A lawyer who claims that his addiction to video games caused him to botch the handling of 17 cases has been suspended from practicing law for three years by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Matthew J. Eshelman, 43, of Carlisle, Pa., testified before the Disciplinary Board “that when he experienced problems, he lost focus on his legal work and diverted his attention to electronic recreation,” according to the board’s 89-page report and recommendation.
The report, authored by attorney Howell K. Rosenberg, said Eshelman “was a competent and productive lawyer, highly respected by his peers for much of his career.”
But Eshelman “reacted to the pressures of practice as well as the pressures of a troubled home life by retreating into a world of computer and video games,” the report said.
Frittering away hours at his desk got Eshelman fired from Gates Halbruner & Hatch in Lemoyne, Pa., in March 2007, the report said.
When Eshelman set out to work as a sole practitioner, he quickly began mishandling cases, the report said, and angry clients began turning to the Disciplinary Board.
The bulk of the report is devoted to outlining in detail Eshelman’s mishandling of 17 cases, mostly divorce, bankruptcy and debt collection matters, by dodging his clients’ phone calls and delaying work on their cases for months, sometimes missing important deadlines.
Eshelman also mishandled clients’ fees and failed to return fees he had been paid for work that was never done when exasperated clients fired him and hired new lawyers, the report said.
In one case, Eshelman admitted that he suggested to a divorcing couple who were disgruntled by the long delays in their case that they lie to the judge about their date of separation — saying it was two years longer — in order to secure a quicker divorce decree. Eshelman admitted that he filed papers that included the false date.
The report said Eshelman “candidly admitted that his problem prevented him from meeting his professional responsibilities” and that he “needs time away from the practice of law to address and resolve his personal issues.”
Rosenberg’s report was joined by 10 members of the board, with one member not participating, but board member Albert Momjian dissented from the board’s recommendation of a three-year suspension and noted that he would have recommended a five-year suspension.
The state Supreme Court on Thursday issued a one-page per curiam order that adopted the board’s recommendation and imposed a three-year suspension.
Eshelman, who represented himself in the disciplinary proceedings, could not be reached for comment. According to the report, he is currently working for a library and a tax preparation service.
According to the report, Eshelman testified that his problem began in the late 1990s when he was working for attorney Patrick Lauer in Camp Hill, Pa., and he “spent excessive amounts of time playing computer games and started losing focus on his practice.”
Eshelman told the board that he tried to get a fresh start at Saidis Shuff Flower & Lindsay in Carlisle, and that he did well there at first, but that he “could not give up his involvement with computer games.”
His fixation on computer gaming became such an addiction, Eshelman told the board, that it led him to seek help from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a group that assists lawyers with substance abuse problems.
The report said Eshelman had committed a laundry list of ethical violations in his handling of the 17 cases, including failing to provide competent representation; failing to exercise reasonable diligence; failing to keep clients informed and respond to their inquiries; charging excessive fees; failing to secure proper fee agreements; and making a false statement to a tribunal.
But the board also found that Eshelman’s ethical failings were the result of “serious personal problems, rather than arrogance or contempt for the legal system.”
In recommending a three-year suspension, the report said the board considered Eshelman’s admission of his problems and his recognition of the need to be suspended, as well as his remorse, his lack of prior discipline, his history of being a competent lawyer, and his commitment to addressing the problem.
Contact U.S. Courthouse Correspondent Shannon P. Duffy at 215-880-3700 or firstname.lastname@example.org. •