A Newark lawyer who dodged inquiries from ethics authorities about client-neglect and recording-keeping infraction increased his discipline to a three-month suspension.
Though a divided Disciplinary Review Board recommended only a censure for solo Steven Savage, the Supreme Court ruled on Oct. 25 that an unexcused failure to cooperate may be a basis for enhanced discipline.
Savage came to the attention of disciplinary authorities in November 2011 after criminal defendant Daniel Furesz complained that Savage did not adequately communicate with him in several cases and wrongly said one had been dismissed.
Furesz also alleged that Savage provided ineffective representation. Furesz ended up pleading guilty to possessing firearms as a convicted felon and is serving a 70-month sentence.
Savage sent a letter in reply to the Office of Attorney Ethics’ request for information about the Furesz matter but did not include requested documents, nor did he answer three follow-up letters.
The OAE charged him with violations of Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1(a), gross negligence; 1.1(b), pattern of neglect; 1.3, lack of diligence, and 8.1(b), failure to respond to a demand for information from a disciplinary authority.
Savage came to the OAE’s attention again in July 2012 when TD Bank reported that his trust account was overdrawn by $115.
The OAE asked him in writing to provide an explanation and banking records, but he did not reply to that letter or two follow-up letters.
The OAE then obtained Savage’s records from TD Bank and learned his wife, Carol Savage, was a signatory to his trust account. Her signature appeared on a $2,000 transfer from that account to his business account on July 27, 2012, and no person by that name is admitted to practice law in New Jersey.
The OAE charged Savage with violations of RPC 8.1(b) and RPC 1.15(d), a recordkeeping violation, for permitting a nonlawyer to be a trust account signatory.
The DRB sent a notice to Savage that he was scheduled for a “demand audit/interview,” but he neither appeared nor gave notice he would not attend.
The DRB eventually found that the complaint relating to Furesz’s claims did not allege sufficient facts to support a finding of gross neglect, so it upheld only the charge for failure to respond to the demand for information.
But it upheld the OAE’s trust account charges, and Savage was placed on temporary suspension on April 16, 2013 for failure to cooperate.
The DRB said record-keeping irregularities, such as the unauthorized signatory, are normally met with admonition, as are instances of failure to cooperate with disciplinary authorities.
But Savage failed to cooperate with the District Ethics Committee as well as the OAE, engaged in a recordkeeping impropriety and twice defaulted on disciplinary proceedings, the DRB noted.
Such failure to cooperate is an aggravating factor, making censure the appropriate discipline, the DRB decided in a 6-2 vote.
The dissenters voted for a three-month suspension, which the Supreme Court chose to follow.
Savage says he ignored the disciplinary matters because he was trying to keep his practice afloat while dealing with a number of nonpaying clients.
“I can’t explain why I didn’t respond… I think I just went into a funk,” he says, adding that no clients were harmed by his actions.
Savage, a Cornell University law graduate who also holds an M.B.A. from Columbia University, was a corporate lawyer at Latham & Watkins in Newark from 2003 to 2006 and at Patton Boggs in Newark from 2006 to 2007.
He started his own practice in 2007, he says, out of a desire to serve low-income clients. But he soon learned that judges would not permit him to be excused from representing clients who do not pay.
“When people are paying on time, you can afford to take fewer cases,” he says. “When they’re not paying on time, you take more cases. Before you know it, you’re spread pretty thin just keeping the lights on,” he says.
Savage says he allowed his wife to be a trust account signatory because she was helping run his practice.