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Bell/Gaerte: 3 things to know about responding to disciplinary grievances

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Bell Gaerte 3 thingsAccording to the Indiana Supreme Court’s Annual Report, 1,474 requests for investigation were submitted to the Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission by the public and 47 grievances were initiated by the commission between July 1, 2012, and June 30, 2013. While this may seem like a lot, the good news is that only 52 of these 1,521 grievances were reduced to formal charges in verified complaints.

These numbers seem to show that at some point, you may have the wonderful opportunity to respond to a disciplinary grievance. With that in mind, here are three things to know about responding to a disciplinary commission grievance:

1. Calm down and take your time

I realize this is easier said than done. As much as you will want to get this pleasurable experience over with as soon as possible, you also want to make certain that you are not making your situation worse. Generally speaking, it is common for the commission to grant at least one extension of time for a lawyer to respond to the grievance. Accuracy in your response, not speed, will be the commission’s and your goal.

Several attorneys have been prosecuted for violating Rule 8.1(a) of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct. This rule makes it a violation to knowingly issue a false statement of material fact to the commission in a grievance response. Take the time to investigate the allegation thoroughly and draft a deliberate response. Arguably, some of these attorneys may have avoided this charge if they had taken their time to respond to the grievance, acted more deliberately and written more accurately.

After you have paused to review your file thoroughly, take the grievance seriously and respond to it professionally. Don’t do what one lawyer did when he was accused of having a sexual relationship with his client. In his grievance response, he characterized the allegations as “nothing more than the raving of a lazy, promiscuous, greedy, psychotic b*tch.” Matter of E.G., 674 N.E.2d 551, 553 (Ind. 1996). This comment made it to the published decision and many respected commentators have speculated that this response was a “first draft” and that had the respondent taken more time to respond, he may have deleted this sentence.

2. Actually answer the grievance

Given that the disciplinary commission generally grants at least one extension of time to respond to a grievance, it may be surprising to learn that many attorneys do not respond to the grievances at all. It seems obvious, but apparently it bears advising that grievances don’t just go away and the Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission isn’t just going to close a file without a response from the attorney. The annual report cited above noted that 50 Petitions to Show Cause for Noncooperation were filed in the reported year. Several of these petitions resulted in what is called “Noncooperation Suspensions” and 11 of these suspensions became “Indefinite.”

3. Don’t attempt to limit your exposure

You may be dealing with an unhappy client right now and feel that a grievance is inevitable. If you find yourself in this situation, resist the temptation to obtain a promise from your client not to file a grievance. Such attempts in and of themselves subject you to discipline. Obtaining such a promise has been deemed by the Indiana Supreme Court as an attempt to obstruct the disciplinary process and a violation of the Indiana Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(d). See Matter of C.B., 615 N.E.2d 106, 108 (Ind. 1993).

Most of you do not have “Respond to a Disciplinary Grievance” on your bucket list. Hopefully, you will never have an opportunity to utilize any information in this article. But if you have to respond to a disciplinary grievance from the commission, answer the grievance timely, deliberately and accurately. Doing so will increase the chances that the informal investigation will not result in a formal charge. As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is especially true in this setting.•

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James J. Bell and K. Michael Gaerte are attorneys with Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. They assist lawyers and judges with professional liability and legal ethics issues. They also practice in criminal defense and are regular speakers on criminal defense and ethics topics. They can be reached at jbell@bgdlegal.com or mgaerte@bgdlegal.com. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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  1. CCHP's real accomplishment is the 2015 law signed by Gov Pence that basically outlaws any annexation that is forced where a 65% majority of landowners in the affected area disagree. Regardless of whether HP wins or loses, the citizens of Indiana will not have another fiasco like this. The law Gov Pence signed is a direct result of this malgovernance.

  2. I gave tempparry guardship to a friend of my granddaughter in 2012. I went to prison. I had custody. My daughter went to prison to. We are out. My daughter gave me custody but can get her back. She was not order to give me custody . but now we want granddaughter back from friend. She's 14 now. What rights do we have

  3. This sure is not what most who value good governance consider the Rule of Law to entail: "In a letter dated March 2, which Brizzi forwarded to IBJ, the commission dismissed the grievance “on grounds that there is not reasonable cause to believe that you are guilty of misconduct.”" Yet two month later reasonable cause does exist? (Or is the commission forging ahead, the need for reasonable belief be damned? -- A seeming violation of the Rules of Profession Ethics on the part of the commission) Could the rule of law theory cause one to believe that an explanation is in order? Could it be that Hoosier attorneys live under Imperial Law (which is also a t-word that rhymes with infamy) in which the Platonic guardians can do no wrong and never owe the plebeian class any explanation for their powerful actions. (Might makes it right?) Could this be a case of politics directing the commission, as celebrated IU Mauer Professor (the late) Patrick Baude warned was happening 20 years ago in his controversial (whisteblowing) ethics lecture on a quite similar topic: http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1498&context=ilj

  4. I have a case presently pending cert review before the SCOTUS that reveals just how Indiana regulates the bar. I have been denied licensure for life for holding the wrong views and questioning the grand inquisitors as to their duties as to state and federal constitutional due process. True story: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS Shorter, Amici brief serving to frame issue as misuse of govt licensure: https://www.scribd.com/doc/312841269/Thomas-More-Society-Amicus-Brown-v-Ind-Bd-of-Law-Examiners

  5. Here's an idea...how about we MORE heavily regulate the law schools to reduce the surplus of graduates, driving starting salaries up for those new grads, so that we can all pay our insane amount of student loans off in a reasonable amount of time and then be able to afford to do pro bono & low-fee work? I've got friends in other industries, radiology for example, and their schools accept a very limited number of students so there will never be a glut of new grads and everyone's pay stays high. For example, my radiologist friend's school accepted just six new students per year.

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