In the ethics class that I teach as an adjunct law prof, I refer to Model Rule 8.4(c) as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” because of the four things the rule prohibits: dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation.
While these ethical no-no’s are certainly not equivalent to the biblical “four horsemen” (Death, Famine, War and Conquest), violating Rule 8.4(c) can have a bad (if not apocalyptic) effect on your law license, as lawyers in Rhode Island and Oklahoma recently discovered in two separate disciplinary cases — each involving false documents.
False deeds = misdeed
In the Rhode Island case, the lawyer was counsel to a homeowner association that managed a timeshare development. If a time-share owner failed to pay annual maintenance fees, the association could foreclose on the delinquent party’s interest in the property, and the lawyer regularly represented the client in these foreclosure proceedings.
The foreclosure process involved preparing a deed for execution by the client’s authorized officer. The signature was to be witnessed by a notary public; after being properly executed, the foreclosure deed was recorded.
To expedite the process, the lawyer began signing the client’s president’s name on the foreclosure deeds, and then acting as the notary witness to the false signature. The lawyer then caused the falsely-executed documents to be recorded.
After these actions came to light during unrelated litigation, the lawyer self-reported to the state disciplinary authority, and the supreme court issued its opinion publically reprimanding the lawyer for violating the state’s version of Model Rule 4.1 (truthfulness in statements to others) and Rule 8.4 — the four horsemen. (The relatively light penalty stemmed from the lawyer’s “lengthy unblemished history” and “heartfelt remorse.”)
If you are like most lawyers, you’re a notary; and maybe you think that you’d never falsely sign or notarize a document. But it’s possible that the lawyer’s actions here were aimed at not bothering the client’s executive officers. And imagined or real pressure to avoid inconveniencing clients can tend to disorient even the best lawyer’s ethical compass.
I get teased by relatives when I refuse to notarize car titles they present to me after they’ve signed them. Start by resisting your relatives, and you’ll likely be able to resist any temptation to execute or notarize a document falsely!
Turning back the hands of time…
In the Oklahoma case, the grievance was filed by a county judge, who reported that the lawyer had turned back the date on the court clerk’s file stamp to make it seem that a pleading had been filed on April 15, when actually it had not been submitted until April 19. The lawyer admitted the misconduct, and pointed to three other instances when the lawyer “may have” done the same thing.
The supreme court’s short opinion fails to explain what happened here, or the circumstances that made it possible for a lawyer to dial back a clerk’s time-stamp (not something that would be physically possible in my bailiwick). But significantly, while disciplinary counsel and the lawyer’s counsel stipulated to a penalty consisting of a public reprimand, the trial panel rejected that proposal and recommended a six-month actual suspension, instead.
The panel observed that intentionally backdating an official court document is a serious offense deserving of more than a public reprimand.
The state supreme court agreed, adding that “such conduct is the type of dishonesty, deceit and misrepresentation while engaged in the practice of law that is forbidden” by the Sooner State’s version of Model Rule 8.4.
It’s hard to derive a moral from this case, without knowing more of the background. But one thing is for sure: any time you are tempted to get on any of those four horses, you should ride the other way.