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Bell/Gaerte: 3 things to know about ethical responsibility for others’ conduct

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Bell Gaerte 3 thingsMuch has already been written about the recent Matter of Anonymous that was issued by the Indiana Supreme Court April 11. 6 N.E.3rd 903 (Ind. 2014). In this case, the respondent was found to have violated the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct, including Rule 7.1, for making “a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services” due to various testimonials, settlements and verdicts that appeared on a website. 6 N.E.3rd at slip op. 6.

While that seems fairly standard, what made this case stand out from a more run-of-the-mill disciplinary advertising decision was that the “settlements, verdicts, or testimonials” on the website were not the respondent’s. Id. at 3. Instead, the website was run by an organization that entered into a license agreement with the respondent and whose website identified the respondent as the organization’s exclusive source for legal services in Indiana. Id. at 2.

The website posted the organization’s results and provided testimonials like the organization “changed my life in a big way and my family received our fair share or justice.” Id. at 3. The Anonymous decision noted that while none of these communications “related to the Respondent, the website did not disclose that they did not relate to Respondent.” Id. The court reasoned that “the average viewer could not differentiate between Respondent and the statements about [the organization] on the [organization’s] website and that Respondent is therefore responsible for objectionable content on the website.” Id. at 6 (brackets added). (Read more about the case and the attorney disciplined.)

This is not the only time someone in Indiana has been disciplined for the conduct of another. Here are three things to know about the ethical responsibility for the conduct of others.

1. Local counsel can be responsible for co-counsel’s statement in a pleading

In Matter of M.W., 777 N.E.2d 714, 717 (Ind. 2002), the respondent was found to have violated Rule 8.2 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct for making statements “with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity concerning the integrity of a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals.” Specifically, the court took issue with statements made in a footnote in a petition to transfer. Id. at 716-7.
 

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James J. Bell also provides his unique insights to life and the law as The Amateur Life Coach at www.iclef.org. Videos 2 and 5 relate to the issues discussed here.

However, the respondent did not make the statements in the footnote. Specifically, the court noted that “the language of the footnote was not authored by the respondent but by an out-of-state co-counsel.” Matter of M.W., 782 N.E.2d 985, 987 (Ind. 2003). In making this ruling, the court cited to the fact that the signing and filing the brief at issue constituted “joint responsibility pursuant to Indiana Admission and Discipline Rule 3(2)(d).” Id. Therefore, a lawyer can be held ethically responsible for the statements of co-counsel in a pleading.

2. An attorney is responsible for the actions of his or her staff

Let’s say your secretary posts something confidential on Facebook, your bookkeeper bungles the accounting on your trust account or the private investigator you hired has a penchant for interviewing represented people about the matter for which they are represented. If these three people were lawyers, your secretary would have violated Rule 1.6 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct, your bookkeeper may have violated Rule 1.15 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct and your investigator would have violated Rule 4.2 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct.

Good thing they are not lawyers. If the Disciplinary Commission calls you, can you successfully argue, “It was not me, it was them?” Maybe. Under Rule 5.3 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer with “managerial authority” “shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that the person’s conduct is compatible with” the Rules of Professional Conduct. So, if you can show your “reasonable efforts” to supervise your staff, you should be able to avoid ethical responsibility for the actions of your staff.

3. An attorney is responsible for the actions of his or her marketing agent

So now we have to come back to advertising. Without going into too much detail regarding the advertising rules, the rules don’t allow you to talk about past performance, make references to results or give testimonials. (Although Rule 7.2 does allow an attorney to boast that he or she has malpractice insurance, which is always a big selling point with clients.) So what is a marketing agent supposed to do besides gouge his or her eyes out?

I am not sure. However, you could see how a trained marketing agent, who wants to exercise his or her talents, would feel restrained by these Rules of Professional Conduct and may feel inclined to ignore the rules at your peril. Under Rule 5.3, you are responsible for the marketing agent’s actions. Many grievances have been issued when the marketing agent runs afoul of these rules and the supervising attorney is asleep at the switch. If you hire a marketing agent to do your ads, make sure you make the final call on what is produced.•

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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. Welcome to Hendricks County where local and state statutes (especially Indiana Class C misdemeanors) are given a higher consideration than Federal statues and active duty military call-ups.

  2. If real money was spent on this study, what a shame. And if some air-head professor tries to use this to advance a career, pity the poor student. I am approaching a time that i (and others around me) should be vigilant. I don't think I'm anywhere near there yet, but seeing the subject I was looking forward to something I might use to look for some benchmarks. When finally finding my way to the hidden questionnaire all I could say to myself was...what a joke. Those are open and obvious signs of any impaired lawyer (or non-lawyer, for that matter), And if one needs a checklist to discern those tell-tale signs of impairment at any age, one shouldn't be practicing law. Another reason I don't regret dropping my ABA membership some number of years ago.

  3. The case should have been spiked. Give the kid a break. He can serve and maybe die for Uncle Sam and can't have a drink? Wow. And they won't even let him defend himself. What a gross lack of prosecutorial oversight and judgment. WOW

  4. I work with some older lawyers in the 70s, 80s, and they are sharp as tacks compared to the foggy minded, undisciplined, inexperienced, listless & aimless "youths" being churned out by the diploma mill law schools by the tens of thousands. A client is generally lucky to land a lawyer who has decided to stay in practice a long time. Young people shouldn't kid themselves. Experience is golden especially in something like law. When you start out as a new lawyer you are about as powerful as a babe in the cradle. Whereas the silver halo of age usually crowns someone who can strike like thunder.

  5. YES I WENT THROUGH THIS BEFORE IN A DIFFERENT SITUATION WITH MY YOUNGEST SON PEOPLE NEED TO LEAVE US ALONE WITH DCS IF WE ARE NOT HURTING OR NEGLECT OUR CHILDREN WHY ARE THEY EVEN CALLED OUT AND THE PEOPLE MAKING FALSE REPORTS NEED TO GO TO JAIL AND HAVE A CLASS D FELONY ON THERE RECORD TO SEE HOW IT FEELS. I WENT THREW ALOT WHEN HE WAS TAKEN WHAT ELSE DOES THESE SCHOOL WANT ME TO SERVE 25 YEARS TO LIFE ON LIES THERE TELLING OR EVEN LE SAME THING LIED TO THE COUNTY PROSECUTOR JUST SO I WOULD GET ARRESTED AND GET TIME HE THOUGHT AND IT TURNED OUT I DID WHAT I HAD TO DO NOT PROUD OF WHAT HAPPEN AND SHOULD KNOW ABOUT SEEKING MEDICAL ATTENTION FOR MY CHILD I AM DISABLED AND SICK OF GETTING TREATED BADLY HOW WOULD THEY LIKE IT IF I CALLED APS ON THEM FOR A CHANGE THEN THEY CAN COME AND ARREST THEM RIGHT OUT OF THE SCHOOL. NOW WE ARE HOMELESS AND THE CHILDREN ARE STAYING WITH A RELATIVE AND GUARDIAN AND THE SCHOOL WON'T LET THEM GO TO SCHOOL THERE BUT WANT THEM TO GO TO SCHOOL WHERE BULLYING IS ALLOWED REAL SMART THINKING ON A SCHOOL STAFF.

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