A bankruptcy attorney whose distress over the death of his 4-year-old son caused him to neglect his clients’ cases has been suspended for a year and a day by the state Supreme Court.
On April 30, the high court adopted the report and recommendation of its disciplinary board to suspend Delaware County lawyer David M. Siegel. According to the board’s report, Siegel had accepted payment for several bankruptcy cases, performed no work on them and failed to refund his clients’ money.
The board said that while the death of Siegel’s son devastated him, his inaction on behalf of his clients needed to be dealt with.
Siegel “engaged in serious misconduct. While the mitigating circumstances help explain [Siegel's] misconduct, it is clear that he may not have fully recovered from the effects of his personal tragedy,” the board said. “A license suspension of one year and one day will require [Siegel] to petition for reinstatement, and thus ensure that he is fit and competent to return to the practice of law.”
In August 2010, according to the board, Siegel’s son was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and died Dec. 5, 2010.
At that time, Siegel’s law partner and brother-in-law was in the process of getting married and did not assist Siegel in handling cases, the board said.
“Over the next two years, [Siegel] sporadically went to the office but did very little work,” the board said. “He did not open his mail, take care of his clients, or take care of himself.”
However, Siegel continued to accept new cases and hold onto those he was working on before his son’s diagnosis and death. According to the board, Siegel accepted a $2,200 flat fee from his client, Michael C. Kane, to handle a bankruptcy case, but failed to file a bankruptcy petition and keep Kane informed on the progress of the case.
Siegel also never gave Kane a forwarding address or phone number when he vacated his Springfield, Pa., law office, according to the board. Siegel further neglected to inform Kane of a March 27, 2012, administrative suspension—for failure to meet CLE requirements—that would prevent Siegel from representing Kane from that point on.
On Feb. 24, 2011, Siegel accepted a $1,800 fee to represent Rose Coffee in a consumer bankruptcy case. According to the board, after the initial paperwork was signed, Siegel failed to take action in the case.
Coffee called Siegel in November 2011 to inquire as to the status of her case. “At that time, [Siegel] told her that his friends’ son had been in a fatal automobile accident, and attributed his failure to act to his having been upset about the tragedy,” the board said.
After the conversation, Siegel failed to take any further steps in the case, such as withdrawing representation or refunding her money, the board said.
Siegel took on additional cases from different clients into 2012. According to the board, in those cases, Siegel accepted payment, gave his clients “false and misleading information” that their cases were being handled, didn’t respond to client phone calls and continually failed to give refunds for unperformed services.
According to the board, Siegel admitted in testimony that he was not in the right state of mind to practice law and accepted responsibility for his conduct.
“The illness and subsequent death of [Siegel's] 4-year-old son in a short period of time was clearly devastating and rendered him unable to function in a competent manner,” the board said. “He understands that his actions led to his involvement in the instant proceedings. Despite the tragic circumstances of his son’s death, [Siegel] does not seek to escape blame for his misconduct.”
The board explained that the suspension length of one year and one day was fair, based on prior cases involving similar circumstances.
The lawyer being disciplined in Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Pahides “received a one-year-and-one-day suspension when she engaged in incompetence, neglect and failure to refund unearned fees, but had mitigating factors of health and personal problems,” the board said.
Siegel, who represented himself in the disciplinary matter, declined to comment.
Ethics attorney Stuart L. Haimowitz characterized the disciplinary board’s recommendation for a year-and-a-day suspension as “compassionate.”
“The respondent here suffered a tragic loss,” Haimowitz said. “It was a unique circumstance and I think the court and the board dealt with it appropriately.”
Haimowitz said the next issue will be determining whether Siegel has made a sufficient-enough recovery to return to practicing law after the suspension.
Michael Hayes, who handles ethics cases at Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads, said because Siegel admitted that he wasn’t fit to practice, the board had little recourse but to subject him to the reinstatement process.
“It’s very sad,” Hayes said. “We as a profession have to do a better job of looking out for each other. … This happened because he couldn’t recognize what was happening to him and because others around him didn’t stop him and say, ‘Hey, you need somebody else to do these cases for you.’”