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As Richard Zeitler’s disciplinary case illustrates, assigning a proctor by no means ensures that lawyers will give up the old ways that landed them in trouble. The 65-year-old Iselin lawyer, for whom a split Disciplinary Review Board has just recommended a three-year suspension, already has two suspensions, three reprimands and an admonition on his blotter. His penchant for misconduct continued even after the Supreme Court ordered him in October 2000 to work under a proctor’s supervision. In the present ethics case, he is accused of neglecting three cases and then lying to clients and judges to cover up his desertions. And there are six other disciplinary matters pending. Two are under investigation and complaints have been issued in four others. The DRB’s Aug. 24 decision, if upheld by the state Supreme Court, requires Zeitler to obtain from a mental health professional a certificate of fitness to practice, complete 10 hours of professional responsibility courses and attend a law office management course before resuming practice. But the two DRB dissenters, both of them lay members, said the penalty didn’t go far enough. “We are convinced that this respondent is beyond reform. He is an incorrigible and dangerous attorney and a menace to the public,” wrote Barbara Schwartz and Ruth Jean Lolla. “We viewed the [appointment of a proctor] as a last chance to reform. But respondent was unfazed. Even the mandate of a proctor did nothing to quell his worst urges.” Indeed, the Office of Attorney Ethics’ presenter in Zeitler’s case, Ronald Grayzel, had called for disbarment. “Members of the public have an entirely different perspective, which is why you have them on the committee. I think the central issue to them is why can we justify having this guy come back to the practice of law at all,” says Grayzel, of Levinson Axelrod in Edison. “Not only did he hurt people here, but he has a history over decades of doing the same to others,” he adds. Zeitler, in a brief interview, said he had not read the DRB’s decision but had heard about it from his attorney. “I don’t know what to make of it. I thought the three-year suspension was a little high,” Zeitler said. Of the public members’ call for disbarment, he said, “I disagree with the dissent. I don’t know where they come off saying that.” Proctor Throws Up Hands Zeitler was suspended for a year in 1976 for misrepresentation and for two years in 1980 for gross neglect and misrepresentation. He was admonished in 1995 for lack of diligence. He was reprimanded twice in 2000, once for practicing while on the ineligible list for nonpayment of the annual assessment and once for lack of diligence and failure to adequately communicate with a client. Those reprimands were accompanied by the order to obtain a proctor, but Zeitler struggled to find one. Two lawyers agreed to take the assignment but dropped out, he told Morris County Superior Court Judge Charles Villanueva in 2002, who sanctioned Zeitler $12,376 for filing a frivolous suit. In November 2001, Zeitler signed up Jersey City solo Mark Blacher as his proctor, an arrangement that continues today. But Blacher’s appointment failed to straighten up Zeitler’s messy practice. “Both before a proctor was appointed, and thereafter, complaints from members of the judiciary continued to come in,” wrote Richard Engelhardt, counsel to the director of the Office of Attorney Ethics, in a May 26 letter to Supreme Court Clerk Stephen Townsend. Engelhardt was seeking temporary suspension of Zeitler pending the outcome of the ethics case, but the Court denied the request. Engelhardt wrote that when he asked Blacher for an explanation of Zeitler’s continuing problems, Blacher wrote to say “obviously, it’s impossible for me to supervise every single file he has in his office.” Engelhardt continued, “By no means do I mean to fault Mr. Blacher in any respect. I believe he has taken his duties seriously and has tried to do the best job possible. However, it seems evident that it is simply impossible for anyone to adequately supervise a disorganized single practitioner who has approximately 200 pending cases.” Under R. 1:20-18, proctors meet weekly with their disciplined colleagues, have the power to veto new cases accepted by the disciplined attorney and must give quarterly progress reports to the Office of Attorney Ethics. “I can’t read every file and every correspondence. That’s not my job. When somebody has 200 to 300 files, you can’t do it in one hour a week. It’s a thankless job,” says Blacher, who says he’s known Zeitler for years and was aware beforehand that Zeitler’s practice was disorganized. Blacher says that at the outset, Zeitler accepted complex cases like false arrest or verbal threshold matters he didn’t have time to handle properly, though he seems to be improving in that area. But Zeitler rejected Blacher’s suggestion to stop using so many per diem attorneys and instead hire an associate and some qualified paralegals. Blacher says Zeitler had 300 open cases a few years ago but now is down to 180 to 200. Demonstrated Character Deficiency Charges against Zeitler in the present ethics case include violations of RPC 1.1(a), gross neglect; 1.1(b), pattern of neglect; 1.4(a), failure to communicate with the client; 3.2, failure to expedite litigation; and 3.3, candor toward a tribunal. In one case, client Leonard Cipolla of Livingston was left with no legal remedy for a hand injury he suffered in high school shop class. His case was dismissed in May 2001 for failure to prosecute, only to be reinstated at Zeitler’s request. The case was then dismissed with prejudice in February 2002 after it was listed for trial 12 times and Zeitler failed to appear before the trial judge even once. Zeitler’s motion for reconsideration was denied in February 2003, and the Appellate Division dismissed his appeal last October for failure to prosecute. As the case floundered, Zeitler repeatedly told Cipolla it was active after it was dismissed. Moreover, Zeitler told Essex County Superior Court Judge Thomas Brown he could not make a trial date because he had to take his wife for treatment of “very serious cerebral lesions.” When Brown’s chambers called Zeitler’s office, his secretary said he was not tending to his wife, but taking a deposition in his office. The DRB majority said Special Master Miles Winder III’s recommendation for a three-year suspension was warranted because of Zeitler’s “pattern of deceit and demonstrated deficiency of character in these and his prior matters.” Winder, a Bernardsville solo, declined to comment, but his report to the DRB said Zeitler “does not understand the fiduciary obligation that lawyers have entrusted to them and he certainly cannot communicate with clients effectively. Like many human beings, Zeitler wants to be liked and he finds it distasteful to give clients bad news. Thus, he simply does not communicate at all or he leaves out the bad news, possibly hoping that the mere passage of time will alleviate the bad news.” Zeitler’s attorney, Douglas Kleinfeld, of Kleinfeld & Kleinfeld in New Providence, did not return calls. David Johnson, executive director of the Office of Attorney Ethics, declines to comment on Zeitler’s case. His office has no particular criteria for what circumstances warrant a proctorship, but he adds that once a lawyer is placed under proctorship, the office keeps close tabs on the progress. He couldn’t say how often proctorships are successful. The Office of Attorney Ethics had 13 lawyers under the supervision of proctors in 2001, the most recent year for which data was available. There were 17 in 2000 and 15 in 1999.

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