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Ethics seminar examines ‘Bar Grievances and You: How to Avoid Them and What to Do if You Get One’

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EthicsThe latest statistics suggest that most Florida lawyers are unfamiliar with the grievance process.

And that’s a good thing, says Florida Bar Staff Counsel Patricia Ann Toro Savitz. She notes that there are 113,000 Bar members, and the Supreme Court in 2021 took some 350 public disciplinary actions.

“That is a very, very, very small percentage of lawyers that go astray, for whatever reason,” she said. “I am pleased to tell you that a large percentage, a large percentage, of our membership do excellent work, they are professional, they get the job done.”

But with The Florida Bar’s Attorney/Consumer Assistance Program, ACAP, fielding approximately 14,000 calls for assistance each year, it wouldn’t hurt for a lawyer to know how the system works, Savitz said.

A former Bar counsel with the Orlando branch office who joined the Bar staff in 1997, Savitz was a panelist June 24 for a segment of the 2022 Masters Seminar on Ethics titled, “Bar Grievances and You: How to Avoid Them and What to Do if You Get One.”

Joining Savitz on the panel was Tampa attorney Lansing “Lanse” Scriven, of Lanse Scriven Law, and South Florida attorney D. Culver “Skip” Smith III, a member of the Professional Ethics Committee. Both men are former Florida Bar board members, and both represent attorneys in discipline cases.

When it comes to grievance matters, it’s important to remember that the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction, Savitz said.

“Ultimately if [a complaint] goes from the grievance committee to referee, the decision on the proposed sanction, or the finding of no guilt, rests with the Supreme Court of Florida,” she said.

Justices in recent years have viewed transgressors “from a stricter perspective,” Savitz said. But she stressed that the process has built-in checks and balances, and no investigation is conducted in a vacuum.

“However, I want you all to know that the grievance committee, as well as The Florida Bar, looks at the totality of the case,” she said. “They’re not simply looking at the words on the paper, or one party versus the other, there’s always some form of humanity, or personal issues, to both sides of the case.”

The process can begin with a Bar counsel from one of five branch offices — Tallahassee, Tampa, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, or Orlando — contacting a lawyer, Savitz said.

“They might request information from you, they might look at court dockets, they might get information from the court reporter, they do further investigation,” she said. “They have options, they also can dismiss or close a case, and if it needs further investigation, it goes to the grievance committee.”

A grievance committee is made up of six attorneys and three nonlawyers, Savitz said.

“So, it’s a balanced group,” she said. “They assign an investigating member who has to look at the case, speak to the complaining party, and speak to the respondent attorney.”

A case isn’t over when it reaches a grievance committee, Savitz stressed.

“Simply because a case goes to the grievance committee does not mean that somebody is looking to impose discipline, or disbarment,” she said. “It just means it goes to the grievance committee.”

The grievance committee functions much the same as a grand jury, Savitz said. Should a grievance committee find probable cause, the case proceeds to the Supreme Court and a referee is appointed, she said.

“A referee is a sitting county or circuit court judge who hears the matter as trier of fact, and trier of law, essentially a bench trial,” she said. “And then after that, after the evidence comes in, the review is by the Supreme Court of Florida.”

For a more detailed description of how the grievance process works, Savitz urged audience members to review a Florida Bar Journal article by veteran board member Brian Burgoon.

Florida’s Lawyer Discipline System: What Every Attorney Needs to Know,” appeared in the January/February 2021 issue

Scriven, the Tampa attorney and former board member, reminded the audience that “very good lawyers, excellent lawyers,” can find themselves the subject of a Bar complaint.

“I had the good fortune myself, to be grieved about three years ago,” he said. “I’m an excellent lawyer, I have a great reputation, I take my work very seriously, I take great pride in my work,” he said. “The complaint was completely unfounded and was summarily dismissed.”

Any lawyer who becomes the subject of a Bar complaint would be wise to hire a lawyer, Scriven said.

“I’ve been on the Board of Governors, I’ve been president of a Bar association, I know how the process works in and out, I’ve been a designated reviewer — but even I had the good sense to know, ‘Lanse, step back from this, retain a lawyer,’” he said.

No matter how skilled or familiar with the process, a lawyer will benefit from another lawyer’s perspective, Scriven said.

“Do not overestimate your objectivity,” Scriven said. “It’s extremely important, if you receive a Bar complaint, that you talk to someone other than yourself.”

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