Here are three very recent reminders about what not to do online. These separate stories involve an Indiana lawyer and two judges: one state and one federal. Apparently human nature makes on-line misconduct irresistible to some people, even at the cost of their licenses to practice, and the risk of other professional embarrassment.
Don’t Steele — or lie
- The Indiana lawyer (whose last name is, appropriately, “Steele”) misappropriated about $150,000 in funds from his client trust account, diverting the money to his personal use, though he also sometimes let the loot trickle down, “peel[ing] off a few hundred dollars” by way of handing out “spot bonuses” to his employees.
- But in addition to multiple other violations, the lawyer misused his profile on Avvo.com, the ubiquitous legal marketing website. By his own description, Steele “actively manipulate[d his] Avvo reviews [from clients] by monetarily incentivizing positive reviews, and punishing clients who [wrote] negative reviews by publicly exposing confidential information about them.” Can’t get much worse than that — except that at least once, Steele “was mistaken about the identity of a negative reviewer, prompting him to expose the confidential information of a former client other than the one who had posted the review.” Result: disbarment.
- A senior state judge in Minnesota liked to post on his personal Facebook page. He described a court as a “zoo;” he referred to a defendant as a “klunk.” He described a case where a woman moved for expungement of her criminal conviction, which had resulted from assaulting her boyfriend, whom she caught having sexual relations with another woman. The judge’s FB comment on the case: “Listen to this and conclude that lawyers have more fun than [other] people.”
- The capper for the judicial oversight board was FB posts the judge made during a September sex trafficking trial. The posts were simply factual, but the defense became aware of them after conviction and before sentencing and successfully moved for retrial. Result: an embarrassing public reprimand for violating five rules in the code of judicial conduct. The judge stated that “he now realizes that his posts should not have been shared even with friends.”
- Last, a logging company defendant in a Ninth Circuit appeal is demanding to undo a $122.5 million settlement of a civil case over a wildfire that destroyed 65,000 acres of forest in California. One basis: in an appeals court filing, the company says that the federal district judge who refused the defendant’s request to set aside the settlement has a private Twitter account that is followed by the government prosecuting attorneys in the case.
- After refusing to reconsider the settlement, the company contends that the judge sent out an “inaccurate and prejudicial” tweet, re-tweeting a news story with a headline stating that the company was “still liable for Moonlight Fire damages.” The company says it never paid any damages, and was not found liable. The company also says that the judge’s Twitter account includes a photo taken with one of the prosecuting attorneys in the case. Result: If the Ninth Circuit adopts the company’s request, the judge will be barred from involvement in the case on remand, based on the appearance of bias.
It would seem that the folly described above would be easy to refrain from — yet the internet, social media, and the “sharing” atmosphere we live in seem to sound a siren song irresistible even to apparently sensible people, leading many to shipwreck. Don’t let it happen to you.