The next time a lawyer knowingly misappropriates client funds, it should be very clear that the punishment will include a minimum 12-year suspension from the practice of law.
A Practice Book rule change recently approved by the state’s Judges of the Superior Court amended the language in rule 2-47A regarding disbarment of attorneys for misappropriation of funds. While a separate rule states that a lawyer who steals clients’ funds cannot apply for reinstatement of their law license if disbarred until 12 years have passed, the Judicial Branch wanted “consistency” in the rules.
With that in mind, language was added to the rule, stating, “a lawyer who has knowingly misappropriated a client funds or other property held in trust, the discipline shall be disbarment for a minimum of 12 years.”
Patricia King, chief disciplinary counsel for the state Judicial Branch, said the rule will not likely result in more disbarments, but could result in longer ones. “The new language is intended to make it clear that 12 years is the bottom of the range, not the top,” King said.
Michael Bowler, statewide bar counsel for the Statewide Grievance Committee, said the 12-year disbarment rule has its roots in a Connecticut Bar Association Task Force on Attorney Trust Accounts a decade ago. The task force, Bowler said, was “formed in response to a rising number of attorney defalcations at the time.”
Bowler, who served as a member of the task force, said both mandatory disbarment and reinstatement rules were enacted to stem the tide of attorney financial crimes. Effective July 1, 2007, the task force also recommended Practice Book changes that led to a program for random audits of attorney trust accounts, Bowler said.
While the 12-year disbarment rule has been in effect since that time, the recent language change to the rule was added to “make the rule more clear by adding the wording “minimum of ” before “ twelve years,” he said.
There have not been many lawyers who have been disbarred for 12 or more years under the 2007 rule, in part because many who face charges voluntarily surrender their license as part of negotiations with prosecutors, King said.
The last lawyer to be suspended from practice for 12 years was Benson Snaider of Woodbridge, who stole $800,000 from a Stamford car dealership he had represented in an eminent domain proceeding. Snaider was also convicted of stealing another $175,000 from a client and long-time friend in Milford.
He was sentenced to two years in prison, followed by five years’ probation. Restitution was also ordered, and he was disbarred last October.
Snaider, who is 76, argued the 12-year license suspension was unfair, given his age. Snaider’s lawyer, Ira Grudberg argued to the state Appellate Court that preventing Snaider from practicing law until the age of 88 was essentially “a lifetime disbarment.”
Snaider argued that since he resigned on his own, “the court did not have discretion to impose such other discipline as the court deems appropriate.”
But in reviewing the record and the Practice Book rules, the Appellate Court in April rejected his claim. “A comprehensive disciplinary scheme exists to safeguard the administration of justice and is designed to preserve public confidence in the system,” the court wrote in its decision. “The court is endowed with authority to impose discipline pursuant to Practice Book 2-47D.”
King said the next time a lawyer is convicted of misappropriating funds, thanks to the language change, “the rule will be more clear.”