Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
A venerable Cherry Hill, N.J., firm had a longstanding custom of paying its nonlawyer employees extra to bring clients to the firm, the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) charges in a complaint against six former partners. One worker’s “bonuses” allegedly exceeded $200,000 a year. The charges stem from disclosures about trust-account misfeasance at now-defunct Tomar, Simonoff, Adourian, O’Brien, Kaplan, Jacoby and Graziano. A subsequent OAE investigation discovered the improper referral fee payments from general business accounts. On Feb. 25, the OAE charged Ronald Graziano, David Jacoby, Michael Kaplan, Robert O’Brien, Charles Riley and Jaffa Stein with assorted violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct, including sharing legal fees with nonlawyers and giving something of value to a person for recommending the lawyers’ services. The charges represent the first major ethics prosecution for the use of runners — nonlawyers paid to steer lawyers business — since the state supreme court disbarred Newark lawyer Patrick Pajerowski for that and other ethical transgressions in 1998. With a practice concentrating on labor, workers’ compensation and personal-injury law, Tomar Simonoff had 60 lawyers in late 1999 when the firm’s administrator, Patrick Heininger, was fired upon the discovery of $10 million in improper trust-account withdrawals since 1996. In February 2000, about half the lawyers left for other firms or to start out on their own. The remnant, known as Tomar, O’Brien, Kaplan, Jacoby & Graziano, replenished the trust accounts with loans from its line of credit and from partners’ insurance and pension accounts, the OAE says. In its investigation, the OAE said, it found a file marked “Bonuses,” which detailed various partners’ approval of improper referral fees ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent of the firm’s total fee. One recipient of those fees was Robert Buccilli, whose title was “personal injury claims manager,” according to the OAE complaints. Buccilli’s 1995 take-home pay of $355,445, which included $287,619 in referral fees, was greater than the partners’ pay that year, according to the complaint. Buccilli was the office manager of the firm’s Linwood branch, but is no longer employed with the firm, according to one person familiar with the case. His son, also named Robert, was an investigator with the firm, according to this source. The complaints state that the Tomar Simonoff firm paid $684,191 in referral fees alone to Buccilli between 1994 and 1997, then began paying referral fees intended for Buccilli to his wife, Cynthia, an attorney elsewhere, who received $588,067 from 1997 to 1999. Another employee, William Santiago, was promised 10 percent of the firm’s fee in a consumer-fraud class action case if he procured a lead plaintiff, according to the OAE complaints. Santiago brought the firm Dawn Robinson, who had a claim against the Rent-A-Center chain. After the case settled in 1997, the Tomar Simonoff firm did not pay Santiago the promised 10 percent but did pay him a salary of more than $50,000 a year from 1997 through 1999, although he was not present at the firm during that period, according to the OAE. Kaplan, the longest-tenured partner, holding that rank since 1974, told the OAE that the practice of paying referral fees to employees was in effect when he joined the firm as an associate. Each of the other five made similar statements about the origin of the referral policy. Graziano, Jacoby, Kaplan, O’Brien, Riley and Stein were all charged with violating, among other strictures, RPC 5.4(a), which prohibits sharing legal fees with a nonlawyer; RPC 7.2(c), which says a lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services; and RPC 7.3(d), which bars a lawyer from compensating anyone to recommend or secure the lawyer’s employment by a client. Graziano, managing partner from 1990-99, is also charged with cooperating in a fraudulent equipment-leasing scheme involving administrator Heininger by signing for a lease of equipment that was never delivered. Graziano is further charged with giving misleading testimony during a hearing convened by the state Department of Labor on a complaint by former employee Donna Colarulo about unpaid “bonuses” earned at the firm. Most of the respondents had received extensions and had not answered the complaints as of last week, according to OAE Director David Johnson. The complaints also note that at least two of the referral fee payments made in 1999, $600 to Nidal Wakim and $9,500 to Lois Giordano, were after the effective date of the statute that criminalized use of runners, N.J.S.A. 2C:21-22.1. The Camden County Prosecutor’s Office has known of the circumstances of the Tomar case “for a long time,” says spokesman Greg Reinert, who declines to say if charges would be filed. Melvyn Bergstein, the lawyer for the remnant Tomar firm, which has not been charged with ethics violations, issued a statement that the six lawyers “intend to vigorously defend their conduct in an appropriate forum.” Bergstein is a partner at Walder, Hayden & Brogan in Roseland, N.J. Some of the charged partners have their own counsel. Stein’s lawyer, Metuchen’s David Rubin, says “we are confident, once the truth is known, my client will be exonerated.” Stein was secretary of the District IV Ethics Committee from 1997 to 2000. Riley, who left to start his own firm in Cherry Hill, Riley & Sandilos, is represented by Philip Seaton of the Cherry Hill office of Philadelphia’s Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen. Seaton says Riley relied on assurances by the firm’s leaders that the referral-fee payments were ethically sound. Kaplan’s attorney, Carl Poplar of Poplar & Eastlack in Turnersville, N.J., did not return a call requesting comment, and Newark, N.J., attorney Kevin Marino, who represents Graziano, declines to comment. O’Brien and Jacoby have not retained individual counsel, according to Bergstein. PAJEROWSKI’S SEMI-BRIGHT LINE The supreme court strengthened its stand on use of runners in In re Pajerowski, 156 N.J. 509 (1998). Patrick Pajerowski stipulated that he solicited clients through his office manager, who contacted accident victims at their home or a hospital on the day of their accident or soon after. He also made cash advances to clients up to the amount he expected to recover. The Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) voted 5-4 to recommend disbarment, and the supreme court was unanimous in its disbarment ruling. The court cited the very substantial salary paid to Pajerowski’s office manager, $182,000, and his condoning the office manager’s filing of false medical claims on behalf of clients. While condemning the practice, the court said that it would not call for disbarment in every runner case. “In determining the appropriate discipline to be imposed in prior ‘runner’ cases, we have considered the circumstances surrounding each case. We intend to adhere to that approach in such cases,” the court’s per curiam opinion said. Indeed, in the court’s first post- Pajerowski runner case, it handed down a three-month suspension to a lawyer who used a runner 10 years earlier, after only five years of practicing law. In re Pease, 167 N.J. 597 (2001). The DRB had voted 5-4 to call for a one-year suspension of attorney Clark Pease. Lewis Sengstacke, the attorney who represented Pajerowski before the supreme court, says the court’s ruling departed from its usual practice of giving the bar advance notice when creating a new disbarable offense. “One could view the Pajerowski case as the warning. Therefore, any case after Mr. Pajerowski’s case could be subject to disbarment,” says Sengstacke, who is of counsel to Ramon de la Cruz’s law office in Ridgefield, N.J. “There would not necessarily have to be anything else except for the use of runners on one occasion. That’s clear to me.”

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.