Stop me if we’ve discussed this one before.
Issue: whether a lawyer acting in his capacity as a landlord commits professional misconduct by letting the air out of a tenant’s car’s tires and putting glue in the locks on the doors to the tenant’s apartment.
In Vermont, it’s rare that we receive complaints about something a lawyer has done outside the practice of law. When it happens, we typically must review whether the lawyer violated one of two provisions of Rule 8.4:
- Rule 8.4(b), which makes it professional misconduct to engage in “serious crimes;” or,
- Rule 8.4(c), which makes it professional misconduct to engage in conduct that involves dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation
Back to the Michigan case.
The lawyer was also a landlord. Per MLive.com, the lawyer conceded to a hearing panel that, embroiled in a dispute with a tenant, he “flattened his tenant’s tires to discourage her from parking in front of his garage.” The lawyer explained that his intentions weren’t all bad, that he “did so rather than having her vehicle towed to save her money.” The tenant changes the locks to the apartment and did not give the lawyer/landlord a key. He conceded, thus, that he filled the locks with glue.
I’ve not yet found the Michigan decision. However, as reported by MLive.com:
- “The three-member panel on Feb. 28 ruled Czuprynski engaged ‘in conduct that exposed the legal profession to obloquy, contempt, censure and reproach.’ Furthermore, the panel found Czuprynski’s conduct was ‘contrary to justice, ethics, honesty or good morals.’ ”
The panel is scheduled to reconvene to consider the sanction to be imposed.
To me, the case raises an interesting discussion. There can be little dispute that it’s absolutely wrong for landlords to handle disputes with tenants like the Michigan lawyer did. However, harkening back to my days as the disciplinary prosecutor, I wonder how I’d have approached the conduct in the context of an attorney discipline case.
In Vermont, Rule 7 of Administrative Order 9 states that discipline may be imposed for:
- violating the rules of professional conduct;
- conduct which results in lawyer or judicial discipline in another jurisdiction;
- in an attorney discipline proceeding, violating an order issued by a hearing panel, the PRB, or the Supreme Court; or,
- failing to provide disciplinary counsel, a hearing panel or the Court with information without a reasonable grounds for doing so.
In my view, only the first applies. Thus, had a Vermont lawyer done exactly what the Michigan lawyer did while I was Vermont’s prosecutor, what rule would I have charged the lawyer with violating?
It’s not clear to me.
I’ve not researched whether it’s a “serious crime” to let the air out of someone’s tires or put glue in their locks. So, I don’t know if Rule 8.4(b) would’ve given me a hook. I doubt it.
My guess? Rule 8.4(d). The rule prohibits conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice. I’d have argued that there is a process to resolve landlord-tenant disputes: civil court. Justice is not administered by harassment and intimidation that impermissibly deprives a tenant of access to a dwelling and appears motivated by an attempt to force the tenant to vacate without having to file for eviction.
I don’t know how strong my argument would’ve been. And that makes me wonder whether a system that focuses on rules more than on the impact of an attorney’s conduct can lose the forest for the trees.
The Michigan disciplinary panel saw the forest.
Absent a specific rule to charge, I wonder if I’d have been able to convince a Vermont hearing panel to do the same.