The state Supreme Court has censured a lawyer for paying 131 unauthorized referral fees totaling $142,432 over a six-year period.
David Bolson, a South Orange solo, concentrates his practice in workers’ compensation but has never been certified by the court in that specialty or any other, such as would allow fee splitting under Rule 1:39-6(d).
As a noncertified lawyer, Bolson violated Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(e), which allows fee divisions only if in proportion to the services performed by each lawyer or if each assumes joint responsibility in a written agreement with the client.
According to the Disciplinary Review Board, which recommended the censure, a random audit in October 2011 turned up evidence that Bolson was paying what he had documented as “forwarding fees” to lawyers who had referred him contingent-fee matters.
The Office of Attorney Ethics directed Bolson to document all referral fees paid since 2006.
The majority of the referrals — 111 of the 131 — came from Jeffrey Beckerman of Beckerman & Beckerman, who shares Bolson’s office space.
Bolson’s sister-in-law, Bayonne solo Linda Hockstein, referred 13 matters.
Two others were referred by Andrew Moskowitz, currently a partner at Pashman Stein in Hackensack, the firm DRB chairman Louis Pashman co-founded.
The referred clients consented to their representation by Bolson and were charged reasonable legal fees, but were not informed about the fee split.
Bolson didn’t know referral fees were prohibited for him until the audit, didn’t attempt to conceal the payments, didn’t harm any client, cooperated with investigators and ultimately ceased paying the fees, authorities acknowledged in a stipulation.
The OAE recommended a reprimand for Bolson, rather than the less-serious admonition previously issued to lawyers who improperly shared a fee in a single matter.
The OAE was unable to present any case where a noncertified attorney paid fees over an extended period in numerous cases, instead citing In re Trachtman, 201 N.J. 13 (2009).
There, the lawyer received a reprimand for transferring 120 matters to other lawyers without client consent, including one case where his fee-sharing agreement called for a fee disproportionate to the amount of work he performed.
In its Nov. 7 recommendation, the DRB ratcheted up Bolson’s discipline to a censure, noting that Bolton “is not an inexperienced attorney” and his “claim of ignorance of the Court rules and of the Rules of Professional Conduct does not exonerate him from this misconduct.”
“Respondent’s case is somewhat similar to Trachtman’s, in terms of the number of cases involved,” but Bolson’s “conduct was more serious” because he shared fees in many cases and doesn’t have the mitigating physical and mental health issues Trachtman had, Pashman said.
The DRB noted one prior disciplinary matter: Bolson, admitted in 1979 in New Jersey, was admonished by consent in 2003 for practicing while ineligible for four months based on failure to file and pay his annual attorney registration assessment.
Deputy Ethics Counsel Melissa Czartoryski, who prosecuted the recent case, says: “I thought for sure … the case law would be voluminous.”
“It turned out there wasn’t much at all,” she says. “This was kind of novel. … It surprised me that someone … had not been caught doing this before.”
Czartoryski says she was aware Moskowitz is practicing at Pashman’s firm but did not raise the issue of recusal.
Pashman did not return a call and declines comment, through DRB chief counsel Julianne DeCore, who says: “Recusals are discretionary.”
Moskowitz “played such a peripheral role as to really be irrelevant in the consideration of Mr. Bolson’s conduct,” DeCore says. “I don’t see it as any issue.”
She points out that the DRB was unanimous in its decision.
Hockstein and Moskowitz decline comment.
Bolson, who was pro se in the matter, did not return a call. Neither did Beckerman.