The Disciplinary Actions for Substance-Abusing Attorneys Vary Widely

In the National Law Journal, Leigh Jones writes that an Indiana lawyer shows up at the courthouse drunk and gets into a car accident. His license is suspended, but stayed, for 180 days. A New Hampshire attorney and admitted alcoholic takes on what turns out to be a meritless case and conceals the defeat from clients. He is disbarred.

Also, an Iowa attorney and self-described alcohol abuser involved in a series of disciplinary actions, including taking a client’s money and abandoning a divorce case, gets a license suspension. He can apply to renew it in six months. Meanwhile, a Florida attorney who’s been sober and in a 12-step program since his arrest on drug charges in 2004 is disbarred for the six-year-old offense.

Each of these four cases involved substance abuse — and each had a very different outcome. The decisions, all from the past two years, show how broad the inconsistencies are in the way courts dole out punishment for substance-abusing attorneys. Whether because of uneven precedent, murky ethics rules or a hard-line stance against recognizing addiction as a mitigating factor in misconduct, courts can give attorneys little more than a slap on the wrist in some cases. In others, careers are finished.

In the Iowa case, for example, the court found that attorney Ross Hauser, who had practiced for 23 years, abandoned his client’s divorce action and failed to respond to disciplinary complaints. Records indicated that he admitted having a history of alcohol abuse. The Iowa Supreme Court in May, while recognizing the attorney’s multiple previous discipline problems, suspended his license with a chance for reinstatement after six months. The court rejected a recommendation by the state’s grievance commission that he provide ongoing evidence that substance abuse was not affecting his practice. The court wrote that it did not have a system in place to do so.

“There are concerns that attorneys are not being dealt with, one, in an enlightened manner and, two, consistently,” said Judge Robert Childers, chairman of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. He sits on the Tennessee Circuit Court’s 30th Judicial District, based in Memphis.

In New Hampshire, William Conner took on a case representing a couple suing a contractor over the construction of their home. Court records said the lawyer, who admitted that he was an alcoholic and had a previous public censure, failed to pursue the case, which was later determined meritless. The court said he also hid from the couple that the case had been dismissed. The court ruled that, although alcoholism can be a mitigating factor, disbarment was the only appropriate punishment for him.

But, Indiana attorney Peter Katic appeared in court with a blood-alcohol content more than twice the legal limit and was involved in a car accident while intoxicated, according to court records. The Indiana Supreme Court last year suspended Katic, who had previously served as a judge and had been disciplined twice for judicial misconduct, for six months. It stayed the suspension provided that he meet the monitoring requirements of the lawyer assistance program.

Bill Weigel, president of the National Organization of Bar Counsel, recognizes the inconsistencies in how disciplinary bodies and courts deal with substance-abuse problems. Because the cases are so “fact specific,” consistency can be difficult to achieve, he said. “These cases are so situational.”

Richard Baron would like to think that courts have become more enlightened about attorney addiction, but he’s not convinced. For 25 years, Baron has represented attorneys, most with substance-abuse issues, in disciplinary actions. In August, he had one of the biggest surprises of his career. Although his client, Daniel Noah Liberman, had been drug- and alcohol-free for six years, the Florida Supreme Court disbarred him following his guilty plea to a 2004 drug trafficking charge. The court on Aug. 26 rejected a referee’s recommendation that Liberman receive a three-year suspension. He had no previous arrests or discipline problems. The court noted that he “had an illness; he was drug addict.”

Liberman, who had been supplying friends with small amounts of metham­phetamine and Ecstasy, was asked by a friend, who unbeknownst to Liberman had been arrested and was working as an informant, to supply him with Ecstasy for a party. The amount Liberman supplied met the limit for a trafficking charge.

In a dissent, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente wrote that Liberman had accepted responsibility for his conduct, had gone into a rehabilitation program immediately following his arrest and always had tested negative on random drug tests. He was a supervising tutor for children at a charity serving poor and homeless people. The justice wrote that he had continued to work as a paralegal and was “a productive member of society.” She noted that there was no evidence that Liberman’s conduct had harmed any clients.

Even so, the majority concluded that only disbarment could “measure up to the gravity of a conviction for illegal drug trafficking.” The majority also determined that the mitigating circumstances were insufficient to warrant anything less than disbarment. Liberman did not respond to requests for an interview. Baron said the decision demonstrates a “hard right turn” by the court and ignores precedent in a strikingly similar case. “They were out to punish him,” Baron said.

PREVENTION VS. PUNISHMENT

There are about 45 lawyers assistance programs across the country, most of which work directly with bar counsel and courts to provide confidential support and facilitate addiction recovery through drug testing, 12-step programs and mental health assistance. In many states, they provide recovery “contracts” with attorneys, who agree to submit to monitoring.

John Clegg wishes he’d never gotten involved with a lawyers assistance program. The former partner at McGlinchey Stafford got help from the Louisiana program in 2006 for a cocaine addiction after firm leaders confronted him about his erratic behavior. His billing had become inconsistent, he was looking disheveled at work and he had behaved aggressively during a firm-hosted golf tournament, where he told an off-color joke that offended attendees.

Firm leaders and lawyers assistance workers held an intervention for Clegg, who admitted that he had used crack cocaine. He went to 90-day in-patient treatment, and once he got out, he returned to work at the firm under a five-year “contract” with the assistance program.

With his approval, program workers monitored his recovery and — because he had waived the program’s duty of confidentiality — they communicated with the law firm about his recovery progress. When he twice tested positive for drug use, however, the firm, compelled by its duty to its clients, alerted disciplinary authorities.

In July, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that, although assistance program volunteers and employees had a duty of confidentiality that participants can waive, that duty did not extend to law firms themselves. The court suspended Clegg for a year and a day and deferred all but six months on the condition that he continue treatment through the lawyers assistance program.

Clegg, who could not be reached for comment for this story, said at the time the decision was issued that he had planned to seek rehabilitation on his own before the intervention but decided to use the Louisiana program once co-workers confronted him. He made the wrong decision about getting help with the Louisiana program, he said. The ruling, he believes, served as a deterrent to getting help. “You’re just setting yourself up for discipline,” he said. “The only charges against me were because I was a [legal assistance program] participant.”

ABA RULES

A way to bring consistency to disciplinary actions involving substance abuse may be through the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Last year, the ABA adopted a rule that substance abuse and mental health professionals hailed as a victory.

The rule allows for the conditional admission to practice for law graduates who have experienced chemical dependency. It provides that applicants who otherwise meet requirements but could have been prohibited from admission because of past drug or alcohol problems can practice if they demonstrate rehabilitation.

Four states are considering adopting the rule. Eighteen already have similar provisions in place. The purpose of the change is to prevent applicants seeking admission to the bar from keeping their addiction and recovery a secret. Otherwise qualified applicants often do not disclose their problems for fear they will prohibit admission, said Childers, chairman of the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. Childers pushed for the ABA’s new rule. “It encourages students to get help early on,” he said.

The new rule is not about coddling lawyers, he said. “This really is aimed a protecting the public. There are lawyers out there getting licensed with no conditions, no monitoring in place.”

Childers said he is aware of the Liber­man disbarment in Florida and is troubled by it. The commission will hold its annual conference in October. He expects much discussion about the Liberman case. “I’m hoping it’s an aberration,” he said.

Creating a rule to bring about consistency for existing attorneys is more difficult than dealing with attorneys seeking admission, Childers said. The facts of each case vary significantly, including whether there are prior sanctions, the number of misconduct claims, the degree of client harm and whether laws were broken. The key, he said, is to bring all parties to the table, including bar counsel, judges and health care professionals, and to work through the ABA commission’s “protocol” to create a proposal.

“I’d like to see absolute uniformity, but the facts of every case are different,” he said. “That’s why we have judges.”

This article is from the National Law Journal.

Soreide Law Group, PLLC,  represents those seeking admittance to the Florida Bar, and existing lawyers, for both investigative hearings and formal hearings in front of the Florida Bar. For more information about our services please visit: www.floridabarhearing.com or call (888) 760-6552.