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More Attorneys Disciplined in 2001

For further information contact:
David E. Johnson
Office of Attorney Ethics
For release: July 11, 2002
(609) 530-4321

The New Jersey Supreme Court disciplined 204 attorneys in 2001, according to a report released today by the Supreme Court’s Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE). A total of 180 attorneys received final disciplinary actions, while another 24 were the subject of emergent temporary suspensions.

This year’s figure represents a three percent increase from the 2000 figure of 198 total sanctions. In 2000, 162 attorneys received final disciplinary sanctions while 36 attorneys received emergent temporary suspensions.

Disbarments decreased by 32 percent from 46 in 2000 to 31 in 2001. At the same time, suspensions from practice increased by 36 percent, from 44 in 2000 to 60 in 2001. The number of reprimands increased from 48 in 2000 to 54 in 2001, and admonitions increased from 24 last year to 31 in 2001.

The year 2001 also marked the 20th anniversary of the Court’s Random Audit Program, which checks compliance with trust account responsibilities at private law firms throughout the state. Since it’s inception, RAP has audited 7,254 law firms, resulting in 93 cases (1.3 percent of the total) of serious violations that have resulted in discipline by the Court.

The statistics are included in the OAE’s 18th annual report to the Court. The OAE serves as the Supreme Court’s investigative and prosecutorial arm in attorney discipline matters. The report also includes information on the attorney fee arbitration process and the annual attorney registration process. The report is available online at the Judiciary Web site, www.njcourtsonline.com/oae/report2001.htm

The disciplinary system, the fee arbitration process, the random audit program and the annual attorney registration process are financed through annual assessments paid by attorneys. At the end of 2001, there were 75,177 attorneys admitted to practice in New Jersey.

OAE Year 2001 Report Highlights

Public Discipline

In 2001, 204 attorneys were finally (180) or temporarily (24) disciplined. There were 31 disbarments (11 by opinion of the Court, 20 by consent of the attorneys), 1 revocation, 60 final suspensions of various lengths, 54 reprimands, 31 admonitions and 3 transfers to disability inactive status. In addition, 24 attorneys were either temporarily suspended from practice of otherwise disciplined on an emergent basis.

Last year, 198 attorneys were disciplined (162 final and 36 through temporary suspensions). There were 46 disbarments (19 by opinion of the Supreme Court and 27 by consent of the attorneys), 44 final suspensions, 48 reprimands and 24 admonitions.

Gross and patterned neglect of clients’ matters continued as the top cause of attorney discipline in 2001. It was cited in 40 cases, or 22.2 percent of the total number of discipline cases.

The next most frequent cause of attorney discipline was the knowing misappropriation of trust funds, which occurred in more than 12.7 percent of these cases. Of the 23 attorneys publicly disciplined in 2001 for knowing misappropriation, seven were detected through the Trust Overdraft Notification Program, in operation since 1985, which requires all financial institutions to report to the OAE whenever an attorney overdrafts an attorney trust account or any time a check is presented against insufficient funds. Other money offenses, including negligent misappropriation, record-keeping and escrow violations, accounted for more than 8 percent of cases where lawyers were disciplined.

The OAE’s report contains a special section on attorneys most frequently disciplined, noting that this very small group of offenders require greater focus and more resources from the attorney discipline system in order to protect the public and the bar. The list of 99 attorneys who have been sanctioned at least three times in the last decade reflects a total of 361 sanctions meted out to these individuals. The list of egregious violators includes one attorney who has been disciplined seven times, four who have been disciplined six times, and nine who have been disciplined five times in the past decade. In addition, 30 attorneys have received four sanctions each and 55 have received three sanctions each in the past decade.

Fee Arbitration

The number of disputes submitted to New Jersey’s program to arbitrate disagreements over attorney’s fees was 1,168 in 2001, according to the OAE report. In 2000, 1,232 disputes were submitted to the program. In addition, 1,187 disputes were disposed of in 2001, which reduced the number of cases pending at year’s end to 631, down from 650 at the end of 2000.

In New Jersey, lawyers are required to submit their fees to review by an arbitration committee at the request of a client. Under the program, the attorney has the burden of proving that the fee charged was reasonable. New Jersey is one of only 10 states to have a statewide, mandatory fee arbitration program.

The fee arbitration system, which is administered by the OAE under the supervision of the Supreme Court, operates independently of the disciplinary system. Since participation in the fee program is mandatory on the part of lawyers, clients requesting use of the system must consent to be bound by the results of the process.

According to the report, 765 cases (64 percent of the total) were disposed of by formal determination, while 291 cases (25 percent of the total) were settled by the parties voluntarily after fee arbitration was initiated. These two categories of cases involved total billings of more than $15.5 million. The remaining cases were administratively dismissed by the OAE (8.5 percent), withdrawn by the client (1.1 percent), moved to another district (.2 percent) or filed under the wrong jurisdiction (1.3 percent).

Altogether the 17 district fee arbitration committees, consisting of attorneys and members of the public, reduced fees by $1.7 million in the 765 formal determinations they made. In 36.1 percent of the cases, legal bills were upheld in full. In the remaining cases, the total reductions averaged 25.8 percent. Figures for fees reduced through settlements are incomplete since the parties are not compelled to report results.

Random Audits

New Jersey is one of only seven states to have an operational random audit program. Under this program, trust accounts of private practice law firms in the state are randomly selected by computer for audit. The audits provide an educational opportunity for attorneys who have questions about proper record-keeping requirements and are meant to maintain the integrity of client trust monies maintained by the law firms. However, the program has resulted in a small, but significant, number of cases involving lawyer theft and other serious financial violations. Since 1981, 1.2 percent of all audits have resulted in sanctions against an attorney. In 2001, one attorney was disbarred by consent and one was suspended for 12 months as a result of random audits.

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