Was That Wrong? Trying to mislead disciplinary authorities into believing that you had died.

Was That Wrong? is a semi-regular column on Ethical Grounds that features stories of the absurd & outrageous from the world of legal ethics and attorney discipline. The column’s aim is to highlight misconduct that I hope lawyers will instinctively avoid without needing me to convene a continuing legal education seminar that cautions them to do so.

WTW? is inspired by the famed “Red Dot” episode of Seinfeld. In the episode, George Costanza has intercourse in his office.  George’s boss finds out, which leads to the following exchange:

  • Boss: I’m going to get right to the point. It has come to my attention that you and the cleaning woman have engaged in sexual intercourse on the desk in your office. Is that correct?
  • George: Who said that?
  • Boss: She did.
  • George: Was that wrong? Should I have not done that? I tell you I gotta plead ignorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon, you know, cause I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you people do that all the time.
  • Boss: You’re fired.
  • George: Well, you didn’t have to say it like that.

The full script is HERE.  The scene is HERE.

Today’s WTW? entry comes via an article that Reuters published last week. The headline says it all: Lawyer disbarred after email faking death to Calif. attorney regulators.  Here’s the back story.

In March 2021, disciplinary prosecutors charged the lawyer with failing to disclose to the bar that he’d been convicted of a crime. The lawyer did not appear for the subsequent disciplinary hearing. As a result, default judgment was entered against the lawyer.

The lawyer’s first name is “Donald.”  Before a sanctions hearing could be held, a disciplinary prosecutor received an email from the same account that the prosecutor had previously used to communicate with the lawyer. The email stated:

  • “I saw this and don’t know what it is.  Donald passed months ago.”

The disciplinary prosecutor assigned an investigator to verify Donald’s passing. It didn’t take long for the investigator to determine that Donald was very much alive. Unsurprisingly, the discovery caused the disciplinary office to include the email with a petition to disbar Donald. The California Supreme Court granted the petition.

Now, some might argue that this incident doesn’t qualify for WTW?  I concede that Donald was not disbarred for trying to mislead disciplinary authorities into believing that he had died. Indeed, it appears that he was well down the path to disbarment by the time the email was sent.

However, I can easily imagine a Seinfeld plot in which Costanza decides to fake his own death. Further, the larger point remains: we don’t need a CLE to raise awareness that doing so is not an appropriate response to a disciplinary investigation. Hence this latest induction into the Hall of WTW?

Here’s how I envision the screen adaptation:

  • Court: We’re going to get right to the point. It has come to our attention that after you failed to appear for a disciplinary hearing, you tried to dupe disciplinary authorities into believing that you had died.
  • Lawyer: Who said that?
  • Court:  You sent the disciplinary prosecutor an email stating that you had “passed” but then answered the door and identified yourself when a bar investigator followed up.
  • Lawyer: Was that wrong? Should I have not done that? I tell you I gotta plead ignorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon, you know, cause I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you people do that all the time.
  • Court: Disbarred.
  • Lawyer: Well, you didn’t have to say it like that.

As always, let’s be careful out there.

Prior WTW? Entries:

3 thoughts on “Was That Wrong? Trying to mislead disciplinary authorities into believing that you had died.

  1. The Seinfield sketch is not apocryphal – it really happens just like that. Many years ago, a very similar event happened in my office: A (male) attorney had sex in his office with someone, and the cleaning lady, later that night, found evidence on the couch that showed that he had been having sex there. She complained that she shouldn’t have to clean up stuff like that. And yes, he got fired.

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