The first order of the day was to be certain the witness chair would not collapse under a succession of personal injury lawyers. Some of the twenty-odd chairs in the Disciplinary Board's modest hearing room are, in fact, broken. (The room is ominously lined with file boxes from lawyers whose businesses they have closed. I wondered if the chairs were donated by those offices.)
Disciplinary Board member Attorney Laura A. Pisaturo hauled over a green captain's chair and tried it out herself before offering it to a witness. She took her seat at the hearing table with Attorney Matthew L. Lewiss, who chaired the hearing, and Public Member John E. Moran III, who verified for the record that he is not related to the complainant, Louise Moran.
Deputy Disciplinary Counsel Barbara Margolis represented Ms. Moran, who attended with her private attorney. Based on the exhibits and testimony, this appears to be the chronology of the case:
- On January 31, 2012, Rhode Island construction worker William Moran died of carbon monoxide exposure, and others were injured in a West Virginia hotel.
- The next day, West Virginia Attorney Michael Bee called Rhode Island Attorney Robert Karns (who knew him from their work on traumatic brain injury cases) and asked Karns to find out about the Rhode Island victims since Bee was working on a lawsuit. Karns was in the middle of an IT seminar, but he called Investigator Ryan McCormack and asked him to look into the case and to provide victims with Attorney Bee's website and with Attorney Karns's business card.
- On February 3rd, McCormack went to the home of Mr. Moran's widow, Louise Moran. She was not at home, but McCormack talked with a family friend, Randolph Baker, who told McCormack to return and speak to Moran.
- On February 7th, after the funeral, McCormack returned to the Moran home, and Ms. Moran told him she had hired another lawyer.
- A week later, on February 14th, Moran wrote a letter of complaint against Karns to David Curtin, Chief Disciplinary Counsel. Her letter arrived on February 21st.
- On February 27th, Mr. Karns wrote to Mr. Curtin, admitted his violation of Rule 7.3, and apologized.
- More than three weeks later, on March 21st, Curtin petitioned the Disciplinary Board to hear the case.
- On March 28th, Karns's attorney Amato A. DeLuca filed his client's answers to Mr. Curtin's Petition.
At the hearing, DeLuca called on several colleagues of "Respondent-attorney" Karns to testify under oath to his character. Some had been his opponents in the courtroom, but all spoke highly of his integrity, hard work, and generosity. One said she believed he was simply doing what he could to help a member of the Bar from another jurisdiction. "That's Bob," she said, describing his "selfless" attitude: "Whatever you need, I'll help you out."
After more lawyers praised Karns, Louise Moran, who sat next to me, grumbled to her private attorney, "This is ridiculous." Five lawyers testified to the respondent's decency, and one asserted that it was not Karns, but Ms. Moran's attorney who was pursuing this "for pecuniary gain." (After that witness returned to his seat, Ms. Moran's attorney summoned him to the corridor, where a separate commotion ensued.)
Finally Mr. Karns took the witness chair and told how he had phoned McCormack during a break in his seminar and asked the investigator to "look into" the case, but he had no idea McCormack was returning to the Moran home a second time. McCormack was a thorough and "dogged" investigator, said Karns. Before leaving the chair, Karns apologized to everyone in the room, and most emphatically to the widow.
She took the witness chair next -- a youthful woman, in her 30s or 40s, and told about receiving lawyers' solicitations by mail -- perhaps thirty of them -- which she immediately discarded. Those are entirely legal under Rule 7.3, which prohibits soliciting prospective clients in person or by telephone ("real-time contacts"), but permits mailings.
There was a lot that was curious about this hearing:
- The essential witnesses -- Mr. Baker and Mr. McCormack -- never appeared. Only they could clear up what Karns said to McCormack, what was said on the first visit to the Moran home, and whether Baker had asked McCormack to return. That degree of hearsay calls the entire proceeding into question.
- Was the West Virginia lawyer proposing a class action suit? Given the circumstances of the case, this seems likely, and it might have left some wiggle room under Rule 7.3 that Karns did not exploit.
- And what about that extraordinary apology? Even Karns's lawyer said he would not have counseled his client to apologize if he had represented Karns then. But if someone is truly harmed, an apology matters.
Even if Karns's apology was a cynical attempt to deflect the Disciplinary Counsel, it is hard to understand how the case ever came to demand the public money and time devoted to this proceeding when Family Court attorneys commit wholesale violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct (as I have found researching countless child custody cases) without ever facing disciplinary proceedings or judicial reprimands.
This appears to have been the complaint of a woman who attended the hearing and disrupted it at the end by calling the entire Bar Association to task. (I was so stunned by her outburst that I failed to take notes, but Ms. Margolis rushed to bring Mr. Curtin into the hearing room, and Mr. Lewiss hastily adjourned the hearing.)
Later Curtin observed with amazement that this woman wonders why she "lost custody of a child who isn't even hers."
I learned there is more to her case than that, and her bizarre behavior is far more understandable in context. I have met many parents -- and stepparents -- who have been traumatized by the unaccountable behavior of Family Court lawyers in violation of Rule 8.4 (c) against engaging "in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation" -- like those who tormented the child pictured at the top of this blog, or others I have written about in http://littlehostages.blogspot.com and http://trophychild.blogspot.com
I asked Mr. Curtin a few weeks ago if the Disciplinary Counsel's Office can identify the most common complaints against Family Court lawyers. He said it is impossible to know, since his office does not keep a record of the types of complaints in various courts. I have written to ask Mr. Curtin to have his office compile a simple database that would show the full range of public concerns about the behavior of attorneys, the Rules they are accused of violating, and the Courts where this alleged behavior occurred.
When I met with him, Mr. Curtin spoke of his efforts to uplift the profession and to help lawyers deal with destructive patterns in their personal lives and practices rather than simply function in a punitive role. This is an important goal for his Office.
I am not a lawyer and do not know Mr. Karns. But the case against him appears unreasonable and punitive. In what universe did this rise to the top of lawyers' offenses? If police were content to set unreasonable speed traps to boost their statistics but failed to address violent crimes within the community, we would cry foul.
Deputy Counsel Margolis described the procedure ahead: the hearing panel will meet to decide on a sanction which they will recommend to the full Disciplinary Board with a written decision. The Board will forward their recommendation to the Supreme Court that will issue an Order -- probably sometime in the fall.
This seems like a good time for the Supreme Court to direct its Disciplinary Counsel to focus on those violations that most egregiously damage the honor of Rhode Island's legal profession -- including "dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation" forbidden by Rule 8.4 (c).