Category: Ethics

Judge who was Facebook friends with victim’s father did not have to recuse himself

Case provides valuable guidance to judges on how to responsibly handle social media connections and communications.

Judge sent defendant to prison for assaulting defendant’s girlfriend. Defendant appealed his sentence claiming, among other things, that the judge was not impartial, given that the judge was Facebook friends with the girlfriend-victim’s father, and that the two of them had communicated through Facebook’s private message feature. The appellate court held that the judge did not err by not recusing himself.

The appellate court found that no rule prohibited the judge from being Facebook friends with the victim’s father. And the judge followed the proper procedure concerning the private message by:

  • discontinuing reading it once he realized it pertained to the case
  • warning the victim’s father not to communicate ex parte in that manner
  • printing the message out and placing it in the case file
  • notifying counsel for the parties

Moreover, the private message was not adverse to defendant, but actually asked for leniency. On these facts, the court found an insufficient showing of bias to find reversible error.

Youkers v. State, — S.W.3d —, 2013 WL 2077196 (Tex.App. May 15, 2013)

Technology ethics: Seminar on responsible telephone use

As an attorney I feel an obligation to preach to you about what’s right and what’s wrong. People routinely trivialize this important duty by characterizing the subject matter as “ethics” or “professionalism.”

As a technology attorney, especially as one cool enough to use Twitter and be on Facebook, I feel a special obligation to instruct you on responsible use of social media. I’ll get to that.

First we need to address some of the basics concerning wise use of technology. Starting with the telephone.

In this downturned economy, I’m looking for every opportunity I can to supplement my income. So I’m offering a one day seminar called Telephone Ethics: Avoiding the Pitfalls Inherent in Voice Communications Technology. Registration is $995 dollars. Email me to sign up. But hurry, only a few seats are still available!

With the advent of the telephone, lawyers are threatened with almost certain peril and inevitable claims of malpractice. In this full day, in-depth course, we will look at the issues that arise each day as lawyers adopt this frightening intriguing technology. Subjects will include:

  • Diligence: Avoid violating Rule 1.3 — which requires a lawyer to be diligent in representing a client — by promptly returning phone calls.
  • Confidentiality: Oops! Did I just spill the beans and violate Rule 1.6 by forgetting to shut the door of that phone booth?
  • Polite Ambulance Chasing: What to say when phoning the victim of that bad accident you saw on the freeway. How to delicately let him know you’re a lawyer while navigating the Rule 7.3 minefield.
  • Much, much more!

And we’ll also have some fun. I’m lining up a special telephone expert TBA who will give some practical tips on how to better monetize your telephone use. That session will be called “Dialing for Profit: Let Your Fingers Do The Walking to a Successful Law Practice.” Check back at this Web page later for more details.

Future seminar topics will include Responsible Faxing: How to Keep the Disciplinary Committee Off Your Line, and Appropriate PowerPoint Obfuscation: Making Sure Your Bullet Points Aren’t Too Sparse.

CLE accreditation will be requested if there is sufficient interest. Heaven knows we need those ethics credits. Oh, and happy April 1.

Telephone photo courtesy Flickr user smudie under this Creative Commons license.

Be careful with email because your employer is “looking over your shoulder”

Workplace email policy destroyed attorney-client privilege

Scott v. Beth Israel Medical Center, — N.Y.S.2d —-, 2007 WL 3053351 (N.Y. Sup. October 17, 2007).

Dr. Scott, who used to work for Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, sued his former employer for breach of contract and a number of other different things. Before he was terminated, however, he had used his work email account to send messages to his attorneys, discussing potential litigation against Beth Israel.

When Dr. Scott found out that Beth Israel was in possession of these email messages, he asked the court to order that those messages be returned to him. He argued that they were protected from disclosure to Beth Israel under the attorney client privilege.

Beth Israel argued that they were not subject to the privilege because they were not made “in confidence.” There was an email policy in place that provided, among other things, that the computers were to be used for business purposes only, that employees had no personal right of privacy in the material they create or receive through Beth Israel’s computer systems, and that Beth Israel had the right to access and disclose material on its system.

Dr. Scott argued that New York law [CPLR 4548] protected the confidentiality. Simply stated, CPLR 4548 provides that a communication shouldn’t lose its privileged character just because it’s transmitted electronically.

The court denied Dr. Scott’s motion for a protective order, finding that the messages were not protected by the attorney client privilege.

It looked to the case of In re Asia Global Crossing, 322 B.R. 247 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) to conclude that the presence of the email policy destroyed the confidential nature of the communications. The policy banned personal use, the hospital had the right to review the email messages (despite Scott’s unsuccessful HIPAA argument), and Dr. Scott had notice of the policy.

The decision has implications for both individuals and the attorneys who represent them. Employees should be aware that when they are sending messages through their employer’s system, they may not be communicating in confidence. And attorneys sending email messages to their clients’ work email accounts, on matters not relating to the representation of the employer, must be careful not to unwittingly violate the attorney client privilege.

What’s more, although the decision is based on email communications, it could affect the results of any case involving instant messaging or text messaging through the company’s server.

Legal blogging ethics in this month’s ABA Journal

American Bar Association members, be sure to check out the October 2005 issue of the ABA Journal, containing the article “Watch What You Say” (p. 59) which features, among others, noted law blogger Ben Cowgill. An online version of the article (minus Ben’s picture which appears on p. 62 of the magazine) is available here.

In the Land of the Midnight Semantics

(I hope that loyal readers of this weblog will forgive a brief foray off-topic.)

In the recent case of Crane v. State, — P.3d —-, 2005 WL 1926464 (Alaska App., 2005), the Alaska Court of Appeals was asked to examine whether there are substantive differences between the terms “counselor” and “attorney”.

Petitioner Crane was charged with drunk driving. While awaiting trial, he asserted that the court had no jurisdiction over him because he could not obtain the assistance of counsel, as there were no “counselors at law” in Alaska. He contended that there is a legal distinction between “counselors at law” and “attorneys” and that there were no “counselors at law” available to him because Alaska only licenses “attorneys”.

In rejecting Crane’s arguments, the court issued a somewhat lengthy opinion examining the history of the relevant terms. It discussed the etymology of the various words, looking to their origins in French, and also the ways in which the terms had been used in early sources such as the Blackstone Commentaries.

The court noted that the common law did in fact distinguish between “attorneys” and “counselors at law”, but concluded that this distinction no longer exists in Alaska. Instead, attorneys perform both functions. The court further noted that in 1976, the legislature repealed the statute that specified the procedure for admission to the practice of law in Alaska, but gave rule-making authority to the Board of Governors of the Alaska Bar Association, so that the admission procedure could be specified by court rule.

Crane v. State, — P.3d —-, 2005 WL 1926464 (Alaska App., August 12, 2005).

School board email did not violate Sunshine Law

Chris Heather, a member of Ohio’s Northwest Local School District Board of Education, wrote a newspaper column criticizing past actions of the board, calling on the public to support two non-incumbents in the next election. Bill Lambert, another member of the board, wrote an email to two other school board members discussing factual inaccuracies in Heather’s letter and suggesting that the other members draft a response.

Plaintiff Haverkos, who as the court noted “seem[ed] to have a long history of opposition to the school board,” filed suit against the board alleging that the email communication and subsequent actions by the members of the board violated Ohio’s “Sunshine Law,” R.C. 121.22 et seq. That law requires, among other things, that public officials conduct all deliberations on official business only in open meetings.

The trial court had held that sending the email was a violation of the Sunshine Law, and had awarded summary judgment in Plaintiff Haverkos’s favor. At issue on appeal was whether the email could be considered a “discussion” under the Sunshine Law and thus subject to the law’s provisions. The appellate court reversed the trial court, holding that Ohio’s Sunshine Law does not cover email communications. Furthermore, the subject of the email was limited to election politics, not official school board business.

Haverkos v. Northwest Local Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 2005 Ohio App. LEXIS 3237 (Ct. App. Ohio, July 8, 2005).

Controversy over law blogging in Kentucky

Ben Cowgill, author of the excellent Legal Ethics Blog, reports that he has been facing resistance from the Kentucky Attorney’s Advertising Commission over the very existence of his weblog. Under the relevant Kentucky rule of professional conduct (7.02), each time a lawyer advertises legal services in the state, he or she is required to submit a copy of each advertisement to the Commission and pay a $50 filing fee. The Commission also requires an additional filing fee each time the advertisement is modified.

The Commission has apparently expressed that law-related weblog postings fall under this rule, as the definition for “advertisements” includes any communication that contains a lawyer’s name “or other identifying information.” As Mr. Cowgill correctly observes, “it would be practically impossible for a Kentucky lawyer to publish a law-related web log if he or she were required to pay a $50.00 ‘filing fee’ each and every time the content of the blog is modified.”

Communications between Mr. Cowgill and the Commission continue. This controversy is an interesting and compelling example of “antiquated” regulations being outpaced by the positive consequences of modern forms of communication.

Read more about the matter at f/k/a and at The Legal Underground.

Statements on law firm website result in attorney suspension

New Hampshire’s Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct accused the respondent of violating New Hampshire Rule of Professional Conduct 7.1, which provides that a lawyer is prohibited from making a “false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.” Under the rule, a communication is false or misleading if it “contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law.”

The website for the respondent’s law firm “suggested that he had experience in helping small businesses file direct public offerings, although [he] had only drafted offerings that had never been filed.” The referee appointed to the case determined that the language on the website “advertised [the respondent’s] expertise in financing and raising capital even though ‘he did not have any special training or experience in securities law.'” The referee determined that such statement was a violation of Rule 7.1, and the state’s Supreme Court affirmed the decision.

Richmond’s Case, — A.2d —, 2005 WL 1048105 (N.H., May 6, 2005).

E-mail to witness gets attorney’s license suspended

In connection with another lawyer’s disciplinary matter before the Director of Minnesota’s Office of Lawyers’ Professional Responsibility, respondent Soronow sent an e-mail to a witness in the matter, asking the witness not to cooperate. Soronow also made “misleading statements” on his own law firm’s website. As a result of this conduct, the Director of the Office of Lawyers’ Professional Responsibility instituted a disciplinary action against Soronow for violations of various rules of professional conduct. Soronow agreed to a minimum 30 month suspension and was ordered to pay the costs of the disciplinary proceedings against him.

In re Disciplinary Action Against Soronow, — N.W.2d —, 2005 WL 851932 (Minn., March 28, 2005).

California court upholds medical board’s authority to post physician disciplinary information

The California Court of Appeal has upheld a trial court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandamus which would have ordered the board to remove from its website information about the plaintiff physician’s past disciplinary record. The physician had argued that certain California statutes (Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 803.1 and 2027) did not permit the board to post information on its website pertaining to the plaintiff’s completion of a probation period. The court held that the plain meaning of the statutes demonstrate that the board is specifically required to post on the Internet information about a physician’s disciplinary history. Furthermore, despite an apparent drafting error in the enacted version of §2027, the court held that a review of the legislative intent also supported the conclusion that posting the disciplinary history was mandatory.

Szold v. Medical Bd. Of California, — Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2005 WL 589433 (Cal.App. 4 Dist., March 15, 2005).

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