Can the Discipline System Address Extreme Incivility?

 

For every wrong, there is a remedy

Civil Code section 3523 Maxims of Jurisprudence

This is a little more than the average “lawyer does bad thing” story that is a staple of the legal press.  A Culver City lawyer who abused opposing counsel with a number of highly offensive email messages, the content of some you can read about here.  A Federal District Court Judge was so incensed (and rightfully so) by this bizarre and over top parade of offensiveness that he has vowed to remove this lawyer from the profession.

Can he do that?

The local rules of the Central District of California provide that “An attorney in practice before this court will… a. Be courteous and civil in all communications, oral and written, and in all proceedings conduct herself/himself with dignity and respect.” (Local Rule 83.4 av1)(a).)  Telling opposing counsel to “eat a bowl of dicks” certainly violates the rule.

But how is it to be enforced?  The preamble to the Code of Conduct in Rule 83.4 is equivocal in its approach

Compliance with high standards of professionalism depends primarily upon understanding the value of clients, the legal system, the public, and lawyers of adhering to the voluntary standards. Secondarily, compliance depends upon reinforcement by peer pressure and public opinion, and finally, when necessary, by enforcement by the courts through their powers and rules already in existence. This code of conduct is not intended to be a set of rules that lawyers can use to incite ancillary litigation on the question of whether the standards have been observed by an adversary, but the court may take any appropriate measures to address violations of the rules.

Emphasis added. Casting even more uncertainty on the process is Local Rule 83.4(b)

Standards of Professional Conduct. Every member of the bar of this court and any attorney permitted to practice in this court must be familiar with and comply with the standards of professional conduct required of members of the State Bar of California, which are now adopted as standards of professional conduct of this court. No attorney permitted to practice before this court will engage in any conduct which degrades or impugns the integrity of the court or in any manner interferes with the administration of justice within the Court.

Before 1996, the answer might have been more clear.  Former California Business and Professions Code section 6068(f) provided that “it is the duty of an attorney to… avoid all offensive personality.”  Mr. Culver City has almost certainly established a new upper bound to the concept of offensive personality.  Prior to 1997, the State Bar of California regularly prosecuted lawyers for violating the offensive personality statue, albeit with mixed results.  But in 1995, the Ninth Circuit rules that the offensive personality stature was unconstitutionally vague in United States v. Wunsch 84 F.3d 1110 (9th Cir. 1995).  Section 6068(f) was amended to omit the prohibition on offensive personality.

Since then, many civility codes have been promulgated in well-intentioned attempts to address the perceived increase in incivility in the legal profession.  But enforcement has largely been a matter of voluntary adherence or peer pressure, consistent with the preamble of Rule 83.4(a).

The nasty sexist note at issue in Wunsch pales compared to the insane over-the-top rantings in Mr. Culver City’s case. Some attempt will be made by someone to sanction this conduct, to deter others from committing similar conduct.  The State Bar has other tools it can bring to bear, including the prohibition of conduct involving moral turpitude contained in Business & Professions Code section 6106In the Matter of Elkins (Review Dept. 2009) 5 Cal. State Bar Ct. Rptr. 160, involved discipline based on section 6106, among other rules, imposed on a California lawyer who, after being removed as co-executor of his father’s estate sent 53 threatening and abusive voicemail messages to the successor administrator of the estate, the attorney for the administrator, and the ex officio judge of the Forsyth County Superior Court of North Carolina.  The Review Department bottomed its analysis on the threatening nature of these voicemail messages, which caused the recipients to fear for their personal safety.  Review Department also dismissed Elkins’s First Amendment argument.

Another possibility is new Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(d), which states that it is professional misconduct to “engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”  Long present in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, the import of this new section is not yet clear.  But other states have used it to impose discipline and the Supreme Court, which approved this rule, has reminded this that these are intended to be discipline rules, not just statements of aspiration. Not every instance of discourtesy or incivility would prejudice the administration of justice but a prolonged campaign of abuse with the purpose of beating a settlement out of the other side just might.

Those who labored long and hard to bring civility codes into existence may not have labored in vain. Clearly, discipline is an extreme remedy, as Rule 83.4 indicates, but it just might be available in extreme cases.


 

Court of Appeal Finds LegalMatch.com an Unauthorized Legal Referral Service

A very significant new decision from the First Appellate District, Division 4 has found LegalMatch to be an unauthorized legal referral service (Jackson v. LegalMatch.com, case no. A152442, filed 11/26/19.)  The decision reverses a trial court decision after trial that LegalMatch.com was not engaged in referral service activity within the meaning of Business and Professions Code section 6155 and remands the case back to the trial court on the issue of whether LegalMatch is culpable of “unclean hands” that bar its ability to recover unpaid subscription fees from attorney Dorian Jackson.

The Court of Appeal bottomed its analysis on the plain language of section 6155.  The section says that “[a]n individual, partnership, corporation, association, or any other entity shall not operate for the direct or indirect purpose, in whole or in part, of referring potential clients to attorneys, and no attorney shall accept a referral of such potential clients,” unless “[t]he service is registered with the State Bar of California and . . . is operated in conformity with minimum standards for a lawyer referral serviceestablished by the State Bar” or “is operated in conformity with” standards set by the Supreme Court.  The Court of Appeal noted that section 6155(h)(1) provides that “[p]ermissible joint advertising,among other things, identifies by name the advertising attorneys or law firms whom the consumer of legal services may select and initiate contact with,” while subdivision (h)(2) statesthat “[c]ertifiable referral activity involves, among other things, some person or entity other than the consumer and advertising attorney or law firms which, in person, electronically, or otherwise, refers the consumer to an attorney or law firm not identified in the advertising.”

The appellate court agreed with Jackson the trial court  erred when it found that LegalMatch did not engage in referral activity because it did not exercise judgment on a client’s legal issues. It also found that the term “referral” was not ambiguous and that the “plain and commonsense” meaning of “referral” was clearly applicable to the services that LegalMatch provided, referring clients to lawyers who paid a fee to be matched to clients

Section 6155 provides no definition of “referring” or “referral.” Instead, the statutory text appears to focus on the actof connecting potential clients with attorneys, with the additional requirement that the covered individual or entity operate for the direct or indirect purpose of doing so. (§ 6155, subd. (a).) Read in the context of the statute, the plain meaning of the term “referral” means no more than the “act or an instance of sending or directing to another for information, service, consideration, or decision.” (Black’s Law Dict. (11th ed.Westlaw2019).)

LegalMatch.com is only one of many similar services that have proliffered in the last two decades.  One can wonder that it took the civil courts so long to interpret the very broad and very clear language of the statute.

Moreover, as paying for referrals from an uncertified legal referral service is a cause for discipline under Rule of Professional Conduct 7.2(b)(2), lawyers who are paying subscription fees to services like LegalMatch are subject to potential State Bar action.  The Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC) has shown no interest in prosecuting such cases since 1996 when it initiated several such cases against lawyers participating in uncertified legal referral service.  Those cases were settled for low-level discipline, private and public reprovals.  This opinion, assuming it survives the inevitable appeal, may push OCTC to prosecute these types of cases again.

On the other side of the equation, the LegalMatch opinion comes at a time when the various groups are pushing for a relaxation of the rules regarding non-lawyer participation in the marketing and delivery of legal services., under the rubric of increasing access to legal services.  It can be expected that those forces will meet this opinion with calls for the amendment or repeal of section 6155, The certification process for legal referral services is cumbersome and only a few legal referral services operating on a for-profit basis have been certified.  I have counseled many lawyers interested in establishing referral services who have abandoned the idea after an exploration of just what is required.

The LegalMatch opinion is certainly timely and any lawyer utilizing such services should be aware of its implications.