I’ve blogged often on issues related to the Hazeldon Report, a report the ABA referred to as revealing “substantial and widespread levels of problem drinking and other behavior health problems in the legal profession.” My various posts on the topic are here.
In this post, I wrote:
- “In my experience, lawyers are in position to recognize signs of substance abuse and mental health issues exhibited by another lawyer, whether a co-worker, colleague, or opposing counsel. Some lawyers wonder whether there is a duty to report substance abuse and mental health issues. Maybe. Rule 8.3, the reporting rule, is HERE. But how about this? How about coming it at from the perspective of helping another human being instead of analyzing whether another’s struggles trigger your duty to report? If a colleague, co-worker, or opposing counsel needs help, why not help them?”
There’s a decision making the rounds in bar counsel circles this week. It’s an extraordinarily sad story. It’s also a story that shows the importance of helping sooner rather than later. You can read the decision here.
Most relevant to the point I want to raise today is that the decision makes it clear that the lawyer exhibited signs & symptoms of addiction/mental health issues before the misconduct occurred.
Per the opinion:
- January 2010: Lawyer receives $117,225.17 for Client and deposits it into trust. Lawyer does not disburse the funds to Client or inform Client that Lawyer received the funds.
- April 2010: Client learns that Lawyer has the funds and starts contacting Lawyer. Lawyer does not respond.
- For two years, Lawyer treats the funds as her own, eventually spending the entire amount.
- May 2012: Client files a complaint with Washington State Bar Association.
- July 2012: Client hires a new attorney who sues Lawyer and obtains a default judgment.
- July 2014: Lawyer pleads guilty to first degree theft and is sentenced to serve 6 months. The sentence is later reduced to 9 months of electronic home monitoring.
- 2016: hearing officer recommends 3-year suspension of Lawyer’s law license. Disciplinary Board rejects recommendation and recommends disbarment.
- August 2017: Washington Supreme Court disbars Lawyer.
The hearing officer’s recommendation for a 3-year suspension was based on a conclusion that Lawyer’s substance abuse, physical health problems, and mental health problems mitigated against disbarment. Both the Disciplinary Board and the Supreme Court agreed that Lawyer suffered from significant health problems, but concluded that the problems did not mitigate against disbarment.
Reminder: Lawyer received Client’s funds in January 2010.
Evidence in the disciplinary case suggested that by “November 2009, [Lawyer] was dysfunctional and that someone on the medications prescribed to her ‘might not think clearly, rationally, or be able to function very well.'” Opinion, at 17.
Indeed, the record established that Lawyer was in three car accidents between 2004 and 2006 that left her with chronic pain. Her pain was treated with a variety of opioids. Opinion, at 8.
By 2009, Lawyer’s “personality changed signficantly.” Lawyer was “lethargic, slept a lot, and was inactive even when awake. She would pass out midsentence and was unable to complete simple tasks.” Opinion, at 8. By year’s end, Lawyer “was almost never in the office.” Opinion, at 2.
In 2009, Lawyer encountered other issues as well. Her grandparents died. She had marital difficulties. She suffered from numerous physical health problems. Opinion, at 8-9.
The opinion indicates that sometime in 2009, the Lawyer’s doctor urged her “to enter a detoxification program for increasing opioid use.” Opinion, at 9. The opinion does not indicate whether, from 2006 through 2012, anyone intervened or sought to convince Lawyer to get help. I understand that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
That being said, the misconduct began after Lawyer had become “dysfunctional.” It’s clear that her dysfunction resulted from opioid use, and other physical and mental health problems. Yet, she continued to practice, take clients, and handle client funds.
Again, I don’t know whether someone tried to get her help before she misappropriated client funds. I imagine, though, that if she was as dysfunctional as the opinion describes, plenty of people would have noticed: family, friends, co-workers, opposing counsel, court staff, judges.
I’m not blaming them. Trust me, I know the feeling of not wanting to get involved. As I’ve blogged,
- ” Yes, I get it, we are reluctant to get involved. Some of these might sound familiar:
- It’s not my business.
- I don’t know for sure, could’ve been she was having a bad day.
- It helps my client that he isn’t doing his job.
- The firm doesn’t need the bad publicity.”
We need to get past that mindset. We must help sooner rather than later. Look at the damage that can ensure if we don’t. In the Washington case, the lawyer’s career is ruined, she put an associate’s license at risk, and, but for Washington’s client protection fund, the Client would have lost more than $100,000.
If we wait for a lawyer’s practice (and life) to implode before we help, we are not doing anything to protect clients, the profession, or lawyers.
Helping someone in need is the right thing to do. Don’t wait until it’s too late.