The Florida Bar

Lawyer Discipline Process

From initial complaint to Supreme Court Order, here’s an overview of the process followed in a typical case to impose sanctions on a member of The Florida Bar for violating a Rule Regulating The Florida Bar.

Case files become public when a case is closed at the staff or grievance committee level, or when probable cause is found. Closed cases remain public for one year after the case is concluded and then are disposed of in accordance with The Florida Bar’s record retention policy. Read Rule 3-7.1 (a) for details about when a case is no longer confidential.

Complaint Filed

The disciplinary process starts when the Bar’s Attorney Consumer Assistance Program (ACAP) receives a written inquiry questioning the conduct of a lawyer. Inquiries may come from current or former clients, lawyers, judges, or others, and may be initiated by the Bar itself. In a typical year, ACAP handles about 16,500 requests for assistance; approximately 25% of inquiries result in the opening of a disciplinary file.

Possible Outcomes

Stop in disciplinary Process

Intake counsel determines that the allegations, if proven, would not constitute a Bar rule violation warranting discipline. Inquiry closed without further action against the attorney.

Proceed in disciplinary process

Intake counsel determines the allegations would constitute a violation of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar warranting discipline. Intake counsel opens a file, notifies the accused lawyer and requests a response within 15 days. After receiving a response, intake counsel may close the file or refer it for further investigation to the Florida Bar branch office that covers the judicial circuit where the lawyer practices.

Case Forwarded to Branch Office

If further investigation is warranted or if the lawyer fails to respond, intake counsel will forward the case to the Bar’s branch office. The Florida Bar has branch offices in Tallahassee, Tampa, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. About one-third of cases investigated at ACAP are transferred to a branch office, where the case is assigned to Bar counsel who conducts a further investigation.

Possible Outcomes

Stop in disciplinary Process

Disciplinary measures are not warranted; case is closed.

Diversion in disciplinary process

For minor violations, Bar counsel can recommend diversionary measures such as ethics school. Diversion is not considered “discipline” and is disposed of one year from the date of closure.

Proceed in disciplinary process
If there are sufficient grounds to move forward, the case is forwarded to a grievance committee in the accused lawyer’s judicial circuit for additional investigation.

Case Referred to Grievance Committee for Additional Investigation

Grievance committees are made up of volunteers from the community, at least one-third of whom are nonlawyers. Each of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits has at least one grievance committee.

The grievance committee chair assigns the case, which can take three to six months to complete, to a committee member for investigation. After interviewing witnesses and reviewing evidence, the investigating member makes a recommendation to the grievance committee.

Like a grand jury, the grievance committee decides whether there is probable cause to believe a lawyer violated the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar and whether discipline is warranted.

Possible Outcomes

Stop in disciplinary Process

Finds no probable cause, or no probable cause with a letter of advice.

Diversion in disciplinary process

  • Recommends mediation or arbitration of a fee dispute.
  • Issues a finding of minor misconduct.
  • Recommends diversion to a practice and professionalism enhancement program.
  • Recommends deferral of grievance committee review until conclusion of a parallel criminal or civil case.

Proceed in disciplinary process
Finds probable cause to believe that discipline is warranted. Bar counsel files, following review by the Florida Bar Board of Governors, a formal complaint against the lawyer with the Supreme Court of Florida.

Board of Governors Reviews Grievance Committee Actions

The Board of Governors serves in an oversight role at all stages of the disciplinary review process, and makes decisions on behalf of the Bar with respect to discipline matters. Elected board members serve as “designated reviewers” of cases pending before their local grievance committees and are responsible for reviewing and approving all of the grievance committee’s actions.

Possible Outcomes

Review in disciplinary process

Designated reviewer can request reconsideration from the grievance committee or refer the case to the Board of Governors Disciplinary Review Committee within 30 days of notice of grievance committee action. Any Board of Governors member also can request review and debate of a case.

Stop in disciplinary Process

  • Bar counsel and the accused lawyer enter into a proposed consent judgment for guilty plea and proposed sanctions. Consent judgments approved by the BOG are filed with the Supreme Court. Court appointed referee reviews all consent judgments.
  • The Board of Governors overturns a grievance committee’s findings.

Proceed in disciplinary process

  • Designated reviewer takes no action, Bar staff counsel files charges with Florida Supreme Court and case proceeds to trial.
  • Consent judgment is not accepted by the BOG; Bar staff counsel files charges with Florida Supreme Court and case proceeds to trial.

Trial By Referee

A referee is a judge or retired judge appointed by the Florida Supreme Court to conduct proceedings as provided under The Florida Bar Rules of Discipline.  The referee hears witnesses, receives evidence and issues a report with findings that, if recommending guilt, also recommends sanctions.

Possible Outcomes

Stop in disciplinary Process

Review in disciplinary process

At any time during the progress of disciplinary proceedings, a respondent may tender a plea of guilty. Consent judgment must be approved by the Supreme Court of Florida.

Proceed in disciplinary process

The referee’s report is filed with the court and sent to the Board of Governors for review. Recommendations are not final until approved by Supreme Court.

Designated Review and Board of Governors Review Referee’s Report

After the referee’s report is filed with the Supreme Court, it is reviewed by the designated reviewer, the Disciplinary Review Committee and the Board of Governors. The BOG and the accused lawyer each have 60 days to appeal the referee’s decision.

If the BOG disagrees with any aspect of the referee’s decision, it can seek review by the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Reviews Referee’s Report or Consent Judgements

If neither the Board of Governors nor the accused lawyer petitions for review of the referee’s report, then the court will conduct its review (without briefs, unless the court requests briefing). The Supreme Court can approve or disapprove any aspect of the referee’s report, including findings of guilt or recommended sanctions.

The Florida Supreme Court is the final authority on lawyer discipline; its decision on guilt and the ultimate sanction imposed are final.

Discipline Order is Enforced

The Florida Supreme Court’s orders are enforced through the court’s contempt powers. For example, a lawyer accused of practicing law while suspended can be brought before the court on a petition for contempt, and new discipline may be imposed. A disbarred lawyer who is caught practicing law may be permanently disbarred and face additional contempt sanctions.

Rule 3-7.1 (a) Scope of Confidentiality

(a) Scope of Confidentiality. All records including files, preliminary investigation reports, interoffice memoranda, records of investigations, and the records in trials and other proceedings under these rules, except those disciplinary matters conducted in circuit courts, are property of The Florida Bar. All of those matters are confidential and will not be disclosed except as provided in these rules. When disclosure is permitted under these rules, it will be limited to information concerning the status of the proceedings and any information that is part of the public record as defined in these rules.

Unless otherwise ordered by this court or the referee in proceedings under these rules, nothing in these rules prohibits the complainant, respondent, or any witness from disclosing the existence of proceedings under these rules, or from disclosing any documents or correspondence served on or provided to those persons except where disclosure is prohibited in Chapter 4 of these rules or by statutes and caselaw regarding attorney-client privilege.

  1. Pending Investigations. Disciplinary matters pending at the initial investigatory and grievance committee levels are treated as confidential by The Florida Bar, except as provided in rules 3-7.1(e) and (k).
  2. Minor Misconduct Cases. Any case in which a finding of minor misconduct has been entered by action of the grievance committee or board is public information.
  3. Probable Cause Cases. Any disciplinary case in which a finding of probable cause for further disciplinary proceedings has been entered is public information. For purposes of this subdivision a finding of probable cause is deemed in those cases authorized by rule 3-3.2(a), for the filing of a formal complaint without the requirement of a finding of probable cause.
  4. No Probable Cause Cases. Any disciplinary case that has been concluded by a finding of no probable cause for further disciplinary proceedings is public information.
  5. Diversion or Referral to Grievance Mediation Program. Any disciplinary case that has been concluded by diversion to a practice and professionalism enhancement program or by referral to the grievance mediation program is public information on the entry of such a recommendation.
  6. Contempt Cases. Contempt proceedings authorized elsewhere in these rules are public information even if the underlying disciplinary matter is confidential as defined in these rules.
  7. Incapacity Not Involving Misconduct. Proceedings for placement on the inactive list for incapacity not involving misconduct are public information on the filing of the petition with the Supreme Court of Florida.
  8. Petition for Emergency Suspension or Probation. Proceedings seeking a petition for emergency suspension or probation are public information.
  9. Proceedings on Determination or Adjudication of Guilt of Criminal Misconduct. Proceedings on determination or adjudication of guilt of criminal misconduct, as provided elsewhere in these rules, are public information.
  10. Professional Misconduct in Foreign Jurisdiction. Proceedings based on disciplinary sanctions entered by a foreign court or other authorized disciplinary agency, as provided elsewhere in these rules, are public information.
  11. Reinstatement Proceedings. Reinstatement proceedings, as provided elsewhere in these rules, are public information.
  12. Disciplinary Resignations and Disciplinary Revocations. Proceedings involving petitions for disciplinary resignation or for disciplinary revocation as provided elsewhere in these rules, are public information.