A Davie attorney whose immigration work got a Bahamian tennis player banned from the United States lost her Florida Bar license today for 91 days.
The Florida Supreme Court disregarded the case referee’s recommended 10-day suspension, finding Donnette Russell-Love’s conduct constituted a serious ethical violation.
“Russell-Love acknowledged the immigration forms implied that U.S. Tennis Association was petitioning for a P-1 visa on behalf of the client and that she represented USTA, both of which were false statements. Significantly, Russell-Love filled out or signed the portions of the revised forms declaring under penalty of perjury that the information therein was true and correct,” the unsigned opinion said.
Russell-Love, who is of Bahamian descent, was retained in 2009 by tennis player Larikah Russell, a distant cousin.
Russell-Love filed a petition for non-immigrant worker status to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Immigration Services notified the attorney that the petition was insufficient without the name of the sponsoring organization.
Russell-Love asked the USTA for a letter confirming Russell was to participate in several tournaments. A USTA employee, Idelle Pierre-Louis, wrote back but noted, “This letter is meant just to inform the consular office that the player has requested to play in the event and should not be considered as an endorsement.”
Russell-Love submitted an amended visa petition listing the USTA as the organization filing the form, and she hand wrote Pierre-Louis’s name on the petitioner signature line.
The deception unraveled after Immigration Services approved the visa, the opinion said.
The tennis player, concerned about the short period of time allowed for travel, contacted a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer for clarification and sent a copy of the immigration forms.
The officer noticed the Pierre-Louis signatures on the form did not match the signature on the USTA letter and contacted the association, which denied any direct involvement in the immigration petition.
Russell was charged with violating the Immigration and Nationality Act and put on “permanent inadmissibility,” an immigration field officer told Palm Beach Circuit Judge Donald Hafele, who heard The Florida Bar’s ethics complaint against Russell-Love.
“The client may seek a waiver to allow her to enter the country, although the referee found this a ‘burdensome and expensive process,’ ” the Supreme Court opinion noted.
In recommending a 10-day suspension, Hafele said mitigating factors included Russell-Love’s absence of prior discipline, inexperience in the practice of law, her character and remorse. Hafele said the attorney also was overwhelmed in her personal life with ailing parents, marital discord and difficulties involving other relatives.
“Given the serious nature of Russell-Love’s misconduct and the harm caused to her client, the referee’s recommendation for a 10-day suspension is not appropriate, and a more severe sanction is warranted,” the unanimous court said.
The suspension is effective in 30 days to allow her time to wind down her practice. In addition, the court ordered Russell-Love pay The Bar’s costs of $2,886.
Contacted about the suspension order, Russell-Love said she was unaware of it and might comment after reading it.