Charles Centinaro, director of the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) of the New Jersey Supreme Court, has announced the release of the 2011 Attorney Disciplinary System Report.
The OAE investigates allegations of serious attorney misconduct and files formal complaints when 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 continued to make significant improvements in case processing. It improved the timeliness of its investigations, resulting in 83 percent of its investigations being completed within established time goals. The district ethics committees (DECs) also improved the timeliness of their investigations, and 76 percent of those were completed within established time goals.
Investigations and Formal Complaints
In 2011, a total of 1,392 new investigations were added, a 2.7 percent decline from the 2010 total of 1,431 investigations. The OAE filed 310 complaints, an increase of 32 percent over the 240 complaints filed in 2010. The report notes that the increase is largely due to multiple complaints filed against some attorneys.
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 reflects a 6.3 percent increase in the number of attorneys sanctioned by the Supreme Court, from 160 in 2010 to 171 in 2011. These totals include all attorneys on whom final discipline was imposed as well as those against whom emergent action was taken.
The orders for final discipline issued in 2010 included:
The Supreme Court also issued 33 temporary license suspensions and two license restrictions in 2010.
Suspended attorneys can apply for reinstatement with the Supreme Court. The application is reviewed by the OAE, the Disciplinary Review Board, and the Supreme Court. In 2011, the Supreme Court granted reinstatement to 13 attorneys, an 8.3 percent increase from 2010, when 12 attorneys were reinstated.
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 280 volunteers, both attorneys and members of the public, to determine the appropriateness of attorneys’ fees. In 2011, the program received 922 new filings and resolved 1,052 fee matters involving $14.1 million in legal fees.
Random Audit Program
The OAE conducts random audits of private law firms that handle client funds to ensure their compliance with the Supreme Court’s stringent rules on 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 seven attorneys in 2011, including five disbarments.