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December 15, 2013
Lawyer suspended for unprofessional conduct

‘We do not tolerate unprofessional and discourteous behavior’

Saying the unprofessional conduct was “an embarrassment to all members of The Florida Bar,” the Florida Supreme Court suspended a lawyer for two years and ordered the attorney to appear before the court itself to be publically reprimanded.

In a single disciplinary case, the court said the lawyer disrupted several court hearings by yelling at judges and exhibiting disrespectful conduct, falsely accused a senior judge of criminal conduct to berate him into withdrawing his request for a fee, and engaged in “unceasing efforts to denigrate and humiliate” opposing counsel.

“This profession cannot tolerate such behavior,” the unanimous court said, departing from the referees’ recommendation of a 91-day suspension followed by 19 months of probation. The Bar had sought a one-year suspension.

In considering the case, the court said it is “crucial” to recognize that the court and the Bar have been advocating professionalism and civility for more than 20 years.

The justices said the Supreme Court and the Bar share the “overarching objective of increasing the professionalism aspirations of all lawyers in Florida and ensuring that the practice of law remains a high calling with lawyers invested in not only the service of individual clients but also service to the public good as well.”

The court noted it is “profoundly concerned” with the lack of civility and professionalism demonstrated by some Bar members and has repeatedly ruled that unprofessional behavior is unacceptable.

In this case, the court said despite repeated warnings from judges, the lawyer continued to engage in rude and antagonistic behavior.

“He disrupted court proceedings to such an extent that it was impossible for [the judges] to conduct hearings,” the court said. “The transcripts of those hearings are clear on these points.”

The lawyer, however, argued that his behavior was never disrespectful to the judges. He contended that while his conduct might have been “annoying” or “irritating” to the judges, it was acceptable.

The court disagreed.

“The Oath of Admission to The Florida Bar requires attorneys to ‘maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers,’” the court said. “Further, as provided in the Guidelines for Professional Conduct, a lawyer ‘always should interact with parties, counsel, witnesses, jurors or prospective jurors, court personnel, and judges with courtesy and civility, and should avoid undignified or discourteous conduct that is degrading to the court or the proceedings.’”

The court said the lawyer falsely accused a senior judge of criminal conduct, alleging the judge had a “cozy, conspiratorial” relationship with the opposing party and/or opposing counsel. The court said the lawyer did not want to pay the senior judge’s fee, and instead of seeking appropriate judicial relief, wrote the letter to the senior judge threatening him with litigation, accusing him of being in a conspiratorial relationship, and asserting that the judge engaged in conduct unbecoming a judge.

The court also said the lawyer’s “relentless unethical and unprofessional behavior” toward opposing counsel violated Bar rules that prohibits an attorney from engaging in conduct in connection with the practice of law that is prejudicial to the administration of justice, including to knowingly, or through callous indifference, disparage or humiliate other lawyers on any basis.

“Before this court, just as he did before the referee, [the lawyer] makes the untenable argument that [opposing counsel] deserved the harsh treatment because [opposing counsel’s] client and legal tactics caused negative impacts on [the lawyer’s] client,” the court said. “Based upon that misguided rationale, [the lawyer] blames [opposing counsel] for [his] behavior, claiming that [opposing counsel] caused him to write the vitriolic e-mails and letters, and to be antagonistic toward the judges.

“We find that [the lawyer’s] conduct toward [opposing counsel] was completely unprofessional, disrespectful, and void of civility.”

The court held the lawyer’s conduct fell “far short” of the behavior set forth in the Guidelines for Professional Conduct, which provide:

“A lawyer should be courteous and civil in all professional dealings with other persons. Lawyers should act in a civil manner regardless of the ill feelings that their clients may have toward others. Lawyers can disagree without being disagreeable. Effective and zealous representation does not require antagonistic or acrimonious behavior. Whether orally or in writing, lawyers should avoid vulgar language, disparaging personal remarks, or acrimony toward other counsel, parties, or witnesses.”

The lawyer “violated every aspect” of those specific guidelines, the court said.

The court also noted this was not the first time this lawyer has come before it due to his unprofessional behavior.

In the prior case, the lawyer was found in civil contempt in a United States district court “for his disrespectful, accusatory, argumentative, and rude behavior which fell far below the professionalism expected of attorneys of The Florida Bar.”

In that instance, the federal judge stated that the lawyer was “constantly accusatory and consistently disrespectful to the court, the lawyers, the parties, and the witnesses.”
In that case the lawyer was directed to receive a public reprimand before the Board of Governors and required to attend ethics school.

“Even though [the lawyer] was the subject of the 2003 disciplinary case, publicly reprimanded, prohibited from appearing before the federal court for one year, and required to attend ethics school, he engaged in the same rude behavior merely five years later in the current case,” the court said. “This is his second appearance before the court for unprofessional behavior. If he appears before the court a third time for similar behavior, it will be his third strike for unprofessional behavior and it is likely that more severe sanctions will be appropriate.”

The court said while “competent, zealous representation” is required when working on a case for a client, there are proper types of behavior and methods to utilize when aggressively representing a client.

“Screaming at judges and opposing counsel, and personally attacking opposing counsel by disparaging him and attempting to humiliate him, are not among the types of acceptable conduct but are entirely unacceptable,” the court said. “One can be professional and aggressive without being obnoxious.”

“We do not tolerate unprofessional and discourteous behavior.”

The court acted October 31 in Case No. SC11-1356.

[Revised: 04-16-2014]