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Published: 2008-03-26

Complaint Against A Florida Lawyer



This pamphlet explains how and where consumer allegations regarding possible misconduct of a Florida lawyer may be filed. This brochure also explains The Florida Bar grievance system, established by the Supreme Court of Florida to enforce uniform standards of professional conduct. Please read carefully. The basic procedures outlined here are designed to prevent misunderstandings.

WHO REGULATES THE CONDUCT OF LAWYERS?

The Supreme Court of Florida regulates lawyer conduct in the state. The court created The Florida Bar and requires all lawyers to be members of that organization and to pay dues which fund the total cost of the lawyer discipline program.

The Florida Bar acts as a prosecutor in lawyer discipline cases, much like the state attorney's office does in criminal cases. Staff lawyers and grievance committees, of which one-third of the members are not lawyers, investigate alleged lawyer misconduct in those cases referred to the grievance committees. Trials are held before Supreme Court-appointed judges.

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE LAWYER GRIEVANCE SYSTEM?

The purpose of The Florida Bar grievance system is to provide a means to discipline a lawyer if the lawyer deserves it. The Supreme Court imposes discipline directly. However, a grievance committee may recommend that an attorney receive an admonishment for misconduct considered minor.

The Florida Bar, as a prosecutorial agency, does not and cannot give individual legal service or advice to any person making allegations.

Further, any loss the client may have sustained as a result of the matter involved cannot be recovered through disciplinary proceedings. The lawyer may be punished, but if the complaining person has suffered a financial or property loss, that person's rights must be enforced by usual legal methods against the person responsible for the loss.

In addition, The Florida Bar has no authority to review a court decision on a particular matter -- and the Bar's grievance system may never be used as a substitute for an appeal of such cases.

LAWYERS' CONDUCT RULES ARE STRICT

Most lawyers are reputable. They sincerely try to do all they lawfully can on behalf of their clients. Lawyers value their good reputation. The Florida Bar wants to do all it can to resolve any difficulties which may rise between you and the lawyer.

We know that even if only a few lawyers engage in misconduct, our responsibility is to do something about it. In some cases, the problem between the attorney and the client does not constitute a violation of ethics rules.

The procedures established by the Supreme Court of Florida and The Florida Bar for dealing with your allegations are designed to provide a thorough review of the matter in order to resolve the unfortunate situation in a way that is fair both to you and to the lawyer involved.

WHAT ARE A LAWYER'S OBLIGATIONS?

When attorneys enter the practice of law in Florida, they all obligate themselves to uphold the law and to abide by the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. These rules of the Supreme Court of Florida specifically regulate the professional conduct of lawyers. Those who violate these professional standards are subject to discipline.

However, lawyers are human. Sometimes they make mistakes. Some are more competent than others. A lawyer may lose the trust and confidence of a client for various reasons. In many cases where a client becomes dissatisfied, grounds for discipline do not exist because a lawyer can be disciplined only for violating the standards of conduct set forth in the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar.

The Rules Regulating The Florida Bar are fairly extensive and we understand that you may not be familiar with them. While not all-inclusive, the following acts may constitute rule violations and should be reported to us: misrepresentation, neglect, conflicts of interest and failure to return or safekeep client property.

Allegations of unprofessional conduct against a Florida lawyer are serious matters and immediately put into action the investigative and judicial processes of The Florida Bar. The Bar, as an arm of the Supreme Court of Florida, receives and reviews all complaints alleging unethical conduct by lawyers licensed to practice in Florida. The lawyer inevitably suffers from the allegation, regardless of whether any misconduct is ultimately found.

If you feel your problem may be the result of inadequate communication -- lack of sufficient agreement or some misunderstanding -- it may be that the problem can best be solved by a frank talk with the lawyer. Call the lawyer, explain your dissatisfaction, and ask for a full explanation of the matter involved. Such a discussion often will eliminate or lead to a solution of the problem.

HOW ABOUT FEE DISPUTES?

Fee disputes are not handled by The Florida Bar's grievance system because of restrictions placed on us by decisions of the United States Supreme Court related to antitrust. Also, fee disputes generally do not involve questions of ethics or professional conduct unless the fee is clearly excessive. However, the Bar does have a statewide fee arbitration program available to resolve these problems. Information regarding the Fee Arbitration Program may be received by calling (850) 561-5600.

WHERE DO I FILE A COMPLAINT?

You must put your allegations in writing, either by using The Florida Bar's form or by providing the following information:

1. Give the bar your name, address and phone numbers as well as similar information on the attorney involved. You'll also need to say if you have another attorney. Because information provided to the bar will become public and is subject to disclosure to the lawyer about whom you complain, your address and telephone number cannot be withheld by the bar. If your address and telephone number are not known to the lawyer, and you want it to stay that way, provide an alternative means for the bar to contact you (such as a post office box or business address and telephone number, if proper).

2. Try to set forth the facts on which your allegations are based. Attach copies of any court papers, documents, letters or other materials that pertain to your allegations when you write the bar office. Please do not send original documents. If the bar has to copy originals for you, there will be a charge.

3. The complaint must contain a statement providing: "Under penalty of perjury, I declare the foregoing facts are true, correct and complete." The complaint must be signed and forwarded to The Florida Bar's office in your area. The address is listed at the end of this brochure.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER I FILE A COMPLAINT?

All matters reviewed by The Florida Bar are at first considered inquiries and are reviewed by Bar Counsel to determine if The Florida Bar has jurisdiction to investigate the allegations. If The Florida Bar has jurisdiction, the inquiry is considered as a complaint and a formal disciplinary file is opened. When a disciplinary file is opened, Bar Counsel continues the investigation and decides if the complaint should be referred to a grievance committee. There is no right to appeal a determination by bar counsel not to refer a matter to a grievance committee. During the investigation, the lawyer involved may be asked to respond to your allegations and will be asked to send you a copy of the response, if one is requested and given.

The length of each investigation depends upon the facts and circumstances of each case. Therefore, the time from when the complaint is filed until the time of final decision varies from case to case.

WILL THE LAWYER KNOW ABOUT MY COMPLAINT?

Yes. The lawyer is normally sent a copy of your allegations and given an opportunity to answer. Many inquiries involve only communication problems and can be solved by getting the attorney and client to discuss the problem.

WHAT WILL IT COST ME?

No cost or fee is charged for filing an inquiry against a Florida lawyer. All members of The Florida Bar are required to pay dues which cover the cost of lawyer discipline. You may, however, be required to devote some of your time to attending grievance committee hearings and testifying at trial.

Grievance committee members all donate their time as a voluntary public service and all other costs are paid by The Florida Bar. When the Supreme Court of Florida imposes discipline against a lawyer, the lawyer is also ordered to pay the costs involved.

WHAT IS A GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE?

Grievance committees of The Florida Bar are made up of volunteer members in your community, at least one-third of whom are not lawyers. Each of Florida's 20 judicial circuits has at least one such committee.

The grievance committee investigates complaints with much the same purpose as a grand jury. That is, the committee decides whether there is a probable cause to believe an attorney violated the professional conduct rules imposed by the Supreme Court of Florida on Florida Bar members. There is no right to appeal "no probable cause" determinations by grievance committees.

The committee might also recommend that an attorney receive an admonishment if misconduct is considered minor.

The grievance committee may decide whether a trial before a judge is necessary and may make that decision with or without having a hearing on your complaint. If the attorney involved is present before the grievance committee, you will be given the opportunity to be there.

IS THERE A TRIAL?

If the grievance committee finds probable cause to believe unprofessional conduct occurred, Bar Counsel is directed to file a formal complaint against the accused lawyer with the Supreme Court of Florida. The Supreme Court then appoints a circuit or county court judge as a referee to hold a trial on the complaint.

The referee will hear all relevant evidence, which may include your testimony, that of the accused lawyer and any other witnesses. The referee then makes findings of fact and files a report and recommendations with the Supreme Court of Florida.

The Supreme Court reviews the trial record, referee's report and recommendations. It alone has final authority to determine guilt and to discipline the lawyer, beyond the issuance of an admonishment.

WHAT KINDS OF DISCIPLINE ARE POSSIBLE?

Discipline of lawyers in Florida can range from an admonishment to suspension from the practice of law for a definite or indefinite period of time, or disbarment. Admonishments can be issued by grievance committees, referees, The Florida Bar Board of Governors or the Supreme Court of Florida.

Sometimes, the Supreme Court allows an attorney to resign -- most often permanently -- from The Florida Bar when faced with serious disciplinary problems. In effect, a permanent resignation is more severe than disbarment, since the attorney may never again practice law in Florida. In a disbarment, an attorney may be eligible to apply for readmission to the profession after at least five years, although in practice, very few disbarred lawyers apply to be readmitted or are allowed to practice law again.

WHAT CAN I EXPECT?

7 You can expect that your inquiry will receive The Florida Bar's prompt and full attention.

7 You can expect that every attempt will be made to deal with your inquiry in a manner which is fair to both you and the lawyer about whom you inquire.

7 You can expect to receive written notice of the status of your inquiry as well as notice of the final decision.

The Bar disciplinary system provides an orderly and just way to deal with allegations of misconduct against lawyers. We sincerely hope the problem that gave rise to your allegations will be resolved in a manner you find to be both effective and fair.

WHAT SHOULDN'T I EXPECT?

Don't expect your allegation to be decided just because of what you claim to have happened. Nor, in fairness to you, can the lawyer about whom you inquire expect the matter to be decided just on the basis of his or her version of what happened. The final decision must depend upon the weight of all available and relevant evidence and testimony.

You should not expect to receive a refund of money paid to your lawyer. Even though refunds sometimes occur, the discipline system was not created as a means to recover your money. For fee disputes, you may request arbitration. For other monies entrusted to your attorney, you may be able to receive money from the Clients' Security Fund of The Florida Bar.

WHAT IS THE CLIENTS' SECURITY FUND?

The Florida Bar Clients' Security Fund was created so that The Florida Bar might repay people who suffer financial losses due to misappropriation of funds by Florida lawyers when the funds were given to the lawyer under an attorney and client relationship.

The Fund's money comes solely from the dues of Florida Bar members.

The Clients' Security Fund went into operation on January 1, 1967. Misappropriations, which occurred before January 1, 1967, are not covered by the fund.

The Florida Bar investigates each claim and grants payments from the fund at its discretion according to the circumstances of each case. Payments from the fund are a matter of grace and not of right, and no payment may be made from the fund until a claim is thoroughly investigated. The sum reimbursed may be only a portion of the amount lost or it may be full restitution. There is a $50,000 limit on any claim. Claims for restitution of fees paid when a lawyer has provided no useful services are limited to up to $2,500.

If you are unsure whether you have a claim, you should nevertheless ask for a form. The effort may be worth your while.

A WORD ABOUT CONFIDENTIALITY AND IMMUNITY

The rules of the Supreme Court of Florida require that The Florida Bar treat inquiries and complaints pending with Bar Counsel and grievance committees as confidential. You and witnesses, however, are not prohibited from talking about your problem with the lawyer or revealing that you have made an inquiry with The Florida Bar. You also may give others copies of any documents you give to or receive from The Florida Bar or the lawyer involved. While you are allowed to speak freely about the fact that you have made an inquiry into a lawyer's conduct and may share with others any documents you receive, you need to understand that there may be consequences that result. If you make your inquiry with the Bar's disciplinary system and do not make comments to or give documents to persons outside the system you cannot be successfully sued. However, if you do speak to persons outside of the disciplinary system or share documents with those persons, you may be sued. The success of such suits will depend on the facts of each case and cannot be fully discussed in this pamphlet. Once the matter is closed, an admonishment is recommended or probable cause is found, the matter becomes public information and the part of the file defined as the "public record" is available to anyone who wishes to see it. Review of files is available only by appointment. You should contact The Florida Bar to determine when files will be available. A fee for review and/or copies is required.

Regrettably, The Florida Bar cannot pre-review your inquiry to tell you if you have a "good case." Generally, you cannot be successfully sued if you do not act in bad faith or with malice. If you are unsure, you should seek independent legal advice.

FLORIDA BAR BRANCH OFFICES

TALLAHASSEE:
The Florida Bar
650 Apalachee Parkway
Tallahassee, FL 32399-2300
(850) 561-5845

TAMPA:
The Florida Bar
Suite C-49
Tampa Airport Marriott Hotel
Tampa, FL 33607-1442
(813) 875-9821

ORLANDO:
The Florida Bar
1200 Edgewater Drive
Orlando, FL 32804-6314
(407) 425-5424

FT. LAUDERDALE:
The Florida Bar
Cypress Financial Center
5900 N. Andrews Ave.
Suite 835
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33309-2300
(954) 772-2245

MIAMI:
The Florida Bar
444 Brickell Ave.
Suite M100, Rivergate Plaza
Miami, FL 33131-2458
(305)377-4445

The material in this pamphlet represents general legal advice. Since the law is continually changing, some provisions in this pamphlet may be out of date. It is always best to consult an attorney about your legal rights and responsibilities regarding your particular case.

Revised 8/98