Monday Morning Honors #267

Happy Monday! Last full week before the holidays.  Make the most of it!

Friday’s questions are here.  The answers follow today’s Honor Roll. 

Honor Roll

Answers

Rules

  • None.  Open book, open search engine, text-a-friend.
  • Exception:  Question 5.  We try to play that one honest.
  • Unless stated otherwise, the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct apply
  • Team entries welcome, creative team names even more welcome.
  • E-mail answers to michael.kennedy@vermont.gov
  • I’ll post the answers & Honor Roll on Monday
  • Please consider sharing the quiz with friends & colleagues
  • Share on social media.  Hashtag it – #fiveforfriday

Question 1

Consider the following:

  • Thoroughness, preparation, legal knowledge, and skill.
  • Well-being.
  • Staying abreast of developments in the law, including the risks and benefits of technology.

Each is an aspect of the duty of ________.

COMPETENCE.   V.R.Pr.C. 1.1 sets out the duty of competence and defines it to include the thoroughness, preparation, legal knowledge, and skill required for the representation.  Comment 8 addresses the duty to stay abreast of the risk and benefits of relevant technology, while Comment 9 discusses well-being as an aspect of competence.

Question 2

Here’s a comment to one of the rules:

  • “A lawyer entitled to a fee is permitted by paragraph (c)(3) to prove the services rendered in an action to collect it.  This aspect of the rule expresses the principle that the beneficiary of a fiduciary relationship may not exploit it to the detriment of the fiduciary.”

Which of the 7 Cs of Legal Ethics is the subject of the rule that this comment accompanies?

CONFIDENTIALITY.  The quoted language is from Comment 13.

Question 3

Fill in the blank.

There’s a rule that prohibits ex parte communication with two groups of people. One group includes judges and any “other person acting in a judicial or quasi-judicial capacity in a pending or impending adversary proceeding.”   The other group includes current and prospective _____________.

JURORS.  V.R.Pr.C. 3.5(b)(2).

Question 4

I rarely receive inquiries about this rule, but the topic it addresses is one that many lawyers find frustrating in opposing counsel.  A comment to the rule suggests that a violation likely turns on “whether a competent lawyer acting in good faith would regard the course of action as having some substantial purpose other than delay.”

What’s the name of the rule?

  • A.  Expediting Litigation.  V.R.Pr.C. 3.2
  • B.  Conflicts of Interest: Current Clients: Specific Rules.
  • C.  Declining or Terminating Representation.
  • D.  Meritorious Claims and Contentions.

Question 5

Today’s question is about a movie that is 30 years old.  However, the lead role was played by an actor who is going to finish as Hollywood’s top paid star of 2022, reportedly earning more than $100 million for a movie that was released this spring.

The 1992 movie included several memorable courtroom scenes.  In one, a member of the 3-lawyer defense team objected to testimony and asked that it be stricken from the record.  The following exchange ensued:

  • Judge:  The objection is overruled counsel.
  • Lawyer:  Sir, the defense strenuously objects and requests a meeting in chambers so that his honor might have an opportunity to hear discussion before ruling on the objection.
  • Judge: The objection is overruled counsel.

A few moments later, the court went into recess.  Annoyed with the lawyer, co-counsel asked:

  • “I strenuously object? Is that how it works?” 

Then, to drive home the point, co-counsel pretended to be both lawyer and judge in this scenario:

  • Lawyer:  Objection.
  • Judge:  Overruled.
  • Lawyer:  No, no, no, no I strenuously object.
  • Judge: Oh, well if you strenuously object, let me take a moment to reconsider.

Later, in the movie’s famous climactic scene, the leading character – and leader of the defense team — asked a key witness “did you order the ____   ____?” The judge told the witness that the witness did not have to answer. The witness answered anyway. 


If they were real-life lawyers, the defense team would probably be doing something today to observe Veterans Day.

What had the witness ordered?  A CODE RED (The movie is A Few Good Men)

Bonus: name the 2022 movie that starred the 1992’s movie’s lead, albeit not as a lawyer. It’s another movie whose characters likely observe Veterans Day.

TOP GUN – MAVERICK.  Tom Cruise starred in both.

History’s best “worst” song, and tips on acting reasonably to safeguard client data.

Yesterday was this blog’s 7th birthday.  We entered the world with Competence Includes Tech Competence.  The theme dominated back then.  Indeed, one could reasonably argue that tech competence is to this blog, as rock & roll is to Starship’s city.[1]

The rules related to tech competence have evolved since then.  In 2018, we adopted language that makes clear that maintaining competence includes keeping “abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”[2] More recently, we amended V.R.Pr.C. 1.6, the confidentiality rule, to include this paragraph:

  • (d) A lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client.

The amendment, which takes effect next week, addresses the duty to act competently to safeguard client information, no matter the format in which the information is stored.  Here’s the Reporter’s Note:

  • “Subdivision (d) is added to reflect that the modern practice of law includes possession of information related to the representation of client in many forms, including information that is stored electronically or digitally. A lawyer is under a duty to act competently to safeguard client information, no matter its format. See V.R.Pr.C. 1.1. Paragraph (d) tracks the ABA Model Rule, clarifies that V.R.Pr.C. 1.6 applies to the electronic transmission and storage of information relating to a representation, and makes explicit that the duty under Rule 1.6 is broader than avoiding affirmative disclosures of information relating to the representation of a client.”

With the new rule, a question that arises is “what are reasonable efforts?”  As I indicated here, it’s not my role to issue a formal opinion as to what’s reasonable and what isn’t.  My stance finds support in ABA Formal Opinion 477.  Among other things, the opinion concludes that “[w]hat constitutes reasonable efforts is not susceptible to a hard and fast rule, but rather is contingent upon a set of factors.”  It goes on to state that “the reasonable efforts standard:

  • “. . . rejects requirements for specific security measures (such as firewalls, passwords, and the like) and instead adopts a fact-specific approach to business security obligations that requires a ‘process’ to assess risks, identify and implement
    appropriate security measures responsive to those risks, verify that they are effectively implemented, and ensure that they are continually updated in response to new developments.

That said, it’s undisputed that my role includes providing guidance.  To that end, here are two resources.

In September, Jim Knapp and I presented “Tech Competence & Cybersecurity” at the VBA’s Annual Meeting.  I began with a short overview of the new rule, then Jim provided a boatload of cyber and tech tips.  You can access the material here.

In addition, Catherine Reach is the Director of the North Carolina Bar Association’s Center for Practice Management.  Two days ago, Catherine posted “Protecting Portable Devices.”  Like Jim’s material, Catherine’s post is chock full o’ helpful tips on securing data.

As always, let’s be careful out there.


[1] Those of you who remember the 80s music scene might question including We Built This City in a post on competence. Your skepticism is warranted. After all, a few years ago, GQ named it “the Worst Song of All Time.” However, I’ll say this: on the rare occasion that I listen to the song, I turn the volume to 11, sing along enthusiastically, and find myself particularly thrilled to belt out (with proper intonation that doesn’t come through in a blog post) “knee deep in the hoopla” and “Marconi plays the Mamba.”  So, for giggles, a trip down memory lane is here.

[2] V.R.Pr.C. 1.1, Cmt. [8].

Cybersecurity, data protection, and a lawyer’s duty of competence.

Given some of the looks and comments that I receive when broaching this topic at CLEs, I’m not certain that it’s an appropriate subject for a day typically reserved for “wellness” posts.  However, as I emerge from a summer blogging hiatus fueled by a disinterest in blogging, I’m less worried about sticking to the traditional schedule than I am in finding something – anything – to write about.  And today, “cybersecurity” not only presents itself as a topic, it does so in a manner that reinforces a notion that lies near and dear to this blog’s heart: competence includes tech competence.

Cybersecurity White Images – Browse 16,974 Stock Photos, Vectors, and Video  | Adobe Stock

To recap, V.R.Pr.C. 1.1 requires a lawyer to provide clients with competent representation. Under the heading “Maintaining Competence,” Comment [8] states:

  • “To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education, and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.” (emphasis added).

The bolded language refers to “tech competence” and was added in 2018.  At the time, and as reported by LawSites, its addition made Vermont the 32nd state to adopt a duty of technology competence. The italicized language has existed since the rule was first promulgated in 1999.  I emphasized it to make clear that continuing legal education is a critical component of maintaining competence.

Which brings me to today’s point.

As reported by LawSites and the ABA Journal, New York recently became the first state to mandate CLE in cybersecurity and data privacy & protection.  From the LawSites post:

  • “Under the new requirement, all attorneys must complete one hour of training every two years in either the ethical obligations surrounding cybersecurity, privacy and data protection, or in the technological and practice-related aspects of protecting data and client communications. Only two other U.S. states mandate technology training as part of a lawyer’s continuing education requirement, Florida and North Carolina. While those states’ CLE requirements allow for training in a range of technology topics, which can include cybersecurity, New York’s is the first to focus its requirement on these topics.”

New York’s new rule is here. The ABA Journal notes that the rule allows lawyers to count up to 3 hours of cybersecurity CLE towards their required 4 hours of ethics CLE.  The ABA post goes on to state:

  • “The New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division adopted the cybersecurity CLE requirement based on a recommendation from the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Technology and the Legal Profession. The NYSBA approved the committee reportin June 2020, according to the bar’s news center.”

This is important. The impetus for the new CLE requirement was not my counterpart in New York.  It was the bar association.  In other words, this isn’t bar counsel crying wolf over competence, tech competence, and the duty to take reasonable precautions to safeguard client data.

Am I saying that a breach is an ethics violation?

NO.

I, AM. NOT.

Again, a lawyer’s duty is to take reasonable precautions to safeguard client data. As I’ve always recognized, the fact that a lawyer or firm is breached or hacked does not necessarily mean that the precautions in place weren’t reasonable. Indeed, in yesteryear, the fact that a client’s paper documents ended up in unauthorized hands didn’t necessarily mean that the lawyer or firm charged with safeguarding those documents failed to take reasonable precautions.  For instance, it likely wouldn’t have been an ethics violation for a firm to fall victim to enterprising criminals who employed thermite to breach a secure cabinet within a secure room within a secure office within a secure building [i]

What I’m saying is this.

A lawyer’s professional obligations include providing clients with competent representation.  CLE is a way to maintain competence.  There’s now a jurisdiction that requires 1 hour of CLE in cybersecurity, privacy, and data protection.  That same jurisdiction allows lawyers to count up to 3 hours of cybersecurity CLE toward their required 4 hours of ethics CLE. In sum, no more eye-rolling at CLEs when I discuss cybersecurity and data protection.  The topic clearly goes to the duty of competence.

As always, let’s be careful out there.

******

[i] I’m obsessed with Better Call Saul.  This week’s series finale has left me thinking of ways to pay homage to the show.  My thermite analogy reminded me not of Better Call Saul, but of its predecessor, Breaking Bad. Specifically, the scenes in the Season 1 finale when Walt uses the innards of an old Etch-A-Sketch to make thermite that he and Jesse use to break into a warehouse to steal methylamine. In fact, the scenes themselves probably subconsciously caused me to use “thermite” in the analogy.

Monday Morning Honors #256

Happy Monday!

Friday’s questions are here.  The answers follow today’s Honor Roll.

Honor Roll

Answers

Question 1

One of my 7 Cs of Legal Ethics, identify the duty that is defined as requiring “the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

Rule 1.1 – Competence

Question 2

Fill in the blanks.  The same word goes in each. The answer is not “legal.”

There’s a rule that requires a lawyer to “render _________ advice.”  A comment to the rule states that “a client is entitled to straightforward advice expressing the lawyer’s honest assessment” and that “a lawyer should not be deterred from giving ______ advice by the prospect that the advice will be unpalatable to the client.”

CANDID – Rule 2.1 – Advisor and my post A Lawyer’s Professional Obligation to Provide Candid Legal Advice.

Question 3

There’s a rule that prohibits a lawyer from knowingly making a false statement of material fact or law to a third person while representing a client.  Does a lawyer violate the rule by knowingly misstating a client’s “bottom line” in settlement negotiations with opposing counsel?

  • A.  Yes.
  • B.  Yes, but there’s an exception for lawyers who represent criminal defendants in plea negotiations.
  • C.  No, because a comment to the rule states that, under conventional negotiation standards, certain statements are not to be taken as statements of material fact. Statements as to a client’s willingness to settle fall in this category. Rule 4.2 – Communication with Person Represented by Counsel, Cmt. [2]
  • D.  I sure as hell hope not.

Question 4

Lawyer called me with an inquiry. I listened*, then replied “the critical question seems to be whether it’s reasonable for you to believe that you will be able to provide competent representation to each affected client.”  At that exact moment, what were Lawyer and I discussing?

  • A.  Whether Lawyer has a conflict.
  • B.  Whether the conflict is waivable under Vermont’s rules.

Rule 1.7 – Conflict of Interest – Current Clients  applies.  My comment reflects the language in Rule 1.7(b)(1), which is part of the analysis whether a conflict can be waived.  Rule 1.7(a) addresses whether a conflict exists and does not mention a lawyer’s reasonable belief that the lawyer can provide competent representation to each affected client.

*The First Brother eagerly awaits the quiz in which “Lawyer called me with an inquiry and I didn’t listen.” Sorry Bro. Not this week.

Question 5

 6 years ago today, a person widely regarded as one of the greatest athletes and most influential people of the 20th century died of complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Arguably the most competent ever to compete in his sport, the athlete missed a chunk of the prime of his career due to a legal battle. After claiming conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War due to his religious beliefs, the athlete was charged and convicted of refusing to submit to induction to the Armed Forces.  The athlete appealed the conviction all the way to the United Supreme Court, a fight in which he eventually won one of his greatest’s victories when the Court overturned the conviction.

Years later, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong published The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court. The book provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Court between 1969 and 1975. It includes a claim that the Court originally voted to uphold the athlete’s conviction, only to have the vote shift once the justice assigned to write the opinion changed his mind after further research into the tenets of the athlete’s religion.

If a lawyer were to use the athlete’s nickname to describe themselves in an ad, they’d probably violate the lawyer advertising rules. That would sting.

Who is the athlete?  Muhammad Ali

Bonus: by what name does the caption of the Supreme Court opinion refer to the athlete.  Cassius Clay.

The opinion is here.  Opinions sure used to be a lot shorter back in the day.

Trump Might Pardon Muhammad Ali. What Did Ali Do? | Time

The importance of setting reasonable client expectations & providing clients with candid legal advice.

It’s CLE season.  I’ve presented a few this week and am scheduled for a bunch more between now and the reporting deadline. No matter the practice area of the target audience, nearly every presentation will include two points:

  1. A lawyer should communicate reasonable expectations to clients at the outset of the representation.
  2. A lawyer has a professional obligation to provide clients with candid legal advice, no matter how unpalatable.

legal ethics

With respect to the former, I’ve long sensed that the bar’s perception is that most disciplinary complaints are rooted in a lawyer’s failure to communicate with a client.  That’s true, but not for the reason many seem to think.  That is, in my experience, not many complaints allege “my lawyer doesn’t respond to my calls or emails.” It’s far more common for a complaint to allege that the representation did not turn out as the client expected and it’s the lawyer’s fault that it didn’t. To me, that’s a communication issue.

I know what you’re wondering: “Mike – if things don’t go as the client had hoped how is that a communication issue?”

My response: “Good question. If you failed to disabuse the client of unreasonable expectations, that’s a communication issue.”

Here’s what I mean.

Imagine that Lawyer agrees to represent Client in a claim for damages.  From the outset, Lawyer is aware that Client expects to receive $100,000.  Lawyer knows that, at best, the claim is worth $25,000.  However, Lawyer doesn’t disabuse Client of their unreasonable expectation. Then, a few months after Lawyer somehow manages to resolve the matter for $50,000, Client files a disciplinary complaint alleging that Lawyer botched the case and cost Client $50,000.

The scenario spans practice areas.

For instance, the divorce client who unreasonably believes they’re going to receive all the marital assets.  Or the criminal defendant who unreasonably believes that they’ll never set foot in jail.  No matter how much their lawyer gets them in a settlement, or how little time their lawyer convinces the sentencing judge to impose, the client is not going to be happy.  All because the lawyer failed to disabuse the client of unreasonable expectations.

Now, are these disciplinary violations?  Maybe not.  Nevertheless, it’s not fun to have a complaint filed or to be sued.  Nor is it good for business to have former clients telling everyone how poorly you did. That’s why I stress the importance of setting reasonable expectations at the outset of the representation, including expectations as to:

  • the result;
  • how long it will take;
  • how much it will cost; and,
  • how often the lawyer will communicate with the client.

Which brings me to point 2: candid legal advice.

Often, setting and managing client expectations necessarily includes delivering advice that the client won’t be happy to receive.  A lawyer’s job is not to tell the client what the client wants to hear.   Rather, a lawyer’s duty is to provide the client with candid legal advice.

Rule 2.1 of the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct is entitled “Advisor.”  The first line is:

  • “In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.”

Comment [1] falls under the heading “Scope of Advice.” It makes my point better than I ever have:

  • “A client is entitled to straightforward advice representing the lawyer’s honest assessment. Legal advice often involves unpleasant facts and alternatives that a client may be disinclined to confront.  In presenting advice, a lawyer endeavors to sustain a client’s morale and may put advice in as acceptable a form as honesty permits. However, a lawyer should not be deterred from giving candid legal advice by the prospect that the advice will be unpalatable to the client.”

Also, as a reader commented in response to a similar blog that I posted last year, the failure to provide candid legal advice implicates more than Rule 2.1.  It’s an integral part of the duty of competence. Further, one might argue that sugarcoating advice is misleading.  Finally, if the reason you’re not delivering bad news is because of the potential blowback to the messenger, well, that might be a conflict.

In closing, consider what you’d expect from your auto mechanic, doctor, dentist, financial advisor, or anyone else to whom you turn for advice.  Or from your lawyer if you ever need to hire one!  You’d expect candid advice that corrects any unreasonable expectations that you might have.  The advice might not be what you hoped for or wanted, but it’s the advice that you’re entitled to receive and that you require to make informed decisions about the matter at hand.

Your clients are entitled to the same.

Related posts:

ESI: there’s risk in failing to preserve.

Say it with me: competence includes tech competence.

In most of my posts on the topic, the unstated message is that a lawyer who fails to satisfy the duty of competence violates Rule 1.1 and risks having a sanction imposed against his or her license.

Here’s my post on Competence, ESI, and E-Discovery.  In it, I wrote that the duty of (tech) competence includes:

  • knowing that “it” exists,
  • knowing that clients, their adversaries, and witnesses have “it;” and,
  • knowing how to protect, preserve, produce, request, review, and use “it.”

What is “it?” It is Electronically Stored Information (“ESI”).

In addition, I cited to an advisory opinion from the State Bar of California that includes the following quote:

  • “Attorney competence related to litigation generally requires, among other things, and at a minimum, a basic understanding of, and facility with, issues relating to e-discovery, including the discovery of electronically stored information (“ESI”).”

Today, I blog to call your attention to other risks. Namely, the risk of having a court impose severe sanctions against you and your clients if you fail to preserve ESI.

Melinda Levitt and Peter Vogel are partners at Foley & Lardner.  Yesterday, The National Law Review posted their article Bad Preservation in eDiscovery is Still Very Costly! 

Give it read.

The article begins by reporting that there is both “good news” and “bad news” when it comes to discovery sanctions for failures to preserve ESI.

The good news is that relative recent amendments to the civil rules reserve the most severe sanctions for situations in which the failure to preserve resulted from an “intent to deprive.” As the authors note, “the ‘bad news’ is that bad preservation behavior continues.”

Next, the authors point out that:

  • “[i]t has been twelve years now since the federal rules were first amended and explicitly came to recognize ‘ESI’ – that is emails, electronic documents, excel spreadsheets, PowerPoints, and a myriad of other electronic materials – as documents” within the meaning of the discovery rules.”

They also point out that, over those 12 years, all of us have become increasingly reliant on technology, without necessarily developing any clue how it works.

Nevertheless,

  • ” . . . there are some basic things that people at least in the business community should have come to understand over the last 12 years. Among them are if litigation is occurring or is about to occur, a company is obligated to take reasonable steps to ensure that its relevant (or potentially relevant) ESI is preserved. That means getting out the word quickly – whether by way of a formal written litigation hold or otherwise – that employees and electronic systems managers/overseers need to take steps to stop either conscious or system-wide deletions or purges of potentially relevant ESI. By now, business owners, their IT employees, and their in-house and outside counsel really should have no doubt about this obligation and how to accomplish it. Granted, meeting this obligation can get dicey and difficult when it comes to things such as employee text messages, social media postings, telephone messages, and structured data. However, in terms of emails and basic electronic documents – the mainstays of business life – there should be no question or hesitation about what needs to be done.  

Then, the meat of their message:

  • “And yet . . . and yet, very recent decisions demonstrate that executives, managers and yes, even lawyers, either remain willfully ignorant of how these business systems work or are determined to pass the buck, having assumed that some mysterious “someone else” in the company was handling things. Well, while courts no longer can impose the most draconian of sanctions, no one should kid him or herself – judges continue to have very potent sanctions options available and are very willing to use them when confronted with preservation misconduct borne of ignorance, indifference or good old-fashioned boneheadness. The following are a few telling examples – and were issued in just the last few weeks – and each leaves us with the question – what were they thinking?”

From there, the article goes on to recount several cases in which significant discovery sanctions were imposed against lawyers and their clients as a result of failures to preserve ESI.  Some might strike a nerve.  If so, there’s still time to sign up for tomorrow’s first-ever VBA Tech Show.

Tech competence.  The lack thereof impacts much more than a lawyer’s license.

E Discovery

 

 

 

 

 

Competent Advice & Privacy Settings

Rule 1.1 requires lawyers to provide clients with competent representation.  As nearly everyone who has read my blog twice knows, my position is that competence includes tech competence.

It’s also my position that a lawyer has a duty to provide a client with competent advice as to the impact, if any, that the client’s social media will have on a matter.

Let me be clear.

I often hear “but, Mike, I don’t want to have a Facebook account.”  I am not saying that you are required to.  Rather, I’m saying that you should know that your clients most likely do and, further, that information posted to a client’s Facebook account might impact the matter in which you are representing the client.

Here’s the latest.

Per the ABA Journal, a New York court ruled that the defense may discover photos that a personal injury plaintiff posted to Facebook and set as “private.”  The opinion is here.

The upshot:  it’s likely not competent to advise clients “don’t worry, as long as you keep it private, the other side won’t be able to access it.”

The case is one in which the plaintiff fell from a horse.  She sued, alleging that the defendant’s defective mounting of the stirrups caused the fall.  Among other things, plaintiff contends that her injuries prohibit her from many activities that she used to enjoy.

During her deposition, plaintiff testified that, prior to her fall, she had regularly posted photos to Facebook.  The defense requested access to the photos, which plaintiff had set to “private.”  Plaintiff declined to provide access.

The defense moved to compel production of the photos.  The defense argued that the photos bore on the credibility of plaintiff’s assertion that she had previously engaged in the activities that, now, she claimed she could not.

Plaintiff’s attorney countered that the single public photo on plaintiff’s Facebook account did not contradict her deposition testimony.  As such, the argument went, the defense had not established that access to the private portion of the account was likely to lead to the discovery of relevant information.

The trial court compelled production.  An appellate court modified the order to compel, limiting it only to photos that plaintiff intended to introduce at trial.  In the end, the New York Court of Appeals reinstated the trial court’s order. In so doing, the Court set out the various factors that a trial court should consider in response to a motion to compel production of information stored electronically on a social media platform.

I won’t go into the court’s decision in length.  Here are two key takeaways:

  1. As I’ve often said, electronically stored information is no different from any other information.  Or, in this case, photographs posted to Facebook are no different than photos that grandma slid behind plastic in that old, musty, album.
  2. A quote from the NY Court’s opinion (citations deleted):
    • “Plaintiff suggests that disclosure of social media materials necessarily constitutes an unjustified invasion of privacy. We assume for purposes of resolving the narrow issue before us that some materials on a Facebook account may fairly be characterized as private.But even private materials may be subject to discovery if they are relevant. For example, medical records enjoy protection in many contexts under the physician-patient
      privilege  But when a party commences an action, affirmatively placing
      a mental or physical condition in issue, certain privacy interests relating to relevant medical records – including the physician-patient privilege – are waived. For purposes of disclosure, the threshold inquiry is not whether the materials sought are private but whether they are reasonably calculated to contain relevant information.”

Remember: competence includes tech competence.

Social Media

To: the prosecution. With love, the Defendant’s lawyer.

89 years ago today, almost to the minute, seven men were murdered in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.  The incident became known as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. Al Capone is widely regarded as the criminal mastermind behind the killings.

As bar counsel, I’m intrigued by one aspect of the events that led to Capone’s conviction and incarceration.  My intrigue lies in the so-called Mattingly Letter.  It’s a letter that Capone’s tax lawyer provided to treasury agents and that was eventually used against Capone at trial.

Douglas Linder is a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. He has a website dedicated to Famous Trials.  Among others, Professor Linder has written on the trial of Al Capone.

Per Professor Linder, as of 1929, Capone had never filed a federal income tax return.  So, the Department of Treasury launched an investigation into whether Capone had committed income tax evasion.

Lawrence Mattingly was Capone’s tax lawyer. In April 1930, Mattingly agreed to let “revenue agents” interview Capone.  The transcript of the interview is here.  Here’s an excerpt of what would become a key segment:

  • Revenue Agent RALPH HERRICK: I think it is only fair to say that any statements which are made here, which could be used against you, probably would be used.
  • LAWRENCE MATTINGLY, Capone’s tax lawyer: Insofar as Mr. Capone can answer any questions without admitting his liability to criminal action, he is here to cooperate with you and work with you.
  • HERRICK: What records have you of your income, Mr. Capone-do you keep any records?
  • CAPONE: No, I never did,
  • HERRICK: Any checking accounts?
  • CAPONE: No, sir.
  • HERRICK: How long, Mr. Capone, have you enjoyed a large income?
  • CAPONE: I never had much of an income.
  • HERRICK: I will state it a little differently-an income that might be taxable?
  • CAPONE: I would rather let my lawyer answer that question.
  • MATTINGLY: Well, I’ll tell you. Prior to 1926, John Torrio, who happens to be a client of mine, was the employer of Mr. Capone, and up to that point it is my impression that Mr. Capone’s income wasn’t there. He was in the position of an employee, pure and simple. That is the information I get from Mr. Torrio and Mr. Capone.

A few months later, Mattingly met again with federal agents.  As the meeting ended, he provided the agents with this letter.  Mattingly opened the letter by stating:

  • “The following statement is made without prejudice to the rights of the above-mentioned taxpayer in any proceedings that may be instituted against him. The facts stated are upon information and belief only.”

He closed by conceding:

  • “I am of the opinion that his taxable income for the years 1925 and 1926 might fairly be fixed at not to exceed $26,000 and $40,000 respectively and for the years 1928 and 1929 not to exceed $100,000 per year.”

Several months later, a grand jury indicted Capone.

Eventually, Capone and the government reached a plea agreement under which Capone would’ve served 2.5 years.  A judge rejected the plea, stating:

  • “The parties to a criminal case may not stipulate as to the judgment to be entered. It is time for somebody to impress upon the defendant that it is utterly impossible to bargain with a Federal Court.”

As trial neared, the government obtained information establishing that Capone had likely bribed a significant portion of the jury pool.  The prosecution team notified the judge. Per Professor Linder, here’s what happened next:

  • “Judge Wilkerson took his seat at the bench and looked out over the packed courtroom. He called the bailiff to the bench. ‘Judge Edwards has another trial commencing today,’ he told the bailiff. ‘Go to his courtroom and bring me his entire panel of jurors; take my entire panel to Judge Edwards.'”

At trial, the government sought to introduce the Mattingly Letter through the agent to whom Attorney Mattingly had delivered it.  The defense objected.  The court admitted the letter as proof that Capone had made certain statements, albeit not as proof of those statements.  (yeah, right.)  A transcript of the testimony surrounding the letter’s admission is here.

The prosecution referred to the letter during its closing argument.  That portion of the summation, which I found enthralling, is here.  Here’s my favorite part:

Referring to Attorney Mattingly, the prosecutor argued:

  • “He had tried to get the revenue agents to say that the admission would not be used against his client; now, in the letter, Mattingly is saying it himself. The letter says, “‘his statement is made without prejudice to the taxpayer in any criminal action that may be instituted against him.'”

The prosecutor continued:

  •  “Suppose a speeder, when stopped by an officer, should say; ‘I am telling you this without prejudice, officer; I don’t want it used against me; but I was going 50 miles an hour.’ Suppose a gambler could tack a little sign on a roulette, ‘This device is not to be used as evidence against me.’ Suppose a murderer could put a sign on his gun, “This weapon is not to be used as evidence against me.’ What a refuge for criminals that would be! And yet, that is what we have here, ‘I am telling you this, but it is not to be used against me.’ “

In the end, Capone was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison.  Admissions from his own tax attorney appear to have played a significant role in the conviction.

Competence.  Client confidences.  You be the judge.

Valentine

An intriguing aside: one of the government’s key informants in the Capone investigation was Eddie O’Hare.  O’Hare held the patent for the mechanical rabbit that lures greyhounds around a race track. He also ran dog tracks for Capone.  Eddie was murdered shortly before Capone was released from prison.

The intriguing aside?  Eddie’s son, Edward, was a naval pilot. He was the Navy’s first “flying ace” and the first member of the Navy to receive the Medal of Honor in World War II. He was shot down in combat in 1943 and never found.  Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is named for him.

 

Have you heard the one about the $1 million fee award that walked into a spam filter?

It’s no joke.

UPDATE:  After reading my original post, a lawyer shared a story with me and authorized me to share it with you.  I’ve appended the story to this column. Because I think the story might serve as a valuable tip, I’m re-posting this blog to help draw attention to it. 

I’ve often blogged on the ethical duty of tech competence.  My posts on the topic are here.

Now, a cautionary tale from the real world.

Alberto Bernabe is a law professor at The John Marshall Law School. He’s also a regular presence on this blog’s #fiveforfriday Honor Roll.  Yesterday, on his own blog, Professor Bernabe posted ‘My computer ate my homework’ is not a good excuse.  His post links to a case that involves tech competence and a missed deadline to appeal an order awarding $1,000,000.00 in attorney’s fees.

The full story comes from Law For Lawyers Today.  The headline says it all: Deleted spam leads to missed appeal; not excusable, FL court of appeals holds.  Here’s the quick version:

  • Ben sued Tom.
  • Lawyer represented Ben.  Attorney, who works at Firm, represented Tom.
  • Ben won.
  • Lawyer moved for attorney’s fees.
  • The court granted the motion.
  • The court e-mailed the order to Attorney.
  • Attorney’s Firm’s e-mail system “filtered out” the order as spam.
  • Firm’s e-mail system was configured to delete spam after 30 days, without notice to a person.
  • Firm’s e-mail system deleted the order.
  • Tom moved for relief from judgment.
  • Attorney argued that Firm did not receive the order in time to file an appeal.
  • The trial court denied the motion.
  • An appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

At the hearing on Tom’s motion for relief from judgment, Firm’s former IT person testified that he had advised Firm against configuring its e-mail system to delete spam after 30 days and without notice to a person.  He also testified that he advised Firm to buy an e-mail backup system and to retain a tech vendor to deal with e-mail spam.  Firm did not take the advice, in part to save money.

The appellate court noted that Firm’s failure to learn about the order was not the result from “mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect.”  Rather, Firm intentionally chose to use “a defective e-mail system without any safeguards or oversight to save money. Such a decision cannot constitute excusable neglect.”

Competence includes tech competence.  For now, I’ll leave you with the final paragraph from the blog post that’s on The Law for Lawyers Today:

  • “The harsh result here may yet be ameliorated if the court of appeals grants rehearing.  In the meantime, however, the scary scenario points to the need to pay attention to your firm’s  technology and processes for handling spam.  And old-fashioned procedures like checking the court’s docket can also help avoid an unpalatable spam situation.”

UPDATE – here’s the abridged version of the story that a lawyer shared with me after reading my original post.

  • Lawyer represented Client.
  • Throughout matter, Lawyer & Client communicated via e-mail.
  • Matter went to a bench trial.
  • In a written decision, Trial Court found against Client.
  • Lawyer scanned the decision and attached it to an e-mail to Client.  In the body of the e-mail, Lawyer asked “Do you want to appeal?”
  • 31 days after decision was issued, Client called Lawyer and asked “have we heard anything from the trial court?”
  • Lawyer investigated and determined that the e-mail to Client was stuck in outgoing mail and had never left Firm’s server.
  • Over Opposing Party’s objection, Trial Court granted Lawyer & Client leave to file an untimely appeal.
  • On appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court granted Opposing Party’s motion to dismiss the appeal as untimely.

Lawyer’s firm took two lessons from the experience: (1) Lawyer regularly checks Lawyer’s spam folder & outgoing mailbox; and, (2) rather than relying on e-mail silence, Firm adopted a protocol to call clients on important issues, such as the decision whether to appeal.

 

Tech Incompetence

Have you heard the one about the $1 million fee award that walked into a spam filter?

It’s no joke.

I’ve often blogged on the ethical duty of tech competence.  My posts on the topic are here.

Now, a cautionary tale from the real world.

Alberto Bernabe is a law professor at The John Marshall Law School. He’s also a regular presence on this blog’s #fiveforfriday Honor Roll.  Yesterday, on his own blog, Professor Bernabe posted ‘My computer ate my homework’ is not a good excuse.  His post links to a case that involves tech competence and a missed deadline to appeal an order awarding $1,000,000.00 in attorney’s fees.

The full story comes from Law For Lawyers Today.  The headline says it all: Deleted spam leads to missed appeal; not excusable, FL court of appeals holds.  Here’s the quick version:

  • Ben sued Tom.
  • Lawyer represented Ben.  Attorney, who works at Firm, represented Tom.
  • Ben won.
  • Lawyer moved for attorney’s fees.
  • The court granted the motion.
  • The court e-mailed the order to Attorney.
  • Attorney’s Firm’s e-mail system “filtered out” the order as spam.
  • Firm’s e-mail system was configured to delete spam after 30 days, without notice to a person.
  • Firm’s e-mail system deleted the order.
  • Tom moved for relief from judgment.
  • Attorney argued that Firm did not receive the order in time to file an appeal.
  • The trial court denied the motion.
  • An appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

At the hearing on Tom’s motion for relief from judgment, Firm’s former IT person testified that he had advised Firm against configuring its e-mail system to delete spam after 30 days and without notice to a person.  He also testified that he advised Firm to buy an e-mail backup system and to retain a tech vendor to deal with e-mail spam.  Firm did not take the advice, in part to save money.

The appellate court noted that Firm’s failure to learn about the order was not the result from “mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect.”  Rather, Firm intentionally chose to use “a defective e-mail system without any safeguards or oversight to save money. Such a decision cannot constitute excusable neglect.”

Competence includes tech competence.  For now, I’ll leave you with the final paragraph from the blog post that’s on The Law for Lawyers Today:

  • “The harsh result here may yet be ameliorated if the court of appeals grants rehearing.  In the meantime, however, the scary scenario points to the need to pay attention to your firm’s  technology and processes for handling spam.  And old-fashioned procedures like checking the court’s docket can also help avoid an unpalatable spam situation.”

Tech Incompetence