Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Ethics committee accuses Moorestown lawyer of backdating client engagement letter.

On June 5, 2017, attorney disciplinary officials charged a Moorestown lawyer with not having a written contingency fee agreement with homeowners who sued Lockheed Martin for contaminating their groundwater and for having her client later sign a backdated version of the agreement.

According to the ethics complaint, Robert L. Ebby, Steven T. Miano, and Robert A. Wiygul, three attorneys representing Lockheed Martin, learned at a deposition that a husband and wife who were clients of Moorestown lawyer Julie A. LaVan were "not aware of any letter from [LaVan] describing their fee arrangements."  The husband allegedly testified that a contingent fee agreement that he and his wife entered into with LaVan called for the attorney to receive "approximately 30 percent of any settlement or recovery" from Lockheed Martin but that the agreement was never reduced to writing.

The Rules of Professional Conduct require lawyers to "communicate in writing the basis or rate of the fee" at the time the representation begins.  Those rules also require lawyers who work on contingency to enter into a written contract with the client that sets forth the percentage of the recovery that the lawyer will receive if the case is successful.

The ethics complaint also accuses LaVan of having the husband, in February 2013, sign an engagement letter dated August 2, 2012.  The complaint states that LaVan engaged in "dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation" by "backdat[ing] that document . . . and producing the backdated [letter] to Lockheed Martin during discovery."

In her answer to the complaint, LaVan said that the engagement letter she gave to Lockheed Martin during discovery "was in fact prepared or or about August 2, 2012."  She said that she "located that letter dated August 2, 2012 on her computer and, according to her usual practice, would have provided that letter to [the husband] on or about August 2, 2012 with the request that he sign it."  But, when LaVan "was unable to locate a signed copy of the letter, she asked [the husband] to sign it as she believed he did or would have on or about August 2, 2012."  As for the contingency agreement, LaVan "she has been unable to locate a copy of a retainer and compensation agreement . . . that was signed on August 2, 2012 [and that it] is possible that such a letter exists despite [LaVan's] present inability to locate it."

In her defense, LaVan argued that this was nothing more than her misplacing documents and that nothing was done intentionally or maliciously to harm her clients or mislead Lockheed Martin.  She said that her clients have no complaint about the matter and that she has had an unblemished disciplinary record since becoming a lawyer in 2006.

LaVan indicated that there might be some bad blood between her and Ebby, Miano, and Wiygul.  She claimed that she and her adversaries "had pending motions for sanctions against one another" during the litigation where the allegations against her were "the same or substantially similar to" the charges contained in the ethics matter.  She said that her adversaries "[p]roposed, drafted and submitted a Release of" those claims during the litigation and are now bringing those charges again "as belated alleged ethics violations."

The case is captioned District IIIB Ethics Committee v. Julie A. LaVan, Docket No. IIIB-2016-0026 and the complaint and answer are on-line here.  The case is being presented (i.e. prosecuted) by Joseph Schramm, III of Princeton and LaVan is represented by Marshall D. Bilder of Lawrenceville.

What is written above is just a summary and the complaint and LaVan's answer should be read in their entirety in order to obtain the best understanding of the case.  The ethics charges are only allegations--nothing has been proven. LaVan has a right to a hearing and the burden of proof is on disciplinary officials to prove that she violated the Rules of Professional Conduct by clear and convincing evidence.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public. Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on LaVan's matter may complete and send a hearing request form to the District IIIB Ethics Committee Secretary Cynthia S. Earl via fax to 856- 642-7471.