By Samson Habte
A sanction stronger than a reprimand is called for when a lawyer revealed
confidential information about a former client in response to “negative reviews”
the client posted about the lawyer on the internet, the Georgia Supreme Court
concluded March 18 in a case of first impression (In
re Skinner, Ga., No. S13Y0105, 3/18/13).
According to the court, attorney Margrett A. Skinner responded to a former
client's bar complaint by filing a petition in which she admitted violating
Georgia Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6 and “sought imposition of a Review
Panel Reprimand for her infraction.”
Bar counsel and a special master appointed to review Skinner's case
determined that the sanction was appropriate and recommended that her petition
The justices declined to do so.
In a per curiam opinion, the court cited the sparsity of the factual record
and the novelty of the disciplinary issue as reasons to reject Skinner's
petition for a reprimand, which it described as “the mildest form of public
discipline authorized” for violations of Rule 1.6.
Guided by the few reported decisions from other jurisdictions addressing this
issue, the court remanded the case for imposition of a stronger sanction.
According to the opinion, the contretemps began when a client fired Skinner
and then posted negative reviews about her on consumer websites. In response,
the court said, “Skinner posted on the internet personal and confidential
information about the client that Ms. Skinner had gained in her professional
relationship with the client.”
When the former client complained to the bar, it charged the lawyer with a
number of alleged ethics breaches. In addition to the Rule 1.6 violation, the
bar complaint accused Skinner of disregarding a legal matter (Rule 1.3), failing
to keep her client reasonably informed of the status of her case and failing to
provide an itemized statement (Rule 1.4), and initially refusing to refund
unearned fees (Rule 1.16).
“Because the client and Ms. Skinner had conflicting factual accounts
underlying these charges,” the court said, “the special master believed it
appropriate to consider only Ms. Skinner's petition for voluntary discipline
that contained admissions of violating Rule 1.6.”
After doing so, the court added, the special master concluded that a
reprimand was appropriate in light of “the circumstances of the violation, Ms.
Skinner's lack of a record of prior disciplinary action, and the personal and
emotional problems she faced at the time of the infraction.”
The court recognized “the existence of mitigating factors in the case,”
which, it noted, included Skinner's expression of remorse, the “emotional and
physical effects of her own surgery and the deaths of both her parents,” and the
fact that Skinner ultimately refunded the client's fee.
The justices nevertheless concluded that Skinner's voluntary discipline
petition must be rejected because the factual record was underdeveloped.
“Among other things,” the opinion declared, “we note that the record does not
reflect the nature of the disclosures (except that they concern personal and
confidential information) or the actual or potential harm to the client as a
result of the disclosures.”
The court also noted that it “has not been faced with a violation of Rule 1.6
by means of internet publication,” and that in analogous proceedings three other
tribunals have handed out harsher sanctions than a reprimand.
In Office of Lawyer Regulation v. Peshek, 798 N.W.2d 879, http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Office_of_Lawyer_Regulation_v_Peshek_2011_WI_47_334_Wis_2d_373_79
(Wis. 2011), a reciprocal discipline case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court followed
the lead of the Illinois Supreme Court and imposed a 60-day suspension on a
former public defender “who, among other things, had published in a blog related
to her legal work confidential information about her clients and derogatory
comments about judges, and had included information from which the identity of
the clients and the judges could be discerned.”
The Wisconsin Supreme Court noted that Peshek's blogging was a mechanism to
cope with the stress that followed a “traumatic event” in which a client punched
her in the face in open court, resulting in “a concussion and other physical
The Georgia court also cited In re Quillinan, 20 DB Rptr. 288, http://www.osbar.org/_docs/dbreport/dbr20.pdf
(2006). In that case, the Oregon Disciplinary Board suspended a lawyer for 90
days for, among other things, posting to a bar group's listserv the “personal
and medical information about a [workers' compensation] client whom she named”
and whom she described as “difficult” and unwilling to accept a “very fair”
offer from an insurer.
The bar was represented by General Counsel Paula J. Frederick and Deputy
General Counsel Jenny K. Mittelman, Atlanta. Skinner, of Macon, Ga., appeared
Full text at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/In_re_Skinner_No_S13Y0105_2013_BL_71428_Ga_Mar_18_2013_Court_Opin.
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