney who is eventually acquitted of a grievance.
“This is prior to what I consider an exhaustion of appellate remedies and rights. Before you go and ruin a lawyer’s reputation and a lawyer’s career and a lawyer’s practice that affects the lawyer’s family, don’t you think we…ought to at least let that lawyer exhaust all of his remedies?” he asked.
President-elect Greg Coleman called for more study and said the Bar needs to find a balance. He suggested the Bar might place all publicly available grievance information online similar to the way court records are available at the courthouse.
“There is a balance here. I’m a proponent of 100 percent transparency,” he said. “People go to the website because they are thinking of hiring a lawyer. The fact of the matter is some of these lawyers have a very serious grievance pending against them, and the only way a person can find out is by calling The Florida Bar and asking the right question. . . . Nobody picks up the phone and calls anymore. Everyone goes to the website.”
By putting all public material online, Coleman said, “We’re providing a source of information without us discriminating as to what is or is not appropriate to give to the public and let them decide. I suggest we think about this a little bit further.”
Board member Michael Higer agreed with Coleman that the public could feel duped if a member is listed in good standing, while the Bar knows there are serious pending grievance issues. He noted that under Bar rules grievance proceedings and records are public when a grievance committee makes a probable cause finding.
“If it’s something other than minor misconduct, let’s say it’s something where this lawyer has repeatedly neglected his clients, which would have serious consequences. If you’re a consumer and you go to the website and you see ‘member in good standing,’ I think that’s misleading to the public,” he said.
Board member Andrew Sasso said he favored having all publicly available information provided in the link proposed by the Citizens Forum, not just the referee’s report.
At the end of the discussion, Suskauer said the committee would debate further and bring it back to the board at a future meeting.