On Dec. 3, the New Jersey Supreme Court suspended Joan Othelia Pinnock, an immigration and matrimonial attorney, for three months based on findings of the Disciplinary Review Board that she collected significant amounts of money from clients without performing work. In the words of the DRB, Respondent “collected a significant amount of money from her clients and did little to no work on their matters. She allowed matters to languish for months, and, in some cases for years,” and achieved no “tangible result relative to the amount she received for her legal services” in 10 of the cases. (At 36). In one case, a client had to return to Russia; in others, clients lost the opportunity to obtain residency green cards or the right to appeal from adverse rulings. In sum, the DRB found Respondent guilty of violations of RPCs 1.1(a) (gross neglect), 1.3 (lack of diligence), and 1.4(b) (failure to communicate with client) in nine matters, and also of RPC 1.1(b) (pattern of neglect) and 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation) in four of them.
In Pinnock, the DRB reminded us that “[a]ttorneys who mishandle multiple client matters generally receive suspensions of either six months or one year” (DRB at 31). Pinnock had also been previously reprimanded for failing to communicate with a client and “failing to act diligently in an immigration matter.” Despite the fact that she was now found to have “mishandled ten matters over the course seven years and made misrepresentations to clients” during the course of representation, the DRB found the fact that she was the victim of depression (apparently following spousal abuse and her daughter’s serious illness) and had suffered “a significantly debilitating stroke” were mitigating factors warranting lesser discipline. She had also entered a stipulation regarding her violations.
We do not mean to “pile on“ the criticism of Respondent. She has suffered professionally and clearly in her personal life. But we use this vehicle to remind New Jersey attorneys of the ethical obligation to stay on top of cases, and not to take too many matters, which can adversely affect their ability to perform appropriately in each and every case. We emphasize the practical consequences of the failure to do so: In addition to the consequences of violating RPC 1.1(b) by “a pattern of negligence or neglect in the lawyer’s handling of legal matters generally,” a violation of RPC 1.1(a) and discipline can flow from an attorney’s “gross neglect” of “a [single] matter.”
Board member Anne Singer recused from this editorial.