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Eight years of disciplinary proceedings against Robert A. Falanga ended this month with a public reprimand. The State Bar of Georgia’s case against the personal injury lawyer began in 1992 with a flurry of accusations by a chiropractor he once employed. The claims against Falanga, a principal with Atlanta-based Falanga & Chalker, included paying for client referrals, soliciting clients, and splitting fees with a nonlawyer. By 1995 the case had grown to encompass allegations that Falanga had violated 17 bar standards, some of which carried the penalty of disbarment. Derailed for four years by Falanga’s federal suit challenging the constitutionality of nine different bar rules, the disciplinary process cranked up again last year. Now that process ends with the equivalent of a plea bargain. With the blessing of the state bar, Falanga petitioned the Georgia Supreme Court for voluntary discipline. He asked for a public reprimand, and the court accepted his offer, In re Falanga, No. S00Y1531 (Sup. Ct. Ga. July 10, 2000). In his petition, Falanga admitted he signed up new clients through mail and telephone solicitations. “At the time I engaged in this conduct,” he wrote, “I believed I had a constitutionally protected right to do so.” Since he lost his federal case at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he has stopped any solicitation, he adds. Falanga, best known for his successful settlement in 1991 of a class action against Aetna Insurance Co. for bad-faith denial of chiropractic benefits, could not be reached for this story. Falanga practices law in Atlanta. State Bar General Counsel William P. Smith says this case was one of the bar’s longest-running disciplinary matters. “The ultimate result in this case is reasonable,” he says. He declines further comment on the resolution of the case, noting that the bar’s position was laid out in the federal litigation. CHIROPRACTOR WITH GRUDGE The original complainant, Woodstock chiropractor Larry Zezula, says the bar has yet to notify him of the outcome of the disciplinary proceedings. Told that the matter was resolved with a public reprimand, Zezula called the outcome ridiculous. “After eight years and that many violations of the Canons of Ethics identified, and that’s the extent of it?” he asks. “That really shows how we can count on the State Bar. “I find it sad that after all that time, money and effort spent to pursue this, that’s the best they could come up with,” Zezula says. Zezula’s 1992 grievance alleged that Falanga paid chiropractors and doctors $100 for each client they referred to him. Zezula claimed Falanga hired him to solicit referrals from medical providers and that, in return, he received a cut of the attorneys’ fees from cases that he helped bring into the office. Zezula had a falling out with Falanga over taxes related to Zezula’s employment. Both men said the other should have paid the taxes. Zezula then went to the bar and outlined what he contended were unethical business practices by Falanga. Falanga insisted that Zezula was hired as a liaison, that he was paid from firm revenue without regard to specific cases, and that no payment was ever made to medical providers for referrals. In 1995 the bar notified Falanga it also was examining claims that he failed to disclose an ownership interest in a clinic to which he had referred clients. The bar also investigated claims that Falanga’s office charged clients for investigative services that were not performed. The bar also took issue with a Falanga marketing brochure. The bar said the brochure violated standards prohibiting advertising that promises particular results and that it improperly claimed a specialization. The brochure also was misleading and wasn’t clearly labeled as an advertisement, the bar alleged. LAWYER GOES TO FEDERAL COURT But Falanga fired back. Along with his partner, Ronald F. Chalker, he filed suit against the bar, arguing that its rules governing solicitation and advertising were unconstitutional restraints of commercial free speech. The suit also claimed that the rules unfairly targeted plaintiffs’ lawyers, thus violating equal protection guarantees. While the federal suit was being litigated, the bar agreed to a hiatus on the disciplinary proceedings. Falanga testified that his office had a weekly standing appointment at the Georgia Department of Public Safety to copy accident reports. His firm wasn’t the only local firm to do so, he insisted. Based on the accident reports, his office mailed out approximately 300 letters a week to accident victims, offering to represent them. Out of those 300 letters, he testified, his firm typically got eight to 12 cases, a return he called “quite good,” compared with other avenues of advertising. He also said he hired a public relations person to call on medical providers. The PR person distributed business cards and worked with doctors’ offices. After a bench trial, U.S. District Court Chief Judge G. Ernest Tidwell struck the bar’s ban on in-person solicitation but upheld the other bar rules, including those governing mail solicitation, referral activities, advertising, and describing oneself as a specialist. On appeal, an 11th Circuit panel called Falanga’s practice “ambulance-chasing.” It reversed Tidwell on the issue of in-person solicitation. Then, last year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Falanga’s appeal. In the end, the bar won completely. It was a costly process for both sides. Falanga’s lawyers, Andrew R. Kirschner of Bedford, Kirschner and Venker and sole practitioner Ralph S. Goldberg filed for nearly $300,000, at $250 an hour. The state bar’s lawyer, Robert L. Goldstucker, charged just half that hourly rate. The public reprimand resolves all disciplinary charges against Falanga and precludes any other charges as a result of the state bar’s investigations or the federal litigation, according to the Supreme Court file. In a per curium decision, the court held that a public reprimand was appropriate, since Falanga had no prior disciplinary record and was willing to abide by bar rules in the future. As she often does in disciplinary matters, Justice Carol W. Hunstein dissented, urging that Falanga be disbarred.

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