Reprimand Is Not Enough When Lawyer Uses Private Info to Counter Client’s Barbs

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 be accepted.

The justices declined to do so.

“[T]his Court has not been faced with a violation of Rule 1.6 by means of internet publication….”
Georgia Supreme Court

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.

No Deal

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.”

Guidance From Elsewhere

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, (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 injuries.”

The Georgia court also cited In re Quillinan, 20 DB Rptr. 288, (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 pro se.

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