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Atlanta lawyer John J. Lieb didn’t follow the rule about keeping his address current with the State Bar, but he wasn’t the only party to ignore Bar rules. The State Bar of Georgia failed to follow its own rules about serving lawyers with disciplinary papers, a special master has ruled. Bar officials didn’t try hard enough to find Lieb and used an unauthorized person to try and serve him, according to Special Master Jerry L. Gentry of Marietta, who granted summary judgment to Lieb. “It’s a great day for Georgia lawyers,” says Lieb’s attorney D. Brandon Hornsby. Gentry’s order “not only vindicates my client but the rights of every lawyer in Georgia,” Hornsby adds. Gentry’s ruling, issued last week, is but the latest in a series of misfires by the Bar in its pursuit of disciplinary sanctions against Lieb. And the order, if upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court, could change some long-standing practices about how Bar officials handle service of disciplinary matters. Lieb’s — and the Bar’s — troubles began more than a year ago. Taking the word of a convicted and imprisoned killer, the Bar tried to disbar Lieb on allegations about his handling of the killer’s criminal case. Don Cornelius Bridges, now serving 15 years in prison for manslaughter, filed a grievance against Lieb in September 1998. Bridges accused Lieb of violating two Bar rules: He claimed that Lieb promised him a lighter sentence in exchange for a $10,000 fee and said Lieb took that fee while working for the Fulton Public Defender’s Office. In fact, Lieb never worked for the Public Defender’s Office, nor was he appointed to represent Bridges. EVENTS NOT CHECKED But the Bar never checked Bridges’ version of events. Instead, Bar officials tried to serve Lieb with Bridges’ complaint by mailing it to the address the Bar had on file. The mail was returned because Lieb had moved. A Bar investigator, who was responsible for serving Lieb, testified that he attempted unsuccessfully to locate Lieb through drivers’ license records, directory assistance and a credit bureau. The Bar then decided to serve Lieb by publication, and had a notice of the disciplinary matter published in the Marietta Daily Journal. With no response from Lieb, the Bar accepted Bridges’ allegations as fact, and the investigative panel recommended disbarment to the Georgia Supreme Court. In re Lieb, No. S99Y1460 (Sup. Ct. Ga. June 29, 1999). Lieb finally heard of the disciplinary proceedings against him when a friend called Aug. 19, 1999, to tell him about articles on the case in the Daily Report. Lieb went straight to the Bar offices to deny the charges. The Bar subsequently dismissed that disciplinary proceeding, but promptly instituted another formal complaint, this one for Lieb’s failure to respond to Bridges’ grievance. In re Lieb, No. S0040446 (Sup. Ct. Ga. Dec. 2, 1999). Bar officials don’t dispute that Lieb didn’t know about Bridges’ grievance until the day he came to the Bar offices. Yet they claim that he violated Standard 68, which requires members to respond to grievances. They also say he broke the rule requiring lawyers to provide the Bar with current addresses. That rule was enacted, they argue, so members couldn’t duck disciplinary proceedings. The Bar had offered to settle if Lieb would accept a public reprimand, but Lieb refused. Instead, he hired Hornsby, and raised many objections to the Bar’s actions, including constitutional challenges to various rules and policies. Gentry’s order didn’t absolve Lieb of responsibility for his predicament. Lieb, Gentry found, “utterly failed to comply with the State Bar Rule 4-203.1(a) Uniform Service Rule, by not informing the membership department of the State Bar of Georgia, in writing, of his current name, address and telephone number.” Notwithstanding that, Gentry continued, once Bar officials began trying to serve him, they failed to show that the address for Lieb on their computer system was one he had given them, and failed to carry out personal service. While the Bar had argued it was entitled to rely on the address in its records for service, Gentry wrote that doing so was problematic because the Bar couldn’t prove that Lieb had written to provide the Bar that address. Bar officials testified that they require address change requests to be made in writing and that they keep those requests for two years. They said they changed Lieb’s address in 1997, but couldn’t find a document indicating that Lieb asked for such a change. “This issue,” wrote Gentry, “has been the most troubling issue to arise in the matter for this Special Master.” But not the only troubling issue, judging by his order. Gentry found that the investigator who tried to serve Lieb never went to the Kennesaw address on file with the Bar, spoke to no one at that address, and left no notice at that address. State Bar General Counsel William P. Smith testified that the Bar isn’t required to follow state statutes governing service of court papers, only the Bar’s rules. And, he added, when a lawyer doesn’t give the Bar a current address, “that certainly does not place upon the Bar the obligation to go to the expense in the utilization of resources to go out and find the lawyer.” Gentry found otherwise. “It certainly appears that there were reasonably available other channels of possible information available to determine the location of the Respondent,” he wrote. He added that the Bar hadn’t fulfilled the statutory requirements governing personal service. He also concluded that the investigator in charge of serving Lieb was not properly authorized to do so. Staff investigators from the general counsel’s office are routinely used to serve notices of discipline on metro area lawyers. Outside the metro area, notices are served via local sheriff’s departments. Disciplinary rules permit the investigative panel chairman to approve people to act as process servers. General Counsel Smith testified that about 10 years ago, a prior chairman, whose name he couldn’t remember, approved the use of staff investigators for service as a matter of policy. Gentry concluded that such authority — “some past recommendation of an unknown chairman” — was insufficient. He found no evidence that the current chairman designated the investigator to serve Lieb. Bar staff, Gentry wrote in a gentle rebuke, are “bound by the Rules as published and approved by the Supreme Court, just as other ordinary members of the Bar are bound and have their responsibilities under the Rules.” Gentry said he found no evidence that the decisions of prior investigative panel heads are binding on their successors. “The black letter reading of the Rule indicates that … the chairperson of the investigative panel is to be the one to either appoint or designate someone to appoint the person to carry out the personal service.” Smith could not be reached for comment on Gentry’s order. The Bar could dismiss its proceedings against Lieb, or ask the Review Panel to consider the case. If the Bar does neither, the matter goes to the Supreme Court for review. Hornsby says he hopes the Bar will drop its pursuit of Lieb. If not, he adds, his client is willing to take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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