Legally Speaking: Lawyers Behaving Badly-Part One

John G. Browning Mar. 25, 2008, 10:50am

Like virtually every lawyer out there, I was required to take a law school class called "Professional Responsibility" and to pass a test called Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) as part of being admitted to the practice of law.

The class and exam were designed to familiarize future lawyers with the ethical rules and disciplinary regulations that govern our profession. Much of the material revolved around "doing the right thing" in terms of one's duties to clients, the courts, and the public in general. I considered it a pretty easy class for anyone with a halfway decent moral compass.

But lately, some lawyers I've been reading about seem to have forgotten some pretty basic principles, and since these attorneys evidently didn't get it the first time around, permit me to offer my own version of a remedial ethics class.

Rule Number One: Don't Steal From Clients

As obvious as this may seem, there are lawyers disciplined every year for this offense. For example, New York attorney Richard Boter became an ex-attorney late last year when he was disbarred and pled guilty to stealing $148,000 from at least 20 clients. Boter was sentenced to at least one year in prison and ordered to pay $160,000 in restitution and forfeiture.

According to the Manhattan District Attorney's office, Boter had settled cases without his clients' permission, then forged their signature on releases that were forwarded to insurance companies to obtain settlement checks. He would then keep his clients' share of the settlement proceeds.

As if this behavior wasn't bad enough, the way Boter got his cases in the first place was beyond the ethical pale. He was the 12th attorney nabbed by the Manhattan D.A.'s office in a probe of personal injury attorneys who had used runners to bribe hospital employees for access to potential clients. These runners would pay hospital employees for confidential information about patients, many of whom were being treated for injuries sustained in car accidents.

Rule Number Two: Don't Steal From Clients, And Then File a Ridiculous Lawsuit Blaming Someone Else

Another New York lawyer, Arelia Margarita Taveras, seemed to have it all. The 37 year old had risen to prominence representing victims of the American Airlines Flight 587 air crash in Queens in 2001. Her high profile legal work put her in the media spotlight, and she became a sought-after radio and television commentator on legal issues.

She wrote a guidebook for women dealing with deadbeat dads titled "The Gansta Girls' Guide to Child Support," and the New York Daily News named her one of "21 New Yorkers to Watch in the 21st Century." To relieve the pressures of her grueling 7 days a week work schedule, in September 2003 Taveras began going to Atlantic City.

But the casual gambling getaways soon devolved into a full-scale gambling addiction. Her out-of-control behavior included going days at a time at the blackjack tables without eating or sleeping, brushing her teeth with disposable wipes so she wouldn't have to leave. According to Taveras, during one five-day bender at Resorts International in June 2005, she subsisted on nothing but orange juice and Snickers candy bars. Taveras calls her gambling addiction "like crack, only gambling is worse than crack because it's mental. It creeps up on you, the impulse. It's a sickness."

Taveras' addiction resulted in the loss of her thriving law practice, her home, her parents' home, and an IRS debt of $58,000. She stole money from clients' escrow accounts to finance her gambling habit, and was disbarred. She contemplated suicide. She spent nearly a year in clinics to treat her gambling addiction. The high-flying lawyer who once traveled by limo is now working at a telephone call center in Minnesota.

However, she hasn't completely stopped chasing long shots: in September 2007 she filed a $20 million racketeering lawsuit in federal court against six Atlantic City casinos (and one in Las Vegas). Taveras, who is representing herself, claims the casinos had a duty to notice her compulsive gambling problem and to protect her from herself.

According to her, "They knew I was going for days without eating or sleeping. I would pass out at the tables. They had a duty to take care of me." The casinos deny any wrongdoing, and maintain that Taveras has only herself to blame.

I don't think much of Taveras' claims, nor do most legal experts; after all, should alcoholics be allowed to sue bars that serve them, or should people accept responsibility for their own behavior, however self-destructive it may be?

Rule Number Three: Don't Use Bribery As a Tool to Get Inside Information on Cases

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has sued Florida attorney Jay Wingate, alleging that the 63-year-old lawyer's firm used bribery and misrepresentations to settle 23 worker-injury lawsuits. A former Royal Caribbean claims supervisor, Wanda Ballestas, admitted in a sworn affidavit that Wingate's paralegal and an investigator for his firm paid her for confidential information on 20 plaintiffs with work-related claims against the cruise line.

According to Ms. Ballestas, Wingate's firm paid her a series of $500 payments, as well as a $2,000 "Christmas bonus" in exchange for Royal Caribbean's internal information on what the cruise line would consider acceptable settlement amounts. After paying these kickbacks, Wingate and his firm allegedly used the inside information to settle cases.

Although Wingate abruptly withdrew from about 77 other cases and has gone into semi-retirement, Royal Caribbean's lawsuit seeks about $1 million that the lawyer and his firm pocketed in attorney's fees from the cases that he already settled. Wingate's lawyer maintains that the cruise line lacks standing to pursue the attorney's fees claim.

Rule Number Four: Don't File False Claims

While I've seen my share of lawsuits that I considered frivolous or of questionable merit, at least I never encountered one that was completely fabricated – but then, I've never met Robert Arledge. The 50-year-old Vicksburg, Miss., attorney was sentenced this January to 6½ years in prison by a federal judge for pursuing baseless diet-drug litigation.

Arledge was convicted in October 2007 of seven counts of conspiracy and wire fraud in a scheme to bilk the Wyeth pharmaceutical company out of over $6 million through pursuing false Fen-Phen claims on behalf of clients. In addition to the jail time, the Mississippi attorney has been ordered to pay $5.8 million in restitution (although Arledge's lawyers point out that most of the ill-gotten gains went to the clients themselves).

While I'd like to be able to say that it was hard to come up with examples of such outrageous lawyer behavior, it was sadly all too easy. In fact, ethical lapses are unfortunately common enough that I can't fit them all in one column – as you'll see next week in Part Two of "Lawyers Behaving Badly."

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