A new ethics opinion teaches that giving "difficult clients" the cold shoulder can lead to disciplinary action, especially if the lawyer gets defensive about it.
Victor Azar, a Hackensack general practitioner, is facing a reprimand for what the Disciplinary Review Board called a "cavalier and dismissive attitude" towards such clients, borne out by neglecting their matters, withholding their files and other conduct.
Three ethics grievances led to the Aug. 7 opinion in Matter of Azar, DRB 13-041.
"In each matter, respondent neglected, if not grossly neglected" the client's interests and "engaged in a pattern of failing to communicate with his clients," DRB Chairman Louis Pashman wrote.
Further, Azar was not found to be "sincerely contrite," and that during his hearing before the board, he was somewhat adversarial, occasionally defensive, and easily offended.
Azar implied that a likeable client would get more courteous treatment than a difficult one, the panel noted.
He ignored one set of clients because they were "pestering" him and he found their letters offensive and he ignored a Hispanic client because of a language barrier, Pashman said, calling the conduct "cavalier and dismissive."
The panel found violations of Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1(b), a pattern of neglect; 1.3, lack of diligence; 1.4(b), failure to communicate with a client; and 1.16(d), failure to protect a client's interests on termination of representation.
In one case, Azar represented Nancy Keiffenheim, executrix of an estate, and her husband Carl. They had sought to sell a Hackensack house on the estate's behalf to satisfy nursing home expenses.
After the May 2010 closing, Azar offered to prepare the estate tax return free of charge and projected finishing it within the week. A portion of the escrowed funds were due to Nancy, a beneficiary, pending satisfaction of the tax obligation.
But Azar never prepared the return, provided an explanation of the various payouts or responded to the Keiffenheims' repeated correspondences.
Those calls grew "nastier and nastier, and quite frankly I didn't need that," Azar later told ethics officials.
Azar claimed he "fired" the Keiffenheims and told them to get a new lawyer — though they denied getting a call or letter and continued to contact him without reply — and never forwarded the file because he was fed up with their messages.
Carl filed a grievance and retained a new attorney, who had to ask Azar twice to turn over the file. Azar did so in December 2010, more than six months after the closing.
In another matter, Azar met in 2003 with Carlos Santos in connection with an injury suffered by his 5-year-old son in a fall from a second-story window.
Azar wrote the property owner a letter threatening suit, filed a complaint and corresponded with the insurance carrier's lawyer, but failed to properly serve the property owner, leading to dismissal.
Throughout that 21-month period, Santos — who did not speak English and brought an interpreter to initial meetings — unsuccessfully tried to reach Azar by phone and letter.
Azar later claimed he was unsure whether Santos wanted to proceed with the suit, and there was no hurry because the statute of limitations would not begin until the child turned 18. Someone else must have written the letter Carlos sent, and his telephone messages would have been incomprehensible, Azar added.
In 2008, an immigration lawyer for Santos, Pasquale Giannetta, also tried numerous times without success to get in touch with Azar and obtain Santos' file.
In the third case, Azar represented Michelle Anderson and her husband in a potential fraud suit against an auto dealership. Azar met with them for two hours in June 2010 and collected a $2,500 retainer. He claimed he wrote the dealership a letter but could not produce a copy or evidence of other work done on the file.
Once again, Azar failed to return calls, though he later denied receiving very many — Anderson was not a difficult client, so he would have replied to her, he told authorities.
Four months after their first meeting, Anderson terminated the representation by letter.
Azar later said he resented the letter's tone and its accusations of ethical misconduct.
Azar eventually returned the $2,500 in May 2012, two years after the client meeting and a year after the grievance's filing.
Before the District IIB Ethics Committee, Azar acknowledged making some errors but denied violating ethics rules. The DEC disagreed, finding his testimony on various subjects incredible.
The DRB concurred and gave little credence to the seven character witnesses who provided in-person and written testimony in support of Azar. "Although his character witnesses praised him as a zealous proponent for his clients, he did not zealously represent these three clients," Pashman wrote.
The panel did note his blemish-free 35-year legal career.
Azar did not return a call, but his attorney, Raymond Flood of Flood & Basile in Hackensack, described him as "an attorney with an outstanding reputation." The client matters "could've been handled differently" and "weren't handled in accordance with my client's high professional standards," Flood added.
No decision has been made whether to seek Supreme Court review, he said.
Jennifer Blum, a River Edge solo, presented the DEC case. She did not return a call.