Sometimes our lessons come in more bizarre ways than others. As reported by Law360 last week (subscription required), three Florida lawyers were charged by disciplinary authorities over a January 2013 incident involving the firm’s paralegal. The three lawyers were defending defamation claims against their client, who was a local radio talk show host known as “Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.” The plaintiff was another radio personality.
Reports at the time suggested that, on the evening after the media-focused defamation trial started, the defense firm’s paralegal spotted plaintiff’s counsel at a local bar near his home. She contacted lawyers at her firm, returned to the bar with a friend, and sat down next to opposing counsel. Over the next two hours, the paralegal is reported to have lied about where she worked, flirted with opposing counsel and ordered drinks, including buying defense counsel a vodka cocktail and shots of Southern Comfort. She also stayed in touch with the three lawyers from her firm, sending them more than 90 texts and emails over the course of the evening. Later, opposing counsel’s lawyer stated that it was clear that the paralegal was in an undercover role and was making sure “all the parties knew exactly what was transpiring virtually every minute.”
Shortly after she first reported what was going on at the bar, a call was made by one of the lawyers to an acquaintance in the police department and an officer was posted outside the bar to wait for the plaintiff’s lawyer’s departure. When he eventually left, the paralegal convinced him to drive her car several blocks from a parking garage to a new parking space. As he did, he was arrested for DUI. The next morning, defense counsel touted the arrest to the media. Bar charges (a disciplinary complaint, not the tab for cocktails) accused the three lawyers of being involved in what appeared to be using the paralegal to set up opposing counsel.
The ethics problems for the three lawyers included failing to instruct the paralegal not to have contact with opposing counsel. Under Florida’s version of Model Rule 5.3, a lawyer with direct supervisory authority over a non-lawyer must make reasonable efforts to ensure that the non-lawyer’s conduct is compatible with the lawyer’s own professional obligations.
One of the lawyers also admitted to having made inaccurate, statements to the media about opposing counsel’s arrest. Florida’s version of Model Rule 3.6 bars extrajudicial statements that a reasonable person would expect to be disseminated by means of public communication if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that it will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding — in this case, the defamation case involving opposing counsel’s client and “Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.”
Oh yes, and when opposing counsel was arrested for DUI, he left his briefcase full of confidential trial documents in the back of the paralegal’s car. This led to the three lawyers also being charged with failing to immediately notify opposing counsel that they had the briefcase.
One of the lawyers agreed to surrender his license for five years in an agreed disposition of the ethics charges, and the other two agreed to 91-day suspensions; but on March 26, a judge rejected that deal as too lenient. A new hearing schedule will be set.
Moral of this odd tale? The usual:
- remember your supervisory duties;
- don’t put yourself in a position where your conduct can be questioned;
- watch what you say to the media; and
- if someone leaves a brief case full of legal documents in the back seat of your paralegal’s car after being pulled over for DUI, return it — fast!