The OAE investigates allegations of serious attorney misconduct and files formal complaints where warranted. In addition to its investigative and prosecutorial responsibilities, the OAE oversees 18 district ethics committees, 17 district fee arbitration committees, the random audit program, and the annual attorney registration process. Its annual report contains detailed information and statistics on each of these areas. The report can be found online at njcourts.com.
OAE Report Highlights
Improvements in Case Processing
The OAE made significant improvements in case processing in 2009. Compliance with the Supreme Court’s time goals for complex investigations improved to 80 percent, compared to the 77 percent compliance rate for 2008. At the district ethics committee level, 70 percent of all cases were investigated with the time goal for less complex investigations. Also, the OAE reduced the average time in which it investigates cases by more than one month, and the district ethics committees reduced the average age of their pending investigations by three weeks.
Increases in Investigations and Formal Complaints
The 2009 report shows that the number of grievances docketed for investigation increased by nearly 6 percent over the previous year, from 1,394 in 2008 to 1,476 in 2009. Also, the number of formal complaints filed in 2009 increased by more than 23 percent, with 233 complaints filed compared to 189 in 2008.
Disciplinary sanctions are imposed by the Supreme Court and include both final discipline, which is imposed after the completion of an investigation, hearing and review by the Disciplinary Review Board, and emergent actions, which are imposed to protect the public while the disciplinary case is pending.
The report shows an 11 percent decrease in the number of attorneys disciplined by the Supreme Court, from 167 orders for final discipline entered in 2008 to 148 orders for final discipline entered in 2009.
The orders for final discipline issued in 2009 included:
15 disbarments by consent
29 term suspensions
1 suspended suspension
The Supreme Court also issued 25 temporary license suspensions and two license restrictions in 2009.
Fee Arbitration Program
The fee arbitration program, adopted by the Supreme Court in 1978, provides a neutral, confidential forum in which clients and attorneys can resolve legal fee disputes. The 17 fee arbitration committees rely on approximately 290 volunteers, both attorneys and members of the public, to determine the appropriateness of attorneys’ fees. In 2009, the program received 1,102 new filings and resolved 1,130 fee matters involving $14.5 million in legal fees. The program retained an active pending caseload of 562 cases at the end of the year.
Random Audit Program
The Office of Attorney Ethics conducts random audits of private law firms that handle client funds to ensure their compliance with the Supreme Court’s stringent rules regarding financial recordkeeping. The purpose of the program is to protect the public from those few attorneys who misuse client funds, and to educate and inform attorneys about proper accounting procedures. As a result of the audit program, final sanctions ranging from admonishment through disbarment were imposed on nine attorneys in 2009.