This column has devoted several articles to lawyers behaving badly in Houston. The Houston judges have been very proactive in writing about unprofessional conduct lately. Before beginning, two important caveats are important. First, these cases generally deal with the bottom 1% of the bar and are not representative of the bar in general. Second, these cases are presently coming out of Houston, but they could happen anywhere. The latest installment of Lawyers Behaving Badly involves an attorney-debtor who filed cases in bad faith, ignored court orders, failed to appear, evaded the U.S. Marshals and could not count.
A Brief Trip to Bankruptcy Court
In In re David Ortiz, No. 05-39982 (Bankr. S.D. Tex. 10/13/06), the attorney debtor filed an initial chapter 7 petition in January 2005 to avoid being evicted from his law office. The case was assigned to Judge Isgur. The Debtor received only a short delay since the stay was lifted early on. Once the eviction was allowed to go forward, he lost interest in his case. The case was dismissed for failure to attend the 341 meeting on May 31, 2005. Judge Isgur dismissed the case with prejudice to refiling for 180 days. Unfortunately, because the Debtor failed to update his address (most likely the one that he had been evicted from), he claimed that he never received the notice.
Return to Bankruptcy Court
Less than one month later, on June 29, 2005, the Debtor filed his second case, which was assigned to Judge Bohm. This case was filed for the same reason as the first case. In the space of six months, the Debtor had managed to find another landlord, fall behind on the rent and receive eviction papers.
Things Start to Get Bad—The First Sanctions Order
The U.S. Trustee promptly moved for sanctions. The Debtor appeared and pleaded ignorance of the prior order. The patient Judge Bohm agreed to abate the U.S. Trustee’s motion long enough to allow the Debtor to return to Judge Isgur and seek a modification of the prior order. When the parties returned to Court, Judge Bohm found that the Debtor had not sought to modify Judge Isgur’s order. He also determined that the Debtor had failed to file accurate schedules and did not have a good reason for failing to appear at the 341 meeting in the first case. At that point, Judge Bohm ordered the Debtor to pay attorney’s fees of $1,875 to each of his landlords and continued the matter to consider whether other sanctions might be appropriate. The Debtor finally retained an attorney at this point. At the continued hearing, Judge Bohm ordered that the Debtor pay $1,000 in sanctions to the Clerk within 60 days and barred him from filing again for a year without prior permission.
Things Get Worse--The Bench Warrant(s)
By the time of the first sanctions order on November 17, 2005, the Debtor had angered a federal bankruptcy judge. However, his problems could have been solved by paying $4,750. It would have been a really good idea to comply with this order through whatever means possible. The Debtor didn’t get the message. Some four months later, the U.S. Trustee filed a Certificate of Non-Compliance indicating that the Clerk had not been paid. Judge Bohm scheduled yet another hearing, which was continued to May 10, 2006. Neither the Debtor nor his attorney appeared at this hearing. The Debtor also failed to accept service from the U.S. Trustee’s process server after agreeing to do so. Judge Bohm issued a bench warrant that day.
In response to the bench warrant, an attorney who said she was acting merely as an intermediary contacted the U.S. Marshal and promised to inform the Debtor about the bench warrant. She gave the Marshal a non-working number for the Debtor. When the Debtor could not be located at his home or office, Judge Bohm issued a bench warrant for the intermediary attorney. This bench warrant met with more success and the “intermediary” appeared and testified that the Debtor was aware that there was a bench warrant out for him, but wanted to meet with his attorney first. Judge Bohm ordered the intermediary to check in with the U.S. Marshal twice a day until the Debtor was apprehended.
Judge Bohm Tries to Get the Debtor’s Attention—The Second Sanctions Order
On May 16, 2006, Judge Bohm, who had no doubt progressed from furious to livid, issued a second sanctions order which required the Debtor to pay $500 per day for each day that he failed to surrender and to pay $250 per day for each day that he failed to pay the $1,000 sanction to the clerk. The Court ordered the Debtor’s attorney to appear two days later to report whether he had informed the Debtor of the second sanctions order.
Melt-Down—The Third Sanctions Order
On May 18, 2006, the Debtor appeared with a new attorney (a respected bankruptcy attorney) and paid the $1,000 owing to the Clerk. The Debtor claimed that while he was aware of the May 10 hearing, that his attorney was scheduled to be out of the country and assured him that he would get the hearing re-set. The attorney did not do this. However, when the Debtor contacted the attorney’s office to see if any arrangements had been made, he was told that they were not aware of any, but that that the attorney would not have left town without having done something. The Debtor also testified that when he learned of the bench warrant, he checked into a hotel to avoid being found.
Judge Bohm was not amused. However, the order he entered was remarkably restrained. He ordered the Debtor to:
1. Write a letter apologizing to the U.S. Marshals for not turning himself in immediately;
2. Contact the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program to see if he would benefit from counseling;
3. Take 10 hours of bankruptcy continuing legal education (including three hours of ethics) if he ever planned to appear in the Southern District again;
4. Find other counsel for a client he was currently representing in a chapter 7 case; and
5. Either pay $750.00 or write “I will respect the judicial system, and such respect includes obeying all court orders” 750 times.
Judge Bohm gave the Debtor five days to comply.
When the Debtor returned five days later, he only tendered 700 sentences instead of 750, he had failed to pay the prior sanction to his landlords and he had failed to find alternate counsel for his client (whose case was subsequently dismissed by Judge Brown). However, he did complete his CLE.
The Judge gave the Debtor one more opportunity to comply and at the next hearing, he presented cashier’s checks to pay his landlords’ attorney’s fees and tendered the remaining 50 sentences. As a final sanction, the Court wrote a lengthy opinion chronicling the pattern of abuse which had led to his orders.
What Were They Thinking?
Attorneys make mistakes. Sometimes the difference between a good attorney and a disgraced attorney is the ability to engage in damage control. The attorney(s) here did not learn that lesson.
Mr. Ortiz’s motivations in filing bankruptcy to avoid eviction were not pure. Filing a second bankruptcy in violation of a court order that he arguably did not know about was bad but not fatal. At this stage, the Debtor/Attorney had a problem, but the court offered a way out (returning to Judge Isgur to modify the prior order of dismissal). This was a serious mistake.
When the Debtor missed his first opportunity to extricate himself, he could have begged or borrowed the money to pay the initial sanctions and limped away, humbled but not crushed. However, at the point that he failed to appear in court and then evaded the U.S. Marshal, he risked serious jail time. The fact that the ultimate consequences were so light may have been because the Debtor finally retained a competent bankruptcy attorney or perhaps because the court was happy just to have gotten his attention. However, it is clear that things could have been worse—much worse.
The Debtor’s first attorney and the “intermediary” attorney do not come off very well either. The opinion does not explain why the first attorney went off to Jordan without obtaining a continuance of the May 10 hearing. However, the attorney had to know that he was dealing with an extremely volatile situation. His absence caused a bench warrant to be issued for his client. The attorney who appeared only as an intermediary does not fare very well either. She was in contact with the Debtor on a regular basis, but somehow managed to provide the U.S. Marshal with a non-working number to contact him. The court found her testimony to be less than forthcoming.
When all was said and done, three attorneys found themselves named in an opinion which did not reflect well upon them. This opinion should be made required reading in legal ethics courses.