Thursday, November 17, 2016

Montclair attorney, judge charged with trust account violations

On October 24, 2016, the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) filed a formal complaint against a Montclair attorney and municipal court judge for having "knowingly invaded [his clients'] settlement funds, which he should have been safeguarding."

The complaint is against Kenneth C. Strait, Jr., who was appointed as Montclair's municipal court judge on September 21, 2013 and who has served the Township in various capacities, including as prosecutor and public defender, since 2007.  Strait maintains a law office at 7 Park Street, Montclair and presently makes $79,939.86 for serving as Montclair's presiding municipal court judge.

The ethics complaint accuses Strait of transferring $2,145.00 that he was safeguarding for his client from his trust account to his business account without his client's permission.  The complaint alleges that Strait "immediately drew upon the $2,145.00 deposited funds for various expenses, including 'Paychex' and a $700.00 draw made payable to himself."  He later used funds received from another client matter to replace the $2,145 that he reportedly had taken. 

When confronted by the OAE, Strait allegedly claimed that the $2,145.00 represented "legal fees for a divorce he was going to handle" for his client.  The OAE said that this was a fabrication and tacked on a charge of violating R.P.C. 8.1(a), which prohibits lawyers from making false statements to ethics authorities.

Strait is also charged with double-paying himself a $3,000 in fees on a client's matter.  This double payment allegedly caused him to write a rubber trust account check for $4,060 to another client.  The OAE said that double-payment was not an error but that Strait knew what he was doing.

Strait's legal career has been rocky.  He was originally denied admission to practice law because of his history of criminal conduct and addiction to chemical substances.  But, in an August 2, 1990 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Strait "has overcome his dependency on drugs and alcohol [and] we are satisfied that Strait deserves an opportunity to practice law."

In 2011, Strait was reprimanded for using the credit card of a client--a seventy-six year old woman who he regarded as his "surrogate mother"--and running the balance up past the $36,000 credit limit.  The woman reportedly didn't know how high the balance was until she "received a collection call from American Express."  According to the Disciplinary Review Board's decision, Strait "assured [the woman] the he would make the account current, but failed to do so."  He then reportedly stopped taking the woman's phone calls.

In ethics matters, the burden is on the disciplinary system to prove its case.  At this point, the charges are merely allegations--nothing has been proven.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to the Office of Attorney Ethics in care of Barbara Cristofaro via fax to 609-530-5238.