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PROFESSIONAL ETHICS OF THE FLORIDA BAR

PROFESSIONAL ETHICS OF THE FLORIDA BAR

OPINION 87-11
(April 15, 1988)
Under no circumstances should an attorney permit a nonlawyer employee to sign the attorney's name, together with the nonlawyer's initials, to notices of hearing and other pleadings.

RPC: 4-3.4(c), 4-5.3(b), 4-5.5, 4-5.5(b)
Case: Hankin v. Blissett , 475 So.2d 1303 (Fla. 3d DCA 1985)
Misc.: Fla.R.Jud.Adm. 2.060(d)

The inquiring attorney requests an opinion regarding the ethical permissibility of the following conduct:

1. An attorney who is on vacation authorizes his secretary, via a telephone call, to sign the attorney's name, together with the secretary's initials, to discovery and notices of hearing.

2. An attorney with a large case load authorizes his secretary or paralegal office manager to sign notices of hearings as a convenience.

Under the Rules of Professional Conduct (Chapter 4, Rules Regulating The Florida Bar), an attorney may delegate functions to a nonlawyer employee so long as the attorney supervises and retains responsibility for the work. Rule 4-5.5, Comment. The delegating attorney has a duty to make reasonable efforts to ensure that the nonlawyer employee's conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the attorney. Rule 4-5.3(b). One of the attorney's professional obligations is to refrain from knowingly disobeying the rules of a tribunal. Rule 4-3.4(c).

Thus, an attorney practicing in Florida courts is obligated to comply personally with the Rules of Judicial Administration and to ensure that the conduct of his nonlawyer employees is compatible with this obligation. In this respect, Rule 2.060(d) of the Rules of Judicial Administration provides in pertinent part:

Every pleading and other paper of a party represented by an attorney shall be signed by at least one attorney of record in his individual name whose address and telephone number, including area code, shall be stated, and who shall be duly licensed to practice law in Florida or who shall have received permission to appear in the particular case as provided in subsection (b) .... If a pleading is not signed or is signed with intent to defeat the purpose of this rule, it may be stricken and the action may proceed as though the pleading or other paper had not been served.

In view of the rules referred to above, the Committee concludes that an attorney should not under any circumstances permit nonlawyer employees to sign notices of hearing.

The Committee is aware of Hankin v. Blissett , 475 So.2d 1303 (Fla. 3d DCA 1985), which held that a notice of appeal on which an attorney's secretary signed the attorney's name met the requirements of Rule 2.060(d) because "a pleading signed in the name of the attorney by the attorney's authorized agent is, in effect, a pleading signed by the attorney." Hankin addressed only the legal sufficiency of pleadings signed by nonlawyers for lawyers. The ruling does not relieve attorneys of their ethical obligation to comply with the letter of Rule 2.060(d). Failure to comply with the letter of the rule carries danger of aiding the unlicensed practice of law in violation of Rule 4-5.5(b).



[Revised: 01-28-2014]