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Almost invariably, the New York Appellate Division, 1st Department, disbars attorneys who have stolen clients’ funds. But last week a panel of the court overturned a disbarment recommendation from its disciplinary committee and ordered a five-year suspension for an attorney who had presented evidence of abuse by a former husband and an attorney with whom she had practiced. “This Court has consistently held that absent extremely unusual mitigating circumstances, an attorney’s intentional conversion of client funds constitutes grave misconduct requiring disbarment,” the panel stated in Matter of Gaetanella Molinini-Rivera, M-2910. The court added, however, that the facts presented by Gaetanella Molinini-Rivera, 41, who was admitted to the bar in 1996, qualified it as one of those “rare” cases “where exceptional circumstances have been demonstrated.” The panel consisted of Justices David Friedman, Betty Weinberg Ellerin, Milton L. Williams, Luis A. Gonzalez and James A. Catterson. Molinini-Rivera had been found to have committed serious misconduct in connection with two client matters. In one, a referee, and then a three-lawyer panel of the disciplinary committee, found she had taken funds from the proceeds of a client’s $5,000 settlement payment that she had deposited in her Interest on Lawyers Account. More than two years later, the panel recounted, when the client inquired, Molinini-Rivera only returned a portion of the $5,000, withholding $1,500 to cover a doctor’s lien. Molinini-Rivera had “falsely testified during depositions before the [Disciplinary] Committee that she had previously paid the doctor’s lien ‘in cash,’ when in fact she had not done so,” the opinion stated. In the other matter, Molinini-Rivera had tried to justify her refusal to return a $2,000 retainer received from an immigration client on the ground that she had earned her fee by filing an application with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (since renamed as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). But Referee Millard L. Midonick, a former surrogate in Manhattan, found that Molinini-Rivera “lied about making the INS application and acted deceitfully” in submitting a receipt from the INS as proof of the filing. In a Small Claims Court proceeding, the INS receipt was found to have been altered, but no finding had been made as to who was responsible for the alterations. ABUSIVE HUSBAND In deciding that Molinini-Rivera should be suspended rather than disbarred, the court relied on her testimony about her relationship with her former husband, whom she left in 1995 and divorced in 1998. According to evidence submitted by Molinini-Rivera, she was physically and verbally abused by her former husband during their 16-year marriage. One document related that her husband had stranded her in a remote rural area near Saratoga, N.Y., with their son and his two sons with no means of transportation for “as long as an entire week.” The document also stated that her former husband had caused permanent injuries to her left hand, back, right hip and right shoulder. It asserted that he had made “constant threats” concerning how he could “make her disappear.” The panel also recounted her testimony about an “unfortunate professional association with a solo practitioner, who convinced her to join his practice but never provided proper training or guidance.” The lawyer “only offered her unprofitable and problem cases and never provided her with adequate staffing,” the opinion continued. “Ultimately, when the relationship began to sour, he harassed and stalked her, forcing her to quit in 1999,” the opinion stated. The lawyer, Merrick J. Dammar, who was not identified in the opinion, “categorically denied” the allegations that Molinini-Rivera made in the disciplinary proceeding. He added in an interview Friday that he had not been contacted in connection with the charges against her. Dammar said that his only agreement with Molinini-Rivera was to rent her space. He asked her to leave, he said, because of her inability to pay the rent and because the office was receiving complaints from her clients. “I am not surprised that [Molinini-Rivera] would go to this extreme of bringing these baseless charges and excuses as a defense,” Dammar said. “There were no improprieties. I am happily married, and my wife is my office administrator.” The Disciplinary Committee for the 1st Judicial Department was represented by Jun Hwa Lee. Molinini-Rivera was represented by Dimitrios C. Fotopoulos.

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