Attorney who harassed client to dismiss complaint suspended

A northern Indiana attorney who made false statements to a trial court then harassed his client in an attempt to get her to dismiss a disciplinary complaint against him has been suspended from the practice of law in Indiana for at least one year.

In a Monday disciplinary opinion in In the Matter of: Doug Bernacchi, 46S00-1512-DI-694, Michigan City attorney Doug Bernacchi was hired by a grandmother to represent her in a child support case against her grandson’s parents, including her adult son. Bernacchi agreed to take the case for an $800 non-refundable retainer, which the grandmother was instructed to pay in full to Mario Sims, an independent contract paralegal. Bernacchi told his client that he would collect his portion of the funds from Sims, who was to be the point person for any questions about the case.

Bernacchi then filed appearances on behalf of both the grandmother and her son and told the trial court at the first hearing on a pending Rule to Show Cause that he was representing her son. He then told the court at a subsequent hearing that he had erred and was actually representing the grandmother, but went on to argue against the son being made to pay child support because he was bedridden.

The trial court chose to dismiss the Rule to Show Cause due, in part, to confusion over party representation. Bernacchi then told the grandmother that he had told the trial court her son was on his deathbed, but refused to correct that statement as she requested.

The grandmother then requested a refund from Bernacchi and filed a grievance against him with the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission. Bernacchi eventually refunded the grandmother’s money, but only after he asked her to withdraw the grievance in exchange for the refund. He also directly contacted members of the commission and asked them to dismiss the investigation against him.

The commission filed a complaint against Bernacchi in December 2015, and in August 2016 he admitted under oath to the allegations in the complaint. Because of that admission, Bernacchi’s challenge to the hearing officer’s findings are waived, the Indiana Supreme Court wrote in the Monday per curiam opinion. Similarly, the justices found the hearing officer properly did not allow Sims to testify during the final hearing because Bernacchi “dissuaded the Commission from deposing Sims after Respondent admitted the violations and had not included Sims on the witness list for the final hearing.”

The high court then found Bernacchi violated six Indiana Professional Conduct Rules, including 1.1, 1.5(a), 5.3 and Guidelines 9.1, 5.4(a) and 8.4(d). Those rules related to competent representation; collecting unreasonable fees; using a nonlawyer legal assistant who is not an employee; improperly sharing legal fees with a nonlawyer; and engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Though Bernacchi’s lack of disciplinary history was found to be a mitigating factor, his dishonesty, confusion about who he was representing and attempts to interfere with the disciplinary process were each found as aggravators. Thus, the court suspended him for a period of at least one year, without automatic reinstatement, beginning Nov. 27. The costs of the proceedings were assessed against him.

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