A lawyer who helped a business client attempt to acquire an ailing widow’s multimillion-dollar estate was suspended for three years on Wednesday, the day after he asked the state Supreme Court at a hearing for a lesser discipline.
The justices agreed with the Disciplinary Review Board that Fairfield solo Michael A. Casale deserved the hefty penalty, which was 12 times greater than the three months recommended by the Office of Attorney Ethics.
Without opinion, the court issued an order saying Casale had violated a Rule of Professional Conduct prohibiting conflicts of interest.
The DRB had found that Casale was ostensibly acting as the lawyer for Madeleine Stockdale of Spring Lake when he drew up a revised will that left nearly all her assets to his longtime client Ronald Sollitto and named Casale himself as the executor.
Casale also represented Stockdale in the sale of her oceanfront home to Sollitto for $1.3 million, far less than it was worth, with $50,000 payable at closing and a $1.25 million purchase money mortgage at 5 percent interest, 2 percent or 3 percent below the going rate.
According to the DRB, Sollitto put Casale in touch with Stockdale to handle the sale in December 2009, when Stockdale was in a rehabilitation facility recovering from a hip fracture.
Casale had represented Sollitto, a podiatrist, in about 30 matters over a 15-year period. They also had what the DRB termed a “close social relationship.” Casale had been a member of Sollitto’s wedding party and they dined together several times a year.
Casale claimed that Stockdale was sitting up in bed when he first met her and appeared to be mentally competent and that he informed her he had represented Sollitto in the past and was then representing him in an arbitration.
But the DRB said he failed to fully disclose the extent of his relationship with Sollitto or discuss with her “the risks or disadvantages of representing her at the same time that he had an ongoing client relationship and close personal friendship with Sollitto.”
Casale had stipulated that what he told Stockdale was not sufficient to obtain her informed consent to the conflict. He further stipulated that he prepared the mortgage and a five-year note calling for monthly payments of $4,000, even though monthly payments should have exceeded $23,000.
At their initial meeting, Casale learned Stockdale wanted to change her will and he offered to do that and serve as executor.
Stockdale had no children and no close family ties. Her previous will, in 1998, left most of her estate to the Spring Lake first-aid squad and named as co-executors William Soons of Soons & Soons in Englewood, her attorney of many years, and Peter Kuzmick, one of her doctors.
Casale, the DRB found, did not advise Stockdale about the more than $70,000 in estimated commissions he would be paid as executor nor discussed the estate tax ramifications of changing the beneficiary from a charity to an individual. The new will increased her estate tax liability from $7,650 to $951,289.
Casale had Stockdale sign the new will, the deed of the house and a power of attorney naming Sollitto on Jan. 3, 2000, a day before she was to undergo surgery and when she was under heavy sedation.
Sollitto’s own lawyer, Thomas Foley of Spring Lake, was in Florida for the Christmas holidays. He would not return before Stockdale’s surgery, so Sollitto went ahead without him, dealing directly with Casale.
At the bedside closing, Stockdale was paid the $50,000 but got no mortgage or note. Casale’s secretary testified those documents were created after the Jan. 3 transfer, so Stockdale never got to review them in advance.
Although Stockdale wanted to keep living in her home as long as possible, there was no agreement to that effect and when she was done with rehabilitation, Sollitto moved her to an apartment with a caregiver who did not speak English.
The revised will had a clause forgiving the mortgage, and Stockdale died on April 18, 2000, at age 91, with nothing paid on the $1.25 million debt.
The first-aid squad won its challenge to the new will, which the probate court found was the product of undue influence. The court invalidated it, along with the real estate contract and deed, and the will in favor of the squad was admitted to probate.
The DRB found that Casale violated conflict of interest prohibitions under Rules of Professional Conduct 1.7(a)(1) and (2).
Though conflicts of interest typically draw a reprimand, the facts here “cry out for a long-term suspension,” given Stockdale’s impaired state and the economic harm to her, the DRB said. Casale “should have had the utmost concern for his client” but his only concern was for Sollitto and “he worked to move everything along as quickly as possible, before Stockdale went under the knife, … thereby ensuring that his good friend and longtime client … would get the house and the estate before she might die.”
While Casale had stipulated to gross neglect, he “did not neglect anything,” his actions were “all quite intentional,” the DRB said.
Seven DRB members voted for the suspension; one, retired high school teacher Jeanne Doremus, voted for disbarment.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Casale’s lawyer, Frederick Dennehy of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer in Woodbridge, called the DRB’s finding an “insubstantial pageant of pseudo-facts and non-facts.”
Casale acknowledges there was a conflict of interest that should have been disclosed but he ably represented Stockdale, said Dennehy.
He further argued that a three-year suspension would be too severe given Casale’s age and infirm health. He suffers from cancer of the stomach and liver. “At Mr. Casale’s age — 66 — let’s not kid ourselves. That’s an effective disbarment,” Dennehy said.
Justice Barry Albin, who formerly worked at Wilentz, Goldman, recused from the case, In the Matter of Michael A. Casale, D-32-12.
The Office of Attorney Ethics’ case was presented by Vincent Gentile, of Drinker Biddle & Reath in Princeton.
Casale and Sollitto faced criminal charges for conspiracy and theft by deception. The 2007 trial ended with a hung jury and the case was not retried.